Making sense of our world can be a great challenge at times. Making sense of Christianity may be harder than most people realize. Do you know why?
Have you been able to put the Truth together from the pieces you have found?
Have you ever tried to put together a large picture puzzle—the kind that comes disassembled in a box with hundreds of pieces? Usually, on the cover of the box, there is a picture of what the puzzle will look like when it is completely assembled, so you know what the final outcome will be as you labor to put each of the differently shaped pieces into its proper place. This can be quite challenging, because every piece needs to be in exactly the right place or the picture will not turn out as intended. But it can be very satisfying as each piece snaps firmly into its proper location, forming a complete picture.
In assembling such puzzles, it is possible to put the edge pieces together first, establishing the boundaries of the picture, but after that, you can rely on knowing what the picture looks like in order to put the myriad of pieces in their proper places. But what if you had to assemble the puzzle without seeing a picture on the cover of the box? It would be very difficult. Imagine, then, how much more difficult it would be if another complication were added—if someone had removed some of the original pieces, then added to the box an assortment of pieces from a different picture puzzle? Those new pieces would not fit anywhere. Either you would assemble a partial picture full of holes, or you would force together a jumbled image in which many pieces would not seem to fit well at all. You might never know what the originally intended picture was supposed to look like.
Today’s world is filled with religious confusion, and people often feel as though they are putting together a difficult puzzle. If you watch television on a Sunday morning, you will see preacher after preacher presenting different doctrines. It seems that there are as many different “gospels” as there are preachers. Their diverse doctrines offer different pictures of what God supposedly expects of us, as well as all sorts of ideas about our future. You may hear a message about “eternity in heaven,” or “the social gospel” or “the prosperity gospel.”
Listening to the different ideas, you may wonder: will Christ really return to establish the Kingdom of God on the earth, as the Bible teaches? Or is that merely an allegory for a “kingdom” in men’s hearts, as some allege? Will the Kingdom of God have its headquarters in Jerusalem? Or is it an existing organization with its headquarters in Rome? The many contradictory ideas cannot all be true, and this can be very confusing to those who are seeking the truth. Thankfully, we know from Scripture: “God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33).
God does not want His people to be in confusion. So, we should be able to “put the puzzle together” and see the picture God wants us to see. But will most people be able to do this? Scripture says that they will not. God inspired the prophet Isaiah to describe the world’s situation: “Whom will he teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just drawn from the breasts? For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little... But the word of the Lord was to them, ‘Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little,’ That they might go and fall backward, and be broken and snared and caught” (Isaiah 28:9–13).
Historians know that false teachers changed many pieces of the “Christian” puzzle greatly in the years after Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Protestant writer Jesse Lyman Hurlbut acknowledged the fundamental change that took place in the Christian Church. He wrote, “For 50 years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises about 120ad with the writings of the earliest church fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” (The Story of the Christian Church, p. 33).
Changes accelerated over the next two centuries, to the point where in 364ad, at the Council of Laodicea, several fundamental core beliefs of Christianity were declared anathema by the succeeding Roman church. In many cases, original doctrines and practices taught by Christ and the apostles were replaced by “Christianized” versions of pagan Gentile practices, which then became the new “orthodoxy.” This period of history saw many who held on to “the faith which was once for all delivered” (Jude 3) being persecuted and killed.
As respected historian Will Durant wrote, “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it. The Greek mind, dying, came to a transmigrated life in the theology and liturgy of the church; …Other pagan cultures contributed to the syncretist result. From Egypt came the ideas of a divine trinity… and a personal immortality of reward and punishment; from Egypt the adoration of the Mother and Child, and the mystic theosophy that made Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, and obscured the Christian creed; there, too, Christian monasticism would find its exemplars and its source. From Phrygia came the worship of the Great Mother; from Syria the resurrection drama of Adonis.… Christianity [as most people understand it today] was the last creation of the ancient pagan world… Christianity became the last and greatest of the mystery religions” (The Story of Civilization, Vol. III, pp. 595, 599).
