Truth Is The Word

Month: July 2015

The sexy, sozzled, soothing snake

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Each of the seven letters to the church dictated by Jesus and faithfully transcribed by John contain so much for us to absorb and take to heart. The letter to Pergamum is particularly fascinating.

The Lord Jesus identifies an astonishing reality with the words: “I know where you live – where Satan has his throne.” I mentioned in a previous article that Pergamum stood at the base of a large conical hill and that halfway up the slope of this hill was a massive altar to Zeus. From a distance, it looked like a giant throne constantly belching smoke from the daily sacrifices made on it. Yet the contents of the letter indicate something more subtle than this. The city also housed the temple of Æscalapius, the serpentine god of sexual license, drunkenness, and healing. This pagan deity was portrayed as huge snake … now why is this so familiar? Ah yes, our ancestors met him in the Garden of Eden when Satan enticed them into rebelling against God.

In His letter Jesus states that serpent Satan was ‘living’ in Pergamum, and the reality is that he still dwells in the earthly realm. In three places in the Gospel of John Jesus is recorded as referring to Satan as ‘the prince of this world’ (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). In the first of these Jesus says, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out”. When the 72 disciples returned from their missions and reported that even demons had submitted to them, Jesus responded with: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy;” (Luke 10:18-19). If Satan has fallen from heaven and is referred to as the prince of this world, then where does he live? He lives right here in the spiritual dimension of our earthly habitation.

This revelation helps us to understand the essence of what we so blithely refer to as ‘spiritual warfare’. Satan is not at war with God, he is at war with us! He is not powerful enough to stand for even an instant against the might of the triune God, so he wages war against us. His objective is to stave off his final fiery destiny by attempting to prevent human beings, made in the image of God, from becoming spiritually regenerated and like Jesus.

Satan is not at war with God, he is at war with us!

The letter to the church in Pergamum reveals one of the weapons of the serpent’s warfare. Jesus mentions someone by the name of Balaam, ‘who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality’ (Revelation 2:14). Balak was a Moabite king who was so threatened by the ancient Israelites that he tried to commission the prophet Balaam to curse them (Numbers 22:4-6). Balaam refused to do this directly but he had no qualms about telling the king how he could indirectly curse the people of God. Numbers chapter 31, together with 2 Peter 2:14-15, tells the sorry tale of how Balaam probably suggested to Balak that he instruct his young woman to flirt with the Israelite men and allow themselves to be seduced. This tactic worked, the men took the women as mistresses and wives, who then moved in with their pagan idols and customs. This seriously compromised the people of God and weakened them considerably.

Illicit sex, substance abuse, and occult healing have been three key tactics of our enemy the devil for the last two thousand years. In my next post I will deal with substance abuse and occult healing but for now I will touch on just one major sex-related attack on the church – pornography.

truth-is-the-word-revelations-email-17-body-pic1An August 2014 article in the Christian Post  quotes from the Barna Research findings that approximately two-thirds of U.S. men view pornography at least monthly and that the number of Christian men viewing pornography virtually mirrors the national average. It went on to report that, ‘18 percent of American men, approximately 21 million, think they are either addicted or are unsure if they are addicted to porn’.

Pornography has some very negative features. It demeans women and positions them as sex objects to be used rather than equals to be honored. It also dissociates the viewer from reality and separates the sexual act from an intimate and caring relationship leaving the user with an unsatisfying and empty substitute. The effect of this on relationships, and marriage relationships in particular, can be devastatingly destructive.

Pornography is also potentially addictive. Viewing pornography releases Dopamine into the brain and repeated infusions of this powerful chemical can cause addiction . A person enslaved to anything, alcohol, pills, or pornography, cannot fully relate to or serve God. But addiction has an even more sinister dimension because it opens the door to demonic oppression and this further incapacitates and blights a Christian’s life.

the best way to deal with pornography is not to indulge in it in the first place

Pornography is a powerful weapon in Satan’s arsenal but, ‘The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Of course the best way to deal with pornography is not to indulge in it in the first place. But if it has already become a problem, then the Holy Spirit is more than able to help though the advice of godly people, deliverance, and inner strength. We are not defenseless!

In my next post I want to focus on the dark side of healing and compare the serpents counterfeit to the genuine gift of God.

The Second Death

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Jesus ends each of His seven letters to the church with intriguing promises. In the previous post I wrote of the significance of His reference to ‘the tree of life’, but in the very next letter the Lord moves from ‘life’ to ‘death’. He concludes the letter to the church in Smyrna with, “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (Revelation 2:11).

What is this ‘second death’? To find an answer we have to turn to the very last chapters of Revelation: ‘Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire‘ (Revelation 20:14-15). There are two other references to the second death in Revelation 20:6 and 21:8.

The lake of fire is a graphic depiction of Hell and the book of life is symbolic of all who are saved from Hell by faith in Christ Jesus. Remember that everything in Revelation is symbolic.

