26. Spiritual Expressions

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

26. Spiritual Expressions

1 Cor 2:13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.

Eph 2:10 we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

God-centred: at the beginning of the previous study I spoke about focusing on what church was all about, summarized in two suggestions. First, make the ‘Spiritual’ the keystone of your direction, the starting point and then, second, make ‘building people’ your second priority, and we started considering the first of those two things, the need (often taken for granted and therefore not practiced) for being God-centred. This, we said, should impact every expression of our relationship with the Lord and our ministry, and noted how obedience is to be virtually the key starting place for both of those. Now I am aware that this is all about vision, and although these are not things we want to spell out in a brief mission statement, they are nevertheless the realities that we need to keep before us. So rather than plough on into ‘building people’ we need to flesh out some of the aspects of the Christian life and ministry, seen under the magnifying glass of this part – “Being God-centred”.

Spirit-Led: I fear if you go into many churches and randomly ask people in the congregation, what it means to be Spirit-led, you would receive a lot of blank looks, because I have rarely heard it preached upon and taught. Surely we need to build a people who are open to the Holy Spirit, who are learning to sense/listen to Him and respond to Him, producing leaders who lead in the ways of the Spirit, who can be an example and go ago ahead (that’s what leaders do!) in the Spirit.  Surely we need to encourage our people who are unquestionably people of the Word and of the Spirit, to feed and drink and then feed others and enable others to drink, being seen to be people stepping out in faith and in the Spirit and trusting God to turn up, not being afraid to get it wrong.

Spiritual Expressions (Disciplines): If we are to be God-centred, God-focused, we also need to major on Prayer, creating meetings that do not just utter words but who learn to listen to God and then pray out of what they hear. We should encourage leaders to always be at them, and encourage the church to be at them, and give it high profile at every opportunity

In Preaching, we need to focus on who we are rather than ‘this is what you do’ to build assurance, confidence and faith, challenging people to rise to a vision of ‘this is who we ARE and this is therefore what we can rise to’.  i.e. we motivate by preaching grace not law, vision not vices, hope not guilt, reaching up, not driving up. Beware teaching ‘law’ (more Bible reading, more prayer) but instead show attainable goals that build faith. Again and again, can we place an emphasis on being God-enabled in this, rather than just intellect driven.

In Teaching encourage our leaders and then our flock, to be well read, both in the Bible and outside it, feed people and give them a strong base for their belief, also equipping them to resist the thinking of the world, knowing who and what they are and why, to give a springboard to ‘becoming’. As above, again and again, may we motivate by grace and flow out of our relationship with the Lord, being God-orientated at all times.

In Worship, can we encourage expressive and involved and Spirit-inspired worshipping and, as the Spirit is allowed to move, be seen to be an initiator, enabler, a totally involved follower.

The Problems of Leadership: Our greatest failure is to look to people who are successful in the world. I can remember in my youth being in a church where the diaconate of twelve men trouped out of a door at the front of the auditorium with the Minister, twelve men in suits, twelve men at the top of their game, bankers, lawyers, accountants and the like, and the church was proud to have such men at the front. But there were at least six problems with that. First, these were committee men, men good at running organisations, not organic bodies like the church. The church is the body of Christ and he is its head and the Spirit is its energizing and directing force.

Second, there is a great deal of difference between a business man and a spiritual leader. One might suggest that being a deacon is merely being a servant who helps administer the practical side of the church (see Acts 6) but actually the Biblical requirement is that they be filled with the Spirit (back to God again!). The other thing, in my past experience in that particular denomination was that deacons sought to exercise power and authority (in the role of elders) without having either the calling or equipping for that. We’ll look at this in detail later in the series. Third, these men were so proper, so respectable, that I am sure none of them would have dared step out in the Spirit if He might encourage them to do something ‘undignified’.

