32. Being Together

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

32. Being Together

Acts 2:44,46  All the believers were together and had everything in common…. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.

A change around: Back in Study 26 “Building People” we focused on the subject of people in the church in the context of vision. Here I want to expand on that and focus ‘church’ in the context of people. We have previously considered this verse near the end of Acts 2 but I just want to emphasize this word ‘together’ and what is implied by it, noting also the fact that they were together every day. Now I know this was the embryonic church and it was full of excitement, no doubt at the wonder of the new thing that was happening and, indeed, I have been around and been part of the birth of a new local church – and it is exciting – but the sense that comes over in these verses just seems to highlight and emphasize the different culture of which we are part today. I know that the experience of church for some is simply an hour on a Sunday morning each week – and that’s it!   It is possible that there is an hour prayer meeting or maybe a fellowship group once a week or once every two weeks, but it seems our ‘church experience’ is so often far from what we find here in Acts.

Modern Culture: Now I can almost sense the angst rising up in some as they want to scream out, “But we’re so busy!”  Now I assume this is a purely Western experience that comes out of affluence, the ability to travel and the amazing provision that is here within modern culture. Last year we visited a couple of friends who had moved out of our district several years ago and we were doing a catch-up visit. “So what do you do with yourselves up here, John?” I asked with a slightly foolish condescending attitude, that now they were living in this rural area they probably found it hard to fill their time. For the next half hour John listed off and explained the ten activities that they were now involved with each week, things outside their church experience (which they still maintained). I sat dumbstruck and chastened. They had fuller and more interesting lives than we had – but their life WAS FULL.

I watch the families of our three children and observe the many things the grandchildren get involved with. I watch other young families and see how one or other of the parents is constantly taxiing the children from one football practice to an art group to a ballet class to tennis lesson, and so it goes on. It is little wonder that to focus on these strange Christians in Acts 2 is almost embarrassing. It is another world. The tragedy for us – and it seems we don’t realize this most of the time – is that this merry-go-round of activities (ours and of the children) saps our energy or we fail to see these things in the light of the potential of the kingdom of God.

Modern Relationships: The world of text, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. etc. seems to suggest a world of communication, a world of relationships but more and more studies indicate that the truth is that these communication methods are purely superficial and although they do give a feeling of connectiveness it is very shallow, and many (at a point of vulnerability) confess that they have very few real friends. So why is that? Is it that real friendship means sitting down and spending time, face-to-face sharing open-heartedly, and that in reality we can only have a limited number of real friends with whom we do open up and share our hearts?

A Modern Agenda: So here is a suggestion. First, recognize the value of real relationships with other Christians – we’ll come to that in a moment. Second, pencil into your diary or wall calendar or phone calendar, specific times when you will purposefully not let anything else get in the way so you have value times with a limited number of church friends. (Yes, it may be that this is a ‘fellowship group’ or ‘house group’ but be careful what you do at that!)

Biblical focus: To make sure we don’t let this become just some social exercise, let’s remind ourselves of the New Testament teaching that reminds us of this ‘togetherness’ thing. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (Jn 13:34) “Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves.” (Rom 12:10) “Live in harmony with one another.” (Rom12:16) “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you.” (Rom 15:7) “agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you.” (1 Cor 1:10) “encourage one another.” (2 Cor 13:11) serve one another humbly in love.” (Gal 5:13) “be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Eph 4:2) “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other,” (E;ph 4:32) “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 5:21) “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” (Col 3:16) “encourage one another.” (1 Thes 4:18, 5:11) encourage one another daily.” (Heb 3:13) “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” (Heb 10:24) “Keep on loving one another.” (Heb 13:1) do not slander one another.” (Jas 4:11) Don’t grumble against one another.” (Jas 5:9) “love one another deeply, from the heart.” (1 Pet 1:22) “Offer hospitality to one another.” (1 Pet 4:9) “clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” (1 Pet 5:5) We should love one another.” (1 Jn 3:11, 3:23, 4:7, 4:11,12 2 Jn 1;5)

Christian Community: Now there is sufficient to say here that we will continue this in the next study on ‘Fellowship’ but with what we have considered here in this present study may we make one or two closing comments. The New Testament teaching is laden with instructions that indicate the expectation of a community, of relationships of a nature that shows in the church a whole variety of interactions that God expects of us. Obviously these cannot happen (and therefore we miss out and our lives will be stunted) if we never meet with one another. An hour on Sunday morning is not adequate. As to all the things we take our children to, or get involved in ourselves outside church, what brilliant opportunities to make contact with others outside the church and build relationships there which create, in turn, opportunities to share Jesus and show others the love of God. Enough to ponder on for the moment.

