Archive for the ‘Christian kitsch’ Category

On Sunday August 28 I preached the third message in a series on 1 Timothy 3:16, on the line ‘Seen by Angels’ (You can read it here). Afterwards, a member of the congregation asked for my opinion on a video that claims to be the performance of a song composed and given by angels, along with the claim that its words are ‘…instruments of divine restoration in the lips of anyone who sings them in faith’. The video has over 1 million views, which wile it sounds a lot, is not quite enough to, as the title claims, ‘shake the entire internet’.

The video can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4oGDGSZx8I

A related video with the musician and others testifying to his experience can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZVj0mstjFg&t=1820s

Is this a genuine experience of an angelic encounter? Should we take it seriously, and as the video invites us, begin to sing this song so we can receive deliverance?

Firstly, we should note that the New Testament teaches us to be cautious about what may at first glance appear to be angelic encounters, warning us that, ‘…even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14), and ‘…even if… an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.’ (Galatians 1:8). We’re warned to not be led astray by someone, ‘…insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. (Colossians 2:18-19). The one verse that suggests the possibility of encountering angels today also suggests that it will be ‘unawares’ (Hebrews 13:2 – reminiscent of Abraham and Sarah’s three visitors in Genesis 18).

In light of this, any experience or testimony (not just of angels, but of anything that seems to be some kind of message or visitation from God) should never be immediately embraced without question, and without first ‘testing the spirits to see whether they are from God (1 John 4:1). We should not just believe something to be true purely if someone tells us it happened to them, especially if they are the only witness. We may want to implicitly trust our brothers and sisters that they are telling us the truth – which is a good thing. However we also need to remember two things that are true of all people: 

  1. All people are capable of telling untruths or of twisting and exaggerating the truth. We all know people (sometimes ourselves) who will lie, or tell a certain version of something in order to benefit themselves. Sometimes their motive may be malicious, or sometimes is may be an expression of some insecurity that causes them to want to be noticed, included or applauded. Even the most godly Christian can be tempted in this area of being careless with the truth, in the weakness of their flesh. 
  2. People are also capable of unwittingly putting a wrong interpretation on an experience, because they have certain presuppositions or beliefs that will colour how they see it. We can at times be sincere in describing our experience, without realising that we ourselves have been at best mistaken, and at worst deceived, about the reality of what we’ve seen or heard. Was my vivid dream a message from God, or was it because I ate too much blue cheese last night? Was God telling me to make a certain decision, or was it because it was simply what my heart desired the most?

The New Testament teaches us to have a healthy caution about experiences in light of the fact that we are all both sinners and imperfect in our ability to discern. So when someone says ‘I was visited by an angel,’ my first response should be to ask myself, ‘On what basis should I believe this claim to be true?’ Their singular testimony alone should not be enough. Other people saying they believe it’s true should not be enough. Even people having some kind of ‘spiritual’ experience in response to hearing their testimony or listening to the song should not be enough. All of those are purely subjective tests, and if I were to use this as my standard I would have to be consistent and endorse the many New Age and eastern mystical experiences people have in ashrams and other cultic settings as being truly from God.

As Christians, the ultimate objective test we must always apply is the testimony of Scripture. By that I don’t mean a verse or two taken out of context that appears on its own to support the claim. Rather, it’s the Scriptures properly and responsibly understood and taught through reading it in the context of the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27), and done by those who have done the hard work of preparing themselves to be, ‘one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.’ (2 Timothy 2:15). Anyone can find a verse or phrase from the Bible to support their preferred view about anything they want, especially when they can search through countless English versions until they find the wording they personally like. Diligent study of the Scriptures, on the other hand, is the best and really only way to be able to discern the truth and interpret our experiences rightly and in a way that glorifies God. Diligent study will show anyone who does it that the singular focus, direction and theme of the scriptures is Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord; and so any study of the Scriptures that leads us to anything or anyone aside from the truth than is in him is a mishandling of the Bible.

With all that said, there are a number of reasons why I cannot accept this video, the song, or the testimony of its composer as a genuine angelic revelation.

1. Who are they?

The first thing we should ask when presented with testimonies like this is, ‘Who is this person? Are they a member of a church, and if so what is that church?’

