Friday, March 13, 2015

Blowing in the Wind

A few weeks ago, I was up during the night with one of my children during a storm. When daylight came, there were branches down all over the yard. My husband, who was blissfully unaware of either disruption, saw the tree carnage the next morning and asked me, "did it rain or something last night?"

I was a bit tired the next day, but I was thankful for the experience. It helped me understand a scripture that I had been wrestling with for weeks, from the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3.

(JON. 3: 8) The wind blows where it wishes, and you can hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the spirit.

Though I had left the Churches of God a while ago, I had a hard time viewing this scripture through any lens besides Herbert Armstrong's. The storm helped illustrate a concept people had been telling me for a while. My husband didn't see or hear the storm, but the broken limbs all over the yard was evidence it had blown through.

Armstrong and most of today's COGs believe this passage refers to humans who are "born again" as spirit beings when they are resurrected at Christ's return. Just like the wind, spirit beings are invisible -  you can't tell where they come from or where they go.

This, of course, wreaks havoc with other teachings. The explanation for John 3: 8 pictures the resurrected church as invisible spirit beings only able to be detected indirectly. At the exact same time, one of the most fundamental teachings about the resurrected church during the Millennium is that they will be visible, tangible, audible, literal - and so will Jesus Christ. Verses such as Isaiah 30: 20-21, the parable of the Minas in Luke 19, Zechariah 14: 3, 12, 16-21, Revelation 2: 27 and many others besides were used to proof-text this idea out. (For more just read "The Wonderful World Tomorrow What Will It Be Like" by Herbert and Garner Ted Armstrong.)

Sermon after sermon delved in great detail about how the world would see the resurrected church with their own eyes and despair. The entire purpose of the church being resurrected at the start of the Millennium was for the church to be visible and accessible to the unchanged humans who survive the Great Tribulation, to rule over them and teach them alongside Christ. Therefore the stock explanation of John 3: 8 is contradictory. If humans are seeing resurrected church members and interacting with them, then likening them to the wind is a poor simile. So why would Jesus liken a resurrected church member to the undetectable wind when the promises and point of it all is for them to be precisely the opposite of that? It makes very little sense. Is there any other explanation that makes far better sense? Yes.

John Ritenbaugh, pastor of Church of the Great God, teaches that Jesus is describing the Holy Spirit, not a resurrected spirit being. We agree. Much like the wind, one cannot see the Holy Spirit, but we can see the effects. Per chance it was a breezy night and Jesus grasped the opportunity for a teachable moment. We cannot see the Holy Spirit making a person more and more like Jesus Christ each day. No one exclaims to a Christian, "Can you tell the Holy Spirit to stop making so much noise in your heart? I can't concentrate!" But when the Holy Spirit is at work in a person, the results are recognizable to all. We can't explain exactly how God works in our lives and hearts, but we can see His fruit.
"We can witness the changes that He produces in people by noting that the formerly sinful person is becoming holy; the immoral person is becoming moral; the stubborn, obstinate person is becoming gentle, thoughtful and helpful," Ritenbaugh says. "In other words, just as with the wind, we see the effects of an invisible cause. The Father grants regeneration and repentance, and He reveals Himself, bestowing His Spirit and spiritual growth on whomever He will. He does these things at the times and in the ways that please Him."
This explanation actually does make sense outside of the COG lens, and it has support elsewhere in scripture. Consider Ecclesiastes 11:5, which I discovered only recently.

(ECC. 11: 5) As you do not know what is the way of the wind, or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child, so you do not know the works of God who makes everything.

This passage links the blowing wind with the work of God, lending support to Ritenbaugh's interpretation of John 3:8. Also consider the description of the Holy Spirit's arrival on Pentecost in Acts 2:2, which describes "a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind." It seems more likely that Jesus was drawing on scriptural examples, as well as His own knowledge of the Holy Spirit, to describe how one is born again, not their material state (or lack thereof) in the resurrection.

The Jews of Jesus' day consistently failed to grasp the spiritual significance what He said because they assumed He was speaking in physical terms, Ritenbaugh notes. (Part 1). If we repeat this mistake with John 3, we cannot help but misunderstand being "born again."

We have one definite advantage the Jews do not - that we can read Ephesians 2:1-6, which shows that we were once spiritually dead, but made alive in Christ. Luke 9:60 seems to confirm Paul's description of how God perceives unbelievers - as spiritually dead. But we also know that God gives life to the dead (Romans 4:17). For exactly this same reason Jesus said to the Apostles:

(JON. 16: 12-14) 12 I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. 14 He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.

