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Confronting Cultism


The Pharisees resented Jesus Christ. They objected to His healing on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9—14), His fellow ship with sinners (Matthew 9:11), His disdain for their religious traditions (Mark 7:5). Most of all they resented His claims of divinity and, as we saw in the last chapter, crucified Him for those claims. In their determination to ruin His reputation and tempt Him into blasphemous statements, they sent scribes to trap Him with carefully crafted questions. On one such occasion He turned the tables on them:

While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying, "What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?" They said to Him, "The Son of David." He said to them, "How then does David in the Spirit call Him 'Lord,' saying: 'The Lord said to my Lord. . . . If David then calls Him 'Lord,' how is He his Son?" And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him any more. (Matthew 22:41—46) With this query, Jesus pointed to an essential question about His nature. He did not ask the Pharisees if they thought He was the expected Messiah. He asked instead about the nature of the Messiah: Would the Messiah simply be a human descendant of David, merely a man with a spiritual anointing? Notice this distinction: The Jews did not give Jesus over to death for claiming to be the Messiah, but for claiming to "be equal with God" (John 5:18; 10:30—33).

The Divinity of Christ

The hallmark of the cults is their attempt to destroy the full deity of Jesus; the hallmark of orthodox Christianity is its declaration that Jesus is fully God, as well as fully man. For twenty centuries the Church has made a reply to the question "Who is Jesus Christ?" Our answer: Jesus is God incarnate— God come in the flesh.

The idea of Jesus the God/man has been hotly contested. Much of the content of the great creeds of the Church came about in the face of challenges to this concept. The Council at Nicea in 325 A.D. defended Jesus' full deity in the face of the Arians who claimed Jesus was not God but was the first being God created (as Jehovah's Witnesses believe today). And important doctrinal battles were fought about His humanity. Some groups viewed Jesus as a manifestation of God who only "appeared" to be human. Still other problems arose over how Jesus' appearance as God in the flesh affected our overall notions about God: Did the Father stop being the Father to become the Son?

It is not my intent to try to identify all of the various ways scholars have thought about the relationship between the Father and the Son. For our purposes I want to demonstrate that the primary mistake of the cults is to miss Christ's full deity. If we are aware of that error and are prepared to address it, we will be able to speak with authority to the central problem in the major cult groups.

There is a secondary error (discussed in the last chapter) called the "Jesus-only" movement. Where tritheism makes Father, Son and Holy Ghost into three gods and destroys the essential unity of God, unitarianism (referring not to the organization but to the Jesus-only doctrine) allows Jesus to be God, but at the expense of the Father and the Holy Spirit. In order to discuss these issues at all, we must establish the biblical definition of God. We will then show how the Bible teaches that Jesus possesses all the attributes of God.

The Nature of God

Why is the accurate understanding of the nature of God so important?

Doctrinal error destroys the unity of the Church. Christian brotherhood, our common life in fellowship in Christ, is central to establishing the Kingdom of God on the earth. Jesus' purpose was to redeem mankind from the curse of sin and establish the Kingdom of God "on earth as it is in heaven." In establishing His Church, He prayed we would "all be one" (John 17:21). He also said our love for each other would demonstrate to all that we are His disciples (John 13:35), an obvious aid in establishing His Lordship. Paul recognized the importance of doctrinal unity. He said gifted teachers of the Gospel would bring us into the

unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine. . . . but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up. . . . into Him who is the head—Christ. Ephesians 4:11—15 Our salvation (which includes our eventual full spiritual, emotional and physical healing) comes from knowing God as He really is. Peter said what we need for life and godliness is wrapped up in our knowledge of God (2 Peter 1:3). Some thing happens to us when we see God accurately, when we come to know Him. Paul went so far as to say that when we worship God rightly, something important happens to our own nature: We are "transformed" (2 Corinthians 3:18). Error clouds our vision of Him and obscures our understanding of Him. When the cults obscure God's nature they frustrate man kind's redemption. For these reasons, cultish error is not some musty intellectual or doctrinal issue.

We need to be skeptical of superficial definitions of God's nature. When a cultist tells us he believes in God, or that he is a Christian, we need to ask what he means by that statement. When Paul said, "No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit," he did not mean that no nonbeliever can mouth those words. Nor did he mean that anyone who says those words is born again. The confession "Jesus is Lord" is really the earliest creed of the Church. In order for the phrase to have any meaning at all, we must define both terms: Jesus and Lord. But even before that, we must look at our under standing of God Himself.