Fourth, this respectability drove such a wedge between them and the poor people who they were supposed to be serving. Some might say their lives were so different from some of the poorer members of the church (past tax-collectors and sinners?) that they would hardly know how to communicate with them. Fifth, and this goes back to an earlier study in an earlier part, humility was often lacking in these men, so not so good examples of Christ-like servants. Sixth, perhaps associated with this, these men could be seriously opinionated and so when there was a difference of opinion, politics came into play, and church is not the place to play politics. Now all I am doing here is showing from a past example what church leadership should NOT be like. Where the emphasis is on God, on serving and obeying Him, being those who respond to His Spirit and who are filled with the Spirit and with gifts of the Spirit, these things above, tend to disappear.

True Leaders: Now this may not be something that you want to work into your vision materials but it is, I suggest, nevertheless, stuff you want to hold before you as you think about ‘church’. What is a true spiritual leader? First of all, in general outlook, they are not someone who is perfect but someone who knows who they are in Christ, what their calling is, where their resources are, what their limitations are, and what they do when they fail.  I suggest, as far as God is concerned, they will be people of prayer and people of the word. Generally they will people of faith, people who listen to God and who respond to Him, people who are filled with the Spirit and are led by Him, people of vision seeing possibilities that are realistic in God and in the light of the people available, people of humility but who are not afraid to lead with the calling they have in God.

One would hope that they are hungry for God and when tiredness, weariness and exhaustion blunt that, they have the wisdom and humility to step back, sit down and get refreshed. They will recognize availability in the flock and will encourage people to recognize the gifts God is giving them, encourage them in those gifts and maybe even pray for them for those gifts to be released.  They will not be one-man ministries and they will not lord it over others as a CEO but will act as the chief servant being an example to all (see Jesus in Jn 13). We could no doubt add to that list (and may do in subsequent studies) but for now that should be enough to help refocus on the nature of this body we call the church and those who lead it. More will come later but there is just one more thing that needs mentioning here in this context.

Accountability: Leaders need to find spiritually mature (if possible) people who are for them, inside the church, to whom they can be accountable as they share with them, making opportunities for them to sit and listen to, question and encourage them. ‘Outside people’ cannot do this because they will not be there on the ground to watch and be there in it (and our natural tendency with ‘outside people’ is to only share with them things we are comfortable sharing).  ‘Insiders’ should be given permission to be honest, which doesn’t mean you have to follow everything they say but go away and weigh it – and you are more likely to get a realistic assessment. This is simply a safety measure and where it is real and there grows a close and open relationship, it will help guard against the temptations that the enemy would bring that has caused the downfall of so many leaders who did not have that protection.

And So? We have been considering how we can make the church what it is meant to be – a living expression of a relationship of people with their God, something that goes beyond simply mouthing words, and becomes reality that not only blesses the Church but also reveals the Lord to the onlooking world. May that become how it is for your local church and mine. But if we said the starting point for ‘church’ is making the ‘Spiritual’ the keystone of your direction, we said, second, making ‘building people’ our second priority and that is what we will move onto in the next and concluding Part on ‘vision’.

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65. A Special Encounter

Meditations in Exodus: 65. A Special Encounter

Ex 24:1,2  Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, but Moses alone is to approach the LORD; the others must not come near. And the people may not come up with him.”

Chapters 20-23 were largely the Ten Commandments and then the basic Law. Chapters 25 to 27 will be instructions how to build and establish the Tabernacle, and chapters 28 and 29 about establishing the priesthood. In other words, ahead of us are pages of instructions to do with providing a place and a means for worship for the nation in the coming years. But before we pass that by, we have here in chapter 24 two crucial incidents.

First of all the Lord calls the leaders to a unique encounter: Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, but Moses alone is to approach the LORD; the others must not come near. And the people may not come up with him.(v.1,2) The group chosen are Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s two sons and seventy of the elders of Israel. Now note the order of what happens. The Lord gives this instruction to Moses, Moses establishes the covenant and only then do the men go up to meet with God. But this encounter with God is both unique and highly significant so let’s see what happened.

“Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (v.9-11) Now some may try and explain this away as simply a vision but it is not recorded in those terms. This is a unique encounter where the Lord invites these men into His presence on the mountain and twice it says they ‘saw’ Him. Now there are two things that are staggering about this.

The first thing is that Moses (assuming he wrote most of Exodus) does not even attempt to describe anything about God. Later God will tell Moses that no one can see Him and live, and even Moses himself didn’t, so this is undoubtedly a unique occasion and you would think we would get a description as appears in Ezek 1 or Rev 4, but we don’t.

The only way I can explain this is by recounting something that happened to me on my first trip out to Malaysia many years ago. I was part of a small team from the UK that joined with a larger team from New Zealand, I believe it was, and we were all split up into groups of four and sent to different parts of West and East Malaysia. The Pastor of the church that my little group went to understood I was already a leader and teacher and so kept me back with the church teaching while the other three went into the interior for an evening meeting in a local village. When they came back, the young girl of the group, while recounting how they spoke in a building with a tin roof while the rain poured down noisily, went on to casually note how she had prayed over a blind woman who had been given back her sight. It was the casual way she reported this and when I checked her on it, she was still almost casual about it. I concluded it was almost as if the Lord had used her but anesthetized her so it didn’t seem a big issue and she had no problem with pride having been used in such a way. Was this what the Lord did with Moses and so was that part of the cause that enabled some of these men to be involved in such terrible things subsequently, and was this why Moses gives us no further details?

The second staggering thing is that these men saw God and lived. Previously the Lord had given instruction that no one except Moses should go on the mountain and see God, on pain of death and we explained that in terms of God protecting the people from His glory. Now we must assume that somehow or other the form that God took here was limited otherwise these men could not have survived the experience. Nevertheless, it was a unique experience and we might ponder, why did God do it?

We are not told and are only left to speculate. Was it, I wonder, so that these men at least would have their faith and their trust increased to enable them to stand alongside Moses in leadership and bring stability in this embryonic nation?  Was it also that they would then have no excuse for any bad behaviour in the future? We are going to see some of that ‘bad behaviour’ in the not too distant future as we follow these studies through and I will remind us when we reach them of this time.

Now Jesus taught, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Lk 12:48) i.e. the greater the revelation the Lord has given the greater His expectation of us. Living today with easy access to the Bible and recordings of teaching not to mention an overabundance of TV teaching, I fear many live in a cocoon of information which is not translated into dynamic, faith-filled, action lives. How easy is it to sit, week after week, and hear good teaching and not be transformed by it.

Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons were part of that group that had that unique revelation and yet their lives were eventually taken for being casual and abusive about theirroles in the priesthood. Millennia later casual and greedy worshippers in Corinth were dying because they were being just that – casual and greedy – in the face of the wonderful revelation they had of salvation and the life and work of the Spirit (see 1 Cor 11:30). Ananias and Sapphiralost their lives for believing they could do their own thing and lie in the face of the Holy Spirit. Living in the day they did, they had witnessed miracles and received the teaching of the original apostles, and yet they missed it and went home prematurely. The more signs of the power and presence of God we experience, the higher the bar of accountability.

As I look around the state of the church, especially among the elderly who had experienced the Charismatic movement or the Toronto Blessing or any other move of God in our lifetime, I cannot help but wonder if so much of what I see is the result of poor responses to those wonderful times. I find myself praying, “Lord, please show me things in my life, the Promised Land, that you want me to get rid of, please show me if I am not living up to the revelation you have given me thus far, and please grant me your mercy and grace to do that.” Amen.

