A heron flew across the still lake, flapping its wide wings for an awkward landing in some reeds by the shore. Its reflection in the water could be seen by a single figure on shore, reading at a picnic table. Tim’s Bible and notebook were open, and had been open for hours. Tim was the new program director at Camp Pocono Plateau, and he had come up three weeks before his new job started to take walks in the woods and pray and study. It would have been easier to just read some camp books from the Christian bookstore about how to reach kids’ lives for the Lord, but Tim had a deeper mission, and one that he wasn’t about to start talking about yet. The pages were filled with verses about topics that he had heard all his life — baptism, salvation, belief — but he was looking up the verses to find out what was actually written about these things. Tim plugged in his music and put on some Larry Norman tunes. “Good ol’ Larry wasn’t afraid to say the truth,” Tim thought to himself. Tim’s findings were both exciting and frightening to him. It was like finally solving a cryptogram; the conclusions were coming quicker and easier. But now he was left with the next question: What do I do now?
His job as the program director would be to give the “campfire talks,” leading the young people to the Lord who came to summer camp. Salvation, he realized, was a whole lot more than asking Jesus into your heart and going back to your same old life. There was baptism, which was done after you believed, not sprinkled as a baby. That belief alone made him a heretic in the United Methodist church, which owned the camp. But even this concept of salvation seemed like more than just going to heaven when you die. Tim resolved to be a hidden heretic that summer, not to deny the truth, but also not rock the boat too much too soon.
Fall leaves fell on the path leading from the dorm to the science center. Tim was late to his 8 o’clock, creating a wake of leaves as he ran. His junior year was starting nice — good friends, interesting classes, lots to do. The guys on his dorm floor played lots of basketball, but also gathered around in rooms and talked about their lives and the problems they saw in their churches, and how we were going to change it all. It was a Christian college, and Tim’s friends were all Christians, too, but with a variety of plans and aspirations. Kevin wanted to become a college professor with a PhD, hoping to drive out liberal thought from the seminaries. Charlie and John were studying business, and were content to get married and support a local church. Tim wanted to be a missionary doctor. Mike was going to spend a quarter in Washington, DC, getting involved in politics.
Tim’s first class today was Christian Apologetics. It was a mixture of philosophy and logic, learning to defend their faith in rational and logical ways, in hopes that someone could be persuaded to follow Jesus. Tim knew that “faith” didn’t work that way, but all the students had experienced the ridicule from non-believers for believing things that weren’t factual, so this class was giving them some ammunition to fight back. Tim always enjoyed engaging people of different beliefs in conversation, and trying to persuade them to the truth. He learned the errors of the Muslims, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, and the atheists. He hoped to meet one of them this weekend, when his drama group was planning a trip to Indianapolis to do their evangelistic skits right on the streets.
The van drove down the interstate, passing the exit sign for downtown. Driving down one of the streets, Tim and his friends prayed out loud, asking God to show them where they should go. The street opened up to a large stadium where thousands of youth were standing around. Along the street were protesters, carrying signs. This was the place!
The protestors’ signs carried shocking messages: “Ban the Bible!” “Christians are Bastards!” “How Much Sin Can I Get Away with and Still Get to Heaven?” Tim sized them up as some kind of anti-Christian, probably Satanists or something. These were the kind of people that Tim liked to talk to. He went up to one of the protestors, took a paper, and asked a question: “Why do you want to ban the Bible?”
The man replied provocatively, “The Bible is used as a license to sin,” and handed him a paper titled “Satan Worship.” Tim listened intently, looking for a chink in the armor, groping for some open door to this man’s soul, but no door opened. The protestor must have found the conversation too calm, but he excused himself and went on passing out his papers. Tim looked down at the paper, reading it closely. He couldn’t figure it out. These men were using verses in the Bible to expose Christianity, even the words of Christ, but weren’t Satanists. Tim shoved the paper into his pocket, determined to develop a response to its bleak message.
The gym closed at 10 PM and the guys returned to the dorm for Kool-Aid and showers. Homework could be done also, for those who needed to. Kevin crashed on the couch. Tim threw him the Satan Worship paper. “What do you think of this?” Tim asked.
