Are you a spiritual stick-in-the-mud? Do you resist the influx of new doctrinal understanding because you believe that God Himself is incapable of change? This challenging article takes on the sacred cows of traditional spiritual intransigence.
The religious leaders of Jesus' day were not noted for their open-mindedness. Jesus came bringing light and truth (John 12:46; 14:26, etc.), but the sectarian world of that day rejected the light — "He came unto his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:11). The religious leaders of that time were unable to accept the new understanding brought by Jesus from God the Father. They had built up a code of law containing dozens of "dos and don'ts" with which they were quite comfortable. They sat in Moses' seat (Matt. 23:2). They — along with their rivals, the Sadducees — were ensconced in an impregnable position of ecclesiastical power, wielding authority over thousands of devout followers. Jesus rocked their boat. He came as a disturber of the status quo — an iconoclast with powerful and authoritative convictions. Academically, the Pharisees were unable to resist the wisdom with which Christ spoke. Emotionally they resisted it to the point of crucifying Him! Parable of the Wineskins. Following the selection of the tax collector Levi as one of Jesus' disciples, Levi made a great feast in his home to celebrate the event. Jesus, His disciples, and many other tax collectors (publicans) were invited to the meal. As usual. the Pharisees and scribes found fault. They assumed guilt by association. They judged Christ (falsely) by the company He kept. "And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, 'Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?'" (Luke 5:30.) Jesus pointed out that He was there to call sinners to repentance, not the "righteous" — that is, the self-righteous! But the Pharisees were relentless in their criticism. When they found they could not prevail in one area, they shifted their focus to another — to the question of fasting. "And they said to him, 'The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink'" (verse 33). The Pharisees had a quantitative standard of righteousness. They were concerned with how much one prayed, how often one fasted, and how much one offered. Jesus debunked this approach to righteousness in Luke 18:1-14, where He showed that what is important to God is attitude and quality of prayer — not mere quantity! God would rather hear a short prayer performed in humility than a long, sonorous prayer done out of self-righteousness. Unfortunately, the Pharisees and their associates were unable to accept Christ's approach to true spirituality. To them it was too new, too "liberal," too hard to take. Jesus healed on the Sabbath against Jewish law. He and His disciples plucked grain in the fields on the Sabbath. They ate and drank with "gusto" and ran roughshod over the idol of Judaic legalism. This approach was philosophically intolerable to the Pharisees. They gnashed their teeth in anger and frustration at the teachings of Christ. They sought opportunity to kill Him time and time again. Jesus addressed their stubborn and intransigent attitude in two succinct parables: "He told them a parable also: 'No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it upon an old garment; if he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old'" (Luke 5:36). Jesus' doctrine was like a patch of brilliant new cloth attached to the threadbare fabric of ancient tradition and legalism. The resultant tension could do nothing but create a rent in the garment of existing tradition. Then Christ gave a second parable to drive the point home: "And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins" (verses 37, 38). Jesus' teaching was likened to new wine, sparkling, fresh and invigorating. The Pharisees were like old wineskins, brittle, unresilient, inflexible. Figuratively speaking, they were "bursting" with the influx of the new wine of Jesus' doctrine. They were content with the dregs of their tradition which made the words of God "of none effect" (Mark 7:8, 9, 13, KJV). They preferred the sediment-laden, traditional teachings to the fresh new wine of God's updated revelation! They said, "The old [wine] is better" (Luke 5:39, KJV). Later, the great Christian martyr, Stephen, defined the problem this way: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you" (Acts 7:51). "You always resist the Holy Spirit"! Here is the crux of the problem! Those who resist the teaching of Christ resist God's Holy Spirit! Spirit of the Pharisees. The spirit and attitude of the tradition-bound Pharisees lives on today in those professing Christians who resist change. Even in today's modern world of professing Christianity there are those who resist new understanding. As the Holy Spirit leads converted Christians to understand more and more of the real meaning and intent of the Word of God, there also will always be those who resist this new knowledge. But, in truth, they resist the Holy Spirit of God just as the Pharisees did nearly two millennia in the past. Jesus explained to His disciples that the purpose of the Holy Spirit was to lead them into more and more truth: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into al/ the truth..." (John 16:13). This is a progressive, continuing process. Each generation of true Christians is led into new avenues of spiritual insight and understanding. The Church of God is a dynamic, living, changing organism — ever growing into greater and deeper understanding. The apostle Peter instructed Christians to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (II Peter 3:18). Paul instructed the evangelist Timothy to "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth " (II Tim. 2:15, KJV). Those who do not study the Word of God are often embarrassed by their lack of knowledge when they must answer a "hard question." Like the Pharisees whose spirit lives on within them, they "do err, not knowing the scriptures" (Matt. 22:29, KJV). Solomon wrote: "Get wisdom; get insight. