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Do You Want to Go Away as Well?

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“When many of his disciples heard [Jesus’ describing Himself as ‘the Bread of Life’], they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’

“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.’ He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.” [1]

“Do you want to go away as well?” No man will have served long in the pastorate before he is compelled to ask this question of congregants. If the minister remains focused on honouring Christ and obeying His Word, he will eventually offend all. It cannot be otherwise since the man of God will himself be offended as he grapples with obedience to the Master. He reads the Word and is rebuked for his own perfidy to the Master. Because he is a fallen being, the man of God must always struggle against his fallen nature, as is true for all people. The closer he walks to the Saviour, the more he will be offended by his very nature. If the man of God was not appointed by the Head of the Church, he would quit his work. However, he has been appointed and he will serve until released because he is appointed.

Serving a congregation is one of the most challenging tasks any man will ever assume. Candidly, a man must either be ignorant of what is expected, or he must be somewhat unbalanced to enter into the task of serving Christ’s people if he has not received divine appointment. Balancing the conflicting expectations and, yes, even the demands of multiple people—people with different interests and with different priorities—is an impossible task. Superficially, it will often appear that for the congregation progress is defined as one step forward and two steps back. In part, this arises from the nature of fallen mankind.

The sixty-sixth verse of the text is transitional; that verse informs the reader, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” Fame is fleeting; it is an axiom of service that the preacher must beware those who praise him most loudly. The man who rejoiced at the pastor’s arrival will be the first to insist that it is time for him to pack up and leave. Growing out of this is another truth worthy of consideration: The preacher who imagines that he is responsible to make people like him will lead a miserable life. What was true in the life of the Master during the days of His flesh is equally true for His servants. Jesus warned His servants, “If [people] kept my word, they will also keep yours” [JOHN 15:20b]. Then, He said that people will act this way because they do not know Him [see JOHN 15:21]. That is stunning!

During my service before the Lord I have witnessed more “backdoor revivals” than I care to remember. Most such negative situations result in growth ultimately if the congregation can rest in the Lord. Such responses by those who profess to love Christ and to love His people lie in the fallen condition of mankind—there will always be those within the congregation who have a better idea, or who second-guess pastoral decisions. The Master Himself warned His servants, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” [LUKE 6:26].

I know it can be distressing whenever people grow disgruntled and leave the fellowship. Let me show you something that I picked up listening to a fine expositor of the Word.[2] As the first church passed through the earliest days as they are described in Doctor Luke’s account, I want you to take note of the cycles. In ACTS 1:12-26, the church is focused on quality. They are selecting someone to take Judas’ place and they are focused on prayer as they wait for the promise of the coming Spirit. In ACTS 2:1-41, the congregation experiences quantitative growth. The Spirit is poured out and about three thousand are added to the congregation on that one day. Again, in ACTS 2:42-47 the church is focused on quality as the congregation focuses on ministering to one another. In ACTS 3:1-4:22 we see the church again experiencing quantity as the Spirit works in power, adding thousands to the assembly. In ACTS 4:23-5:11 the church again focuses on quality—the believers are learning to stand firm in the face of trials, they are learning how to serve one another and as God purifies through removing those who dishonour Him. Then, in ACTS 5:12-42 we again witness the church experiencing quantity as we read “Every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” [ACTS 5:42]. Then, in ACTS 6:1-6 the congregation again focuses on quality as they select the first deacons. You see, then, the cycles of church progress as revealed in this book. What was true of that first congregation remains true of churches to this day—quality followed by quantity followed by quality followed by quantity. Consolidation followed by progress—this is the pattern by which our Lord has worked among the churches. It will prove to be the history of this congregation as well, provided we don’t allow our fears or our personal desires to shove the Spirit of God aside. We don't want to be the church with the most people; we want to be the church with people most pleasing to God.

There is always a degree of discontent for the natural mind in the manner in which the church moves. We each imagine that we know what an ideal situation for our church should be. Similarly, in the assembly of the Lord we each hold an ideal of what the church will be and how the elders must direct the affairs of the congregation. Tragically, some among the professed saints of God are prepared to destroy the congregation if they don’t get their way; if they don’t think they can get away with destroying the church, they are quite prepared to quit serving.

How can such a thing happen? What could ever cause believers and attendees to cease serving and flee the fellowship to which they previously avowed devotion? Undoubtedly there are many reasons why people abandon their commitments and deny the vows they made when uniting with the assembly—and those fleeing are each capable of justifying his or her actions. Still, there are some generalisations that will address the vast majority of cases of abandonment. Bear in mind that we are speaking of those we have accepted as fellow believers. Because they no longer are walking in concord with us, we do not count them as enemies. We count those individuals who have deserted the flock as friends; we do not consign them to the ranks of unbelievers.