Although the words ‘first death’ do not appear in scripture, the reference to a second death begs the question, ‘but what is the first death?’ Death had its origin in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve rebelled and chose prideful independence from God. The penalty of this was, and is, death. Yet we know that Adam didn’t drop down stone dead at the foot of the tree of the knowledge of all things, he lived on physically till the ripe old age of 930! Yet, if we regard death primarily as a separation, then we can deduce from the Genesis account that Adam and Eve were, in that fateful moment, separated from the life and presence of God.

There are several ways of understanding the human constitution but I choose to regard people as having three dimensions; the physical, the mental (soul), and the spiritual – this is known as Functional Trichotomism. It is pointless to try to separate these three elements from each other in this life because they form the whole of our person-hood. However, when we die only the physical component ceases to exist; the non-material combination of soul and spirit lives on. When Adam and Eve ‘died’ at the foot of that fateful tree their spiritual dimension was separated from God. This spiritual condition has been passed down through the generations and effects every person born on this planet (Romans 5:12). This inherited separation from God is what we could refer to as ‘the first death’ which has its final expression when we die physically from old age, disease, or other ways.

When an unsaved person, who is thus already spiritually ‘dead’, dies physically there awaits a final resurrection, judgement and separation; a ‘second death’. For this person there is much to fear in the second death because he or she will live on in spirit/soul separated from God… and that is called Hell! However, if a person has been spiritually born again through faith in Christ Jesus, then the second death holds no terror because he or she will live on eternally in the presence of God.

There is a nifty little saying that has been around for a long time:

Born once and die twice; born twice and die once

What is meant by this is that if you are only born into this world by natural birth (born once) then you will die both physically and face judgment and eternal separation from God (die twice); but if you are born naturally of human parents but also born again of the Spirit of God (born twice) then only your body will die (die once) but you will continue to live in the presence of God.

Being born again is not the invention of ‘happy-clappies’ but a profound truth taught by Jesus (John chapter three) and expanded on in much of the New Testament.

I hope you are enjoying this series. If you have any questions please post a comment or email me using the Contacts page.

The Tree of Life

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The letter to the church of Ephesus ends with the words: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7).

The ‘he who has an ear’ part of the statement often appears in the Gospels after Jesus has told a parable and constitutes an enigmatic ‘mystery’ formula. We can understand it at a superficial level as simply meaning “unless you are deaf you had better listen to what I say”, or something like that. However, Jesus’ explanation in Matthew 13:10-17 reals that there is a deeper level to His use of “he who has ears, let him hear” in Matthew 13:43 and other places including Revelation. So, a different way of understanding the saying would be something like, “If you have been enlightened to the truth then you will understand what I am saying.” I am currently writing an article about Mystery in the Bible so I will not attempt to develop this idea any further for now but I will post it to this site when it is published.

Jesus’ use of the word translated in our English bibles as ‘overcomes’ also has the potential of being understood in different ways, but within the context of the book of Revelation it is probably best understood as: ‘To him that gains the victory, or is a conqueror over sins, temptation, and error’. In other words, the benefits and blessings which Jesus describes accrue at the end of the Christian life journey of living true to our calling and destiny.

The part of the statement I want to focus on in this post is, ‘I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’ There is a clear reference here to the Garden of Eden of Genesis chapter two and I want to explore this a little.

truth-is-the-word-revelations-email-15-body-pic1The trees in Eden are often the target of cynical critics of biblical literalism. How can we take seriously the account that a tree could impart eternal life to those who ate its fruit, and how can another tree be the source of the knowledge of all things? Give me a break! Christian fundamentalists vociferously defend a literal/materialist interpretation of Genesis in the fear that any concessions here would reflect on the truthfulness of scripture. I understand the problem as one of the many examples of the either/or thinking that blights our understanding of the Bible. To me it is obvious that the Tree of Life of Genesis Two and Three stands as a symbol of something far more profound than a magical fruit of immortality. Yet, I also believe that two special fruit trees actually existed in the Garden of Eden that God used as appropriate and tangible symbols. All that was required of Adam and Eve was that they should trust and obey God. They should obey what He said and trust that what He said was true and in their best interests. If they did this then He would sustain their life in intimate relationship with himself. By continuing to eat from the trees God had sanctioned they would be confirming that they were obeying and trusting God. Surely trees are very appropriate physical ‘tests’ within the context of a simple agrarian life-style?

truth-is-the-word-revelations-email-15-body-pic2The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil stood for disobedience and rebellious independence and self-sufficiency. An alternate translation, which I prefer, is ‘the tree of the knowledge of all things’. Here is how the New Living Translation phrases the conversation between the serpent and Eve concerning this tree:

‘Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the creatures the LORD God had made. “Really?” he asked the woman. “Did God really say you must not eat any of the fruit in the garden?” “Of course we may eat it,” the woman told him. “It’s only the fruit from the tree at the center of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God says we must not eat it or even touch it, or we will die.” “You won’t die!” the serpent hissed. “God knows that your eyes will be opened when you eat it. You will become just like God, knowing everything, both good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1-5)

Our primordial forefathers decided to trust Satan rather than God. They believed the lie that God was suppressing them and that they deserved independence and self-sufficiency. What a tragic and prideful mistake!

