“Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word…” (1 Peter 2:7,8)
Many think it makes no difference what we believe respecting our Lord Jesus Christ or other Bible doctrines; that the important question is: “How do we live?” We yield to no one in the importance of moral living, yet we fully concur with this text and the entire Scriptures when we affirm that a person’s faith, what he believes, has much to do with his conduct in life, and still more to do with his acceptance by the heavenly Father.
The matter of faith and works and which is more important is thoroughly discussed in the Scriptures, which properly give faith the place of primary importance. The Apostle Paul states clearly that we are justified by faith and not by works (Rom. 3:28); that if judgment of the Almighty were according to works none of us could be justified because none of us could possibly do perfect works. “There is none righteous, no, not one:…For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:10,23) The fall has brought imperfection to every member of Adam’s race, affecting each one mentally, morally and physically; so that, as the Apostle again declares, we cannot do the things that we would. (Gal. 5:16,17) If God should mark iniquity against us – should judge us along the line of works – none could stand the judgment or test; all would be condemned again – to the second death.
JUSTICE HAS BEEN SATISFIED
The Scriptures tell us that our Lord Jesus paid the demands of justice for Adam and all his posterity, and that in the present time all who accept Him, become His disciples, shall be judged not according to their works, but according to their faith, according to their hearts, according to their good intentions. Of this class the Apostle declares: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1) That peace with God, that realization of forgiveness of sins and acceptance of Him, cannot come to us on the score of good works, but does come to the believer through faith in the Perfect One who died on our behalf, the “just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Pet. 3:18)
The Apostle James is supposed by many to contradict this declaration of the Apostle Paul when he says: “…show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.” (Jas. 2:18) But he does not say, “I will show you my works without my faith,” or “I am justified without faith.” The thought he would impress upon us is that faith, although it is the important thing and the basis of our justification before God, if not followed by fruits of good works gives evidence that it is dead; just as a tree that fails to put forth leaves, buds, etc. in the springtime gives evidence that it is dead.
While God’s judgment of us is according to our faith and not according to our works, nevertheless He will expect to find in us such works as we are capable of, and will assuredly judge that if there are no works of righteousness, no efforts manifested along the line of opposition to sin, then surely in us the new life, the spirit of the Lord, has ceased. The thought is this: We may have good works, all of them that we could possibly produce; yet at their very most and very best they are imperfect and could never make us approved or justified in God’s sight. But we can have faith in the Lord Jesus and in His sacrifice for the covering of sins, and our impure hearts can desire and aim for the things pleasing to God, and can repudiate entirely everything displeasing to Him. And this new mind, this new will, can assuredly exercise a considerable degree of control over our mortal bodies.
VARIOUS BELIEFS ABOUT CHRIST
In the Apostles’ day the question of belief or disbelief in Christ was a very radical one – in some respects quite different from the same question today. To believe then in the Lord Jesus meant:
(1) The belief that He was the Messiah, the long-promised King of Israel, who was to lift up that nation and use it as the instrument and mouthpiece to make known the divine law to the world, uplifting the world of mankind from sin and degradation to harmony with God, and eventually to eternal life for those who would prove loyal and obedient. (Acts 2:30,36)
(2) It meant also a belief that these blessings from Messiah were postponed because of Israel’s rejection of Him, and because of the divine intention to complete the elect Bride class, the “Royal Priesthood,” with selections of holy ones from all the families of the earth. (Acts 13:46; 15:14)
(3) It meant the belief that when this work of selecting the Church would be accomplished, Messiah would come again in power and great glory to establish among men the Kingdom of righteousness long promised – to fulfill the blessings of the great “Oathbound Covenant.” (Gen. 22:15-18; Acts 3:20,21)
(4) It meant an acceptance of Jesus by all who would be His footstep followers in the Gospel Age and by consecration lay down their lives as joint-sacrificers with Him in the prospect of being associated as joint-heirs with Him in the Kingdom. (Rom. 8:17; 2 Tim. 2:12)
(5) It meant still further an appreciation of why our Lord Jesus died; that it was necessary that He should die, and thus pay the penalty for the sins of the whole world before He could bless either the Church or the world. (1 Pet. 3:18, 1 John 2:2)