If they’re a lone ranger with no accountability or respect for God’s church, then they are immediately discredited, as they are rejecting the wholesale teaching of the Scriptures that all Christians are members of the body of Christ, and are called to function in a way that is ‘discerning the body’ (1 Corinthians 11:29). In this case, the man’s experience is in the context of a local church, so at least he has that accountability.

However, what church is he a member of?

SCOAN Thessalonica is a branch of the Nigerian megachurch founded and led until recently by ‘Prophet’ T. B. Joshua. The Synagogue Church Of All Nations is an independent pentecostal church that has grown as part of the wave of the African version of the ‘Word of Faith’ and ‘Prosperity Gospel’ movements. It’s a church that has brought great harm to the cause of the Gospel in Africa through its emphasis on guaranteed healing, demonic deliverance, use of ‘anointing water’, and a focus on Joshua as the ‘Man of God.’ Ironically, despite his teaching on healing, Joshua died in 2021 from a stroke at age 57. While he didn’t teach that his followers could become rich, he himself was reportedly worth upwards of $10 million US, and was one of the wealthiest pastors in Nigeria. Joshua’s techniques were remarkably similar to those of African witchdoctors, with a message that used fear (of spiritual powers, and of God’s judgement) to lead people to follow him and look to him to solve their problems. Revelations have been made of actors being paid to pose as people needing deliverance.

The SCOAN church has many characteristics that would classify it as a cult.

The leader of SCOAN Thessalonica, ‘Wiseman Harry’ was a disciple of T. B. Joshua for ten years before planting this church in Greece. HIs ministry is modelled on Joshua, with the same focus on himself as an authoritative, anointed prophet. (All of the videos produced by the church share the hashtag #manofgodharry). Like Joshua, his preaching is not about the Gospel of grace, but one of fear and works, with Jesus hardly getting a mention. (For example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tz8Aci1wxSU). All of this immediately calls into question the credibility of anything that comes out of this ‘church.’

2. Why should I believe them?

Secondly, the man gives a testimony of a dream he had with a boy, an angel and Jesus. Apparently the angel gave him a song with all the musical accompaniment to go with it. When he woke up he had to translate the words and music so it could be sung in church. The question is, why should I believe him? How do I know he is telling the truth about the details of his dream? And if he is accurately recounting what he saw in his dream, how can I know it was from God and was actually a real angel? The only thing I have to go on is his word. This was his own individual experience. No-one else saw what he saw, to corroborate his testimony (Biblically, there must be two or more witnesses to verify someone’s testimony.)

It’s no miracle that this man could arrange a song – he is a professional musician after all. And this ‘angelic’ song sounds suspiciously similar in style to other songs he has written, and at least to me has a particularly ‘Greek’ feel about it. Strangely, the copyright for the song is listed as ‘Angel of God’, but it seems the angel gave him permission to sell the song on Apple Music for $1.69 per download. So how do I know that it wasn’t just his own musical ruinations that led to a dream and a new idea for a song? Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. And that’s the point. I have no objective or scriptural reason to say this song is definitely one that angels have given to him. So I shouldn’t say it is.

3. Does it line up with Scripture?

Thirdly, the content of the song, while not necessarily heretical, is not the kind of song that the Scriptures would lead me to expect angels to sing. It sounds more like a song I would expect SCOAN church members to sing. 

While it at least acknowledges the Trinity, it contains a strange line about the Holy Spirit: ‘Glory to the Holy Spirit will rise’ This line coincidentally reflects the big emphasis in the SCOAN statement of faith on the Holy Spirit (The opening statement mentions the Holy Spirit first before anything else). This immediately makes me suspicious, when in a dream or vision of heaven the message given seems to confirm a church’s peculiar theological emphasis.

If we read the Scriptures, we see a rather different emphasis. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit, ‘…will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ (John 16:13-14, see also 7:39). Some may say this is splitting hairs, but I don’t think so. The Holy Spirit’s work in the world is to glorify Jesus, not himself. Biblically speaking, ‘glory to Jesus the Son will rise,’ especially on the final day when every knee bows to him and declares him to be Lord, to the glory finally not of the Holy Spirit, but of the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11). Possibly T. B. Joshua believed he was correcting what he saw to be an underemphasis by the church on the power of the Spirit, as do many Pentecostals. But in fact, the New Testament itself, inspired by the same Spirit, puts the main focus on Jesus, not the Spirit.

