In any and every aspect of the Christian life it has become commonplace to ask, “What would Jesus do?” But how does this text work out and what would Jesus do in relation to the cults? Did Jesus meet and interact with any cults? People usually think of the Pharisees here but, while they certainly did display classic cultic characteristics – such as a strong legalism, judgementalism, controlling leadership, adding to the Law – it is well to remember that the Pharisees were part of the orthodox religion of the day.
We see the same in today's church, where a particular group may be a little legalistic, judgemental and disapproving, may make past tradition into a creed for today and so forth. But this does not disqualify such a group from the wider body of Christ.
Anatomy of a Cult
Jesus met a cult when he met the Samaritans. As we look at the history of the Samaritans we build up a profile of the typical cult, identify the characteristics to look for, and the pitfalls as well as the opportunities in witnessing.
2 Kings 17:21-23 - Here we find the roots of the Samaritan culture and people. These verses are an overview of what happened to Israel after the reign of Solomon. From the death of Solomon Israel was ruled by kings who compromised. The situation is described more fully in 1 Kings 12. Here the kingdom is divided under the rule of Solomon's son, Rehoboam. The northern kingdom is ruled by Jeroboam who, fearing that Israelites travelling to Jerusalem for the temple and Jewish festivals might turn back to Rehoboam, built altars and established worship in his own kingdom:
So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt."
And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.
Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one.
He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites.
And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made.
He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of- Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings. (1 Kings 12:28-33)
Power and Control
Cults, and cultic churches, are not about truth but about power. Like Jeroboam, their concern is controlling and holding onto their constituency. There is usually a power centre, just like Shechem or Bethel in the story of Jeroboam, and a figure who sets up alternative worship, feasts and special days “devised from [their] own hearts.”
They create their own centres of worship
The identify another focus of worship
They establish their own methods of worship.
Some things develop, evolve with time in a church. Mode of dress, language and idiom, types of activities, organisation but there is always a sense of continuity with the past, of tradition. But the cult makes a clean break with the past. What has gone before is invariably swept aside to make way for the new. It is revealing to compare this attitude with that of Jesus who said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Mt.5:17) Going on to give the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reinforces what has gone before.
Ad Hoc Development
2 Kings 17:7-20 - Eventually Israel was taken into captivity by Assyria, a permanent exile.
2 Kings 17:24-41 - We go on to read that Samaria was resettled with foreigners (24), a strategy of the Assyrian king who would exile conquered people's in foreign lands. These were punished by God for not fearing him (25-26) but the king of Assyria had a solution (27-28) and brought back one of the priests exiled from Israel. This, however, was no solution because “Every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived. ” (29) and they ended up with a corrupt mixture of Israelite and foreign gods and abominable practices that were a sin before God.
When exiles returned to rebuild Jerusalem, as recorded in Ezra (4:1-3), these were the people who came down to Jerusalem and offered to help. But they were rejected and so set out to discourage those who had returned (Ezra 4:4).
As with the Samaritans the ideas and practices of a cult are often developed in an ad hoc fashion. Improvised solutions to local problems build up to a confusing collection of contradictory teachings and ideas. Future generations face the challenge of making sense of doctrines and practices that cannot be reconciled because they were never developed with any plan in mind. Like the Samaritans members can end up with their own version of the cult built around some basic central ideas.
The Ezra Strategy
As with the Samaritans at the time of Ezra, cults sometimes attempt to be accepted as part of the orthodox religion. When we reject these overtures we are simply doing what Ezra and the people did in keeping our orthodoxy free of confusing and deceptive ideas that would ultimately hinder the work of God.
By the time of Jesus the Samaritans were a mix of races with a questionable history and questionable and unorthodox practices. They rejected much of the revelation of God, their scriptures were restricted to the five books of Moses and they disputed the true place of worship with the Jews in Jerusalem. They had even built a rival temple on mount Gezirim, about 400BC, which the Jews destroyed in 128BC.
“The Samaritans were leftovers from the Northern Jewish kingdom who had intermarried with foreigners after the chiefs and nobles were taken into exile in 722BC” (John Piper)
Temple on Mount Gezirim
Rejected OT except selections from Moses
Mixture of truth and error
This was a cult and we can learn a great deal from Jesus and his encounter with the woman of Samaria.
The Samaritan Woman John 4
4:9-15 Jesus offers “the gift of God...living water” but she can’t see past her immediate circumstances. Her view of the world is circumscribed and limited but Jesus perseveres. In the same way the cult member can't initially see past their own world-view. Don’t give up on people too soon.
4:16-18 Why does Jesus reveal her sin? (John 3:20) We can’t, as Jesus, read people’s hearts but we can and must bring people by way of the Cross and the gospel message is always the same – man has sinned and God calls us to repentance. Romans 7 is helpful here as Paul describes the human plight in Rom.7: 7-25 (esp. Rom.7:19-20)
4:19,20 The universal response to conviction is avoidance, changing the subject, talking a little religion. Jesus patiently uses the opportunity to talk about truth. Where we worship is not as important as how and who we worship. We mustn't be sidetracked by discussion of relatively minor issues.
4:21-24 Jesus points out that Samaritan knowledge of God is deficient and their worship, therefore, deficient, so he deals now with the error (v22) We mustn't be afraid to correct error.
He brings out three things in this conversation:
Sin blinds us and we must allow Him to deal with our sin and recognise this problem for others
Religion, per se, is no good if we have the wrong God and come to Him the wrong way and we must be prepared to demonstrate the right way
As witnesses we must understand why people’s understanding is so deficient and show patience and persevere in our witnessing, using God’s priorities
Where else do we find Samaritans?
We find them in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) and of the faith and gratitude of a leper (Luke 17:11-19). You can see why the Pharisees hated Jesus when he compared them unfavourably with Samaritans! Paul writes about those who obey the law for conscience sake (Romans 2:14-15) and people from all sorts of backgrounds can and do work good works. This doesn't mean they don't need saving or correcting; the “Good” Samaritan needed Jesus too. It does mean that we should value them for who they are as we seek to bring them into the good of what God has for all who turn to him in faith and stop trusting in their own good works.
How would you feel if it was the parable of the Good Mormon? Or the thankful JW? Are you grateful for such people in the world even as you seek to evangelise them? Conversely, do you allow their good conduct to blind you to the problems in their faith and does this stop you witnessing? Can you love and value them and share boldly the gospel truth?