The Definition of God

To defend the proposition that Jesus is God, we will first define what we mean by God. That may seem elementary, but it is essential. When a Mormon says Jesus is God, for example, he really means Jesus is one of a multitude of gods. In Mormonism people may become gods.

Historically, orthodoxy has taught certain minimums about God. We have identified His attributes. Among other things, God is holy, just, loving and merciful. We also speak of God's nature. In so doing, it is common to think of God in three primary ways. He is omnipresent (everywhere present), omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing).

God Is Omnipresent

God is the God of heaven and earth (Genesis 14:19), not only because He created them (Genesis 1:1), but because He actively reigns over them. Christianity teaches a God who not only created the universe, but who is intimately involved with every aspect of it. He is available and accessible immediately through prayer, because He is omnipresent. "Am I a God near at hand," says the Lord, "and not a God afar off? Can anyone hide himself in secret places, so I shall not see him?" says the Lord; "Do I not fill heaven and earth?" (Jeremiah 23:23—24).

Moses recognized that God is "in heaven above and on the earth beneath" (Deuteronomy 4:39). Likewise, David extolled God's omnipresence: "Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there" (Psalm 139:7—8).

God "sits above the circle of the earth. . . .stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in" (Isaiah 40:22). "Heaven is My throne," He says, "and earth is My footstool" (Isaiah 66:1).

God Is Omnipotent

His power is total. When God promised Abraham that his ninety-year-old wife, Sarah, would conceive a son, she laughed. But God asked patiently, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" (Genesis 18:10—14). God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary she was to conceive Jesus miraculously by the power of the Holy Spirit. As Gabriel explained this to Mary—and told her further that her elderly relatives would soon have a son as well—Gabriel said, "With God nothing will be impossible" (Luke 1:37).

God is Creator of the physical universe. He made the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1); He founded the world according to His wisdom and stretched out the heavens by His understanding (Jeremiah 51:15); He possesses absolute dominion and authority in heaven and earth (Isaiah 37:16); "all things" were made by God (John 1:3).

The Old Testament prophet Amos says God made the constellations Pleiades and Orion (Amos 5:8). God created simply by willing to do so (Revelation 4:11). The writer of Hebrews tells us God made the worlds by His word: "We understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible" (Hebrews 11:3).

God's power, in addition, extends over life itself. He is Lord of and giver of life. He gives breath and spirit (Isaiah 42:5). As "the Father of us all" He exercises sovereign rule over all life. He is the God "who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did" (Romans 4:17).

God Is Omniscient

God calls Himself the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. As the all-knowing Creator, God is the originator of all wisdom.

God "searches all hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts" (1 Chronicles 28:9). "For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him" (2 Chronicles 16:9).

The Progressive Revelation of God

The Bible reveals the nature of God through a series of progressive revelations. After mankind's failures in the Garden of Eden and on the plains of Babylon, God again revealed Himself to Abraham. Through Abraham, God began to separate out a people who would worship Him rightly. The Old Testament is the story of God calling His people, the Jews, away from idolatry. The Gentile nations who opposed Israel were pagan polytheists. They worshiped numerous demon gods. In the face of polytheism, the Old Testament message was, There is only one God.

In the Old Testament, through His dealing with the Jewish people, God continued to reveal grand aspects about His nature: His love, His mercy, His justice, His patience and even His wrath. Often He would reveal a new aspect of His nature and, at the same time, coin a new word to describe Himself:

Jehovah-Jireh (Our Provider); Jehovah-Shalom (Our Peace); Jehovah-Tsidkenu (Our Victory Banner); and Jehovah-Rapha (Our Healer).

The Jews did not understand the revelation of God in the Person of Christ. The Jewish rulers of Jesus' day did not possess a genuine relationship with God, because if they had, they would have recognized His appearance in the flesh. Jesus told them, "If God were your Father, you would love Me" (John 8:42).

The Christological Problem

As we read the Old Testament we become firmly convinced that there is only one God. Any other concept is—and always shall be—unacceptable. But when we encounter Jesus in the New Testament, we see He ascribes to Himself all the attributes of deity. Now we have a problem: How do we account for Jesus? Obviously, because of the teaching of the Old Testament, He cannot be "another" god.

In the telling words of C. S. Lewis from Mere Christianity, Jesus claimed to be God, and only three possibilities exist to explain that claim:

1. Jesus knew He was not God, making Him a liar;

2. Jesus thought He was God, but wasn't, making Him a lunatic; or

3. Jesus actually is God, as He claimed, making Him the Lord.

Some people argue that Jesus is a prophet, a good man or a great teacher—but not God. That really isn't possible. If His claims are not true, they are horrendous. He must be either a liar, a lunatic or the Lord.