Each of these beliefs had opponents. Both Jews and Gentiles rejected the thought that Jesus was a king, and that He would ever exalt Israel and use that people as the instrument in blessing other nations. Both Jews and Gentiles also rejected the thought that faith in His blood was necessary to acceptance with God – that men are by nature sinners, aliens, strangers, foreigners and enemies through wicked works. They could apply such thoughts to some extent to the very degraded, but as for the philosophers and the upper classes, including the Scribes and Pharisees, the thought of their own unworthiness before God was repugnant. Were they not the teachers of the common people, and therefore better certainly than the masses? And what grander blessing could come to the common people than to lift them up to the intelligence, dignity, etc., of these teachers? The Apostle expresses this thought, saying: “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” (1 Cor. 1:23)
REJECTED BY JEWS, DISDAINED BY GREEKS
The Jews, having been under the instruction of the Law Covenant for centuries, had clearer conceptions of sin and of divine justice than had the remainder of the world, even the Greek philosophers. While they recognized sin, especially in its grosser forms (as illustrated by the publicans and sinners), they themselves affected a holiness to God, made long prayers to be heard of men, did their alms in public to be seen of men, and in general gloried in their outward appearance of generosity and righteousness and reverence. They had “a form of godliness” but not its power; they had the outward works but not the inward faith and obedience to principle. (2 Tim. 3:5)
Our Lord explained this, saying “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.” (Matt. 23:25) He intimated most clearly that in God’s sight the judgment would be reversed – that the poor publican, at heart contrite, though outwardly less reverential and holy, was nearer to the Lord than the one who outwardly was holy but inwardly was boastful and recognized not his defects. (Luke 18:11,13)
No wonder the Jewish nation, aside from the remnant gathered out by the ministry of our Lord and the Apostles, stumbled over Christ and His teachings. They stumbled; they fell from divine favor to disfavor and its resulting chastisements. They stumbled over that stumbling stone – Christ, the Savior from sin.
We can see likewise how our Lord Jesus with His message of forgiveness was “to the Greek foolishness.” The Greeks were philosophers who, under the lead of Plato, Socrates and others, had developed certain theories respecting man – theories which very closely correspond to the “evolution” theories of the present time. They held to the natural development of man, and assumed that the intellect of man and his superiority to the lower animals in some manner guaranteed that he could not die; and that when death apparently set in the man was really more alive than ever before – that he had passed to a spirit world where he would have opportunities for progression or evolution according to his obedience to principles of righteousness.
The simple story of Jesus tore their philosophies to shreds: the story of man’s fall; God’s sentence upon him as a sinner; his only hope a resurrection from the dead; and the only hope of a resurrection being through the redemption accomplished by Jesus, who left the glory and honors of a spirit condition with the Father and became a man, that He might pay the penalty which Justice held against mankind – by dying, the just for the unjust.
Thus, as the Apostle declares, our Lord was rejected by the Jews, the religious class, and disdained by the Greeks, the philosophic class. Nevertheless, to those who come into heart relationship with Jesus through faith and obedience, trusting in the precious promises, “Unto you therefore which believe he is precious.” (1 Pet. 2:7) You alone know, understand and appreciate the value of this Messiah and you have this faith because you neither trust in your own self-righteousness or in your own schemes, theories and philosophies.
A STONE OF STUMBLING, A ROCK OF OFFENSE
The Apostle, as well as the Prophets, referred to the Lord Jesus as “a stone of stumbling,” and all the indications are that the vast majority of those who come into contact with our Lord and His teachings stumble over them. As Peter states the matter, they “…stumble at the word, being disobedient; whereunto also they were appointed [as they were destined to do].” (1 Pet. 2:8)
The statement that those who stumbled were “appointed” or predestinated to stumble must seem harsh to those who have misunderstood the divine plan, and who suppose that all these who stumble over Christ fall into eternal torment. To consider that God had so arranged His plan that they would thus stumble, and had appointed them to such a stumbling, would be inconsistent with divine justice as well as love.
But when we get a right view of the matter, all is clear: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1 Pet. 2:9)
We see that this call pertains to the call of the elect Church to be the Royal Priesthood. We see that those who are called, and who are of the right condition of heart to be accepted into the elect Bride of Christ, will be the joint-heirs of the great High Priest in the Kingdom, and His associates in the great work of the Millennial Age in blessing all the families of the earth. Now we see that those who stumble are in no sense threatened with an eternity of torture, nor will many of them even stumble into the second death. Their loss, however, will be a serious one, for they will lose all the “exceeding great and precious promises” which God has in reservation for the Church. (2 Pet. 1:4)
It was entirely proper for God to predestinate that none should be members of the glorious Bride unless they in the present life attain character likeness to His dear Son. The Apostle thus expresses the matter clearly in Romans 8:29: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.”
