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"But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander." ~ 1 Peter 3:15-16

Review: The Message of the Cross (by Jaerock Lee)

“The Message of the Cross is a powerful and touching message that has awakened countless souls around the world from their spiritual slumber and given them the taste of a true life in Christ! Creation or evolution? How was man created from the dust? Why did God place the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden? Why did He allow Adam and Eve to sin? Why is Jesus our only Savior? Why did the "God of love" have to prepare hell? In The Message of the Cross you will find spiritually satisfying answers to fundamentally important questions for all Christians who had never been given thorough and accurate explanations.” – Amazon

Introduction

The Message of the Cross” is authored by Jaerock Lee, founding and senior pastor of the Manmin Central Church in South Korea. MCC is one of the largest churches in South Korea, and claims to have 120,000 members throughout the world in 9,000 member churches. The book has been published in many languages including English and Chinese. It is an easy read because of its verbatim style, which should take less than half a day to complete.

Based on the outline of the book, it attempts to refute evolution and introduce God, the origin of sin and Jesus who is the way to salvation. It aims to be a concise introduction or foundation to the christian faith for its readers. There are many good analogies and illustrations used in the book that are culturally relevant to the modern world, as you would hear in an engaging sermon.

However, Jaerock Lee is not without controversy in his homeland, South Korea. The last section of the book did briefly mention about his series of trials from accusation of heresy. Since doctrinal fault lines could be one of the most serious forms of fault lines given that beliefs systems are often deeply held, I can empathize with the experience that one has to go through for being labelled as a heretic. Regardless of the controversy, we should approach each book and the ideas in it, on their own merits objectively.

Random Thoughts

When reading the book, it provoked me to think deeper about the broad issues that came to mind as I read. And I have attempted to discuss a few key random thoughts arising from my reading below. However, the quality of the English translation is a concern, as I would have to re-read some parts of the book. Hence, I am not dogmatic over whether the choice of words represents the author’s understanding. If it is a matter of the quality of translation, the publisher should review it.

(1) Interpretation of the Word

On page 234, the book suggests that we should not interpret God’s Word literally, but spiritually by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I agree wholeheartedly that we should approach the Scripture under the illumination of the Holy Spirit. This does not necessarily mean that we have to pray every time before we read the Scripture. More importantly, we should trust the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth and reveal more of the Lord to us, not just in the Scripture but also in everyday living and things happening around us.

However, I think there is a common misunderstanding between a literal interpretation and a literal application. For example, when Jesus taught to gouge out the right eye and cut off the right hand in Matthew 5:29-30, He literally meant the right eye and not the left eye, right leg nor kidney. To be sure, He did not intend for us to apply it literally since a blind man could potentially still sin. Therefore, while we should interpret the Scripture under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we should also interpret the Scripture literally besides spiritualizing the significance of some passages. An example of spiritualizing the Scripture would be typology, a Christological interpretative framework with an emphasis on the Lord and therefore minimize the risks of eisegesis.

Interestingly, on page 182, the book attempts to reconcile the apparent discrepancy between the Synoptic Gospels over the account of the two criminals crucified on the left and right sides of Jesus. In Matthew 27:44 and Mark 15:32, both criminals heaped insults on Jesus, but in Luke 23:40-43, one of the criminals rebuked the other and asked Jesus to remember him. The book suggests that it is more likely that the environment was rowdy and only people standing close enough to Jesus could hear the conversation. Since the criminal rebuked the other criminal, probably with a bad facial expression, those standing far away might have easily thought that the repenting criminal was rebuking Jesus in the middle. Hence, the apparent discrepancy.

Granted that this is indeed an interesting theory, it nevertheless has an inherent weakness to the approach of interpreting the Scripture. To be exact, the theory calls the accuracy and reliability of the Scripture into question, because if the biblical authors had wrongly documented an incident because of their perception, we would have absolutely no clue as to whether there are other such errors, especially for passages without parallel accounts. This boils down to our view of the Scripture and its inspiration. An alternative theory is that both criminals did heap insults on Jesus, but one changed his mind eventually.

(2) Trinity

On page 34, the book says that at some point, God divided into the Trinity. If the translation did justice and is faithful to the original meaning, this is certainly not a biblical understanding of Trinity because at no point did God divided Himself into Trinity but has always existed eternally as the Trinity. If this is indeed a harmless speculation, it should be qualified as such and should not be projected as the underlying reality. I say this because the understanding of Church is extended from the understanding of Trinity, but we shall reserve it for other times.

(3) Garden of Eden

On page 73-76, the book suggests that Adam had produced many children in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, in order to account for the many fossils that dated several hundred thousand years ago. This is in part because the book assumes that the history of human race is 6,000 years but only starting from the Fall. The book also says that men then could communicate with all living creatures including, beasts, birds, flowers and trees.

Reading that men could communicate with living creatures brought me smile at the start of this new year, as C. S. Lewis’s "Chronicle of Narnia" came to mind. However, I noted that the book goes a step further to include the flowers and trees, which brought J. R. R. Tolkien’s "The Lord of the Rings" to mind as well. Obviously, this is mere speculation as the Scripture is silent on whether other creatures had spoken in intelligible language.

While I appreciate the book’s intention to refute evolution and uphold the existence of God, and His Creation, I think the author may not have understood that the dating methods of fossils is itself questionable and may not be as old as what the evolutionists would like them to be. Therefore, there is no need to impose a gap between the Garden of Eden and the Fall, in order to accommodate the fossil claims by evolutionists. And if indeed there is a gap between the Garden of Eden and the Fall to account for the dates of the fossils, the logical conclusion would be that death existed before the Fall. However, this is clearly not biblical because death entered into the world not before but because of the Fall. Interested readers on the topic of creationism could further explore Creation Ministries International and Answers in Genesis.