For some congregants, friendships cloud the understanding; hence, reasons given for ceasing serving are suspect at best. Other believers, driven by a herd instinct will prove unsteady in their commitment to the teaching of the Word—they are easily stampeded. These timid saints flee at the first note of disappointment as they bleat out their sad condition, all the while reflecting immaturity that inevitably leads to a life marked by rash, ill-considered and foolish decisions. Still other individuals affiliated with the congregation have commitment neither to Christ nor to His people—their choices reveal that their primary commitment is to their own interests. Individuals such as Timothy are rare even among the faithful. You will remember that Paul commended him, “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” [PHILIPPIANS 2:20]. Paul continued by commending the young minister, “They all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel” [PHILIPPIANS 2:21, 22].

This brings us back to the passage that serves as our text for this study. We will focus on Jesus’ response to a number of disciples who chose to leave off following Him. The account if found in John’s Gospel. Turn in your Bibles to JOHN 6:60-71 for the biblical account of this time in the ministry of the Master.

JESUS’ RESPONSE TO THOSE WHO LEAVE — “When many of his disciples heard [Jesus describing Himself as ‘the Bread of Life’], they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’”

In light of contemporary ministry models, Jesus’ response to those who turned aside is astonishing. His response was no response at all! Congregations appear to have had it drummed into their heads that the elders are responsible to soothe the aggrieved feelings of every disgruntled congregant, initiating a dialogue and making whatever concessions may be required to assuage whatever anger attendees may be feeling. After all, the feelings of those whom the minister serves are paramount. This is what we are taught from earliest days. It is driven home from kindergarten to graduate school that feelings trump responsibility every time.

Let’s see if we can get a handle on what happened. Jesus had fed about five thousand people with a little lad’s meal. The miracle not only left the crowd sated, but the leftovers when gathered filled twelve baskets. It was a notable miracle—so much so that the crowd determined that they would make Him king. That way, they would always have bread and fish to eat without having to work for the food. It seemed so perfect!

However, Jesus left the crowd and withdrew to the mountain in order to be by Himself. Later, after it was dark He slipped away, walking across the Sea of Galilee following His disciples who had departed in a boat. Realising that He had slipped away, the crowd hurried around the sea to the other side where they again found Jesus. When the crowd found Jesus, they questioned why He had left without giving them a chance to compel Him to become king, only to receive the classic response, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal” [JOHN 6:26, 27].

Their inability to comprehend what He was saying led to the powerful statement of life. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” [JOHN 6:35-40]

The Jewish religious leaders began to grumble which led to a somewhat heated exchange. These leaders would be angry no matter what He said because He would not exalt them before the populace. The pitiful correlation of their anger was that caused some of those identified as disciples also to grumble. Thus, “many of His disciples” complained, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” One translation attempts to capture the disgust in the response of these disciples by rendering the Greek, “This is more than we can stomach! Why listen to such talk?” [3] I’ve always appreciated Peterson’s efforts to capture the essence of what is written. His translation of the Greek reads, “This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow.” [4] While most modern translations are accurate in communicating the actual words that were uttered, they fail to capture the sense of displeasure, and even revulsion, expressed in their words.

Take a moment to ask what was so offensive in Jesus’ words. It was not that He spoke of life in His body and blood—it is obvious from the conversation that followed that the disciples understood that He was speaking in a spiritual sense. The key to understanding their offence is given in Jesus’ question, “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before” [JOHN 6:62]?

They were confronted with the thought that Jesus was presenting Himself as a Messiah who would be executed, rise from the dead and ascend into Heaven; they were unprepared for such a Messiah. Carson is undoubtedly correct in his assertion that these disciples wanted a ruler who would give them standing before the world! They wanted food, a political messiah and manipulative miracles rather than being forced to grapple with spiritual realities. They were unprepared to relinquish their own authority in spiritual matters; and thus, they had not even taken the first steps in matters of faith. The faith they professed was suspect, at best. They were especially offended in Jesus’ claim to be greater than Moses. They were so committed to their religious heritage, especially their own peculiar understanding of what their Faith should look like that they were unwilling to hear the voice of the Son of God. [5] In this, they were not terribly dissimilar to those who reject commitments made to the congregation of the Lord.