In thus predestinating or predetermining that none could be associated with Christ in the Kingdom except they manifested a likeness to Him while on trial in the present life, the Father was equally predestinating that those who would not copy the character of the Lord Jesus in the present life should be rejected, and that their rejection would be indicated by their stumbling into error, by which they would be separated and marked as different from the faithful “Little Flock” who shall inherit the Kingdom. (Luke 12:32)
Those who are faithful in heart will be guided in their knowledge of the Lord, that they may not walk in darkness, but, as the Apostle declares, may be able to show forth the excellencies of Him who hath called them out of darkness into His marvellous light. The very clear intimation is that only these will be thus guided in their understanding of the Truth, and that others will, on the contrary, be in darkness on every subject, and will stumble about in uncertainty accordingly.
In another Scripture which speaks of this rock of offense and of those who stumble over it, the Prophet Isaiah says: “And he shall be for a sanctuary [a place of safety to the faithful in heart]; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel...” (Isa. 8:14) Through the Prophet, God is speaking particularly of Spiritual Israel, living in the close of this Gospel Age. He describes the present tendency to denominational union, saying that His faithful people should not join in such confederacies which ignore the Truth for an outward apparent union: “Take counsel together, and it shall come to nought…”; (Isa. 8:10) His people should not share in the fears that are harassing churchianity – fear of their denominational lines and numbers being broken – but should fear God and sanctify Him in their hearts, not allowing a reverence to sectarianism to take His place.
As the Prophet David expresses it, the Lord will be a sanctuary to His people in the trials that are coming upon all who have named the name of Christ. He says, “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty” (Psa. 91:1) No evil can befall him there, but on the contrary he shall be blessed.
Those who reverence human institutions and creeds of the Dark Ages instead of sanctifying the Almighty in their hearts will be calling for and striving for organization, union, or confederacy. God declares that they will stumble, and that Christ will be the stumbling stone over which they will fall and wreck their faith. Through the Prophet, God calls attention to the fact that this stumbling of Spiritual Israel, at the end of the Gospel Age, is the parallel or antitype of the stumbling of Fleshly Israel in the end of the Jewish Age.
Some will admit readily enough how Fleshly Israel stumbled in their harvest time, because they rejected Jesus as their Savior and did not recognize the opportunities and privileges that were theirs (“…because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.” – Luke 19:44). They fail to understand, however, how Christendom of today, nominal Spiritual Israel, is stumbling over Christ when Bibles are in the hands of Christian people everywhere and when church organizations abound in the whole civilized world. Is it possible for Christendom to stumble over Christ today?
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHURCH
The Scriptures show that it will stumble. Note that Satan quoted from Psalm 91 to our Lord the words, “He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.” (Matt. 4:6, Psa. 91:11,12) Our Lord rejected Satan’s literal application of this verse to His literal feet; but how clear is the application to the symbolical feet of Christ?
This figure of the body of Christ is a prominent one throughout the Scriptures: Christ the head, and the Church His body. The Church as the Bride or body of Christ has been in process of development throughout the Gospel Age. The Apostles and primitive Church may be recognized as the shoulders, arms and hands, through which the whole body has been blessed and cared for; and the other members of the body represent the truly consecrated of the Lord from the time of the Apostles down to the end of the Gospel Age. Those living in the end or close of the Gospel Age, and in the dawning of the Millennial Age would naturally and properly represent the “feet” members of the body of Christ. (Isa. 52:7)
We are to recognize that from the days of the Apostles to the present time there has been a nominal body of Christ as well as a true body of Christ; and so there are nominal feet members and true feet members. The Psalm shows that all except the true feet members will stumble and shows us the proportions of those who will stumble to those who will not stumble, saying, “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.” “Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation.” (Psa. 91:7, 9.)
A great many today who name the name of Christ and are prominent in Christian work are more interested in the prosperity of their congregation and denomination than they are in Christ and His great work of redemption, and thus will stumble and will not have the Lord for a sanctuary.
