by Jon Gary Williams
What a tremendous title for a lesson! As I looked at this topic I could not help but think that it strikes at the heart of one of the greatest needs of the church today! There is nothing lacking more in the kingdom of Christ. There is nothing we need more today than a greater zeal among members of the body of Christ.
When we consider the subject of zeal we cannot help but be reminded of the church in the city of Rome. The ekklesia in Rome had a degree of zeal but they did not have sufficient knowledge! The Apostle Paul declared: “For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). The International English Bible (IEB) renders this passage in this manner: “I tell you the truth, they have much enthusiasm for God, but they don’t understand!” In our time, however, this is often reversed. Today we find that many members of the Lord’s church have “knowledge” but are deficient in their “zeal!” Almost everywhere we look we see congregation after congregation sorely lacking in zeal! Countless members of the church (ekklesia) are only lukewarm and devoid of genuine zeal for the cause of our Lord.
Should not this be a major thrust of the kingdom of Christ today? We should be giving more attention to the role that each member of the body of Christ plays in this regard, for without zeal the cause of Christ suffers.
The Meaning of “the Old Paths”
We sometimes use the expression “old paths,” but what do we mean by this? Sometimes folks may not understand what we mean and may have a wrong impression of our use of the word “old.” It is necessary to clarify that simply because something is old does not mean that it is true. Age itself has no virtue, it has no inherent value. Just because a thing is old does not mean it is right or even desirable!
By the use of “old paths” we are, of course, speaking about the old truths found in God’s Word. We are talking about the original patterns and principles set forth in the Bible. We are referring to the paths contained in the original source book!
During one of the most difficult times of ancient Israel, when the people were removing themselves from God’s established law, Jeremiah’s plea to the people was, “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths where is the good way” (Jer. 6:16). Here is the way the IEB translates this verse: “Stand at the intersection, and look. Ask where the old path is. Ask where the right road is, and walk on it.” Jeremiah’s statement shows that even during his days there were many “ways,” new ways that were different than God’s way! He pleaded with his people to “ask for the old paths. This was the original way that God designed for His people to follow. It was called the “good way!” This was the only way, the right way, the original way.
In our own Christian dispensation we see that the same thing is true. Today there are many hundreds of ways that people have devised which are contrary to the way of Christ, ways that are in violation of original Christianity. As in the days of Jeremiah, God today calls us back to the old paths, to ancient Christianity as it was in the days of its original purity.
The church (ekklesia) of Jesus Christ does have its “old paths.” It is the “good way” provided by God and which has been revealed to us through the New Testament. What the Lord desires for all people today can be found recorded in His eternal Word. The Apostle Peter said that we have been given “all things that pertain unto life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). The Apostle Paul plainly tells us that the Scriptures are given for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” so that “the man of God may be perfect” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The IEB has: “Then the man of God will be proficient.” Here it is that we find the “old paths” of pure Christianity that are just as applicable to people today as they were in the first century A.D.
The Meaning of “New Zeal”
We sometimes make reference to having more “zeal” in the body of Christ. What do we mean by this? And what do we mean when speaking of a having a “new zeal” for the old paths?
Zeal, of course, is another way to describe eagerness and fervor! It is the passion of one’s heart in pursuit of something that is considered serious. When we speak of a zeal that is “new” we are not using this in the sense of just being different or unusual. We do not have in mind merely a change. Rather, we are speaking of a renewed zeal, a renewed interest, a renewed concern! We have in mind a desire to return to the original patterns of the New Testament, to return to the original source of New Testament Christianity!
There is a great need for going back, all the way back to first-century faith and dedication. When we do this, we demonstrate our respect for God and for His Word. This is one way in which we can honor our Lord!
A “new zeal” for “the old paths” is really a revived zeal for what Christ brought to this world through his death. We all need to ask ourselves whether we have this zeal or not, and if we are concerned about returning to the “old paths” and encouraging others to return to first-century Christianity.
The Old Paths Have Often Been Abandoned
When we speak returning to “the old paths,” this implies that the old paths have been abandoned, that the original patterns of Christianity have been neglected. One cannot return to something that has not been left.
In Old Testament times, it is well known that the Jews left the way that God designed for them. Israel, not content to live under the Law of Moses, departed from it! Later, Judah also chose to depart from this Law. As a result, God dispatched prophets to rebuke and chasten them. Their cry was for the people to “return!” Their plea was: “Get back to the old paths!” They were sent to a wayfaring people to point them back — all the way back to God’s Law.
Likewise, in our time there are many who have left the way that God designed for man to follow. Pure, New Testament Christianity has been twisted and distorted! People have willfully turned away from the pure Word of God and the original plan for His ekklesia. Denominationalism, with all its shapes and forms, has drawn people farther and farther away from the pattern found in the New Testament.
During centuries of gradual departure from God’s Word (the original source of Christianity) the world of so-called “Christendom” has become nothing more than a vague semblance of what “the faith” (Jude 1:3) was in the beginning. The new and changing religions invented by human beings have turned millions away from God’s pure Word. The doctrines of men have corrupted the Bible and have taught people religious error. This has led them into many different false paths! Today denominational religion is so filled with subjectivism that there seems to be no end to bizarre and different beliefs!
There is a great need for people to be taught about this great distortion of Christianity and a great need to call people back to the Christianity of the New Testament.