The song also makes no mention of Christ’s redemptive work. This too is strange if it was an angelic song. We’re told that angels long to look into the things concerning the suffering and resurrection of Christ (1 Peter 1:11-12) and that Jesus was ‘seen by angels’ (1 Timothy 3:16), with them appearing at his conception, birth, temptation, suffering, resurrection and ascension. In Revelation 5, John sees a vision of the heavenly throne room in which the worship is led not by angels, but by the twenty four Elders, representing redeemed humanity, who sing of the slain lamb who ransomed them by his blood (Revelation 5:9). The myriads of angels respond to the Elders’ worship, not the other way around. They sing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12).

4. Does it honour Scripture?

Fourthly, this song, it’s claimed, has a special anointing, in which every word contain angelic power to minister ‘deliverance’ and ‘divine restoration’ to ‘anyone who sings them in faith.’ This is the most dangerous thing about this kind of claim: attributing power to the words of an angelic song that makes them equivalent to God’s word. This again reflects the theology of the SCOAN church and the ‘Word of Faith’ teaching they embrace, in which words are endowed with a spiritual creative power, and in which we can ‘release’ that power simply by speaking them. This teaching originates from the 19th century metaphysical ‘New Thought’ movements, and was imported into Pentecostal churches from the early 20th century.

The Bible nowhere teaches the idea that words have intrinsic spiritual power, in the way that this teaching says. It’s a view that is more akin to witchcraft with its spells and incantations.

If the song simply reflects or repeats Scripture (which some may argue it does), why then do we need it? Shouldn’t we just speak the words of Scripture and expect them to have the same effect? If it’s claimed the words are scriptural, but that it has unique power, then it’s actually being set above Scripture and given more authority, as if simply reading or singing the words of Scripture is not enough. 

And of course, if it is a new revelation in addition to Scripture, then it should be rejected, as that would mean Scripture is not enough, and needs to be supplemented (and for some reason God has waited for nearly 2000 years to add this ‘update’).

5. Is the claimed evidence purely subjective and experiential – or objective and Scriptural?

Finally, some will point to the emotional and physical experiences some people are having as they hear the song: tears, shaking, falling down, convulsions that look like demonic deliverance. Others testify to their own subjective feelings of release. A woman and a man claim to have seen angels appear above the musicians when the song is first performed. The video has over 3000 comments, mostly positive, and as I said above, over 1 million views. But does that prove anything?

This is a church where these kinds of manifestations are both expected and taught as true manifestations of the Spirit, even though there is no Biblical basis for them. The same phenomena can be witnessed in Hindu ashrams and other cult-like settings. The evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in a person is not physical manifestations like this, but an increasing maturity in Christ, a love for His word, and the Fruit of the Spirit being displayed – fruit that includes self control (Galatians 5:22-23). Falling over, shaking, rolling around does not prove anything about the Holy Spirit. His fruit can only be recognised and tested over time, as the he patiently shapes us over our whole Christian life into the image of Jesus.

Even if there are real miracles happening here, that also doesn’t prove the presence of the Spirit. Jesus said that there will be ‘…many [who] will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:22-23)

Experience is never an infallible test of authenticity. The only infallible test is God’s infallible Word. If your experience contradicts the Word, it’s not the work of the Spirit. If it seems to match with something the Word, but isn’t in conjunction with the truth of the Gospel, it’s not the work of the Spirit. If it’s something that’s neither taught nor forbidden by the Word, it may not be wrong, but it is wrong to declare it to be the work of the Spirit, unless it has produced long term fruit in keeping with a scriptural understanding of the Spirit’s work.

Similarly, thousands of people commenting and simply saying in effect, ‘I believe this is true’, and other people’s personal claims of visions don’t verify anything. Maybe if the whole church saw something, and it was recorded on video (since they seem to video everything that happens) there would be cause to consider that something was really happening, and it wasn’t just the power of suggestion and people coming already wanting to have an experience – or worse, a deception by the devil who has come, as we’re told he does, disguised as an angel of light.

