Imagine that you lived in the 8th century B.C. Though God's people were divided into two kingdoms, Israel to the north and Judah to the south, you lived in security. Your enemies were subdued on every hand and you enjoyed prosperity. Not since the days of David and Solomon had God's people experienced such happy times. Politically secure and stable under Jeroboam II, Israel could foresee no emerging threat to her way of life. Her citizens were free to persue their own interests and religion. They were fortunate indeed. Or were they?
It was at this time that God raised up a prophet, a common man, a simple shepherd to deliver His message to Israel. Amos the prophet was from Tekoa, a small town in the southern kingdom, about 10 miles SW of Jerusalem. But he was sent to prophesy at Bethel, one of the places of worship in the northern kingdom. Amos foretold God's judgement coming upon Israel's neighbors. He prophesied of God's judgement against Judah, the southern kingdom, his own nation. But he mainly spoke about the sins of Israel, and God's coming judgement upon her. For, though secure in her own borders and free to worship God as He commanded, Israel was consumed with other things. Jeroboam II and the rulers of Israel were concerned with fortifying the nation, and with increasing her wealth and splendor. The citizens were consumed with becoming prosperous and living lavish, pleasurable lives. The middle-class virtually disappeared as the rich got richer and the poor became little more than slaves to the wealthy. Hear what Amos said about them:
"This is what the Lord says: 'For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name. They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge. In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines' "Amos 2:6-8; NIV.
"You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground . . . you hate the one who reproves in the court and despise him who tells the truth. You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain... For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive and poor of justice in the courts" 5:7, 10-12; NIV.
"Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, 'When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?'.., skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat" Amos 8: 4-6; NIV.
Had Israel quit worshiping God? Perish the thought! Though utterly consumed by materialism, Israel continued to bring her sacrifices and burnt offerings. She kept her religious assemblies, though only in outward, superficial observances. Amos, speaking for God, wrote:
"I [God] hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs!! I will not listen to the music of your harps." Amos 5:21-23.
Because of her sins God detested Israel's worship and, because She was unrepentant in her sins, judgement could not be averted. Israel would go into captivity "beyond Damascus,'' never again to rise as a nation of God's people. Actually, I don't believe they were fortunate at all.
We are fortunate that we didn't live 2700 years ago, when God's people were divided, when the influence of pagan idolatry led Israel astray and when people who worshipped God were caught up in material pursuits, aren't we? Well, actually, I wonder if God is pleased with our religious observances today. Does He hate, despise our solemn worship? Would He say, "Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your hearts?" Are we REALLY so far removed in spirit from ancient Israel that we can rest, secure in knowing that our worship and service are wholly acceptable to God?
Yes, we are God's people, baptized into the one true body of Christ. We are God's assembly (ekklesia-church) and we exist in every state and many cities across this nation. Yet, while professing to be one in Christ, to be brethren, we are divided into more camps (sects-parties) than we may care to count. And like ancient Judah and Israel, we continually war against one another. We withhold fellowship from each other, and frequently for the pettiest of differences. Justice and mercy are denied as we trample underfoot the spiritually weak and immature in our zeal for our own doctrines, and in our quest for positions of power and influence among the brethren. Thus we are no better than the Israelites who oppressed their poor brethren and denied them justice.
Israel, surrounded by pagan nations steeped in idolatry, began to worship those idols as well. Some of the Canaanite idols were worshipped in ritual observances which reduced the practitioners to the depths of moral depravity, including sexual relations with temple, or cult, prostitutes. Surely God's people today can boast greater things than that! Can we REALLY? Consider how we too have joined ourselves to modern day idols, spiritual harlotry, and so profaned God's name. We have rushed headlong into the religious practices of our neighbors. While boasting non-denominational Christianity, we have named (denominated) ourselves the church of Christ. Thus we, like them, have become another "denomination." The term "church of Christ" was always used biblically to designate God's people, His assembly, whether in a local, a regional, or a universal sense. It was NEVER used to designate a manmade, state-chartered, tax-exempt, property-owning institution overseen by a board of trustees. And that's just the first indication of our spiritual adultery. We have also, like our neighbors, created a college-trained, paid professional clergy (though we refuse to admit it); organized our own seminaries (though we call them Bible Colleges, Christian Colleges, or Preacher Training Schools); and COMMANDED (demanded) giving as an "official act of worship," in order to support our corporate body institution churches, our paid clergy, meetings houses, etc. God NEVER commanded such!