With that in mind, let's turn back to John 3. Nicodemus, like the other Jews, is thinking in physical terms. His reply shows he has no clue that, despite being physically alive, he is a spiritually dead man and can only get the spiritual life he needs from God. He would have been shocked if he comprehended that even he, as a high ranking Pharisee, one of "God's chosen people," was a foreigner to the Kingdom of God unless he was made spiritually alive. (Ritenbaugh, Part 1).

Ritenbaugh notes that the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus focuses on how men are made alive spiritually, not how men should live. It would seem that being born again must be the basis and starting point for a believer's transformation into Christ's image. Neither a fetus nor a corpse is capable of faith and obedience.
"It is as if everything regarding our spiritual future beings and proceeds from this point," Ritenbaugh says.
This is in agreement with what the early church believed. Everything regarding our spiritual future proceeds from this point. And "this point" for them was baptism. The importance of baptism was not missed by them. Over and over they quote John 3 verse 5:

(JON. 3: 5) Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

The early church understood "of water" to be a reference to water baptism.

As far as this single verse is concerned, Herbert Armstrong glossed completely over the mention of water and went straight on to spirit. He missed a full half of the equation in this verse because baptism doesn't figure in to how the resurrected humans will appear. But baptism is in this verse, so it cannot simply be ignored. Except the resurrected saints are not born of water. Only a new Christian is born of water and Spirit, in the act of baptism. Therefore this lends credence to the notion that Jesus was not referring to how Nicodemus will appear when he is resurrected. Jesus was referring to a death and rebirth now. Colossians 2: 12 clearly relates baptism to a symbolic death and rebirth. Symbolic, yes, as water itself does nothing, but necessary as an act of initiation.

(I PET. 3: 21) There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

(We are not attempting to flesh out whether regeneration starts at baptism or at confession of faith. We are just attempting to show that Herbert Armstrong's proof texting of John 3 is illogical in several ways.)

Like Nicodemus, Armstrong failed to discern that Jesus was speaking figuratively and spiritually. Armstrong intuited literal processes into spiritual examples, and spiritual processes into physical examples. He was like the Pharisees in John 2, mentally calculating the hours of labor that went into building the temple and scoffing at Jesus. In fact, scoffing was something HWA did quite well. Consider some of his concluding thoughts from Just What Do You Mean Born Again:
"That true born-again experience will be incomparably more glorious than the false, vague, meaningless, so called 'born-again experience' that deceived thousands think they have had now."
                                -Herbert Armstrong, Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 45
Consider - if John Ritenbaugh and all who agree with him are correct, then Herbert Armstrong is blaspheming the Holy Spirit, calling His participation in us "false, meaningless, so called" and etc. Do not, dear reader, simply gloss over this. What most people call "born again" is nothing less than the power and presence of the Holy Spirit within them. Therefore, if Herbert Armstrong is wrong on this point, then what he refers to as "false, meaningless, so called" is nothing less than the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Sadly, the spiritual, the humble and the small things take a back seat to the literal, the grandiose and the dramatic. Such is typical where HWA is concerned.
"We shall appear like him at the second coming to earth.  What will he be like? Like the glorified Christ - his eyes blaze like fire, feet like burnished brass, face shines like the sun, And that is the way you and I shall look, if and when we are finally born of God! These deceived people who talk about having had a "born-again" experience certainly don't look like THAT!"
                                - Herbert Armstrong, Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 40
Consider - Herbert Armstrong describes what appearance the resurrected saints will have. The invisible saints. If the saints were truly invisible, they would not look like anything. So, are they visible or invisible? Like the wind, or like the sun?

First Corinthians 2:14 tells us that one without the Holy Spirit finds things from the Spirit of God to be foolish. After all, those things can only be discerned through the Spirit. So it would make sense for someone who was "in the flesh" to consider teachings on regeneration to be vague and meaningless. Hypothetically speaking, of course. When we take a step back from accepting something simply because we have an ideological commitment to what the COGs teach, and just allow ourselves to contemplate other possible explanations, does the traditional COG teaching make the best sense? Not to us it doesn't. And not to several modern COG members including John Ritenbaugh. The mainstream understanding of "born again" is the superior explanation. People in the COGs are beginning to realize and accept this.

We are now governed by the Spirit, not the flesh, if The Spirit of God lives in us. Though our bodies are still mortal, we have life now through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9-10). The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God, His ways are foolishness to such a mind. The hostility HWA displayed concerns me, and it should concern you, too, if you are following his followers. Like the Jews, HWA failed to see the figurative and scoffed at the spiritual. Much like Israel of old, to this day, among the COGs, when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts." 2 Corinthians 3:15. This veil was put in place by their founder, a man who couldn't see behind it himself.

"You are Israel's teacher," said Jesus, "and do you not understand these things?" (John 3:10, NIV)

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

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