The Gospel of Bert
||The Gospel of Bert
"And so it came to pass in those days that Jesus withdrew from the crowd and whispered softly so that only those nearest him could hear, 'Amen, amen, I say unto you. I am the Door that remains closed. Knock and it may or may not be opened. I am the gate hidden from view. I am the Light that remains invisible. Blessed are those fortunate ones who happen to randomly stumble upon my words of eternal life'".
Don’t recognize this biblical verse? That’s because it doesn’t exist, yet Bert would have you believe it could in his article The Christian Church: Why weren't they more open?. This Pillar of Truth article is my examination of his peculiar attempt to rationalize from scripture the secretive tendencies of the Friends & Workers Fellowship.
When asked by outsiders what church we attended, the answer I heard repeatedly as a child was the casual dismissal, "Oh, it’s non-denominational". That was it. No elaboration was offered and the subject was closed. The Friends & Workers Fellowship claims no organization, no written doctrine, and no name. They meet in private homes that otherwise could not be identified by even an interested seeker as a place of worship. Bert's article begins with the following quotations:
"I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. " Matthew 11:12
It should first be noted that the quote from Matthew is actually verse 25, not verse 12. More important, however, is the fact that Mt 12:25 pertains to unbelief and the necessity of receiving the revelation of Christ as the Messiah. When you review the surrounding context it is easy to see what Jesus really meant. He spoke to entire towns (Mt 11:7) and reproached the people who had witnessed his deeds but still hadn’t repented and received him (Mt 11:20). In fact, this is where Jesus famously said, "whoever has ears ought to hear" (Mt 11:15).
"... the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them." 2 Corinthians 4:4
This chapter in Matthew's gospel begins with Jesus preaching and teaching in the towns – an endeavor that was so successful that news even reached John the Baptist in prison (Mt 11:2). Since I’m pretty sure John the Baptist didn’t have cable television news or internet access, Jesus’ activities obviously were so effective and popular that even people in jail had heard of him. The chapter ends with Jesus saying "no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him" (Mt 11:27). Clearly, our Lord’s words related to understanding who he was, not a justification for clandestine gospel meeting operations.
The same explanation works for Bert’s second bible quote. Far from being hidden, Paul has made an "open declaration of the truth we commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God". This statement by Paul comes just two verses before Bert's quote. Furthermore, two verses after Bert’s quote Paul says "Let light shine out of darkness" (2 Cor 4:6). Everyone knows what happens in a darkened room - even the smallest flame will become exceptionally noticeable. In other words, what do we do when we want to hide in a room? We turn out the light, we don’t light a candle. This same concept applies to Paul’s preaching the light of the gospel in the darkness of the disbelieving world. And, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul certainly didn’t shrink from the attention that followed.
Following Bert’s two initial quotes comes his most incredible statement of the entire article:
Jesus began his ministry as a famous man, but by the time of his last ascent to Jerusalem he was largely unknown. Jerusalem was moved to ask “Who is this?” Jesus wept for the city, saying, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes." (NIV Luke 19:42)
“Largely unknown”? Are you kidding me?
This is completely false. Jesus was Jewish boy from Nazareth who "grew and became strong, filled with wisdom" (Lk 2:40) under the loving and wondering eye of his mother Mary. After being found at age twelve in the temple he "advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man" (Lk 2:52). After his baptism he went "around all of Galilee" (Mt 4:23) preaching and teaching. His fame spread to "all of Syria" (Mt 4:24) and "great crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan followed him" (Mt 4:25). He gave the legendary Sermon on the Mount, spoke parables in public, and performed miracles in front of large crowds. In fact, there were times when the crowds were so large that people couldn’t get near him (Mk 2:4). By the time His earthly ministry was finished he had been put on very public trial by the Roman governor of Judea himself.
Remember, immediately upon entry to Jerusalem Jesus went to the temple and, in a conspicuous display of his authority, drove out those who were selling things there. This is not the action of a man who wanted to remain underground. No, the better explanation is that Jesus wept for those in Jerusalem who rejected him as the Prince of Peace. He knew that by rejecting him Jerusalem would instead find devastation (perhaps even a reference to the destruction the Jews witnessed at the hands of the Romans in AD 70 during the First Revolt). Bert continues:
Jesus did many things in public. His miracles, such as his healings and the "feeding of the five thousand," helped spread his fame throughout Israel and the Middle East.
So, which is it? He did many things in public and his fame spread throughout Israel and the Middle East? How in the world, then, was Jesus "largely unknown" by the time of his triumphant entry into Jerusalem? On the contrary, by this time the people knew him so well that they lay down their garments and waved palm fronds in front of him in the traditional Jewish symbol for triumph and victory (Lev 23:40, Rev 7:9). They were also singing Psalm 118 together: "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father, David" – that’s bound to attract attention, don’t you think? Bert continues:
But often Jesus removed himself from the people, refused to give any sign and asked those he healed to tell no-one. In his resurrection Jesus appeared only to his own people.