Kevin browsed through it, sizing it up. “Ugly graphics, lousy layout,” and threw it back.
Tim continued, “Yeah, but did you read it? What do you think of what it says?”
“It’s got the error of sinless perfectionism. Your dad’s church promoted it for a while, but now they have women bishops, even homosexual pastors. John Wesley would hang his head if he were alive today. Yeah, this paper says you’re not saved until you’re sinless. Pretty depressing situation; not much chance of a winning church softball team.”
Tim thought for a moment. He grabbed his Bible, looking up one of the verses. “So what does this mean, Kev?” he asked. “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” (1 John 3:6)
“You gotta read the NIV to get the right interpretation.” Kevin said smugly.
“Alright, that was the NASB.” Tim picked up a different Bible. “Here is the NIV. ‘No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.’ ”
Tim read it again. “Are they just watering it down because it’s too hard the other way?”
Kevin took the offense, “So are you saying that you don’t sin anymore?”
Tim shook his head. He waited a few more seconds, then got up to take a shower. “I don’t know — I just don’t know.”
The chapel was empty, except for Tim sitting in the balcony. In an hour, the student body would fill it up with the normal routine. For now, there was time to read. He was reading through the book of 1 John again. Each time he read it, he was more and more convinced that it described a different kind of life than he was experiencing. “Salvation,” he thought, “what does it mean? Is it just making it to heaven, or being changed in this life to be like your Savior?” He wrote down a verse in his notebook: “Anyone who claims to know Him but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in Him?” (1 John 2:4) He asked himself, “But keeping His commandments is being under the law, isn’t it? No one can keep all the commandments, right?”
Tim scribbled next to the verse: “The Great Conundrum.” If 1 John 2:4 was true, it seemed to eliminate a vast number of people from the flock of two billion souls. That itself was a stunning thought, but the Savior did say that the way was narrow and few would find it. But then, what about everyone else who didn’t make the cut? With the standard so high, God was cruel and unfair, almost menacing, casting almost all of humanity into eternal hellfire? Shouldn’t the test have a curve, if it was so hard to get right? So then, you let more people into heaven, and you’ve lowered the standard to lukewarm, and obeying His commandments becomes a nice option.
The whole book had verses that seemed to contradict the typical sermons he had heard all his life. A little further in chapter 2, he copied another verse: “The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” (1 John 2:6) It all pointed to the fact that a saved disciple would have the power to obey His commandments. He felt more and more like a spy in enemy territory. He alone carried the knowledge in a hostile land that might call him a heretic.
The whistle blue and the lifeguard yelled, “Everybody out of the water for buddy check!” Summer camp was in full swing, with a hundred screaming children splashing around. The counselors were having their afternoon meeting at a picnic table in the shade.
Part of Tim’s job was to set the tone for the other counselors in the daily devotions and Bible lessons with the children. It was easy to talk about the fruits of the Spirit or putting on the whole armor of God. Such topics made for easy art projects and lively skits. But today at the meeting there was division.
Across the table, Jack and Robin were obviously troubled. They hadn’t spoken for several meetings, and Jack looked off in the distance. Today, Camp Director Mike was at the meeting to restore order.
“Tim, you’ve really brought a heavy spirit to the staff. Your questions about 1 John and the pamphlets you’ve been passing around are causing people to doubt. You’re affecting others. It needs to stop.”
Tim looked at Jack. He felt as if Jack was only just beginning to understand, even though they had many great conversations. Why is this happening? Camp Director Mike looked at Tim for a response. He was waiting.
“I don’t want to bring a heavy spirit. I just want to find salvation, whatever that means. I’ll stop talking about the Bible.”
“No, just your interpretation of the Bible,” he said and continued on for another few minutes with some hermeneutical monotony. Tim wasn’t listening.
The meeting dismissed, and Tim walked by the camp van. There in the window was a publication that someone had picked up when the van went to some Billy Graham event in Philadelphia. Tim grabbed the paper and put it in his pocket.
The airplane turned a steep angle and prepared to land at the second most dangerous airport in the world — Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Passengers on the left side who looked out their window could see a woman hanging out her T-shirts to dry.