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight" (Prov. 4:5-7). The motto of Ambassador College reads: "The Word of God is the foundation of knowledge." It is the aim of the Worldwide Church of God to continually grow in knowledge and be corrected by the Word of God. The process of growing in knowledge is often painful to those who become entrenched in tradition. Each new doctrinal change has a shattering effect on those who are not conditioned to be receptive to such change. Malachi 3:6. Some, in a desperate attempt to justify an attitude of spiritual intransigence, have resorted to distorting certain scriptures. One such passage is found in Malachi 3:6. "For I the Lord do not change...." This statement from the minor prophet Malachi is often quoted, out of context, to justify a rigid stance on doctrinal understanding. Those who use it conclude one of two things: 1) that God never changes His teaching on any doctrine; or 2) that New Testament doctrine is identical to Old. Both conclusions are in error. Note the context of the verse — Malachi is talking about a time when Christ will return to "purify the sons of Levi" (verse 3). He indicts the "sorcerers... the adulterers ... those who swear falsely... those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan... those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me [God]..." (verse 5). The prophet is listing the national sins of Israel — of Judah and Jerusalem (verse 4). He is addressing the Levites — the priesthood tribe — who were failing to fulfill their responsibility in caring for the spiritual condition of the nation. Then he says, quoting God: "For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed" (Mal. 3:6). The subject of this verse is God's mercy — not His doctrine and teaching. God is explaining that He is just as merciful as He ever was — and therefore He will not utterly destroy (consume) the nation for the aforementioned sins! God is talking about His own character — of the fact that He is, by nature, intrinsically merciful and forgiving. To use this scripture to show that the Church of God cannot change an understanding that was accepted in the 1950s, for example, is an absurd distortion of the first magnitude! Church Changes. It should be pointed out, by way of qualification, that the teaching of God in terms of His written revelation has remained static for nearly two thousand years — since the close of the Canon. The words of the Bible have not been altered or changed in that period except to a small degree by transmission and translation. What has changed is the Church's understanding of the meaning and application of those words! As the Church grows in knowledge, changes and adjustments are made to conform to the leading of God's Holy Spirit. These adjustments in teaching in no way change the truth of God. Rather, they draw us closer to it! To say that the Church may never change its teaching is to assume that we have had perfect understanding of the will of God from the beginning. This is to belie the Bible itself, which teaches that Christians first receive the basics of doctrine: the ABC's, the milk of the Word. Later, when the Church has grown to greater spiritual maturity, God provides spiritual meat (see Hebrews 5 and 6). The disciples themselves provide a microcosmic example of what the Church in general has always had to go through in terms of maturing. Those twelve men grew from spiritual infancy, when they made absurd assumptions and acted in childish, yet foolish, exuberance, to become the spiritual giants of the New Testament period. The Church, in any age, must proceed from infancy to maturity. Each generation of Christians must "grow up in Christ" (see Eph. 4:15). Each must change and adjust to the influx of new knowledge. Those who fail to do so become casualties and "fall by the wayside" as the Church moves on. Those who resist change often give credence to the old axiom, "The Bible can be used to prove anything." They persist in using certain passages of Scripture like Malachi 3:6 to "prove" their point that Church doctrine cannot be changed. Another such passage is Hebrews 13:8. Hebrews 13:8. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." This scripture is very similar to Malachi 3:6 in that it is talking about the person of Christ — not about what He does or does not do. To understand the true implications of this verse we must do two things: 1) look elsewhere in the same book (Hebrews) to see if similar statements are made which amplify this one, and 2) take the verse in context. In the opening verses of Hebrews, the author provides us with our first clue: "Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of thine hands; they will perish, but thou remainest; they will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle thou wilt roll them up, and they will be changed. But thou art the same, and thy years will never end" (Heb. 1:10-12). Here the apostle Paul, accepted traditionally as the author of Hebrews, is quoting from the eighth Psalm to contrast the transience of the created universe with the permanency and agelessness of its Creator. He is showing that God always lives — that He is eternal, immortal. One of the principal purposes of the letter to the Hebrews was to contrast the superior priesthood of Christ with that of the Levites. Jesus is shown to be superior even by His