2. Accountability

Meditating on the Will of God: 2:  A Matter of Accountability

Ezek 18:23  Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

In the first of these studies we started sowing the seeds that need to flourish to give us a greater understanding of what the will of God is about. We started to consider the free will of mankind, our ability to make choices. (Of course there are some things we can choose and others that are beyond our choice and we will examine this in the days to come, as well). We mentioned along the way our verse above which, note, includes words of “the Sovereign Lord”.  Let there be no mistake, God IS sovereign, He IS the Lord; the question is all about how He exercises that sovereignty as a loving and good and perfect God. 

In that verse above, the Sovereign Lord declares His desire for men and women to repent and avoid judgment. The verses that follow, which we looked at previously, show that there are possibilities of choice, and for it to make sense there must be real, genuine possibilities of choice, the real ability to choose, otherwise when God puts options before people they will be meaningless unless the individual can genuinely make their own choice. That was true of Pharaoh who we mentioned, and it is true of us.

This concept of genuine accountability comes up more than once in Ezekiel’s ministry, but before we look at it there, really understand what we are saying here. If God says, “Choose A and you will live or choose B and you will die,” if that is not to be meaningless gobbledygook, it must mean that this individual can genuinely make their own decision. If we move into hyper Calvinism, it seems to us, those proponents of the extreme doctrine says mankind can only do what God makes them do. It is a form of determinism where there are no real choices, only set responses, but life – and the Scriptures – do not appear like that. Let’s consider what the Lord said through Ezekiel.

First of all Ezekiel taught individual accountability in chapter 18: “Suppose there is a righteous man who does what is just and right……. That man is righteous; he will surely live.” (Ezek 18:5-9) Then, “Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other things…. Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head.” (Ezek 18:10-13)  The point he is making and goes on and on making in that chapter is that an individual is accountable for what he or she does. They will not be accountable for what a close relative does but are answerable for their own sins.

Next, he taught about this in the context of himself being a watchman: “When I say to the wicked, `O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezek 33:8,9) Put aside for a moment Ezekiel’s responsibility and we are left with something quite remarkable. Look: “When I say to the wicked, `O wicked man, you will surely die… that wicked man will die for his sin, ….. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin.”  In each case there is a “wicked man” who in the first case gets no warning and so dies for his sin. In the second case he is warned and fails to repent and dies. The end result is the same in both instances but what it shows us is that even when God speaks through His servants and brings warnings, the individual can still refuse that warning. There is no indication here that God imposes His will on this man. Indeed it is clear that God is trying to get him to repent. A few verses on we find that same declaration we found in chapter 18: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek 33:11) There it is! God doesn’t want them to die – but they do!

So, as we are considering the whole subject of the will of God, we see God’s will – His desire, at least – may be one thing, but the outcome may be contrary to His desire. We may call this His permissive will, if you like, but in each case we find two scary facts:

i) the individual has a real ability to make choices, and

ii) the Lord allows them to go with that choice and they reap its fruit. 

This is what this matter of accountability is all about. Look how Ezekiel continues this teaching from the Lord: “Therefore, son of man, say to your countrymen, `The righteousness of the righteous man will not save him when he disobeys, and the wickedness of the wicked man will not cause him to fall when he turns from it. The righteous man, if he sins, will not be allowed to live because of his former righteousness.’ If I tell the righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; he will die for the evil he has done. And if I say to the wicked man, `You will surely die,’ but he then turns away from his sin and does what is just and right– if he gives back what he took in pledge for a loan, returns what he has stolen, follows the decrees that give life, and does no evil, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the sins he has committed will be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he will surely live.” (Ezek 33:12-16) We have included such a lengthy quote because of what it conveys, following straight on from the Lord’s declaration about His feelings.  What does it say? A righteous man can become unrighteous (it doesn’t mean just a single fall) and an unrighteous man can repent and become righteous. Both are answerable for their end position and one dies and the other lives. And it is all to do with their freely made choices. God doesn’t MAKE them act like they do, but He DOES hold them accountable for the choices they make. Read back through this study and see the things we have observed about His will.