Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death. (John 8:51)
It was an odd place for a Christian to be. I was alone in my cell on death row, utterly hopeless. The terrible truth had finally registered in my soul that when I took my last breath, I would not wake up in heaven. My seminary education and all my years as a sincere Christian notwithstanding, the objective reality of my life revealed the fact of my spiritual bankruptcy. I was alone and without God in the world.
Mine was not a typical prison cell. The floor was nicely carpeted, the furniture quite comfortable, the kitchen well stocked, and the front door opened onto a balcony with a breathtaking view of Lake Geneva and the Swiss and French Alps. Yes, as you have guessed, my imprisonment was spiritual, not physical, yet no less real. The desperate loneliness I felt was heightened by the fact that my wife had returned to the States with our four young children, because of a death in the family, leaving me alone in our hillside paradise, haunted by the personal effects and smells of my loved ones.
My suddenly solitary existence brought me face to face with the glaring contradictions between my comfortable middle-class life and the radical discipleship of those who first responded to the gospel. It wasn't too hard to keep my mind engaged at work, interesting and challenging as it was. Yet like an itch just out of reach to scratch, the nagging question recurred: How was my time and intellect serving to build up the Kingdom of God any more than the equal efforts of my unbelieving co-workers? After all, I gave the lion's share of my life's energy to my work as computer graphics specialist, but what was its eternal value? Was it only in the tithe I paid to my church?
Every evening I would leave the office and head down to my favorite cafe on the Lausanne waterfront, reluctant to return to my empty house. A glass or two of wine over dinner, topped off with a chocolate and an espresso, and I'd be off for a sunset walk along the lake, considering the emptiness of my life. How was I any different from anyone else strolling along these fashionable streets or working in these high-tech offices and private banks? What difference did it really make that I was a Christian?
As night fell I would drag myself back up the hill to my lonely cottage and pretend not to see my children's toys as I switched on the television. Remote control in hand, I would flip through the channels looking for an interesting movie to pass the time until sleep would carry me into the next day. Inevitably I would hate myself for the pleasure I took in filling my soul with these intensely sensual European films, reeking with vice and immorality. I knew for certain that the One I professed to follow would weep over the condition of humanity revealed in both the making and the watching of such things, yet there it was on prime-time TV, and there I was watching it. Who was I kidding?
The Bible brought me no comfort. Everything my eye fell upon condemned me. Oh, I was very familiar with the well-worn path through the New Testament that seemed to absolve me of any responsibility to actually live a godly life. But somehow I always kept wandering off the beaten path and stumbling upon the uncomfortable verses like:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world -- the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life -- is not of the Father but is of the world. (1 John 2:15-16)
Did I love the world? "No!" I would argue. "I love God!" But what is love? A warm feeling? A noble intention? No, let's be honest. What you love is shown by the direction of your will. It is what you make time for, what you spend your money on, and what you give yourself to when you think no one is watching.1 In the loneliness of that month of solitude, like a foretaste of death itself, I could not escape the simple truth that the love of the Father was not in me. It was not that I did not want to love and serve Him, but the faith and the power was not in me to do it. After fourteen years as a Christian, I did not have even a taste of what was supposed to be mine as a disciple, according to the Apostle Peter:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:2-4)
Were these meant to be just pretty words on a page, or the actual experience of a disciple? I had certainly not escaped the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire, and neither, I might add, had any other Christian that I personally knew. But this was only the prelude to what Peter was really getting to, for after describing the normal progression of bearing the fruit of the Spirit, he ends with an admonition that should send chills down the spine of any sincere Christian who has not been brainwashed by the mantras of cheap grace:
Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-11)
In other words, the only objective basis for having any confidence of being granted entrance into that eternal kingdom is exhibiting such qualities as moral excellence, self-control, godliness, and brotherly love in increasing measure. Yes, I know, we're saved by grace through faith, and that is not of ourselves, but is the gift of God, not by works, lest anyone should boast.2 But what are we saved from, and what are we saved for, and what is the evidence of that salvation? If saved people do not live substantially different lives than unsaved people, how then are they saved? How then are they a light to all those around them?
Somewhere deep within my soul I embraced the unthinkable possibility that I was not really saved and that I had no idea where true salvation could be found. I did not doubt the truth of the Scriptures, nor did I doubt my own sincerity in responding to the gospel as it had been preached to me. But I could no longer deny the obvious fact that it didn't work. There in my lonely house in Lausanne, Switzerland, in late June 1990, in the dark night of my soul, I got down on my face and cried out with everything in me to the God whom I read about in the Bible, that He would show me His salvation. That was the pivotal moment of my life.
