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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Thoughts on Education

We're always told that experience is the best teacher, but never the reason why:

Mr. Experience is that rough, tough, mean guy who has his job because he's the only teacher in the school of life who can handle that vast crowd of people who will neither read nor listen to their elders.

Friday, July 29, 2011

What is the Gospel?

I have recently been reading up on Islam--what kind of thinking American hasn't in the wake of 9/11?--and actually have come to recognize a few commonalities between that religion and the kind of liberalized Christianity prevalent in the America of my childhood and youth.

One of the chief commonalities is a misconception that the "original Gospel" was a set of humanly accessible rules given by a uniquely good man named Jesus or Nazareth/ Jesus Son of Mary/ Jesus the Carpenter, etc.

But, later, I discovered the much-maligned Evangelicalism. This is the belief that salvation is applied to us by receiving the Word of God rather than the practice of a certain set of ceremonies under the direction of a specially ordained set of men (sacerdotalism), or our following a prescribed set of ethical rules which, it seems, nobody knows for sure (theological liberalism). The word "Evangelical" means "of the Gospel". Hence, it is the view that the Gospel saves.

But what is the Gospel, really?

Here is the New Testament's own answer to that question:

"Moreover brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;
By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
And that he was seen of Cephas [not me; the original one--UC], then of the twelve:
After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto the present, but some are fallen asleep.
After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time."
(I Corinthians 15:1-8)

Paul here tells us that the Gospel is not a code, but an announcement. It is the story of the saving acts of God in Jesus Christ.

First of all, note the stress on the death of Jesus Christ for our sins. This is truly crucial (pun intended). The Gospel is not about people "cleaning up their act" by performing a checklist of do's and don't's, but of the atonement for our sins by Jesus' satisfaction of divine justice in bearing the death and curse due to all those who violate the divine law. And it is also about his triumph over death, which assures us that not only is our penalty paid; but that the sins and condemnation which he bore for us remain buried, while Jesus himself, our substitute and representative, rose body and soul from the dead. As God and man in one person, Jesus is the lens through which God now looks at us; seeing our sins paid for and accepting us as righteous in Jesus.

The words "according to the Scriptures" cast us back to the Old Testament; especially the system of sacrifices for kipporeth (atonement) described in Leviticus and passages such as Psalm 22, Hosea 6:2,and Isaiah 53. Jesus' saving work is not something that hangs in a vacuum, or stands as an abstraction, but stands in the flow of a specific history of divine acts that are recorded for us. This Gospel does not nullify the need for the previous revelation, but appeals to it, and calls us to make use of it in our worship, worldview, and ethics. How different is the Christian church from Islam, in that the first freely uses what it sees as prior revelation while the latter discourages such use!

And the Gospel is something to which God left witnesses. First there were the living apostles and five hundred to whom Paul points his original first century readers. Since then, there remain the New Testament writings.

If the Gospel were merely a set of rules about meat and drink, the proper posture for prayer, and how to wipe out which sins by the practice of certain good works of our own doing, it truly deserves to perish. But this is not what the Spirit of God has proclaimed. Rather, the Gospel is the announcement of God's saving work in Christ. May many, many more embrace this glorious news that in Jesus Christ, God has truly visited and redeemed his people.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

John Stott 1921-2011

For an excellent, outside view of this recently departed minister of the Gospel, see:

Browsing around the web, I have learned that John Stott, retired pastor of All Souls Parish in London, England, has gone to be with the Lord.

As a college student, I was active in the Inter-varsity Christian Fellowship chapter at my Midwestern Alma Mater, and it was there that I first encountered Mr. Stott's little book _Basic Christianity_, one of many volumes which he penned. Hence, in 1972, when I went to England to visit my sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and niece, I made it a point to take in a Sunday service at All Souls.

