Almost the final words of inspired Scripture are, ‘I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.’ Revelation 22:18-19.
This passage introduces the two topics which we shall study in this lesson – the book of Revelation from which the warning is taken, and the problem of authority in religion.
The only book of the New Testament prophecy is Revelation, sometimes called the Apocalypse from its Greek name. It was written by John, the apostle, at the close of his life while he was a prisoner on the Isle of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor.
Probably the last Biblical writing, it was addressed to seven congregations of the Lord’s church in Asia Minor. Of these, the book highly commends two, severely criticises two, and both commends and criticises the remaining three.
Revelation is an account of a vision seen by John on ‘the Lord’s Day’, Revelation 1:10. The Lord’s Day was doubtless the first day of the week (Sunday) since Christ arose from the grave on this day. No book has been the subject of more speculation. Many teachers have dogmatically tried to give a meaning to every figure and symbol with numerous conflicting ideas the result.
A few words of caution are in order. First, Revelation is a record of ‘what must soon take place,’ Revelation 1:1. Its fulfilment, then, must be found in what has transpired since John penned the words rather than in what occurred before.
Next, it is highly symbolic. Most Biblical writing is quite literal, but prophecy is not. Thus, when we read of seven golden candlesticks John explains that they represent seven churches to which the book is addressed.
It is not within the scope of this lesson to explain the various symbols and visions, but the student is warned against accepting unquestioningly the many theories which have been propounded.
One ought to be especially wary of the teacher who claims to have the answers to all the difficult passages or the man who spends most of his time preaching about what is going to happen. Sensational teaching of this kind attracts crowds, but only confuses the hearers.
Revelation 20-22 present a vivid description of both heaven and hell which will be studied in the last lesson in the course. With the words, ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen’ the Bible comes to an end. But although completed around 1900 years ago, the influence of the book of books will continue unabated until Christ returns.
The passage noticed at the beginning of this lesson suggests the questions, ‘Are we today to accept the New Testament as our religious authority? If so, are we free to alter its commands to bring it ‘up to date’?’
Basically, the problem of religious division is one of authority. Some believe that authority resides in the church: some feel that the New Testament is authority, but that it should be interpreted by creeds; others are convinced that the New Testament must be our sole authority in matters of faith and practice.
But what did Jesus say about it? ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’ Matthew 28:18.
The Father Himself attested to the truthfulness of this claim when He declared as Jesus stood upon the mount of transfiguration, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’ Matthew 17:5. Even the common people were astonished because Jesus ‘taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.’ Matthew 7:29.
Jesus exercised this authority in His teachings recorded in the four gospels. We must obey His commands to us because they are the words of Jesus Himself. But we must also obey the teachings of the apostles as elsewhere presented in the New Testament.
After Jesus had explained that all authority had been given to Him, He delegated that authority to the apostles saying, ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ Matthew 28:19-20.
Moreover, Jesus promised to send the apostles the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth when He was no longer with them, John 16:13.
The apostles taught by the authority of Christ, and in their teaching, both oral and written, they did not touch error. Their admonitions and commands were and are just as binding as the teaching of Jesus Himself.
Neither Jesus nor the apostles are with us in the flesh today. Yet we have their words in written form (and only in written form) in the New Testament. As such the New Testament is the only standard of religious authority which can be safely accepted by those following Christ.
We are warned against changing the inspired teachings therein found, Galatians 1:6-8. The perverted ‘gospel’ here condemned is one that has been changed by addition or subtraction. Furthermore, ‘Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.’ 2 John 9.
These warnings simply mean that we must not only speak where the scriptures speak, but that we must also be silent where they are silent.
They mean that we cannot alter the nature of a command or teaching to fit it to twenty-first century thinking. The substitution of sprinkling for the apostolic practice of immersion in baptism is an example of the type of change which the apostles condemn.
Furthermore, we dare not acknowledge any human creed, catechism, or confession of faith as an authoritative interpretation of God’s word.
Human writings may properly be used as an aid to our understanding the divine writ, but when we accept them as authority, we have gone onward and have ceased to abide in the teaching of Christ.
The very fact that such creeds are contradictory to one another is evidence that they cannot all be in accord with the Scriptures.
In the following three lessons we will examine the nature of the New Testament church. We will adopt the principle of accepting the absolute authority of Christ and His apostles as revealed to us in the New Testament to determine what the church was like in the first century and what it should be today.
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