With reference to Revelation 5, the book also suggests on page 104 that “the scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals” indicates a contract that had been made between God and the devil when Adam disobeyed God and became a sinner. While I can appreciate the spiritual warfare type of interpretation that is prevalent in charismatic churches, I am not entirely sold that the portrayal of God striking a deal with Satan in the form of a contract sits well with the Scripture. After all, a strong government does not negotiate with terrorists.

(4) Name of Jesus

On page 127-128, the book says that there is a great difference of power between “Jesus” and “Jesus Christ”. It is explained that ”Jesus” is the name before the cross and the devil is not afraid of this name as much as “Jesus Christ” which would imply the redeeming blood, resurrection from death and eternal life. It is before this name (ie “Jesus Christ”) that Satan trembles in fear.

I am pretty sure there will be difference in orthopraxy on the ground (eg exorcism) if we perceived the above to be true. However, “Jesus” or “Yeshua” which means salvation is the name, while “Christ” which means the Messiah is not the surname but used as a honorific title. So technically speaking, “Jesus Christ” is not the first and last name. In fact, in Philippians 2:10, every knee should bow at the name of “Jesus”. It is about understanding who Jesus is, the one from Nazareth and was crucified, died, resurrected and ascended, and is the one who is able to deliver us, that is more important. It is not important whether you refer to Him as “Jesus”, “Jesus Christ”, “Yeshua” and in what mother tongue. It is about understanding who He is and our faith in the Son of God that is more critical.

For more information on the name of Jesus, which was a common name during the New Testament time, you may like to explore “Call His Name Yeshua” by First Fruits of Zion

(5) Financial Blessings and Healings

Let me state categorically that I believe that God can choose to bless us financially or heal us physically on this side of earth. But I also believe that the same God can choose to withhold financial blessings and physical healings, so that greater glory can be accomplished through the path of suffering, cross bearing and dying to self. There can be abundant life and victory as we overcome in the midst of “suffering”. And even for those who are blessed financially or healed physically, they would still have to face physical death anyway and are unable to bring any earthly wealth along with them.

The book says, on page 141-142, that poverty is a curse manifested after the Fall. I agree that today’s poverty is a result of sins after the Fall, made worse by greed of people and the economic structures the people in poverty are in. The book goes on to say that because Jesus lived in poverty to redeem us from poverty, we can lead an abundant life. Depends on how one defines poverty, many of us would not fall under today’s definition of poverty, and are not in poverty by any standard. The matter at heart is whether we are contended with what we already have. There is nothing wrong to want to improve your living condition through financial gains to be reassuring, but the crux is not to chase after riches of the world but Christ instead. It is also a reasonable question whether Joseph’s family could be considered in poverty since carpentry appears to be a trade in demand at that time.

And on page 145-147, the book says that the Bible tells you that diseases come upon you because of your sins. Hence, if we discard our sins and do what is right is the sight of God, no disease will come upon us, because God protects us from them. As mentioned earlier, God is able to heal us physically or protect us from diseases, but He can also choose to allow it, according to His wisdom. In John 9:1-3, Jesus explained that it is not because of the sins of the man or his parents that he was born blind, but so that the works of God might be displayed in him. Hence, it is not necessary that diseases come upon us because of sins, though our sins can court diseases. The insistence that diseases is only because of sins, is one of the charismatic excesses. It can be subjected to abuses when healing does not take place after one is being prayed for.

If you are among those who believe or want to believe in supernatural miracles but are lost in the charismatic waves and practices, “Post Charismatic” by Rob McAlpine will probably interest you.

(6) Salvation and Works

Perhaps the biggest gripe I have regarding the book pertains to the relationship between faith and works. On page 214-215, the book says that if we read the Bible carefully, we will find that some people who claim to believe in God are not saved (referring to the parable of ten virgins). So even if people may claim to have faith, not everyone may be saved as indicated clearly in the Bible. Hence, we would then know the kind of life we have to live in order to be saved (my emphasis). It is phrases like this that makes me wonder whether the quality of translation is questionable.

The biblical and protestant understanding of salvation by faith does not throw out good works or fruit of Spirit, but insists that such works or fruits are the necessary result and evidence of faith. In short, you don’t do good works or bear fruits in order to be saved. Rather, you do good works and bear fruits because you are saved. To say that we have to live a certain kind of live in order to be saved, is mixing faith and works together as Catholicism does. While I can appreciate the exhortations to produce fruits and works, it is extremely important to distinguish between between faith and works and their relationship, because of its downstream impact in christian living. For example, can we say for certain whether our good deeds are motivated by love or self-interest?

Such mixing of faith and works can be further seen on page 228, where the book says that salvation can be lost. To illustrate, the Holy Spirit fades in the hearts of those who commit sins deliberately, and these people will lose their faith and do evil under the influence of the devil. Eventually, the Holy Spirit will completely disappear, and they cannot be saved because they cannot repent and their names will be erased from the Book of Life. Alternatively, if we view such persons through the lens of faith alone, one would have to question whether such persons were genuine believers to begin with.

A good place to start with, regarding the genuine and false conversion, would be Ray Comfort’s “Hell’s Best Kept Secret” and “True and False Conversion”.

Concluding Remarks

As mentioned earlier, “The Message of the Cross” by Jaerock Lee provided me a chance to reflect on the various topics regarding the christian faith, and it’s a good personal reflection for starting this new year. Since the book will probably be translated into many more languages in time to come, I hope the publisher will give more focus on the translation works.

This late review is based on the free copy graciously given by Joseph Park from the Manmin Central Church some years back, and I am ashamed to honour that commitment only now.

A copy of this blog post can be downloaded here.

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