One major “missing piece” that few today recognize is that Jesus and His first followers observed and taught the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath (Luke 4:16; Acts 17:1–2). Observing Sunday does not follow Christ’s example. It is a matter of history that the original, first century Church of God observed all ten of the Ten Commandments, including the one that reads: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” That commandment goes on to tell us precisely when to do so, reminding us that “the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God.” We are then told to keep the day holy in a particular way: “In it you shall do no work” (Exodus 20:8–11). To work on the Sabbath profanes something that is holy.
Is this a New Testament teaching? The Apostle Paul, in the New Testament book of Hebrews, taught Christians: “So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9, NASB). Nowhere do the Old or New Testaments teach that the Sabbath day was ever un-sanctified. In fact, Paul kept the Sabbath holy after Jesus’ death and resurrection (Acts 13:14, 27, 42), and Scripture shows that the seventh-day Sabbath will be kept holy in the Kingdom of God by all peoples (Isaiah 66:23).
What changed? Historians know that, particularly after Roman armies destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70ad, many who called themselves Christians increasingly sought to avoid being identified with persecuted Jews. One way to do this was to adopt a different day of worship. As a result, as historian Edward Gibbon writes, “The serious temper of the Jewish Sabbath was transferred to the Christian Sunday that replaced it in the second century” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1, p. 599). The first century Church kept the Sabbath holy, but by the second century increasing numbers were turning away from what Christ and the apostles had taught and practiced.
By what authority could the day of worship be changed from what Jesus Christ Himself had taught? The Roman Catholic Church readily acknowledges that by its own authority the change was made. Notice this excerpt from The Convert’s Catechism of Catholic Doctrine: “Question: Which day is the Sabbath day? Answer: Saturday is the Sabbath day. Question: Why do we observe Sunday instead of Saturday? Answer: We observe Sunday instead of Saturday because the Catholic Church, in the Council of Laodicea [ca. 364ad] transferred the solemnity from Saturday to Sunday” (3rd ed., p. 50).
The Council of Laodicea declared anathema those who refused to work on the seventh-day Sabbath or the annual biblical Holy Days, which are also Sabbaths of rest (Leviticus 23:1–4). This declaration intensified persecution of those who had been holding fast to Christ’s original teachings, and those who were not executed as heretics were scattered. Sunday observance became the new orthodoxy, and a vital “piece” of the true Christian picture had been exchanged for a new piece that presented a very different picture.
Another vital piece of the puzzle involves Christ’s very message. “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14). So, what is the “gospel of the kingdom of God?” Modern preachers offer a variety of “gospel” messages.
Why such confusion? The Apostle Paul warned of this situation. “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6–7). This is the gospel upon which our salvation depends. What is it? Christ’s gospel—His “good news”—proclaims the coming Kingdom of God, which He will return to establish and rule from His throne on the earth.
The Old and New Testaments both describe the Kingdom of God as a government on earth, though most professing Christians rejected this view in the first few centuries after Christ. Historian Gibbon wrote: “The ancient and popular doctrine of the Millennium was intimately connected with the second coming of Christ. As the works of the creation had been finished in six days, their duration in their present state, according to a tradition which was attributed to the prophet Elijah, was fixed to six thousand years. By the same analogy it was inferred that this long period of labour and contention, which was now almost elapsed, would be succeeded by a joyful Sabbath of a thousand years; and that Christ, with the triumphant band of the saints and the elect who had escaped death, or who had been miraculously revived, would reign upon earth till the time appointed for the last and general resurrection…. But when the edifice of the church was almost completed, the temporary support was laid aside. The doctrine of Christ’s reign upon earth was at first treated as a profound allegory, was considered by degrees as a doubtful and useless opinion, and was at length rejected as the absurd invention of heresy and fanaticism” (Gibbon, ch. 15, pp. 403–404).