After Christ's resurrection the responsibility of spreading the gospel was delegated to the Apostles. His earthly ministry was over – it was now their job, and to do their job they needed even more preparation. Indeed, he spent over a month with them, "speaking about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3), and it is clear from scripture how the apostles were transformed by Christ and the Holy Spirit from confused and fearful followers into bold preachers of the gospel. Although by Bert’s logic the Apostles/disciples would "appear only to His own people" – we know that is completely untrue. At Pentecost Peter spoke to a crowd consisting of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs. The response? About three thousand persons were added in a single day (Acts 2:41). In fact, as the Apostles preached, "every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved." (Acts 2:47). Bert continues:
Jesus' own brothers and sisters urged him to reveal himself, saying, "No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world." Even Jesus' own disciples struggled with this: Judas (not Iscariot) asked "But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?" (John 7:4 and 14:22 NIV). Bible commentators have long puzzled over what they see as the inconsistency of these stories - Jesus is seen as simultaneously bringing the Gospel, and hiding it.
Bible commentators have offered several possible explanations for what has become called the Messianic Secret. A historical explanation is that Jesus wanted to avoid being associated with a military or political Messiah. There was a lot of confusion initially with regard to Jesus’ identity. Some thought that the Son of Man was "John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets" (Mt 16:14). It took a revelation straight from God for Peter to be able to recognize him for he was – the messiah, the Son of the living God. Eventually, some came to believe Jesus was indeed the messiah, but in the traditional Jewish sense of the anointed King who will hold dominion over all nations and restore peace. Even those who didn’t see him as the triumphant Jewish king had trouble understanding Jesus’ future suffering and death (Mk 8:31).
Another possibility is a social explanation: Because of his message of humility Jesus wanted to avoid creating envy by declaring himself Messiah. This explanation is explored here.
A prominent theological explanation was that Jesus "time" had not yet come – his time of passion, death and resurrection. This explanation was made popular by the Lutheran theologian Wrede
You can see that many explanations have been offered, but none of them support Bert’s idea that Jesus and the apostles wanted to keep a low profile. We need only to look to Luke’s account of the activities of the apostles to see how forthrightly and courageously they proclaimed the gospel to all who would listen. Just as Jesus’ fame spread throughout the land (Mk 1:28), the apostles became quite well known as well. The result? "Many of those who heard the word came to believe and number of men grew to five thousand" (Acts 4:4). They attracted so much attention that they were frequently thrown in jail for disturbing the peace (Acts 4:3, 5:18,12:4). They were beaten and chased out of town. Some enemies even took solemn vows to not rest until they killed them. Stephen was killed for preaching the good news (Acts 7).
Despite all the opposition "the number of disciples continued to grow" (Acts 6:1) and "the word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly" (Acts 6:7). Paul preached the gospel all over Asia Minor and ultimately paid for it with his life. A map with a full list of his missionary journeys can be found here.
Jesus used words like “hid” and “hidden” to describe how the new covenant was removed from the eyes of those who were not moved by the Gospel, nor prepared for commitment. Jesus was underpinning the concept of Revelation, which is to say the Truth is revealed only to those who respond.
Well, before a person can respond to the truth he or she has to be exposed to it. Bert’s explanation destroys his own premise – "hidden" had to do with revelation, not avoiding the presentation of the gospel. He continues:
In like manner the early church conducted itself with discretion: It sought no publicity outside of preaching the gospel; engaged in no official civic duties; had no name and kept no records outside the books of the New Testament.
They got plenty of attention preaching the gospel. They didn’t avoid being recognized for the same reasons you don’t hear about F&W hospitals, clinics, schools or shelters. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “preach the gospel, use words if necessary”. Bert continues:
Historians who documented early church history were only looking at apostates. This is evident in ecumenical council discourses on liturgy, politics, sectarian strife, finances and bureaucracy (ie Council of Nicea.) These issues did not interest the foundation church.
Unfortunately for this theory, these same problems plagued the early Christian churches. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 was called to deal with the question of whether Gentile converts were obliged to observe the Mosaic law completely. In fact, all of Paul’s letters arose out of a specific situation including liturgy, politics, sectarian strife, finances, and bureaucracy.
Regardless, the notion that Jesus favored a surreptitious dissemination of his message of hope for eternal life for all of mankind is ridiculous. On more than one occasion he said, "No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it away in a cellar nor under a basket, but on the lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light." (Lk 11:33, 8:16). Not only did Jesus not hide his light, he called those who responded to his word to also be lights to the world. He also told us that the church would begin like a mustard seed which would grow into a phenomenon of a multitude of believers.
This is in contrast to the almost furtive activities of the F&W Fellowship who meet in unmarked homes, who hold conventions in out-of-the-way rural areas without open invitations, whose workers worry about meeting notes "getting into the wrong hands", who refuse to identify themselves with an actual name, who refuse to codify a coherent statement of beliefs, and who strongly encourage isolation from "worldly" influences like TV, radio, movies, and internet. Although some F&W's inevitably will object to my characterization, Bert's attempt to justify their activities in this article is itself an implicit admission thereof.
Even though there may have been particular times when Jesus preferred what Bert delicately calls "discretion", spreading the gospel requires fearless and flagrant evangelization, not secrecy.
- Clay Randall, November 2009