Imagine the scene. A young Christian is surfing the Internet. He is eager to visit as many Christian websites as possible. His purpose? To be more aware of what the Lord is doing through Christians.
He also wants to discover some helpful resources for learning more about the Bible. Quite early on, he visits The Family of Love’s website. Impressed by their emphasis on doctrine, he downloads the thirteen pages containing the cult’s ‘Essential doctrines’. He is excited and reads them carefully.
There are questions in his mind as he reads. Do they believe in the Trinity? What about Christ’s deity, virgin birth, sinlessness and unique death on the cross? Are they right about sin?
He is reassured and it gets even better when he reads their statement on ‘The Way of Salvation’. John 3:16 is prominent on this web-page: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life’.
And the explanation of this key verse further encourages him: ‘All persons who personally accept God’s pardon for sin through Jesus Christ will be forgiven’. Jesus is the ‘sacrificial lamb who alone can take away our sins’ through his ‘substitutionary sacrifice and death of the Just for the unjust’.
These statements express the heart of the biblical gospel. There is more to encourage this Internet user. He reads that believers are ‘saved for ever’, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and ‘enjoy sweet, intimate personal communion with the Lord’.
But encouragement begins to give way to feelings of unease concerning some of the twenty-eight doctrines detailed on this website.
An imaginary situation? Not really. But why mention it here? There are several reasons for doing so. Firstly, the Internet is an invaluable and rich resource yet it is fraught with dangers. And the reason is simple. The Internet provides access to a wide spectrum of beliefs and morals ranging from ‘porn’, occult, cult and gay propaganda, to useful educational data and edifying Christian material.
Unknowingly, this young Christian had wandered on to a cult website. Surfers need to be cautious. Secondly, this Christian surfer began to realise that in the hands of some people, truth can be mixed with error. Our Christian surfer is to be commended for making a quick exit from The Family website. And what he did next was even better. He got his Bible and checked their teachings by this divine, absolute standard.
What was troubling him? There is space only to mention two of his concerns. Statement 12 entitled ‘Spirits of Departed Saints’ was a major problem to him and rightly so. He read: ‘God on occasions also uses the spirits of departed saints to minister and deliver messages to His people.’ For ‘scriptural evidence’ they misuse three Bible references.
The first is to ‘the appearance of the departed prophet Samuel’s spirit to king Saul’ (1 Samuel 28), a favourite argument of other cults like Spiritism.
Two different answers have been given by Christians in interpreting the incident. Some suggest the séance was faked by the witch, because God alone has power over the dead and he forbids contact between the dead and the living.
God would not have given another revelation, least of all in a way forbidden in the Bible, after having already rejected the king for his disobedience. It is interesting that it was Saul who ordered the witch to contact Samuel.
The woman could have faked it all, describing Samuel (v.14) in the way that she herself remembered the prophet in his lifetime. It is a plausible explanation especially as the text itself makes it clear that Saul did not himself see Samuel.
Only through Scripture
However, the words delivered to Saul are an authentic (though damning) prophesy. An alternative explanation, therefore, is that God did permit Samuel to speak, but not in response to the witch. Rather, God brought it about in order to punish Saul further.
Samuel did not return at the request of the medium but at God’s command in order to declare a final message of doom upon Saul. In other words, this is strictly an isolated incident. God’s revealed will forbids, and condemns, any contact with spirits or the dead (see, e.g. Deuteronomy 18:10-11; Isaiah 8:19-20).
Contrary to what The Family claims, God does not ‘minister … to his people’ through those who have died. It is only through the Bible that he speaks to us.
Moses and Elijah
What about ‘the departed prophets, Moses and Elijah, appearing and conferring with Jesus’? Does this support their claim? Again the answer is ‘no’.
The transfiguration of Jesus Christ was a unique moment in salvation history. It prepared the Lord Jesus to face his approaching suffering and death and also strengthened the faith of Peter, James and John (Matthew 17:1-8), deepening their awareness of Christ’s glory.
That ‘Moses and Elijah appeared’ (v.3) there is no dispute. How the disciples were able to recognise them, we do not know. But why should only Moses and Elijah appear? The answer is that these two outstanding Old Testament characters represent, respectively, the Law and the Prophets. In the transfiguration, both pointed to Jesus Christ as God, the One who fulfils the Old Testament and died uniquely for sinners.
Did God use Moses and Elijah (as The Family believe) to ‘deliver messages’ to the disciples? Certainly not. These heavenly visitors did not speak to Peter, James and John at all; they were only ‘talking with him’, that is, Jesus (v.3). Also observe that the disciples did not attempt to speak to Moses and Elijah. When Peter spoke, it was to Jesus only.
Healing from the cross?
A second concern of the young Christian relates to the death of Jesus. Yes, the Lord ‘gave himself as the only ransom for sinners’. That is gloriously true. But, he asks, is it correct that Jesus died to save us not only from sin, but also from disease? Having also heard charismatic friends teaching this idea, just like The Family (Statement 16), he is eager to find out what the Bible says.
When he checks, he realises that Isaiah 53 is an important chapter. The reason? Because verses 4 and 5 from that chapter are used in turn in Matthew 8:17 and 1 Peter 2:24.
In the first reference Matthew writes: ‘that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “He himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses”‘. Matthew here relates Isaiah’s words to the Lord’s healing and exorcising ministry described in verses 1-16 of chapter 8.
Does Isaiah 53:4, therefore, speak of Christ’s healing ministry on earth before referring to his sufferings in the rest of the verse? This is possible. If so, the reference is to just that: the unique ministry of healing carried out by Jesus to authenticate him as the Messiah (Luke 4:18-21; John 14:11). It cannot be pressed further to imply that every Christian has the right to physical healing. Indeed, this would contradict the clear teaching of other Scriptures (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
However, the word ‘sickness’ used by Isaiah may only be a picture to describe sin. 1 Peter 2:24 makes it clear that physical healing is not in view. The context has only the spiritual condition of people in mind, for the words ‘by whose stripes you were healed’ are appended to the statement that believers have ‘died to sins’ and ‘live for righteousness’.
In any case, Isaiah 53:5, which Peter quotes, itself provides the reason for Christ’s sufferings on the cross: ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities’ and: ‘For the transgressions of my people he was stricken’ (Isaiah 53:8). The benefits for us of Christ’s sufferings follow, namely, peace with God and spiritual healing.
Tired but happier, my young Christian friend retired to bed after e-mailing his church pastor to share what he had studied that evening. He is convinced that the cross is about sin, forgiveness, and a right relationship with God. It is not about physical healing. He is right.