immortality: "The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he [Christ] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Heb. 7:23-25). Here the picture is made even clearer! Since Christ lives forever, His priesthood is infinitely superior to that of the mortal, human priests of the tribe of Levi. He is always on the job ready to intervene for those in all ages who come to God. He is a faithful, consistent and permanent high priest! Context of Hebrews 13:8. The book of Hebrews was written largely as encouragement to those Jewish Christians who were having difficulty making the transition from traditional Judaism to dynamic Christianity. Persecution and pressure from fellow Jews who had not accepted Christ was heavy. Apparently many were beginning to let down in the performance of basic Christian duties. Strife and sinful practices were beginning to break out among them. Therefore Paul wrote: "Let brotherly love continue .... Let marriage be held in honor among all... for God will judge the immoral and the adulterous" (Heb. 13:1-4). Paul was warning those who were letting down. They were forgetting about Christ, who was still actively watching over the Church as its living, eternal High Priest. Therefore Paul wrote: "... Be content with what you have; for he has said, 'I will never fail you nor forsake you.' Hence we can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper... '" (verses 5-6). Then, after admonishing the Church to once again look to the example of its leaders (verse 7), Paul writes: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever"! Now it should be obvious what the verse means! Since Christ is still alive, functioning in His office as merciful High Priest, immortal, eternal in the heavens, don't let down in living as a Christian! Don't allow yourselves to degenerate and forsake your faith, for Christ has not changed. He is still on His throne in heaven, alive, actively intervening for His people. Now is not the time to descend into immorality and false doctrine (verse 9). The verse has nothing to do with whether Christ changes doctrine or not! And, if it did imply that, it would contradict the entire purpose of the book of Hebrews which was to explain some fundamental changes which Christ had made! A Book of Change. The letter to the Hebrews explains, perhaps more than any other New Testament book, some of the changes in law, administration and doctrine that God was making. To use any verse in Hebrews to "prove" that God never changes doctrine is to overlook the entire thrust of the book! Notice, for example, Hebrews 7:12: "For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well." Who made these changes of law and administration? God did! God changed! He altered His teaching — doctrine ("doctrine" merely means "teaching"). God changed the covenants from the Mosaic to the New. The new agreement is said to be "better" than the old — founded upon "better promises" (Heb. 8:6-7). Yet, did not God make the Old? Yes, He did — but He later changed it. God has not only changed His doctrine and teaching from age to age but He has also changed His mind on occasion. God is not rigid, unyielding and intransigent as are some of His human subjects! Yet, God is not fickle and capricious. He is ageless, eternal, consistent in purpose and in character throughout all eternity. He is ever-merciful today as always. Christ, like His Father, is not "double-minded" to use James' terminology (James 1:8). God's consistency of purpose and character are described by James: "... The Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17). But God does render new decisions concerning teaching and practice when the situation warrants it. God does reverse His own decisions (as is evident from many verses of Scripture) — as circumstances dictate. God is at once flexible and consistent. Repent Means Change. God expects His human subjects to "repent." That means change! (Acts 2:38; 3:19.) He demands that we allow ourselves to be corrected by the two-edged sword of His Word (Heb. 4:12-13; 12:7-11). Those who refuse to change (as God's Word indicates that they should) resist the Holy Spirit as did the Pharisees of old. "Stubbornness," says God, "is as iniquity and idolatry" (I Sam. 15:23). Will you be a spiritual stick-in-the-mud? Or will you be big-minded enough to change with the Body of Christ as we grow into a more perfect understanding of God's will and Word?
DOES GOD EVER CHANGE?
Hebrews 7:12. "For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well" (RSV).
Hebrews 8:13. "In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away" (RSV).
Hebrews 10:9. "He abolishes the first in order to establish the second" (RSV).
Exodus 32:14. "So the Eternal changed his mind about the punishment he had threatened to his people" (Moffatt).
I Samuel 24:16. "And when the angel stretched out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented of the evil and reversed His judgment, and said to the destroying angel, It is enough; now stay your hand" (The Amplified Bible).
Jeremiah 26:19. "Did they not reverently appease the Eternal, till the Eternal relented and withheld the evil he had pronounced against them?" (Moffatt.)
I Samuel 15:35. "And the Lord repented that he had made Saul king over Israel" (RSV).
Jonah 3:10. "And when God saw that they had put a stop to their evil ways, he abandoned his plan to destroy them, and didn't carry it through" (The Living Bible).
I Kings 21:29. "Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days [as originally decreed]; but in his son's days I will bring the evil upon his house" (RSV).
Exodus 4:10-16. God allows Moses (upon a strong emotional appeal) to substitute Aaron as spokesman to Pharaoh.