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21. Easy Believers?

Short Meditations in John 7:  21.  Easy Believers?

Jn 7:21  Jesus said to them, “I did one miracle, and you are all amazed.

I said back in v.19 that Jesus is unpredictable. We think we know where he’s going or what he’s saying, but then he suddenly seems to change direction and say something completely different. Back in v.19 he said, “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”  And now he turns back to the subject of doing miracles and their response to what he had done, which appears to be exactly opposite. What is going on?

Well, I think there are two things here. The first is a matter of contrast. On one hand the Jews said one thing about themselves but did something different, and on the other hand they say bad things about Jesus and are yet amazed at what he was doing. They said they were followers of Moses – but didn’t follow the law- and then they said Jesus was bad yet had to acknowledge the miracles he did.

The second thing is seeing the flow of what had happened. Yes Jesus had performed healings in Jerusalem, e.g. “while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name,” (2:23, also 4:45) but in fact it was the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda on a sabbath which had angered the Jews and set them plotting against him: “because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him,” (5:16) but then, “In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (17,18) That was what had really triggered it off.

So we have this almost funny situation where Jesus asked the question, “why are you trying to kill me,” and of course the answer is, “Because you claim to be God,” and yet they refuse to actually be honest and speak that out because behind it is the truth of the works that Jesus has been doing which surely point to the truth of his identity.  I used the word ingenuous in the previous study about Jesus  and it applies here also. It means appearing completely innocent of guile and yet there is this underlying sense that Jesus is delightfully herding them back towards that truth which they do not want to verbalize. You really don’t want to spar verbally with the Son of God!

Do we find Jesus herding us towards the truth about who we are, about our need of him, of about who he truly is? He is constantly working to get us to face the truth.

22. Servant-Hearted (2)

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 3 – Making of Believers

22. Servant Hearted (2)

Matt 20:28   the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many

Recap: In the previous study we noted verses at the beginning that point us toward this subject that show that having a servant heart starts by seeing it in Jesus and then follows by the expectation that any disciple of his will be the same.  We concluded by noting that we are called to be servants but that means servants first and foremost of God, and the way we express that servant-heartedness should be as an expression of our loving relationship with Him and the things He puts on our hearts to do. In that study we noted three wrong ways of thinking about serving but now we need to go on and see this serving from a slightly different angle.

The Errors: The reality behind these wrong attitudes or ways of thinking that we considered in the previous study, can be expressed as a number of ensuing practical errors, the things that are wrong in this apparent appearance of ‘serving’ or the way we go about serving. In observing the errors we can then see the way things should be.

First, there is the reality of the problem of ‘service’. Most simply put, first of all, there are too many needs in the world out there for us to meet all of them. Unless we have a large and diverse congregation, we will be limited in manpower and ability. I remember a well-known Christian leader of many decades ago warning of this; we are not called to meet every need of society, there are too many of them. Second there is the truth of the reality behind those problems: many of them will be resolved when the individuals in question meet Jesus and allow him to straighten out their lives.

So, our first realization is that although we are called to help people and love them, that help and love is first shown by sharing the Gospel with them, to help them see that through Christ they can come into a living relationship with God who has a plan and purpose to bless their life once they accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord, as we have considered earlier in these studies. So failing to perceive the extent and nature of the needs around us, is the first error, which can lead us into unnecessary stress as we think we need to be all things to all men. No, the answer comes when we address the second error.

Second, there is the danger of human wisdom in the absence of God’s wisdom, and so we see a need in the world around us and leap at it. We need to remember what we’ve just said and realize that when Jesus gave the picture of the vine and branches (Jn 15) he was conveying a picture of life flowing from him to us. That ‘life’ includes, wisdom, revelation, direction, purpose and power. Now the important thing to note is that those things come when we wait on God, submit to Him, listen to Him – and we need to do this collectively, not simply as individuals. The fruit of failing to do that is fruitlessness! We start projects and they totter on with little, if any, fruit. Failing to listen to God, receiving His direction and anointing is the second error and it leads us into human-wisdom, human-effort centred activity, which so often results in our resources becoming rapidly depleted so that physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion sets in, making us vulnerable to enemy attack.