Yet, even while Israel sought her own wealth and pleasure, she held to an outward, insincere form of worship. She brought her sacrifices and burnt offerings, just as God had commanded. She kept her God appointed assemblies. And in this area we are today no better than she was centuries ago. But, do we not assemble for weekly worship? Yes, and we are diligent to include the "five acts," and only those acts, as well. But as individuals we no longer provide for the needy, since we have given that task to the corporate body church through the central treasury. We no longer comfort the sick, since we pay the clergyman to do that for us. We no longer evangelize our neighbors, we send the preacher or a correspondence course. We no longer edify each other, we PAY someone to edify US! In short, we practice an insincere religion which is almost totally devoid of personal involvement. We assemble, certainly, we wouldn't think of forsaking that! We go through the motions, follow the ritual, but far too often our hearts aren't in it. Is it any wonder, since we have divorced ourselves from involvement and swallowed the doctrine of ritualistic observance, that the faithful are in decline? Come to think of it, though we are certainly more blessed, perhaps we today are no more fortunate than Israel was 2700 years ago!
It is evident that God will not accept a perverted religion. He is not satisfied with religious institutions of this world, no matter how pleasing they are to men, nor with insincere, ritualistic worship such as Israel offered. Therefore we might profitably ask, "What does God want of us?" A contemporary of Amos, Hosea the prophet, said;
"Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God. Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to Him, 'Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.'" Hos. 14:1,2; NIV.
Good advice for today! We must search the record to rediscover what it meant to be just a Christian, added by God to His assembly. We need to learn what it means to worship with sincere hearts, even on a daily basis (Acts 2:46). We need to become as the first century Christians were, deeply, sincerely concerned with the welfare of our brothers, so that it could be said of us, "There are no needy persons among them."
We dare not seek God through insincere, ritualistic worship, thinking only of how we can enrich ourselves once it has ended (Amos 8:4-7). We dare not be at case and complacent (Amos 6:1). We dare not form human denominations, borrowed from our religious neighbors, nor pattern ourselves after their things (clergy, seminaries, doctrines, buildings, etc.), and hope to please God therein. We dare not, as Christians, detach ourselves from what Christians are: Servants. Servants of God and of each other. Servants serve. They don't, can't pay someone else to serve for them. We are God's servants (Rom. 12:11; Col. 3:24.) and so we must be personally involved. All day. Everyday. Forever. Period.
Our allegiance must be to God and His Son Jesus Christ, not to ANYONE or ANYTHING else, certainly not to corporate body churches organized by men and chartered by the state. Let us never forget that. First century Christians met together daily for worship (Acts 2:42-47); and upon the first day of the week (Acts 20:7); and so should we. But they NEVER joined themselves to a human institution, and neither should we. While we worship with our brethren, we must remember that we are members of CHRIST'S body, HIS assembly, and join ourselves to no other.
First century' Christians were a giving people (Acts 2:44,45; 4:32-37; I Cot. 16:1-4; Phil. 4:10-19), but giving was for a specific purpose, either to relieve the needy or to support faithful men who preached the gospel. It was never clone to support corporate body churches, their buildings, works or the such like, for such didn't exist. And we need not financially support the works of corporate body churches either. We are surrounded by worthy cases for our giving, from the aged, sick and needy among God's people, to faithful brethren needing financial support as they evangelize areas where God's assembly isn't evident.
We must identify and speak out against the religious wrongs we see, especially those among our brethren. To be sure, there are consequences to be borne. Amos was accused of conspiracy and told to quit prophesying, leave Bethel and return to Judah (Amos 7:10-13). Those who even believed in Jesus were thrown out of the synagogue (Jn. 9:22; 12:42). When we plead for a return to the simple christianity of the Bible, it may frighten some people. They may consider us dangerous malcontents, or troublemakers. Our plea will threaten the established (by human traditions) order of modern Christianity. But that shouldn't deter us, for we must serve God, not men. We must ever remember what Christ said when He commissioned His apostles: "If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!" (Mt. 10:25).
God did not use a priest to warn Israel of her sins so long ago. The priests were themselves opposed to God and involved in sin. They took their living from the gifts of the people. They had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Neither did God send a highly educated man, trained in one of the schools of prophecy. Instead, God sent Amos, a shepherd who also tended sycamore-fig trees. He was a common man and he spoke a simple plea, "Seek the Lord and live" (Amos 5:6); and, . . . let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream!!" (5:24; NIV). Amen! May God grant that the common man, "the people in the pews," rise up and make the same appeal today! Adison Martin