After emerging from the "chyube", I looked at street signs and maps, and probably looked like a typical, lost American tourist. But God sent two well-dressed Ugandan students who asked me where I was headed, and, when I explained my mission, they asked me to follow them to my destination. All Souls, a CofE parish, was probably the first heavily attended "Mainline" church I ever visited. Although clearly the crowd that Sunday was mostly local English people, there was a clear smattering of former colonials, like my guides, who had found there a church home away from home. On a summer Sunday, there was space only in the balcony for someone who arrived just a few minutes before the beginning of the service. I don't remember much of the service apart from the quiet dignity of "Low Church" Anglicanism, but the sermon has remained with me for almost forty years.

Mr. Stott preached on Gal 4:4-7. In clear, eloquent educated British English, he first noted the Trinitarian character of the passage. Having grown up among theological modernists and at that time new to Evangelicalism, I had heard very little doctrinal preaching before then; and after that one Sunday at All Souls, I was hooked. Mr. Stott expounded the Father's control of the flow of human history down to that "fulness of time" when Christ should come; the cooperation of the Trinity in our salvation; Christ's working salvation for us and granting us an "introduction to the Father" (a jolt, for among my new Evangelical friends, there was something of a "Unitarianism of the 2d Person" afoot); and the Spirit's application of divine grace to us, causing us once again to focus on the Father as we address hims as "Abba". How interesting that even when writing to a Gentile audience, the Apostle Paul should use his native Aramaic to express the fatherhood of God...

But that last sentence is myself. In he course of his ordinary pastoral duties, Mr. Stott showed this wet-behind-the-ears young American tourist the importance of the Trinity, how it is relevant to everything in the Christian walk, and began to make it understandable. Of course, there was not time on that one Sunday morning to review all that the Greek Fathers and Reformers had written on the subject, but never again could anyone tempt me to believe that the doctrine of God as three persons in one substance was not plainly taught in the pages of Scripture. This has informed my prayers and private worship, and when I seek a new fellowship after a move, I know what to look for.

Many of the tributes I have read this night were from people who knew Stott better than I ever could, and all noted that Stott was a humble, saintly, pious Christian prior to his being a powerful and thorough exegete and preacher. David Brooks, a secular Jew, opined that if we Evangelicals had a Pope, Stott would have been the man. Perhaps I cannot quite agree, but can understand why Brooks may have said such a thing.

Mr. Stott died at the age of ninety, after several years' retirement, "in good old age", as the Book says. But may God raise up more preachers like him.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why Christians Cannot Recognize Muhammad as a Prophet

In a recent press conference, Ambassador Turki al-Faisal, who is also a Saudi Arabian prince, made the following observation:

"We [Muslims] revere from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to David, Solomon, you name it, Jesus, Jonah, Jacob. All the prophets of the Old Testament and the New Testament, we consider them to be our prophet. And we also accept that the divine revelations to these prophets, the Torah and the—(inaudible)—are our books, along with the Koran. And our question to Christians and Jews is that why don’t you reciprocate and believe in our prophet as we believe in your prophets? Why don’t you accept our Koran as your book as we accept your Bible in its entirety, whether Old Testament or New Testament?"

The Prince deserves an answer.

As a diplomat, the prince knows that peoples of different cultures, religions, and outlooks often must deal with one another. The rhetorical questions at the end of his statement above suggest that a politic recognition of Muhammad as a prophet and the Qur'an as a "Third Testament" may possibly solve a multitude of problems between Christians and Muslims. His statement that Muslims "accept" the Old Testament prophets and Jesus, along with their books, has become a commonplace in the great swindle that passes for the teaching of history in American public schools, and doubtlessly seems reasonable to many of his hearers.

With all due respect, Your Highness, your proposal does not work.

Islam does NOT accept the Old and New Testaments in their entirety. They claim that the Jews and Christians corrupted the original Tawrat, Zubar, and Injil ; hence Muslims are not encouraged to read the Bible, and, indeed, may be punished for owning one in some Muslim countries. The Prince's own country bans the Bible's import.