The Thrust of a Restoration
Calling people back to simple, plain Christianity would be the thrust of a restoration movement! Let’s get back to New Testament Christianity, back to the fountainhead of apostolic truth. We should want to return, as best we can, to what we know to be the teachings of Christ and the apostles. In our efforts to restore Christ’s ekklesia as it was in the days of its purity, we should be willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary. We must pursue the course of speaking only where the Bible speaks and remaining silent where the Bible is silent. This will mean having to make some serious changes in our previously-held doctrines and practices.
No matter what the cost, we should be willing to lay aside certain things as we discover them to be in error, and, therefore, contrary to the Bible. For example, the question of infant baptism is an issue that troubles many people. Though having practiced this for many years, some should realize that it is foreign to New Testament teaching, and, therefore, must cease doing it. Infant baptism was not taught in the Bible, hence, it should have no part in our teaching today. And there was also the issue of sprinkling (or, christening) instead of immersion. Likewise, it is obvious that this was a practice unknown to the New Testament and, therefore, unscriptural. If we have a high regard for the Word of God, we should gladly lay this false practice to one side and begin to baptize people as the Bible did authorize — by the act of immersion!
Some things need to be added (restored). For example, in the matter of how frequently we should observe the Lord’s Supper, one will soon come to realize that the New Testament pattern is patently clear. Instead of monthly or quarterly observance we ought to partake of communion every “first day of the week” (that is, every Sunday). On the question of what to call the ekklesia we should see the need to use only Biblical terms. So, in keeping with the idea of “speaking where the Bible speaks and remaining silent where the Bible is silent,” denominational names must be replaced with Biblical descriptions.
Zeal is the key to that motivates people. We ought to have a zeal that burns within us to be true to God’s Word and to restore His church, thus making it what it was in the days of the apostles!
Restoration of New Testament Christianity is an ongoing thing and we are always trying to perfect it today. As long as there are those who teach and practice things that are contrary to the New Testament pattern, there will be the need to call people back to the “old paths.” And, likewise, there will always be the need for people to have the same zeal characteristic of early restorers.
Why the Need for a Return to “the Old Paths”
Why is there such an urgent need to return to the “old paths” of New Testament Christianity? Why should we be concerned about going back to the original pattern for the church? Why is it important that we give attention to the ekklesia as it is revealed in the Bible? The answer to this is of utmost importance.
The reason for this return is because God only accepts those who follow His paths! To be in violation of His will, to teach and practice things not found in His word, is sinful! The Apostle John declared, “A person must continue to follow only the teaching of Christ. If anyone goes beyond Christ’s teaching, then he does not have God.” (2 John 1:9, IEB). Jesus, through John, made it clear that no one is to “add to” or “take away from” the Word of God (Rev. 22:18-19). We are directed not to place the wisdom of men “above that which is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). The International English Biblb says, “You must not go beyond what the Scriptures say.”
Jesus, while emphasizing the corruption of false teachers, pointed out the necessity of being true to the will of God. Hear his words in Matt. 7:21 (IEB): “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. Only the person who does what my heavenly Father wants will enter it.” And again in Luke 6:46: “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?”
It is essential that God’s people follow the will of God! To depart from His will is to leave the “narrow way” that leads to eternal life. To leave the “narrow way” is to travel on the “broad way.” Our Lord Jesus said: “Go through the tight door which leads to eternal life. The door is wide and the road is broad which leads to destruction. Many people are entering through it. The door which leads to life is tight, and the road is narrow. Only a few people are finding it.” (Matt. 7:13-14, IEB).
The fact is, over the years, the “old paths” of God’s Word have been abandoned. One by one, the doctrines and practices of men have been accepted in place of the Word of God, and, as a result, there has been a continuing departure from the “old paths.” Through the centuries, people have distorted, changed and modified God’s original pattern and plan for His ekklesia. Religious leaders built more upon the hand-me-down traditions of their times than upon the Bible! And, as we work our way through history, it is noticeable that the farther away from New Testament days we get, the farther away we see that men have gotten from the “old paths” of Biblical times.
Most of us can recall our days of grade school and those lettering guides which were posted around the room (usually above the chalk-boards). We were instructed to practice copying the letters of the alphabet in order to help us remember them and to help us improve our skill at writing them properly. And as long as they were copied accurately they could be recognized. But, if one child copied his lettering from the sheet of another child it may then not be so easy to recognize the letters. And, if yet a third child copied from the second it would become even more difficult to recognize the letters, and so on. The farther away from the original letter patterns we get, the more distorted the letters become. In order to have a copy that is like the original pattern, one must go all the way back to the original letter guides.
This is the way it is with the church of the Lord. We have a true pattern to follow. As long as people stay with that pattern, they will be able to reproduce the ekklesia just as it is found in the New Testament. But, when men begin using the patterns of other men instead of the Bible, there will soon be a distortion of the Lord’s ekklesia. And, this is precisely what has happened. The only way to correct this is to go all the way back to the original pattern and follow it! No matter how many years have passed, no matter how far removed one may be from the first century, by going back to the original blueprint, the ekklesia can be restored as it was in the very beginning.
Our responsibility is to call all people back to the original pattern for the ekklesia — all the way back to the first century.
Why is there a need to return to the “old paths?” Because God wants us to follow them and because many have left them.
It would be a great step forward if every child of God would take stock of his or her life and evaluate his own zeal! We cannot wait on others to take the first step or to motivate us to action. More of us need to look back at our previous attitudes and convictions and try to do the best we can to correct any lack of zeal.
Let each of us consider the tremendous value of God’s precious Word and remember how important it is for all people to follow it. Let us all take note of the role that we can play in His great cause!