In effect, these disciples who were now intent on leaving Jesus—the majority of those who had been following Him—blamed Him for their leaving! They argued that He made it too difficult to be a disciple. They were fans, but they were not really followers. Whether these individuals were born from above is debatable. On other occasions Jesus spoke of the inability of outsiders to hear what He said. Here are a few instances when Jesus spoke concerning those who were unable to tolerate His words. Immediately before these “disciples” deserted, Jesus had said, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” [JOHN 6:45].

A short while after this saying, Jesus again spoke of those who understood what He said. “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” [JOHN 8:43-47].

Of course, in the dialogue in which He presented Himself as “The Good Shepherd,” Jesus again spoke of the ability of those who were truly disciples to understand what He was saying. “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” [JOHN 10:3-5].

Later in this same discourse, Jesus averred, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” [JOHN 10:16].

Then, in order to establish the import of what He was teaching, the Master again testified, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” [JOHN 10:27]. Jesus was adamant that His sheep listened to Him and that because they listened they would follow Him wherever He led.

Aware of the grumbling, Jesus cuts these disciples no slack—He confronts them, asking, “Do you take offence at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe” [JOHN 6:61-64a], Offence is the opposite of faith; Jesus wants the grumblers to understand precisely what they are choosing. Their grumbling was exactly like that of the Jewish leaders and like that of many of the people of Israel in the desert wanderings [see NUMBERS 14:26-36; 16:1-50]. If Jesus’ teaching was offensive, what would the reality of His sacrifice and His ascension do to their faith? We know that the preaching of Christ crucified is “a stumbling block [‘scandalous’] to the Jews and folly [‘moronic’] to the Gentiles” [1 CORINTHIANS 1:23]. The disciples’ response to the scandal of the cross determined their future. It may well be that how disciples now handle disappointment with the congregation will determine their future to a greater degree than we can imagine.

Understand that much of Jesus’ teaching will always be offensive to human reasoning. Likewise, much that is done as a congregation will offend human reasoning. What is important is whether those who are providing guidance within the congregation are endeavouring to follow the Master and whether they are submitted to His will. If they are, much of what they do and much of what they say will be offensive to human reasoning. Consequently, much of what the assembly chooses to do under guidance of the Holy Spirit will be offensive to human reasoning. An individual who is unwilling to work through his own disappointment says much more about himself than is said either about the congregation or about the Head of the church.

Jesus spoke of the relationship of His servant to the Master. If the servant of Christ is faithful to speak what he is commanded to say, and if he is faithful to follow the Master, there will always be some who are offended. Though the servant appears to be the focus of the offence, Jesus makes it quite clear that the offence is with Him and not with His servant. I alluded to His teaching in the opening words of this message, but I want you to consider what Jesus said, looking at His words in context.

The passage, found in JOHN 15:18-25, should be well known to all who follow the Master. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’” Whenever someone leaves the fellowship, claiming that I am the cause for their desertion, I take inventory of my acts to assure myself that I have followed the Master. Then, I let the matter rest in His hands.

For the particular focus of this message, I ask you to note that Jesus neither pursued those who were disgruntled nor did He make a concession to their anger. If we look to Jesus as the model for pastoral interaction with disgruntled worshippers, we look in vain to discover either precept or permission to pursue such individuals or to make concessions to their anger. When people that once made an open commitment to the congregation choose to return to their old way of life, there is nothing that can be said to change their mind. Their choice speaks eloquently of burning their bridges and thus they have no intention of continuing in the fellowship because it is too hard, too demanding, unpalatable. Though they have chosen to leave the fellowship of believers, we pray that those who quit are not similarly turning from walking with the Master.

As graciously as possible, let me state categorically that if an individual attends a given congregation because of some perceived benefit rather than out of conviction that she is serving where God has placed her, she will not continue serving Christ long or faithfully. Should an individual attend because the “worship music” is precisely what he wants, he will soon find reason to break fellowship with the people of God. If one attends because she enjoys the presentation of the message, she will soon be offended by something said from the pulpit; fellowship will soon sour if personal desire dictates what one seeks. If the perception of an attendee is that he can exercise a measure of power, he will shortly be offended and leave. The bottom line is that faithful participation in Christ’s Body requires His power.

Jesus’ words given as a caution against anyone seeking an easy route to Heaven may well apply here in understanding the relationship of individuals to the congregation of the faithful. Recall His admonition, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” [MATTHEW 7:13, 14].