Tim was in Central America as a teacher. His plans of being a missionary doctor weren’t working out. Medical school didn’t accept him, but more importantly, Tim was sure he couldn’t tell people about salvation. He wanted to. With all his heart, he wanted to, but he had to have salvation before he could share it. And before that, he had to know what salvation was.
And so when the call came from his roommate, Steve, inviting him to come and teach high school in Honduras, it was as good an idea as any. Secretly, he thought he might find the answers to his questions if he just got away from his materialistic American culture. As the months went by, he found himself more and more alone and without hope. Life was more simple in Honduras. You could ride buses anywhere in the country for a couple of coins. A bag of fried plantains with shredded cabbage on top was a great treat. But the country was bound up in centuries of Roman Catholicism. People wore rosaries and crossed their hearts in front of statues of Mary, but had the same selfishness within as Americans.
To add to Tim’s isolation, he had come to the conclusion that his own salvation was not real. He continued to read his Bible, and began seeing verses he had never seen before. Beliefs he had been taught started unraveling, and a whole new understanding of the Scriptures was forming. Salvation, as the early church understood it, was not going to church one day a week until you die and go to heaven. It was a life together, a full-time life of discipleship. Disciples learned to walk just like their Lord, actually overcoming sin in their lives and being set apart from the world.
Tim counted the hundred-dollar bills onto the table. It was half of what he had saved during a whole year in Honduras, and the full tuition for summer school at Linguistics School in Eugene, Oregon. By paying in cash, Tim wanted to feel the weight and value of the courses he was taking.
The linguistic classes were run by missionaries, mostly of Wycliffe Bible Translators, known to go into far-away places where there wasn’t even a language, and produce a Bible for the people.
One missionary sat down next to him at lunch. He had taken note of Tim’s motivation, and hoped Tim might join his organization. “Tim, have you considered what you might do after the summer?”
Tim was glad to open his heart to anyone who asked. He wasn’t worried now about appearing as a heretic. He knew it was the truth. He knew he wasn’t saved.
“I’m really looking for salvation; that’s the main thing I want to do,” Tim started.
“Well, if you’re here, you must already be saved. That’s a funny thing to say,” said David.
“No, I have read certain things in the Bible that show me that I’m not experiencing in my life what the first disciples did. I don’t know how to get there, and honestly, I don’t know if anyone here does either. I know the verses about calling on Jesus’ name and you’ll be saved. I know Ephesians 2:8-9 about being saved by grace through faith. But there are other verses — many other verses — that say our lives should be different once we’re saved. The life of a disciple is not just staying the way you are. It’s being changed into the likeness of your Savior. Whoever claims to know Him must walk as He did. Can I show you some verses?” Tim asked.
David was nearly blown-away. “Sure.”
“1 John 4:17 — ‘As He is, so also are we in this world.’ It means now. He cared for the poor, and we need to care for the poor. He overcame temptation, and we need to overcome temptation. He was always with his brothers and sisters, and we need to always be with our brothers and sisters. Do you see it? 1 John 3:2 — ‘When He appears, we shall be like Him.’ Does that mean we are changed beforehand or in that instant?”
David replied, “It must be then, when He appears.”
“Wrong,” Tim sprung back, “look at the next verse. ‘All who have this hope in Him purify themselves, just as He is pure.’ The purification happens now. That’s what I’m saying. Look at verse 7. ‘Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, the one who does what is sinful is of the devil.’ We’ve all been led astray! I’ve been taught that we are positionally righteous, and forgiven, even if our external deeds are full of sin, but it’s not true!”
David was getting uncomfortable. “Yes, but we are saved by grace.”
“Right, but what is grace?” Tim pleaded. “Is grace just being able to be forgiven, or is it actually having the power to overcome, to love as our Lord did? Couldn’t God give us the power through the Holy Spirit to live like the disciples in the New Testament? Isn’t that expected?”
“So, it sounds as if you’ve found the truth. You’re saved and we’re all not,” David turned on the offensive. “I don’t know of any denomination that is going to agree with what you are saying.” “I know, I know. And that’s my whole problem. No, I don’t believe I’m saved. I believe that if I die, I will go to the Lake of Fire. My life doesn’t line up with the life of a normal disciple in the Bible. But I’m not going to stop until I find what I’m looking for. That’s why I can’t join your missionary group.”