The New Testament makes much of Christ's death as the atonement for our sins, understands Old Testament passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 as prophetic of the event, and understands the Old Testament sacrificial ritual described in the Torah as foreshadowing the Messiah's sacrifice. Yet the Qur'an categorically states that Jesus did not die on the cross. Further, the New Testament presents Jesus Christ as fully God and fully man in one person; the Qur'an says he was merely man. The Qur'an charges the Jews with making Ezra the son of God analogous to Jesus Christ in Christianity, but no Muslim has ever presented extra-Qur'anic corroboration of such a belief (I have discussed and argued theology and religion with many Jews, read something of Talmud and Midrash, and know of no Jewish tradition that deifies Ezra).

Further, Christians are not discouraged from reading the Old Testament. Quite the contrary, the prophets of Israel have long informed the way Christian thinkers view history; most instructed Christians are aware that Jesus' injunction to love God and neighbor come from Leviticus and Deuteronomy; the decalogue is taught in every catechism class; Christian worship is unthinkable without the Psalms; and Christian ethics draws heavily from the Pentateuch and Wisdom Literature. Christians do not dismiss the Old Testament as "falsified", but base the authority of the New Testament on that of the old, and bind the two together as one volume. Four-fifths of the Christian Bible is shared with the Jews, differing from the Jewish Tanakh chiefly in the order of the thirty-nine books.

Perhaps His Highness will pull off the mask and explain that the "original" Tawrat and Injil were corrupted, and that Islam honors the "original" ones rather than the extant ones. This is a commonplace of Islamic polemics. Yet I doubt that the Prince could come up with the "original Old and New Testaments"; nor could he explain how the Jews and Christians, who were always mutually suspicious and never cooperated, could come up with the same Old Testament that the other side recognized, while the competing Christian sects came up with the same New Testament. And as for the Jewish and Christian scribes being conniving, careless, corrupting, or some combination of the three, how could that be when both allowed witnesses against their own practices to remain in the Biblical text? The Rabbinical conservators of the Hebrew Old Testament did not change Abraham's serving both milk and meat to his mysterious visitors in Genesis 18, when it violated their own tradition; nor did theysmuggle into the biblical text the beloved tale of Abram arguing with Terah about idolatry in from the Genesis Rabbah. How could the hierarchical churches of East and West, which were long the stewards of the Greek New Testament, have allowed Philippians 1:1 to stand when it clearly mentions a plurality of bishops in one city? It seems that there is not a single Greek manuscript of the Pauline letters that "corrects" this by the clear tradition of the medieval churches. All this suggests to me that these ancient conservators of the text, both Jewish and Christian, were highly scrupulous in handling texts they saw as sacred rather than conniving and jealous of their own prerogatives and man-made traditions.

I will happily accept Muslim neighbors who wish to live in peace with me; and I'll be the first to call the police if I see a suspicious figure lurking around the mosque when I am feeling insomniac and take a late night stroll. But for some of the reasons listed above, I cannot recognize Islam as a continuance or inheritor of the biblical traditions.

Perhaps His Highness wants to say that he wants our respect for his religion; and I feel I can respect a belief that commands the allegiance of hundreds of millions, even if I disagree with it. But I cannot say I recognize the biblical Jesus Christ when I read the Qur'an. Further, reflection on the implications of the Messiah's coming, his being God in the flesh as well as the promised man of David's line, his eternally valid atonement for our sins, and his victory over death in the resurrection make it all but impossible for me to think that God has a later "word" to "correct" this.

And if Islam so respects Moses so much, how come it mandates the amputation of the thief's hand when Exodus 22 mandates that the thief pay restitution to the victim? Indeed, it is my understanding that the Prince's own country practices these hudd punishments and is proud of doing so.