MINISTERS OF GOD
The Psalm shows the special power of God will be manifested on behalf of His faithful ones to prevent them from stumbling, otherwise they would fall with the others. This power of God in the symbolic language of the Psalm is referred to as His “angels”– His ministers, to whom He is said to give a “charge,” a message, by which the “feet” shall be held up, protected from stumbling. (Psa. 91:11,12)
Since 1874 these ministers have been bearing up the feet class – bringing assistance to all those who are truly the LORD’s people. They have a message from the LORD – not a new revelation, but an unfolding of the original message given through our Lord Jesus and the Apostles. The Lord Jesus Himself is the chief servant or minister in connection with this helping of the feet, and the Apostles also are ministers; for the truths which are now assisting the LORD’s people to stand are the “good tidings” through the Lord Jesus and the Apostles. (Luke 2:10)
Our Lord Jesus indeed prophesied that in the end of this Age He would gird Himself as a servant and come forth and serve the Household of Faith, the feet members of His own body. (Luke 12:37) He tells how He will bring forth from the storehouse of Truth things new and old, sending them to the feet members at the hand of fellow servants, co-laborers with Him. Indeed, each one receives this privilege to break again and distribute the nourishment that will give strength and ability to stand in what the Apostle calls “the evil day.” (Eph. 6:13)
THE DAY OF TRIAL
The Apostle describes the end of the Gospel Age to Timothy, saying: “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy...” (1 Tim. 4:1,2) He again writes: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.” (2 Tim. 3:1-5)
When addressing the Church at Thessalonica, the Apostle again describes the serious times that shall prevail in the end of the Age, referring particularly to Satan’s power now to be manifested, “And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish [fall away from the Truth]; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” (2 Thess. 2:10-12)
This falling away in the close of the Gospel Age is referred to by our Lord in His message to the seven Churches. Addressing the last phase of the Church, Laodicea, representing the living nominal system in the end of the Age, the Lord declares that while it feels rich and wise and great, it knows not that it is miserable and poor and naked and blind. Laodicea lives in the day of His knock, but the knock must be heard and responded to individually for the Lord to come in and sup with the individual, in the sense of feeding him with the heavenly food and giving him strength for the trials and burnings of the time. The great majority of Laodiceans have not heard the knock, have not known the time of their visitation, and have been spewed out of the Lord’s mouth – rejected from being any longer His medium in communicating His message to the world. (Rev. 3:14-18)
BABYLON IS FALLING
In another figure the Lord refers to this Laodicean Church as Babylon – mother and daughters. (Rev. 17:5) He pictures her (Rev. 18:1-8) as a great city or religious system of many wards, and declares of the present time, “…Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen... Come out of her, my people, that ye be not be partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues…Therefore shall her plagues come in one day, death, and mourning, and famine; and she shall be utterly burned with fire…” (destroyed as a system).
We are in the day in which Babylon is falling (from divine favor), though the day of her severe plagues and punishments is still future. The LORD’s true people are to hear His voice, the “charge” or message which He gives to His “angels,” to bear them up, to sustain them, to hinder them from stumbling, falling, as the masses shall fall. Our Lord Jesus in His great prophecy of the end of the Age again told of this falling, saying: “For there shall arise false Christs [false systems claiming to be the body of Christ, the Church], and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” (Matt. 24:24)
Our Lord’s words show clearly that much of this trouble will arise from sectarianism, which has grown in great proportions, has become strengthened and is Babylon. The vast majority of those who compose these systems are merely nominal – Christians of the kind mentioned by the Apostle as “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” They lack the power, the spirit of true godliness; they love sectarianism though they love not the Truth; so that now, when the Lord sends forth the Truth as meat in due season, it becomes a test, and distinguishes between the true and the imitation – between those who love the Truth and those who love popularity and churchianity.
The Truth lovers will be drawn and attracted to the Truth as to a magnet; the others will just as strongly be repelled by it, and will feel an opposition to the Truth and more and more a sympathy for the error, the philosophies of men, etc. Thus the breach will grow wider and wider, and eventually we may expect only the elect to be held by the Truth, which to them will be the power of God to uphold them, to keep them from stumbling.
MANY FALSE TEACHERS
The Apostle Peter says: “But there were false prophets also among the people [of Israel], even as there shall be [future – in the end of the Gospel Age] false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.” (2 Pet. 2:1,2) With false teachers, the unpopularity of the Truth, and the majority falling into error, few will be able to stand – “not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble,” but chiefly “the poor of this world, rich in faith.” (1 Cor. 1:26; Jas. 2:5)
We see these false teachers both inside and outside of the false Christs, false systems claiming to be the Church, while really there is but one true Church, the one body of Christ. Theosophy, Christian Science, and the so-called New Thought movement are all false teachers, outside the Church of Christ entirely because in no sense do they profess the essence of Christian doctrines. True, they all acknowledge Christ as a great Teacher – they could not do otherwise – even devils and the devilish must acknowledge His teachings to be grand. But a belief that Jesus lived and died, and the belief that He was a good man and a great Teacher, are not the essence of Christian faith; it goes far beyond that, and specifically acknowledges Him as the Redeemer:
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isa. 53: 5)
“…Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;” (1 Cor. 15:3)
“Who was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification.” (Rom. 4:25)
False teachers have also arisen inside all the various denominations of Christendom, teachers of “Higher Criticism” who have been poisoning all the various systems of churchianity – introducing the snares which will stumble all except the elect. These so-called higher critics are in fact infidels who have no belief in the Bible as an inspired revelation of the divine purpose. Instead of recognizing Christ as the Redeemer, they place Him on a level with Shakespeare, Moses, Confucius and Plato. They are pleased to recognize Him because His name is popular in the civilized world.