“Well, I respect your decision, but I can’t say that I agree with you. Let me know how your life goes.” David said farewell.
The traffic whizzed by the biker riding down Route 30 towards York, Pennsylvania. Tim had finished Linguistic Classes and returned home to his parents’ house to get a job and figure out what to do next. The bicycle was now his transportation to and from work, as well as the transportation on his continuing search.
The paper he had retrieved from the van at camp years ago was still in his files. Their big message was that a person needed to be baptized to be saved. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t experiencing true salvation. He called the number and asked if he could come and visit. The church in York was a simple collection of zealous and strict Christians. Several families lived together in a large house, and met together often. There was a lot that appealed to Tim.
Tim sat in his basement, reading over the book, trying to weigh his decision to join or not join. On one hand, he wanted to be saved and know that he was cleansed of the guilt he felt. On another hand, he was afraid of compromising and joining another lie, another misrepresentation, after coming so far. He decided to join the church in York.
A freezing wind blew around the stadium in Urbana, Illinois. Tim and others from the church in York were at an event, passing out papers and preaching their gospel. Lots of college students were walking around. But there were other groups there, too, passing out their literature. Tim grabbed one of their papers and put it in his pocket to read later. The cold was intense, and he pulled his coat up tighter to his neck and kept walking and passing out papers for the church in York.
Later that evening, Tim emptied his pockets and looked at the other paper he had received. It was from the “Twelve Tribes” and talked about loving God with all your heart. For whatever reason, the paper didn’t interest Tim and he threw it away. He had been saved for three weeks now. Tim really thought his life was different now.
Tim knocked three times on the front door. A woman answered. “Could I ask if you know Jesus as your Savior?” She wasn’t interested, and closed the door in Tim’s face. It didn’t matter. Persecution and rejection were expected for a normal disciple of Jesus. Tim looked back at the row of houses that he had just visited. Some had taken papers, but no one had really responded. This only increased his determination. He walked back to his car.
Tim had just returned from a large event in Toronto. Their church traveled all over the place to events to witness to people. Most of the income from their meager collection was used on travel or on printing. Tim had called it his own “Summer of Evangelism.” Determined to see growth and new people come to the church in York, he had stepped up his own personal determination to limit his personal projects and hobbies to maximize evangelism time. There were others in the church who were just as zealous, if not more.
Persecution and closed doors didn’t bother him. But other things did, like the lack of clarity about doctrines, and like the lack of new people for years, despite tremendous effort, and like the lifelessness of many of the congregation, and like the depressed hopelessness of some of the mothers, and like the undercurrents among the leadership in the church. Those undercurrents were churning, getting ready to explode in a blast that would shatter the church in York.
Ronn slid open the filing cabinet. In the very back, there was an unlabeled folder. Ronn opened it and took out some of his papers from “The Twelve Tribes.” The church in York frowned heavily on Ronn’s interest in this outside group, and Ronn was often in trouble for disagreeing. So this private stash of papers was kept private. But in the recent months of increasing trouble in the church, Ronn had opened this folder many times. He wondered whether there was something wrong at home, and something very right with this other group.
Tim knocked and came right into the room, as Ronn looked up nervously. “Oh, it’s you.” He relaxed.
“Are you reading your Twelve Tribes freepapers again, you heretic?” Tim teased.
Ronn smiled. They’d had many talks about the pros and cons of this other group. He knew that they thought alike about the problems in the church in York, as well as in Christianity in general.
“I’m going, by the way,” Tim dropped the bomb. “I’m even going to go to the leaders and ask for their permission to go and visit.”
“They won’t let you go,” Ronn said. “They’ll never approve of that.”
“They have to. I’ll say it’s a matter of my conscience to go and check it out. The Queen of Sheba came to King Solomon to see if the stories were true. Jesus said that. So there’s no harm in going for a visit to see if the freepapers are true.”
Ronn shook his head and warned, “Our pastor says that they are a bad group and will deceive you. They say they are a cult.”
Tim quipped back, “Yes, and? Everybody’s in a cult. The Catholic church is a cult. Christianity is a cult. I’m going to visit the Twelve Tribes.”