It strikes me each year how unrealistic and fanciful the world’s celebration of Christmas is. Santa, pageants, lollies and gifts, truncated carols and feel-good songs played over shopping centre speakers, tinsel, fake snow and candy canes; talk of ‘peace on earth,’ ‘Rediscovering the True Spirit of Christmas‘ and ‘do they know it’s Christmas?’ For a few days everyone living in a delusion that somehow, if we all try a little harder, we will be able to fix this world.

Sounds like pie-in-the-sky to me. Far more fanciful than the thought that the Creator of the Universe has entered the world as one of us, to bring the ultimate solution to human pain and evil.

Here’s some things that happened at the first Christmas:

  1. A family in a small village (where everyone knows everyone) faced a scandal when it is discovered that the bride-to-be is already pregnant. Potentially, she faces the death penalty for committing adultery.

  2. The father is ‘comforted’ by an angel who assures him that this child will bring about the time of judgement predicted by the prophets.

  3. This couple is forced by the oppressive regime to travel up to 200km through treacherous terrain while she is heavily pregnant, just so they can conduct a census.

  4. The woman gives birth in unhygienic conditions surrounded by animals, with nothing but an animal feeding trough to put her son in.

  5. The mother is told by a prophet that her child will be the cause of opposition and division, and that she will ultimately grieve because of him.

  6. The young family are forced to flee their home country as their despotic ‘King’ orders the brutal slaughter of all boys 2 years and under in the region.

  7. They are forced to live as refugees in a country that, historically, enslaved their people, and to which they were commanded never to return.

So, it seems that Christmas is not actually all about warm fuzzies and feel-good happy times, kidding ourselves that in the end, we’re all going to be OK (especially us here in the affluent, comfortable West). Rather, it is about God coming right into the horrible human situation, sympathising with our weakness, sharing in our suffering, and bearing our sin and evil.

The real Christmas forces us to face the damning verdict that we are children of wrath, with no hope and without God in this world, and unless our God comes to rescue us, all is lost; but also with the liberating Gospel message that He has.

Merry Christmas

If I say that I need to forgive myself, I undermine the forgiveness of God, and hence I portray the cross as a means to self-help, rather than the radical rescue that it is.

The danger of forgiving yourself | Rick Thomas.

The world tells us that a successful program is big and bright and noisy. We buy into it, and think that God’s not working unless our meetings are big, the singing is loud, and people leave talking about the ‘experience’. That’s called a ‘Theology of glory’. It’s what Paul was fighting against in the churches that had been taken over by the ‘Super Apostles’.

However, a ‘Theology of the Cross’ says that we know God is at work when people begin to reflect the character of Christ. Humilty, patience, gentleness, self sacrifice, ‘He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street…’ (Is. 42:2).

So I think that what Tim Keller says here is very true, and if we took note of it we might recognise the revivals taking place in our small, humble, quiet churches where people come week-in week-out to hear the proclaimed word, be an encouragement to each other as they wait for the Day of the Lord, and go out humbly to love, serve and share Christ with their neighbours.

“I would imagine myself preaching in Africa and could picture stadiums filled with multitudes or see people healed and raised from the dead. It was like a sanctified day-dream.” Todd Bentley (disgraced ‘evangelist’ who left his wife and married his ministry intern)

“Some Christians are heroes in their daydreams only. The characteristic mark of such heroism is imagining ourselves as faithful on great and public occasions and in rarefied atmospheres when others will be impressed. In stark contrast, true faithfulness in Scripture is first exercised in small things and in private. If we fail there, any faithfulness we show in public will be hypocrisy, a performance for the crowd and not an expression of loyalty to our Lord.” Sinclair Ferguson

Have Archaeologists Found a Piece of Jesus’ Cross? – The Gospel Coalition Blog.

Christianity is not a relic religion.

‘He [God] is not the God of the dead, but of the living.’