Satan made this outrageous error of judgment long before he attempted to convince Eve. The prophet Isaiah wrote concerning him: ‘You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”’

Humanity, that us, has repeated this devastating rebellion against God over and over again. It crops up as the ‘self-actualisation’ pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as the goal of esoteric New Age religion, and even in the lyrics of one of the most popular songs of all time, ‘My Way’ written by Paul Anka and popularized by Frank Sinatra. ‘My way, not God’s way’ is the unspoken mantra of countless lost generations from time immemorial.

But Almighty God has made a way for us to repent of our rebellion and to come back into life-giving relationship with himself. A tree stood in the Garden of Eden that was instrumental in bringing separation and death to the human race. But a tree stood on Golgotha of Jerusalem that is instrumental in bringing Life and eternal relationship to all who will trust and obey. The tree on Golgotha was the cross on which God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ died so that all who believe in Him may live eternally. Read again how Peter expressed this profound truth:

The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead — whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:30-32).

So, Jesus’ words to the church in ancient Ephesus, and to us today, is that in Him the Tree of Life is again available to humanity.

More about Old Nic

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The notorious Nicolaitins of Ephesus and Pergumum are worth a second look. In my last post I mentioned that their name is probably derived from the Greek words for ‘rule over or by’ and ‘the people’. I identified this group as a class of false Apostles in the early church that attempted to rule over the people and lead them into heretical doctrine and licentious practices. In this post I want to use the word ‘Nicolaitan’ to develop another leadership problem in the church of our day.

Rule over the people

truth-is-the-word-revelations-email-14-body-pic2Autocratic leadership structures are all too common in the church of our day. Many of the major church denominations have adopted a hierarchical form of church government where Bishops preside over Ministers/Priests who in turn rule local churches. In the Pentecostal and independent churches, Apostles replace Bishops, and Pastors replace Priests, but the system is essentially the same. In all its variations this type of church government represents a form of ‘rule over the people’. A typical independent charismatic church form of government is a Pastor, or pastoral couple, assisted by a group of Elders, a finance committee and a group of leaders, sometimes referred to as Deacons. The Pastor appoints the Elders and often replaces them on a regular basis. He is the ‘anointed and appointed of God’ and he effectively rules over the people. The committees provide advice and the Elders act as counsellors, but the person in charge is the Pastor.

Pastoral elders are both biblical and very necessary and feature in Paul’s letters, however I have always understood the word ‘pastor’ as a description of ministry and not a title or position. I also believe that church government should be by a group of elders led by a Lead Elder. Countless church ills, splits, and dysfunctions have occurred because of one-man-rule-over-the-people. In addition, when a single Pastor rules a local church then accountability and support, if provided at all, is usually represented by a person higher in a chain of command. Armies may be organised in this manner, but churches are not armies and nor are they one-man businesses.

Rule by the people

truth-is-the-word-revelations-email-14-body-picOn the opposite end of the spectrum are those churches governed by the democratic vote of its members. In the top-down system the members count for very little but in the bottom-up system they count for everything. I don’t believe that this system is much better than the hierarchical systems, yet most churches that do not have a hierarchical system of government have a democratic system. Whereas in hierarchical systems the Pastors are essentially the proprietors, in the democratic system they are usually just hirelings.

I live in one of the newer democracies on earth, South Africa, and I have to say that in practice this ‘democracy’ is simply a form of rule by mass numbers. This will be the case in any group of people where one type/persuasion/race/gender hold an overwhelming majority. I don’t think the church is much different from any other society in this regard. In the natural world bodies are not designed or equipped to rule the head and in the body of Christ the same applies. But if so-called democracy is not the answer, and hierarchical autocracy isn’t either, then what is a better form of church government?

Rule by plurality of Elders

I believe that church government should be in the hands of a group of elders led by a Lead Elder where major decisions are taken by a genuine consensus. New Elders should be nominated by existing Elders but members should have some form of veto power by voting in General Meeting for the appointment of a new Elder. The effective headship of Jesus Christ is exercised through the true consensus of a group of specially called men who are accountable to Him but also to the church membership. Paul’s words to the group of Ephesian Elders captures the essence of this form of church government: ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood’ (Acts 20:28-29).

No system of church government is perfect and traces of all three systems can be found in scripture, yet I believe that a plurality of Elders has the greatest New Testament support and is least likely to become ‘nicolaitan’.

In my next post I will leave old ‘nic’ behind and move on to other important lessons from the seven letters to the churches of Revelation.

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar. I have started a site called Classical Guitar SA to serve classical guitar enthusiasts in South Africa.