Is Jesus God?

To establish the biblical proof for the full deity of Jesus, we need only look at the texts that support that claim. We will look at texts that support His omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience. In addition, we will see that He is called God and Creator, and that He receives worship.

Jesus Is Omnipresent

Jesus articulates an amazing fact in Matthew 18:20: "Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them." This "indwelling" of Christ in the life of the disciple is more than a platitude. It is more than a nice idea or a symbolic statement. Paul tells us it is at the very root of the relationship God establishes with believers. He calls it the Christian "mystery": "To [Christians] God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27).

Jesus further declares His omnipresence when He speaks with Nicodemus. Jesus, telling Nicodemus about his need to be born again, remarks that though Nicodemus is an influential Jew, he is ignorant of spiritual things. Commenting on His omniscience, Jesus says:

"If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. John 3:12—13 Again, at His ascension Jesus states that He will always be with the disciples "even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). Likewise, on the night of Jesus' betrayal He has a long talk with the disciples. He says in "a little while longer," the world will not see Him, but the disciples will see Him. As a matter of fact, because He lives, they will live. And they will know that He is in them (John 14:19—20).

Yes, the very real presence of Christ dwelling in believers throughout the world is a magnificent demonstration of His omnipresence. Shortly after I became a Christian it dawned on me that the Person Jesus Christ was literally with me. The testimony of all born-again Christians is the testimony of Paul:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. Galatians 2:20< Jesus Is Omnipotent

Jesus demonstrates His omnipotence by healing the sick, raising the dead and taking authority over the wind and the waves. While it could be argued that the disciples would later do similar miracles, Jesus claims He has this power "within Himself." The disciples' power is but a mere extension of His own. All power and authority reside in Him; it is He who answers the prayers of the disciples who pray in His name."

Jesus exhibits the power of life and death. To the Jews He says: "No one takes [My life] from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (John 10:18).

After His resurrection Jesus reveals this power over life and death to John: "I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death" (Revelation 1:18).

Again in the book of Revelation He says: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts" (Revelation 21:6).

Jesus Is Omniscient

One of the best examples of Jesus' omniscience is found in John chapter one. Philip, already selected by Jesus as a disciple, says to his friend Nathanael: "We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Nathanael is unimpressed. He is also a skeptic. He asks, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

Still, he follows Philip to where Jesus is. Jesus, seeing him coming, says, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!"

Nathanael then asks Him how He knew him. Jesus replies that He saw Nathanael—before Philip called him—under the very fig tree where Nathanael had been sitting. This knowledge is so astounding to Nathanael that he replies, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" (John 1:45—49).

This ability to see something not immediately present goes much deeper: He can see into people's very souls. The Bible says that as the people start to believe on Jesus' name, He does not "commit Himself to them." This is because "He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man" (John 2:23—25).

In other words, Jesus needs no information about anyone's character, because He has it already, within Him. This is clearly demonstrated when the disciples murmur about Jesus' "hard" sermon about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Many of the disciples leave Him over this saying. Even the Twelve are troubled by it. The Bible says Jesus "knew in Himself" they were murmuring (John 6:61). Further, Jesus knows beforehand who will ultimately believe in Him: "For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him" (John 6:64).

Jesus describes Himself as the Being who "has eyes like a flame of fire" (Revelation 2:18).

Jesus Is Worshiped as God

As firmly as the Jews understood there was only one God, so they understood that only God receives worship. Idolatry is the worship of anything or any being other than God and is clearly condemned throughout the Old Testament. Yet it is a trap God's people have fallen into repeatedly down through the ages.

Jesus leaves no doubt about worship belonging to God alone: "You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve" (Matthew 4:10). At the same time Jesus allows people to worship Him. He receives worship. When Jesus heals a blind man, the Jewish leaders chastise the man and cast him out of the synagogue. When Jesus hears that, He finds the man and asks him, "Do you believe in the Son of God?" The man replies, "Lord, I believe!" and worships Him. At which Jesus says: "For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind" (John 9:35, 38—39).

Other stories abound. Jesus goes walking across the sea one night and meets the disciples in their boat. Once He is aboard, they worship Him (Matthew 14:24—33).

In one of the most touching stories in the Bible, a Syro-Phoenician woman worships Jesus as she entreats Him to heal her daughter. Jesus commends her as a woman of great faith (Matthew 15:22—28).