The poisonous doctrines these men have sent forth through the students of seminaries and colleges have affected Christianity in every quarter, in every denomination. Today it is a rare thing to find a minister in any pulpit who fully and frankly will avow his faith in Jesus Christ as the Redeemer, acknowledging His death as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, a sacrifice which justice demanded, provided and accepted as the offset to Adam’s original transgression, and as the purchase price of the world, securing to it in due time a release from the tomb. The occasional one who will frankly and without equivocation declare that he heartily accepts the death of Jesus as the ransom price for the world’s sin is usually a country minister, not college trained, one who has not had a seminary course.
DEATH THE PENALTY
The doctrine of the ransom, which states that Christ was man’s substitute and paid the penalty for the race by His death, has been held firmly by even nominal Christians of all denominations. Con-sequently, it may seem strange that this doctrine should so quickly become a “stone of stumbling.” The reason lies in the great increase of knowledge and stimulation of thought in our day. The creeds of Christendom, which state that Christ died to release us from the Adamic penalty, are up to that point in harmony with the Scriptures; however, when they proceed to say that the penalty of original sin was eternal torment, and that Christ redeemed us from eternal torment, they are in violent opposition to the Scriptures, which declare that the penalty for original sin was death, and that Christ’s death secured for Adam and his race a release from that death sentence. (Rom. 6:23)
If the penalty upon the race was eternal torment, and if Christ paid that penalty for the race, it would be correct to conclude that it necessitated Him going to eternal torment. Since He did not go to eternal torment, but to glory, nominal Christianity must conclude that He could not have been the substitute or Redeemer.
The reasoning is sound enough, but the premise is false. The Scriptures do not declare that eternal torment is the penalty; that theory was invented during the Dark Ages. The Scriptures do declare that the penalty is death, and that Christ paid that penalty, and that the payment of it was the redemption price for the life of the world.
The effect of the error is not only the repudiation of the ransom, but in due time, as their eyes open, the repudiation also of the eternal torment theory as being inconsistent with reason. But still believing that this theory is taught by the Scriptures, many are losing faith, not only in the ransom but also in the entire Bible. They are making shipwreck of their faith, and proportionately everything that was formerly established in their minds in the nature of a religious hope becomes dim and uncertain. They are grasping after the theories of the philosophers and occultists; they are becoming more and more blind to the Truth. As the Apostle declares, Christ is to some a stumbling block and to others foolishness, but to us who believe, “He is precious.”
To those who believe, the light of this present time, by the grace of God is bringing a larger understanding of the Word of God and a fuller appreciation of the divine promises, and broader and deeper hopes. Seeing the great test which is upon Christendom – seeing that the vast majority are stumbling over Jesus as a rock of offense, rejecting Him as a Redeemer, let us heed the Apostle’s warning to “…take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day…” (Eph. 6:13)
Let us not think either that we can put on this armor by merely an intellectual knowledge of the Divine Plan; let us remember that it is only those who receive the Word in “the love of the truth” that will be able to stand, that will have the necessary assistance rendered them, that will be borne up by the “good tidings of great joy” – the message explanatory of the Heavenly Father’s plans, so necessary to our sustenance, strength and standing in this present evil day. (2 Thess. 2:10; Luke 2:10)
Let us hold fast the confidence of our rejoicing, the foundation of our faith – that Christ died for our sins. “And he is a propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) Every doctrine which does not square with this doctrine of the ransom must be rejected as spurious, unscriptural and calculated to entangle and snare and stumble. All theories and beliefs can be settled by this invaluable measure – the ransom.
“If they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” (Isa. 8:20)
This paper is based on a sermon given by Pastor Russell in 1904 and printed in Harvest Gleanings, Volume Two. It has been edited to fit the space and to update certain language.