This was not some obscure teaching; even the Apostle John had recorded the prophecy of the establishment of God’s Kingdom on the earth: “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” (Revelation 11:15). Speaking to His disciples, Jesus said, “But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28–30). Clearly, Jesus was describing a literal kingdom—on earth—the good news of which He and His disciples preached. The Bible speaks of this Kingdom from cover to cover.
The nature of the human soul is another missing piece in most people’s picture of Christianity. We have all heard descriptions of people’s supposedly immortal souls ascending to heaven or crashing down to a fiery hell at the moment of death. In this view, the disembodied souls, floating among clouds or burning eternally in flames, never cease to exist or lose their consciousness.
Given this common picture, you may have wondered why the Bible so plainly and consistently describes the dead being resurrected from a kind of unconscious sleep. History shows that many professing Christians, steeped in Greek ideas of the immortal soul, introduced this belief into the changing panorama of belief that they called “Christianity,” though such belief is nowhere taught in the Bible.
The term “immortal soul” is not even found in the Bible, and many respectable scholars have recognized that the immortal soul is not a biblical teaching. Even Martin Luther, the renowned “father of the Reformation,” commented on this matter. “It is probable, in my opinion, that, with very few exceptions, indeed, the dead sleep in utter insensibility till the day of judgment... On what authority can it be said that the souls of the dead may not sleep… in the same way that the living pass in profound slumber the interval between their downlying at night and their uprising in the morning?” (Michelet, Life of Luther, Bohn’s edition, p. 133).
The Lutheran church, however, (like most other Protestants) does not accept this perspective, and instead accepts the unbiblical idea that an “immortal soul” goes either to heaven or hell at the moment of death.
What did the Jews of Jesus’ day teach on this matter? “The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation rather than of simple faith, and is accordingly nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture… The belief in the immortality of the soul came to the Jews from contact with Greek thought and chiefly through the philosophy of Plato, its principal exponent, who was led to it through Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries in which Babylonian and Egyptian views were strangely blended” (Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906 ed.). In other words, Jews who adopted this belief took it from the surrounding pagan religions.
What does the Bible teach about the soul? In the Old Testament, we read, “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The New Testament teaches, “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:13–14). Scripture teaches that the dead “put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53) at their resurrection into the Kingdom of God at the return of Jesus Christ—“the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality” (1 Timothy 6:15–16).
Notice how this “puzzle piece” connects to other pieces. Resurrected Christians do not possess immortal souls that will “float around in heaven with nothing to do”—they will assist Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of God!
The first century Church of God was taught “to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). They had to “contend earnestly” because it would be a struggle to hold on to what Jesus Christ and the apostles had taught. They had already received “the whole counsel of God,” (Acts 20:27), so they had what they needed to hold on to when false teachers began to remove pieces of the puzzle and even to change the picture.
We, too, can see the same picture that God gave to the first Christians. But, to do so, we must be willing to toss out the pieces that do not belong, and to re-insert the original pieces. The true Church of God still has those original pieces, and they can be documented in the Bible and in history.
What does the picture reveal? As we have seen, it culminates in the Kingdom of God, which Jesus Christ will return to establish. While we await that Kingdom, God has revealed to us His plan for humanity, of which we are reminded every year by observing the Passover and the annual Holy Days that are listed in Leviticus 23. These days picture the putting out of sin from our lives, the receipt of the Holy Spirit, the return of Christ, the binding of Satan, the coming Millennial rule of Christ, and the final judgment of all who have ever lived. The early Church observed these festivals (Acts 2:1–4; 18:21; 1 Corinthians 5:8), and the Church of God—“spiritual Israel”—observes them today. The weekly and annual Sabbaths are part of the “faith once for all delivered” and are vital for our understanding.
When we assemble all the puzzle pieces, we can see what first century Christianity was really like, and understand what God’s Church should be doing today. If God has opened your mind to His truth, what was once a puzzle can become a clear picture that will change your life forever!