Jesus is worshiped by the disciples at His ascension (Luke 24:52); by the 24 elders in heaven (Revelation 5:8—10); by angels (Revelation 5:12); by all creatures:

And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: "Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!" Revelation 5:13 Jesus will be worshiped ultimately by everyone, saint and sinner alike: For every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10—11)

Jesus Is Called God

In the Old Testament Isaiah prophesies the incarnation (literally, enfleshment) of God in Christ:

"Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. . . ." For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father,Prince of Peace. Isaiah 7:14; 9:6< This promise is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. Matthew tells us Jesus, the Son of Mary, is none other than "God with us" (Matthew 1:23).

John says: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1)

According to John 1:14, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory." First Timothy 3:16 says that "God was manifested in the flesh."

Thomas the doubter refused to believe that Jesus had been resurrected. Eight days later, when Jesus walked through the walls of the room in which the disciples were meeting and told Thomas to put his hands in the sword wound in His side and the nail wounds in His hands, Thomas replied, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28).

Colossians 2:9—10 tells us that in Jesus "dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." That is a complete statement about Jesus' divine nature. Titus 2:13 calls Him "our great God and Savior Jesus Christ."

In explaining the nature of Jesus, Hebrews 1:3 says Jesus is the brightness of God's glory, the exact representation of His being. In other words, Jesus is what we can see of God.

We are finite; we cannot see throughout the universe. God is infinite. He is omnipresent, existing throughout the universe. What we can see of God is what He reveals to us. The best revelation of His infinity is in the God-Man, Jesus. That is why John says no one has seen God at any time, except as the Son has revealed Him (John 1:18). God Himself in speaking to this mystery of the incarnation of Christ says to His son, "Your throne, 0 God, is forever and ever" (Hebrews 1:8).

Jesus calls Himself "the First and the Last" (Revelation 1:17—18). Elsewhere He says: "He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son" (Revelation 21:7).

Jesus Is the Creator

We understand that the definition of God includes the description of Him as the Creator—or First Cause, as the early philosophers put it. Genesis 1:1 says, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." John specifically identifies the Creator God as Jesus: "All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life" (John 1:3-4).

In Colossians, Paul reiterates the creative nature of Jesus. First, he explains that Jesus is what we can see of God: "He is the image of the invisible God." Then he says:

For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. (Colossians 1:15—17) Hebrews 1:10 says Jesus laid the foundations of the earth and calls heaven the work of His hands.

The full deity of Jesus is the doctrinal line the Church has drawn historically, marking the boundary of minimum faith for a true Christian. It is impossible to have a vibrant faith in Christ if He is merely a great moral teacher, a Spirit-filled man or even the Son of God without being fully God. The very essence of the cults is their rebellion against this revelation of God.

The Trinity

The doctrine of the holy Trinity is the doctrinal formulation the Church has consistently advanced in the face of the heretic. The concept of the Trinity seeks basically to encapsulate what the Bible says about God in both the Old and New Testaments.

The Old Testament forever establishes the fact that, in all the universe, only one God exists. The battle against paganism in the Old Testament was Israel's defense of the one God against the polytheism of the Gentiles. The Old Testament prophets chastise Israel continually for following the detestable practices of the Gentiles in "whoring after false gods." The problem arises for some when, once we have the light of monotheism burning brightly from the Old Testament witness, we are confronted with Jesus' claim to Godhood in the New Testament.

How do we explain the Person of Jesus in the Trinity?

1. We refute the idea that Jesus is another god. That thinking is precluded by the Old Testament. That is why tritheism—the most frequent error of the cults (such as Mormonism or Jehovah's Witnesses)—is unacceptable. Tritheism calls for three separate gods: one god who is the Father, one god who is the Son and one god who is the Holy Spirit.

2. We refute the idea that Jesus is less than God. Where tritheism emphasizes the "threeness" of God, Unitanianism emphasizes the "oneness" of God. Unitarianism relegates Jesus to the role of being—not an eternal Person who both is God and is with God (John 1:1), but a manifestation of God. Jesus becomes another burning bush or pillar of cloud. God is not big enough; therefore, He must somehow stop being Father to become Son.

The doctrine of the Trinity allows Jesus to share the one nature of God without confusion or dissolution. Hence the one God is eternally Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If this is not true, Jesus came into existence at some point in time and is, therefore, not eternal, not God.

The cults are indeed the "unpaid bills of the Church."

There was a time when a solid Christian, raised up in C. H. Spurgeon's church or D. L. Moody's church, would have been expert in the doctrine of the Trinity. He or she would have been forced to think through the doctrinal ramifications of it. Likewise, we must become familiar with the scriptural revelation of the nature of God in order to walk the cultist through the biblical proofs for the full deity of Christ.