Further, Christians believe that God became man and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18); that Christ obeyed the divine law on behalf of his people, offered himself as atonement for their sins, and rose to conquer death on their behalf on the third day. Paul, in First Corinthians 15, says that this is the essence of the Gospel, not some new set of rules. But with such a message, how can any Christian sanely believe that there is room for some new revelation of rules for the direction and postures to use in prayer, kinds of legitimate meat and drink, and the proper positioning to use when performing ablutions? No, it is not for nothing that the Risen and Glorified Jesus Christ warns us against adding to the biblical testimony or taking away from it at the end of Revelation, the last book of the Biblical canon. After Christ, Muhammad is frankly a let-down.

The Prince would have served us all better had he spoken of the need to accurately understand each others' beliefs and practices, and to examine our sources and evidence more thoughtfully. To say that an informed Christian can somehow accept Muhammad as a later prophet, however, demands a deep ignorance of both Bible and Qur'an.

The Norwegian Bombings: The Leftist Media has a Field Day

At the outset, Uncle Cephas condemns the bombing and killings. If Norwegians don't like the Socialist Left Party of Kristin Halvorsen, they can vote it out. Among the things which conservatives ought to conserve are rule of law and government by political compact. Restraint of government power is sensible only in a context in which citizens practice a high degree of self-restraint, too.

This is what Uncle Cephas has to say about the Norwegian bomber: Mannen er en Kriminell, ren og enkel.

Google translation tells me that that's how they say "The man is a criminal, pure and simple" in Norwegian. Anyone who knows Norwegian is invited to offer correction.

Anders Behring Breivik, the man arrested for the bombing of Norwegian government buildings early this week and shooting a group of socialist youth at their summer camp, is now being cited as an example of home-grown conservative Christian terrorist. Further, since Breivik claims to have read Robert Spencer's Jihad Watch, Bat Ye'or's Eurabia, and other blogs and works critical of creeping Islamic influence in the West, AP and the New York Times have indicted there authors as being complicit in the killings. Having read Spencer's blog and some of Bat Ye'or's writings, I can only say that such finger-pointing is extremely unfair, and reflects a knee-jerk political posturing rather than real analysis. By the same token, the New York Times itself should be held accountable for the mass murders of the Chinese Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the Cambodian democide under Saloth Sar, since in the wake of Nixon's visit to China, the Times' staff all the way up to James "Scotty" Reston himself were absolutely ga-ga over Mao.

The blog tempest that has blown up in the aftermath of the Norwegian bombings is quite revealing of our times. At first, an Islamic terror attack seemed the most likely scenario; and the Jihadi blogosphere immediately began crowing. However, things got uglier when the police arrested an indigenous Norwegian by the name of Anders Behring Breivik.

The rapidity with which the mainstream media blamed the anti-Jihadi blogger Robert Spencer for the actions of the bomber reveals much about how the world is now seen. Having followed Spencer's blog, I have never seen him or his writing staff argue for counter violence against either Muslims or the Western enablers of Islamic terrorism. But, apparently, there are many who believe that the effectiveness and importance of a piece of writing is measured by the anger and political violence it launches.

This, perhaps, is why the Left has feted Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Franz Fanon, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and the young Eldridge Cleaver. No-one can deny that the readers of these authors took the writers' ideas and ran--amuck--with them. It may also be the reason why there is a Red-Green [Islamic] Alliance growing; since Islam, alone of the major religions, is unashamed of violence, and may offer the needed warrior manpower now that Socialist Europe is graying. Apparently, since Breivik cited Spencer and Bat Ye'or as influential in his thinking, editors and writers on the Left are fearing that someone on the other side is becoming "effective", too--even if Spencer is no advocate of violence.

More troubling is the picture of the reading public, especially since Uncle Cephas likes to read, and does it in English, Chinese, Ancient Greek, and sometimes Hebrew or French. Apparently, the average man who gets his hands and eyes on a piece of substantial critical writing is supposed to immediately go out and DO something because of what he has read. The ideal reader is apparently someone like one of the various criminals of the 1950's and '60's who claim they were driven to their acts by reading Salinger's _Catcher in the Rye_.