A recent heartwarming but apocryphal story was recently circulated via social media: the story of Pastor Jeremiah Steepek and his first day in a new, 10 000 member church disguised as a homeless man. The story can be read here, on a website by someone who possibly doesn’t realise it’s a fake. The short version is that Jeremiah tuns up for his first day as new pastor dressed as a homeless man, and is largely ignored by most of the congregation.  Early in the service his appointment was announced, and he came to the platform, revealed his identity, read from Matthew 25:31-46 (the ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats), berated the congregation and then closed the service.

On my first reading of this story there were a few things that didn’t have the ring of truth – why did the Elders announce him if they didn’t even know if he has shown up? Why would he think it appropriate to close the service only minutes after it had started? And what church is this? If the story reveals the pastor’s name, why not the name of the church, and why when googling his name do only hoax-busting websites come up?

Some were quick to respond to the expose by saying, ‘Well, who cares if it’s true or not, it’s still a great, challenging story!’ Other have also pointed to a true account of Willie Lyle who lived for 5 days on the streets among the homeless before starting in his new church, and posed as a homeless man on the church lawn on his first Sunday. Quite possibly the story of Steepek is an altered version of this.

I admire Lyle for his willingness to obey what he believed to be a dream from God, and for his compassion towards the homeless. I agree also that much of our western, middle class prosperous church needs to be called out of the idolatry of our worship of mammon. However these stories raise some other important questions, firstly about the core mission of the church, and secondly about responsible use and interpretation of Scripture.

What is the mission of the church?

Both stories seem to convey the idea that unless Christians are out helping the poor and needy, they are not truly living the Gospel. Willie Lyle essentially set this agenda for the future of his church in his inaugural sermon. “Our goal should be to improve and change the lives of people as we live like Jesus.” he says. This is a common mantra among both liberal and some ‘evangelical’ churches today – as if our mission is to make this world a better place to live. Ironically, this sentiment is akin to prosperity teaching, as it sees people’s most important needs as physical and financial.

Social Justice and caring for those less fortunate should be a fruit of a life transformed by the Gospel, but it is not the core mission of the church. The Gospel is the announcement of the crucified, risen and reigning Jesus, and is coupled with the call to repent; it’s not a way of living, a challenge to serve, or advice on how to improve ours and others’ lives. The core mission of the church is to proclaim the glory of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God established in Him. And you know, what will happen as a result of that is not just people entering the kingdom, but God’s people expressing their love for God by loving their neighbour, without their church even telling them they have to or needing to put guilt trips on them!

What is Matthew 25:31-46 saying?

This passage is often quoted in the context of motivating Christians to make a difference in the world by helping the poor, sick and imprisoned. But is this actually the point of Jesus’ words?

This quite a judgemental passage. Jesus curses people people and casts them out into “the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” And who are those who are cast out? Those who haven’t been involved in helping the needy. Now think for a moment. If Jesus is directing this to Christians, his Church, what is he saying? That despite the atonement and the promise of free grace and forgiveness, Christians will ultimately only be saved if they do good deeds? That a Christian will still end up in Hell if they don’t feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners? What happened to salvation by grace through faith?

It’s not actually Christians that Jesus is speaking of here. In this account (which isn’t really a parable) the Christians are actually those who are sick, naked, hungry and imprisoned. How do I know that? Because Jesus calls them ‘my brothers’ (vs. 40). Jesus only uses this term for those who are his disciples, those who have believed in him. “Who are my mother and my brothers? …whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 4:33). In the first century (and still today) Christians were persecuted, ostracised and disadvantaged at the hand of both Jews and Romans. God repeatedly (especially in the book of Revelation) promises justice for His people when they are persecuted for righteousness sake and for the Gospel. That is what this is: God’s judgement on those who have shown disdain for Him by mistreating His people. Significantly chapter 25 comes immediately after chapter 24 in which Jesus promises his disciples that they will face fierce opposition in the time leading up to the destruction of the Temple and beyond, even up to the time of His second coming. This passage then gives assurance that justice will be done, and that evil men will not be overlooked in the judgement.

So rather than a challenge for Christians to make helping the needy their core mission, it is both a comfort for persecuted Christians, and a call to the world to repent and be reconciled to this Son of Man before whom they will one day stand.

Cred to Willie Lyle. But please Willie, make Jesus the centre of your sermons, not our good deeds. That is really the only way your church will be built up and make a difference in your town with anything of eternal value.