Report: From Legalism to Liberty

February 18, 2022
Matthew Varghese

“Why Have You Delayed?” – Late 1970s

As I was concluding my short sermon, I noticed an elderly lady with tears rolling down her cheeks. I asked her if something was wrong? She answered, “Why have you delayed? If only you were here a few years ago. My father, my mother, my folks, all went to the furnace, without having a chance to hear this good news.”

So many thousands are still languishing in different communities under the oppressive spells of evil spirits, man-made traditions, many trying to deliver themselves from the unending cycles of birth by various religious rituals. They all continue to ask, albeit silently, “Why are you delaying?”

“From Every Tribe and Tongue” – Mid 1970s

I was working with Operation Mobilization (OM) preaching the gospel and distributing literature. We had reached a village where a fair was going on. Thousands had gathered, buying and selling cloths, tools, and produce. As usual, we sang a song, playing a solitary guitar. One of us gave a short message and soon afterwards we all jumped out of the truck carrying stacks of literature in our hands. I approached an elderly man with a red turban on his head. I offered him a gospel packet (a small plastic sachet containing one gospel, a couple of booklets, and a few tracts). Shaking his head, he said, in his own dialect, “No one here can read.” Of course, I did not speak his language.

That day I wrote in my journal, “Today I felt like someone witnessing a drowning scene. Here’s someone drowning in a river. Here I am standing on the shore, not being able to do anything, since I could not swim!”

“Lord how would they ever hear Your message of eternal love, unless someone goes and lives among them, learns their language, and translates the Word into their language, teaching them how to read it?” Then I could feel the Lord tapping on my shoulder, “How could they, unless you go? I have chosen and appointed you…”

Mawchi was the first language we began learning and translating the Bible into. Then, we began organizing an adult literacy program. After the literacy training was over, the first book to be given for reading was the gospel of Mark. The story of the elderly lady is from one of these literacy classes. 

After completing the Mawchi New Testament and portions of the Old Testament, we moved to the next people group called the Vasavi. As we lived in the village, learning and analyzing the language, people began to come to faith, and soon a small local assembly was planted. As the Bible translation progressed, the assembly began to grow amidst serious opposition. More people began to come forward as seekers, with more villages being reached. Now the Bible translation is being done by mother tongue speakers whom we have trained. The New Testament in both book and audio format is now available. Translation of the Old Testament is progressing rapidly. We would like to see the full Bible published soon. There are now 25 New Testament assemblies and to mold future leaders, we run a Bible school. However, there are still more villages who have never heard the gospel.

Keeping the Meaning of the Word Intact – 2000s

I grew up reading the Bible in Malayalam, my mother tongue. There were times I had to refer to an English Bible to understand it. One of my close Hindu friends would tell me often, “I would like to read your Bible; but the language is so old that it takes research to understand what it actually means.”

That was when I decided that I should be making a new translation of the Bible in my mother tongue; in a style, idiom, and diction that accurately conveys the original meaning of God’s Word. About 10 years ago, Biblica (aka International Bible Society) asked me to spearhead some of their translation projects in South Asia. This included the Malayalam language! A team of translators were recruited and trained, mostly from the brethren assemblies. The full Bible was published in September 2021. Similar projects for other major languages are going on across South Asia. As a consultant I work with the translators, word by word, ensuring the intended meaning of our Lord’s Word is intact.

From Legalism to Liberty – The Beginning

As a first-born son to my ultra-Syrian Orthodox parents, I was consecrated to be a priest even before I was born. Attending every mass, performing all the rituals and sacraments, I assumed that I was on my way to heaven; until I was told by one of my Sunday School teachers that I also needed to have a personal relationship with the Lord. It sounded weird to me, a pious teenager. To my query, he replied I must confess that I was a sinner and believe that Christ died for my sins.

I said, “No way, I am not a sinner!” To me sin was drinking, smoking, cursing, fighting; none of which I had been doing. Then my Sunday school teacher gave me his Bible and asked me to read Matthew’s gospel chapters 5 to 7. When the Holy Spirit began to speak to me, I had no difficulty confessing my sins. He showed me that the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son can cleanse me of all my sins (1 John 1:7). So, I remember walking back home, elated, liberated, and feeling as if I was in the clouds. But I continued in the traditional church, and after my undergraduate studies, joined the theological seminary of the Orthodox church to become a priest.

Through my personal Bible study, I was beginning to feel that not everything that the church taught and practiced had been according to the Scriptures. For instance, they believe that the Lord’s Table is a re-enactment of the Lord’s sacrifice. They use a Syriac term (KURBONO) which means a “sacrifice.” The teaching is that every time their “priest” conducts the Lord’s Table, they are actually re-crucifying the Lord.

My reading led me to the book of Hebrews. The opening verses of Hebrews chapter 9 describe the structure of the Tabernacle, the furniture thereof including the Ark of the Covenant. It tells us so vividly how the high priest enters the Holy of Holies, only once every year, with blood which he offers for himself and the people (Heb 9:7).

My eyes got stuck at the passage beginning with verse 11. “But when Christ came as high priest of the good things to come…he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” That was sufficient for me and I decided that I could not continue with that denomination.

Leaving the seminary, my parents kicked me out of the house. While at OM I was introduced to the brethren assemblies and it was the love and fellowship of the brethren that attracted me. I met my wife, Susan, a minister’s daughter, at OM and together we have been serving our Lord for the last 40 years as full-time commended assembly workers, looking to the Lord only for our sustenance. My family that disowned me for my faith are all now faithful believers and part of the assembly movement. Two of my brothers serve the Lord as full-time commended workers and one is an elder. In their testimonies they claim that it was our love and fellowship that brought them to the truth.