Driving under the silvery glow of moonlight, Tim cruised along the dark interstate that runs the entire height of Vermont. At the very north was Island Pond, home of one of the oldest communities of the Twelve Tribes. In the morning, he sat down for breakfast with Ehud.
Ehud opened up his Bible to 1 John 3 and started talking about the basis for the community. He explained how when a person is truly saved, the love of God is poured into his heart, and he will obey the Master’s greatest commandment to love one another. This means sharing all of your material goods, all of your time, all of your life. The result of obeying the gospel is community, and community is the place where you can do the deeds that you were saved to do. Only in community can you obey His commandments.
“So the community is the visible Body of Christ?” asked Tim. He was trying to process all of these new things, looking for errors, trying hard not to be deceived. But his heart was telling him that this was the truth he had been looking for.
“Yes, well, we would say Messiah instead of Christ, because we use the Hebrew words for things, like Yahshua instead of Jesus. It’s what the angel said to Mary. He spoke Hebrew, you know, and Yahshua is a Hebrew name,” Ehud said.
“One of the things that I saw early on was that the book of 1st John exposed a false concept of salvation. Being saved didn’t just mean going to heaven when you die, but it meant becoming like Yahshua in this life,” Tim explained his heart-felt conviction that no one ever agreed with. “I want to do his will, and I believe other people do, too. But there’s really no way to obey Yahshua in the system of Christianity as it presently is.”
Instead of bristling as so many others had, Ehud nodded his head saying, “Exactly! That’s because Christianity is not what Yahshua started. It’s something else that started later. The Bride of Messiah is the Twelve Tribes. Here look at this verse in Revelation 21:10 and 21:14. In the next age, there isn’t heaven with people floating around on clouds. In the next age, there is Israel and there are the nations. In this age, it is Israel and the nations. Israel is the Bride of Messiah, who will truly be a spotless bride made up of those who are completely devoted. Disciples spend their time preparing themselves to be the Bride of their King.”
Tim and Ehud talked for hours. Tim realized that if what Ehud was saying was true, it all made sense. The light turned on. The Bride of Messiah would be a spotless bride, formed of completely devoted people who obeyed the commandments. And then there were the nations, composed of people who never had a chance to hear the gospel. It answered the Great Conundrum. If these things were true, then the implications were far-reaching. In spite of his efforts, he was still in a deception Now the choice was whether to humble himself again, and admit he was still lost, in hopes of finding the true salvation that was here in the Body of Messiah. The reason he never experienced salvation is because he never had the place where he could put the words of Christ into practice.
Ehud said, “Here, look at this verse in 1 John 5:13. The King James says it best, “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.” Ehud continued, “I don’t doubt your sincerity or your experience, but you don’t have faith. Faith comes by hearing the good news spoken by a disciple who is already living the message.” Tim longed to believe, but he didn’t yet believe to the point of completely trusting his entire life, surrendering all his possessions, aspirations, time, and money. Nor could he really do so until he encountered the good soil where all the disciples were together and obedient to His commands. Only in the Community, like the life described in Acts 2:44, can disciples do the works that were prepared for them to do, in order to build up the Body of Christ in a visible and tangible way. Only in the Community can disciples give up everything and still have a place to live. Only in the Community can disciples obey the commandments of Jesus and the directions of the New Covenant Scriptures, such as “encourage one another daily.” Tim believed in the name of the Son of God, yes. But he did not know that he had eternal life, because he did not fully believe in Him to the point of utter surrender. But he wanted to believe. He wanted to do God’s will. And so the question — should he hold on to his old life, or give it up?
The choice wasn’t hard. Tim returned home for a few weeks to pack his bags and tie up loose ends, and then traveled back to the Twelve Tribes to move in. Within two weeks, he had surrendered his whole life to be a disciple of Yahshua. Through a great search, Tim finally found his heart’s desire.
This story took place seventeen years ago this April. My life here in the Twelve Tribes Communities continues to be a means of salvation as I learn to walk like our Master Yahshua, the Son of God. Please come and visit, I’d love to meet you and talk with you.
P.S. Ronn is here, too!