The reader is therefore supposed to respond only as a volitional and emotional being, not as a thinking one. The punditry seems to think that there is no room for reflection or interrogation of texts by the common reader. Hence, writing itself is degraded to the level of propaganda; and a responsible, reflective, reading citizenry is relegated to a quaint era of horses and buggies.

This is insulting, to say the least.

I hope that Bat Ye'or and Robert Spencer get a lot of free publicity out of this tempest. Both writers have substantial knowledge of the Arabic language, have read extensively in the field of Islamic studies, and have come away with a keen awareness of the more disturbing side of Islamic doctrine and ethics. Bat Ye'or is herself a child of the expulsion of Egypt's millennia-old Jewish community in 1957, and has first-hand experience of the dhimmi status of which she writes.

As a social studies teacher, Uncle Cephas himself is bothered by the image of Islamic "tolerance" presented in school books, when Islamic law has always mandated that the testimony of a dhimmi (tolerated non-Muslim) is worth only half that of a Muslim; when orthodox Islamic doctrine sees close proximity to a kufr as defiling; and when war and the abduction of non-Muslim women are legitimate, normative activities for Muslim men. The pressures on the Christians and Jews of Spain under the Almoravids and Almohads is as much part of the history of Andaluz as the relative tolerance of the 'Ummayad period; the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher by the Fatimid Caliph part of the narrative of the Islamic Middle East; and the periodic massacres of subjugated non-Muslims that punctuated the histories of Muslim-ruled lands as much a part of the record as any Spanish Inquisition or Russian pogrom. These are things of which many have become more and more aware since 2001. Such awareness certainly demands neither bigotry against modern-day Muslims in the West nor political violence, but it does justify a certain watchfulness which the major media and parties of the Left have mistaken for bigotry.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Nicolaitans--From Revelation 2 and 3.

Perhaps because of the craziness around Harold Camping's predictions of the end of the world, some Christians I know are studying the Book of Revelation to see what it really says. So far, we've gotten only into the first two chapters, but already there's a lot to think about. One questions arose about the Nicolaitans, a groups condemned in the Risen Christ's admonitions to the churches of Ephesus and Pergamos.

Here's what the Scriptures themselves say about the Nicolaitans:

"Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I [the risen, glorified Jesus Christ] also hate." (Rev. 2:6)

"But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Baalam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans." (Rev. 2:14-15).

The identification of these Nicolaitans and the false doctrines they taught is a difficult task, for sources on them outside the Book of Revelation are few. In the letter to Pergamos, mention of the Nicolaitans follows hard on the heels of mention of Balaam, the Moabite prophet sent out to curse Israel, but who ended up blessing them (Numbers 22, 23). The name Baalam means “master of the people” in Hebrew, while the Greek name Nicolas, from which the Nicolaitans took their name, means “overcomer of the people”. In II Peter 2:15, Balaam is one who put a “stumbling block” in the way of Israel, the Greek word for “stumbling block” being skandalon, the source of our English word “scandal”. Indeed, the participation in idols cults and sexual immorality in Pergamos, with no need to further explain who the Nicolaitans were and the sins they countenanced, may well justify linking the name of Nicolaitan with the temptation the Moabites offered the Israelites prior to the latters’ entry into Canaan.

Early Christian history is also scanty in its record of the Nicolaitans. Ireanaeus of Lyons, who lived and wrote around 180 A.D., says the following:

"The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles.(1) They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practise adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Wherefore the Word has also spoken of them thus: "But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate." (Ireanaeus, Against Heresies, 26:3."

Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote during the first quarter of the fourth century, around the time of the Council of Nicaea, has the following to say in his Ecclesiastical History:

"At this time [in the late first century] too, there existed for a short time the heresy of the Nicolaitans of which the Apocalypse of John makes mention. These claimed Nicolas, one of the deacons in the company of Stephen who were appointed by the Apostles for the service of the poor. Clement of Alexandria in the third book of the Stromata gives the following account of him: “He had, they say, a beautiful wife; but after the ascension of the Saviour he was accused of jealousy by the apostles, and brought her forwards and commanded her to be mated to anyone who wished. They say that this action was in consequence of the injunction ‘it is necessary to abuse the flesh,’ and that by following up what had been done and said with simplicity and without perversion those who follow his heresy lead a life of unrestrained license. But I have learned that Nicolas had nothing to do with any woman beside her whom he married, and that of his children the daughters reached old age as virgins, and the son remained uncorrupted. Since this is the case it is clear that the exposure of the wife of whom he was jealous in the midst of the disciples was the abandonment of passion, and that teaching the abuse of the flesh was continence from the pleasures which he had sought. For I think that according to the command of the Saviour he did not wish to serve two masters—pleasure and the Lord. They also say that this was the teaching of Matthias, to slight the flesh and abuse it, yielding nothing to it for pleasure, but to make the soul grow through faith and knowledge.” (III.29)."

Flavius Clemens, whom Eusebius quotes at length, was an important Christian teacher of Alexandria in Egypt who lived between 150-215 A.D.

These traditions are all mentioned in Eusebius' _Ecclesiastical History_. This major work was written by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the days of the Emperor Constantine (after 311 A.D.). While it is more than two centuries later than the Revelation of John, it may well preserve important historical accounts, for Eusebius cites numerous earlier authors and appears to have been a careful researcher. Further, his patron Constantine, who became a Christian, wanted as much information as could be found about the origins and rise of Christianity, and Eusebius’ work seems to be in fulfillment of the Christian emperor’s desire.

Before Eusebius, Irenaeus of Lyons (active in the latter half of the 2d century) is the other key node of transmitting information about the Nicolaitans. A native of Smyrna, one of the seven churches addressed in Revelation, Irenaeus went to Lyons, in Gaul (today’s France), and seems to be one of the earliest to carry the Gospel into the West beyond Italy and northern Africa. The cited work, _Against Heresies_, sought to distinguish the Christianity bequeathed by the Apostles from various counterfeits, spending the most time refuting Gnosticism, which was the most common and most virulent heresy of his time. However, he mentions the Nicolaitans, along with the followers of Simon Magus (the man who tried to buy the Holy Spirit mentioned in Acts 7), tand the Cerinthians, who were forerunners of the Gnostics.

There is a further link to Nicolaitan history in Irenaeus’s own background. Eusebius tells us that Irenaeus, when young, heard the teaching of Polycarp, overseer of the church in Smyrna who was martyred in 155 A.D. after serving Christ for “eighty-some years” (in Polycarp’s own words). Polycarp (70?-155 A.D) is described as having been a disciple of the Apostle John, and belongs to a group of early Christian writers known as the Apostolic Fathers, meaning that they knew the apostles. Hence, Irenaeus may be seen as a spiritual “grandson” of the Apostle, living in a time when the events surrounding the writing of Revelation were as fresh as historical material as the end of World War One, Prohibition, or the May 4th Movement might be to us today. Polycarp, as overseer of the church in Smyrna, may have been the messenger of that church addressed in Revelation 2:8-11; although this is a point on which we cannot be dogmatic, since John does not name the messengers of the seven churches. In his surviving Letter to the Philippians (not to be confused with the New Testament book of the same name), which dates from the early 2d century, Polycarp notes that some of his readers may remember the example of Paul, who founded their church.