We read in the text, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well’” [JOHN 6:66, 67]? The fact that the Master addressed the Twelve indicates the extent of the defection. “Many of His disciples” must have included the vast majority of those who were casually connected to the Master. Many of these erstwhile disciples may have appeared to have strong commitment up to this point. In any case, they could no longer handle the demands of discipleship. Better for them that they cease pretending than continue and dilute the commitment of those who were willing to serve. Better they find a place of less demanding religion so they would be unperturbed. Something akin to this holds true for those who forsake their vows of commitment and leave the fellowship of believers. Better for all that they find a place that is easier on their conscience.

There is an aspect that is not readily evident in our English translations. A literal translation of verse sixty-six would read, “Many of His disciples went away to the things they had left behind.” This literal translation casts events in a truer light than a casual reading might indicate. These disciples were renouncing their association in favour of what they had possessed before. Their actions were a very public renunciation both of the choices they had made previously and of the One they had professed to follow. Their choice was not unlike that made by those who have previously fellowshipped with the congregation but who now choose to return to what they have done previously. Because of the renunciation, there is little value in pursuing them. Any effort to encourage them to again walk in the path of the congregation is futile.

A DISCIPLE’S RESPONSE TO THE MASTER’S QUESTION — Jesus asked, “Do you want to go away as well” [JOHN 66:67]? Peter spoke for each of the disciples in his justly famous response, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” [JOHN 6:68, 69]. The true disciples had committed themselves to the Master. Their lives, what influence they might possess, their very being was committed to His service. If His cause was to be advanced, it would be through them. Their decision was founded on confidence that He was the Messiah, God’s Anointed One promised for long ages.

Jesus opened the door wide permitting the Twelve to leave should that be their desire. Applying modern ministerial models to Jesus, we might suppose that He should have expressed His vulnerability, confessing His need for them and begging the Apostles to stay with Him. However, Jesus makes it quite plain that the Twelve are free to leave if that is their desire. Again, this fits with the idea that uniting with a congregation is voluntary. If a congregant becomes disenchanted, or should she lose faith in those who lead the assembly, she has freedom to leave. Though we may reason with a fellow member, no one should interfere with or attempt to dissuade the disgruntled attendee. Rather, there should be respect for freedom of association with the Body. If Christ did not place the individual in the Body, then it will be impossible for that one to continue permanently in the Body. Offence will come and when it comes it will provide the necessary excuse to leave. However, if an individual has been placed by the Head of the church in that particular Body, in seeking to quit, the individual will experience conflict because she or he knows the decision is opposed to the will of the Master.

This brings up a critical matter for those who would honour the Master. Just as no one is “born a Christian,” so it is that no one is born into a church. We do not baptise our infants. First, there is neither warrant nor precept in Scripture for such action. Moreover, we refuse to steal the right of anyone to choose their Faith or to choose a lack of faith when they come to mature age because it was stolen in infancy. We encourage training our youth in the Faith—and we labour to do so; but we will not compel our youth to believe. There must be freedom to accept or reject the invitation of the Master. When individuals capable of demonstrating understanding of what they are doing confess faith in the Son of God, we encourage identification with Him through public baptism. This is consistent with what is taught in Scripture.

Those who have believed the Christ receive the Spirit of God who lives within their life. When they publicly confess Christ and identify with Him in baptism, we do not question them or compel them to be tested in some manner; we accept their confession of belief. Those who are disciples will seek to honour the One they call Master, openly uniting with a congregation that honours Him. Again, we do not compel church membership; but we do anticipate that those who are twice born will seek to honour the Saviour through membership in the Body He has chosen.

Disciples who are walking with the Master in truth will exhibit certain characteristics. John, in particular, speaks of these characteristics of disciples in his first letter. Among the marks of a disciple will be obedience to the Master and a love for His people. Throughout this first missive, John stresses these two marks of discipleship. Here is one example of the intertwining of these two marks as noted in John’s first letter.

“By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” [1 JOHN 2:3-6].

Again, John has written, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” [1 JOHN 2:9-11].

I invite you to consider just another of the instances in which John stresses the necessity of both concepts of obedience to the Master and love for the people of God. “This is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” [1 JOHN 3:11-18]. Note that what we may say is of scant value if there is no reality expressed through life. How we live, how we interact with those we profess to love, demonstrates the reality of what we profess.

John turns again to obedience as a necessary mark of true discipleship when he writes, “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us” [1 JOHN 3:11-24].