A few weeks later, rejoined with my wife and children, we met the Twelve Tribes and began to hear the true gospel from the lips of those who were actually living it out.3 It took a few months for the profound truth of what I was hearing and seeing to penetrate all the protective walls, and the labyrinth of mystical religious concepts, and flood my prison cell with spiritual light. Finally I understood why the gospel I had received did not save me, or anyone else, for that matter: it did not require my death, therefore it could not give me "the Life"4 the Bible promised.
Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For IF we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. (Romans 6:4-7)
I was still a slave to sin, so obviously I had not died. Oh, I had said the "Sinner's Prayer" and I had been baptized in all sincerity by an evangelical Christian minister, and I was even taught that in baptism I was dying to my old life, but there was no practical reality to it. Back then, in the zeal of my new-found Christian faith, my thought life certainly improved, at least for a while, but outwardly I had not been living a wild or immoral life anyway. So the only practical change in my life had been what I did with my spare time -- going to church on Sundays and Wednesday nights, reading the Bible, and "witnessing" whenever I could. Nothing more had been asked or expected of me by those who had preached the gospel to me back then.
But the gospel we heard from these disciples we met was of an entirely different nature. It came from the Gospels, from the very words of Yahshua, the Messiah, which are strangely absent from the typical "Plan of Salvation" found in Christian tracts and sermons. These people believed that Yahshua actually meant what He said about what it would cost to follow Him. For example:
"If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it." (Matthew 16:24-25)
"He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me." (Matthew 10:37)
"If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple." (Luke 14:26)
"So then, no one can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions." (Luke 14:33)
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it." (Matthew 13:44-46)
"One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me." ... Then Peter began to say to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You." So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time -- houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions -- and in the age to come, eternal life." (Mark 10:21,28-30)
Hearing these words from disciples who had actually obeyed them, and seeing the life that resulted from that obedience, where all lived together in love and unity, sharing all things in common, caused faith to dawn in my weary heart. It demystified what the Apostle Paul wrote about dying in the waters of baptism.5 It was no mystery why the 3000 who repented at the preaching of Peter and were baptized on the day of Pentecost gave up everything and lived together in the common life described in Acts 2 and 4:
Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. (Acts 2:44-45)
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And abundant grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
Their dying in baptism was not a mystical thing of the mind. Their old life actually came to an abrupt end, and they were immersed into a brand new life with a brand new family6 in a brand new culture of love. They actually obeyed the gospel, and as a result they received the Holy Spirit and a new and eternal life, both of which are only given to those who obey Yahshua's word.7
"Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life." (John 5:24)
I heard His word, and I believed, and these disciples who had unlocked my prison cell took me down to Lake Geneva where I died in the waters of baptism. My faithful wife also believed and was baptized that chilly night in November, 1990. There we passed from death to life, forsaking everything for the sake of gaining Messiah8 and being found in Him -- in His Body, His people. Having truly died, we were truly born again into a new life in a new family and culture, where we were taught how to walk in the ways of our Master and our heavenly Father.9
Then we began to understand the letters of Paul and the other apostles, for it is only on the foundation of obeying the gospel, which is found in the Gospels, that one can understand the apostles' teachings,10 which are found in the Epistles. The pieces of the puzzle started to come together, and we learned why our former attempts to live a life worthy of the One we professed to follow were merely an exercise in futility. The Apostle Paul put it in a nutshell in the introduction of his first letter to the church in Corinth:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. (1 Corinthians 1:2)
First of all, the word translated church literally means "called-out ones," and the word translated sanctified means "separated from what is common," and the word translated place means "a specific locality," and the word translated saints means "holy ones."11 So Paul was addressing those who were called out of the world and into a specific place where they could become holy, together with all who call upon the same Lord. The true gospel calls people out of the world and into a community in a specific locality where they live together in the midst of the outside world, but sheltered from it by their daily care for one another.12 In that place where they are set apart, each one is purified by the refining fire of their common life as they learn to bear with each other's faults and failures,13 give and receive correction,14 and lay down their lives15 as they do the works prepared for each one to do in order to build up the Body of Messiah in that place.16
There is no possibility that anyone can become holy while living his independent life in the world, immersed in the world's affairs17 all week and going to a religious meeting once or twice a week, as I had learned through painful experience. Such a way of life is completely foreign to what Yahshua and His apostles first established, and cannot produce the fruit of the kingdom.18 That is why the kingdom was taken away from old Israel in the first place, and it will only be given to a spiritual nation of twelve tribes that will bear its fruit. The building blocks of that nation are the set-apart communities full of set-apart disciples who serve their King night and day19 by their set-apart works as they grow together to full stature as that set-apart Bride20 for whom Yahshua, the Messiah, will return.
If you are not in one of those set-apart places where you are truly being purified as you lay down your life daily for your brothers and sisters, serving Messiah where He is, then you are still on death row.
"He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor." (John 12:25-26)