Yet the information that Eusebius gives us is mostly a quotation from Clement of Alexandria, and there are points at which the quote from Clement differs from the testimony of Irenaeus. Information available to Clement indicated the Nicolas and his immediate family were more ascetic than libertine, and Clement notes that Nicolas sought the Lord rather than his own pleasure. This suggests that Nicolas himself may not have belonged to the sect which claimed him as their founder, the association of the heretical sect with the early deacon of Antioch and Jerusalem may have been unfair, and discussion about this issue appeared very early in church history. Yet it is also worth noting that Irenaeus speaks of “these men”, meaning the Nicolaitans rather than Nicolas himself, so there is probably no real contradiction between the testimonies of Irenaeus and Clement.

In modern times, there is a tendency to identify the Nicolas who founded the Nicolaitans as the first to establish a hierarchical order of Christian clergy. This argument is based on the etymological meaning of the name “Nicolas”. This tendency goes back to at least Cyrus I. Scofield, late 19th century editor of the famous study Bible. It was continued by Watchman Nee in his book The Orthodoxy of the Church, for Nee was deeply influenced by the Plymouth Brethren, who shared a common Dispensational theology with Scofield (Scofield systematized doctrines he had learned from the Plymouth Brethren). Yet this approach should be taken with a great deal of caution. There is no earlier evidence than Scofield’s own speculation that the essence of the Nicolaitan heresy was hierarchicalism To suggest that the main thrust of the Nicolaitan heresy was to categorize Christians into classes of higher and lower is a little like suggesting that people who name their sons Peter favor idolatry, since the name “Peter” comes from the Greek word for a stone.

While it is perhaps frustrating that the identification and doctrine of the Nicolaitans remains unclear, their mention in the book of Revelation has three lessons for modern Christians: (1) the enemies of God and his anointed perish (Psalm 2:10); (2) the risen Christ would have us flee sexual immorality; and (3) idolatry remains a major sin, with which we must not compromise.

We know of a number of schisms, sects, and heresies from the first several Christian centuries, and even know something of their beliefs, due largely to the efforts of men who sought to refute them. For example, we know that in the secon century, Gnostics came stressing secret knowledge rather than Christ as the bringer of salvation. In the early fourth century, the Arians preached a Christ who was merely the first created being. But the actual message of the Nicolaitans, apart from the possibility that it had something to do with compromising with idolatry and sexual immorality, is lost.

The “sexual revolution” that besets us today is actually nothing new. In Revelation 2, Christ warns the churches against fornication, which is sexual activity outside of marriage. In Romans 1, both male and female homosexuality are listed among the unwholesome fruits of idolatry. Indeed, throughout history, unregenerate people have often indulged their sexual appetites. The Greeks and Romans of the first century were notorious for indulging in every sexual perversion. In modern America, sexual license is closely associated with the rejection of Christianity. When there is sexual sin in the household of a prominent Christian, non-Christian media report it with glee, as the coverage of Bristol Palin’s problems makes clear. In Islam, while rules for women are strict, the carnal desires of men are greatly indulged. So, perhaps, one of the major challenges facing the church in our age is to model healthy sexual relations in our marriages and families, even as we acknowledge difficulties in doing so.

Last, but not least, the God we worship is distinct from others gods, or idols. The word Eidolon in Greek means “something seen”. The little gods worshipped by those who deny Christ are many. Among the ancient Canaanites, the gods were personified powers of the natural world. For the Greeks and Romans, many gods represented the cultural powers of man. In ancient China, many heroes and great men ended up deified, Guan Gong and Yan Ping Wang being two examples. In more modern time, so-called “atheists” are really manufacturers of new gods: Karl Marx introduced us to the worship of a goddess called “historical necessity”; Carl Sagan speaks of the cosmos in terms transparently borrowed from ancient Hindu Vedas and Upanishads; deep ecologists would have us worship the earth as “Gaia”. But these are only man-made substitutes for the true God who made heaven and earth, and, who for us and our salvation, became man, dwelt among us, atoned for our sins on the cross, and conquered death in his resurrection. Before him, all these other gods are empty.