If one turns away from the people of God, isolating himself from the fellowship of believers, regardless of what that one has professed, such a person cannot be said to be a disciple of the Lord. Understand that I am not judging the individual—God alone can judge a person. We are not consigning any such individual to the position of either redeemed or lost— God alone knows the heart. What we can say, and what we must say, is that the actions of that individual are inconsistent with the profession he has made. For if one avers discipleship and yet turns from walking with those who are united as disciples to worship and serve the Master, there is nothing in the action of the one turning away to demonstrate the truth of what has been averred. This is the essence of Peter’s confession to the Lord’s invitation.

JESUS’ SHOCKING RESPONSE — “Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.’” Jesus’ response to Peter’s testimony is surprising and somewhat troubling. We appear sometimes to imagine that the ancient churches were without conflict. Jesus’ statement appears to destroy any such idea. Though specifically chosen and appointed by Jesus Himself, one among the Apostles was “a devil.” For the record, problems marked the churches from earliest days.

Think of a few instances recorded in the Word concerning conflict among the early churches. Perhaps if Pastor Paul would direct the work there would be no trouble. Well, the Corinthian Christians were prepared to listen to other voices on that issue. And Paul confronted the multiple conflicts forthrightly. His enemies were saying, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account” [2 CORINTHIANS 10:10]. The Apostle was forced to defend himself against interlopers whom many within the congregation thought were superior because of their Jewish credentials and rhetorical abilities; Paul identified these particular individuals as “super apostles” [see 2 CORINTHIANS 11:5, 6]. After pointing to his love for the saints—love repeatedly demonstrated through investment of his life in the work of Christ, Paul would finally write, “I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works” [2 CORINTHIANS 12:11, 12].

In Ephesus, the congregation was one continual mess despite having pastoral leadership appointed by Paul himself. Timothy was the apostolic legate, situated in Ephesus by the Apostle [see 1 TIMOTHY 1:3]. Despite this, the congregation was in constant conflict from Gnostics, from people advancing feminist ideas and from individuals wanting to advance themselves as leaders. Timothy was compelled to meet these challenges, and they had previously been met by Paul as well. Several individuals appear to have led congregational revolts. Among these were individuals whom Paul named—Hymenaeus and Alexander [see 1 TIMOTHY 1:20]. Facing his own death, Paul would write one final warning against Alexander. “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message” [2 TIMOTHY 4:14, 15]. Though we cannot precisely identify the form Alexander’s opposition took, he stood in opposition to the Apostle’s message.

Perhaps if a congregation had received leadership from the Apostle of Love, there would be no conflict. Of course, that was not at all the case. Writing in the final missive we attribute to him, John cautions Gaius, “I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.” Then, he appends this cautionary note to Gaius, “Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God” [3 JOHN 9-11].

Neither should we imagine that Peter was free of witnessing the infiltration of discontent and subsequent conflict among the churches. Remember that he warned the Christians of the Diaspora against false teachers. “False prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words” [2 PETER 2:1-3a]. Though God will hold such false agents to account, at this present time they are capable of working great harm among the faithful.

Jesus used two parables in particular to illustrate some of the problems the churches could anticipate. The Parable of the Sower is one such parable. “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold” [LUKE 8:5-8].

Jesus then explained the parable so no one would misunderstand His meaning. “The parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” [LUKE 8:11-15]. Understand that there is a significant contrasts between those who hear the Word and those in whom the Word takes root!

The other parable that speaks to the condition of the churches throughout this Age is known as the Parable of the Weeds. “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” [MATTHEW 13:24-30].

Note that though we are unable to distinguish who is a true believer and who is a pretender to the Faith, the Master of the churches knows and will expose the true condition at the appropriate time. Though the wheat and the weeds grow together, when those that only appear to be fruit-bearing saints make a choice to break fellowship, if that break is on the basis of the exaltation of self-will, it serves as a priori evidence that the individual is a pretender. We must not allow ourselves to become overly exercised about the choice such an individual has made. Our responsibility is to continue faithful in the service to which we are appointed.

It is not my job to tell you what is in your heart—I am barely able to know my own heart. God alone knows who is real and who is pretending. However, I would be remiss if I did not, in keeping with apostolic tradition, encourage each one who hears to “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the Faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realise this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test” [2 CORINTHIANS 13:5]!

My prayer is that Christ the Lord does rule in your life and that you will continue steadfast in this most holy Faith. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2001. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] David Jeremiah, “Counterfeit Commitment,” Sermon broadcast April 29 & 30, 2015,, accessed 2 May 2, 2015

[3] New English Bible (Oxford Press, New York, NY 1970)

[4] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO 2005)

[5] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI 1991) 300

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