Third, there is the error of failing to ‘discern the body’, failing to recognise the hearts and the gifting of the people in our particular part of the body. Who or what is on their hearts? How are they gifted? How can we equip and release them so that what God is already doing in them can be further released to bring forth fruit? I have always been challenged by a mega-church in the Far East that ran on a cell basis and each cell was restricted to people of the same station in life, so one group might have been made up of bankers, another group shop workers, another group social workers. Now I am aware that there is a school of thought that says sanctification works best when you totally mix people but, consider, who are bankers best at reaching? Other bankers!

Let’s consider this a little further, not forgetting that ultimately we are thinking about what happens when a person becomes a Christian. Consider: “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10) Now whatever else you might think this verse says, it implies that when we come to Christ, God already knows the sort of person we are and what our potential is. Now potential is a combination of natural gifting, spiritual gifting that God wants to give us, and availability and openness of heart. All those things, I believe, contribute to what God can do with us. In the New Testament the Lord used a scholar (the apostle Paul), a professional, a doctor (Luke), an ordinary fisherman (Peter) and another ordinary fisherman (John). As a result, churches were planted all over the place and an amazing repository of fundamental teaching was produced (Paul), an early history of Jesus’ ministry and that of the early church established (Luke), a church established under apostolic calling (Peter), and the long-term witness of that church built up with deeper understanding of Jesus (John). Different people, different personalities, different abilities, different potential. So who have we got in the part of the body where we are located? What is my gifting? How do all these things fit together? What is God putting on our hearts (not merely the heart of the leader)? What is God saying through the prophets and prophetic people? If we pay attention to these things, we will not have square pegs in round holes, people serving out of guilt trying to fulfil someone else’s ministry, people running out of resources and becoming a problem themselves.

Fourth, and I believe this is often a major problem in the modern church, we look to what needs doing in the church, and the perceived needs of the community around the church, while failing to care for the sheep within the church. I wonder in how many churches, where a large number, for a variety of reasons, have been wounded or damaged by life, are now living by putting on a brave face, being one of God’s children, and their inner needs and hurts are not being ministered to because the church is too taken up with ‘outreach’ without getting the balance. That is both uncaring and unrighteous and stops people being effective members of the body of Christ, because deep down those hurts from the past produce doubts and questions in the present. It also probably means that when people from outside are helped, are saved, their deepest needs are similarly not addressed because the whole work is too shallow.

Fifth, because the church direction is lacking God’s wisdom and empowering, the various areas of service are not being done as they should and so are done badly, resulting in little fruit and blessing, and those involved become weary and exhausted and downcast. There is also frequently a failure to recognise the spiritual dynamics or spiritual warfare (which we’ll consider later in the series) involved in what we are doing, and thus we can find the enemy running rings round us.  The error here is the failure to understand the situation and failure to equip and empower God’s people to cope with it.

A Right Approach: So how do we sum up these things?  First we must be clear: service is not to be a legalistic outworking of the guilty conscience of the church. It is to be the loving expression or outworking of the relationship we have with our Lord, whereby we come to realise who we are – sons and daughters of God – realise that He has purposes for us (see Eph 2:10) and when we move in them, He will guide us into what He wants us to be doing and that will bless both us and those we serve. Moreover He will guide us as to how we do it (with wisdom) and empower us with His Spirit so that we will be fruitful.

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (Jn 4:34) As we do what God gives us to do – in His way, with His empowering – it will be like food and will nourish us. Moreover, note the words, “and to finish his work”. We will not have projects that fade away from lack of energy and lack of fruit. Consider the will of the Father for Jesus for three years: success, blessing, thousands taught, thousands healed, many delivered from demons, some even raised from the dead. THAT was fruitful service.

And So? Is it down to The Leader? We are a body and so there are many different gifts and abilities within the local body. Collectively we need to wait on the Lord for His vision – that builds, restores and blesses the church internally, and then blesses the world round about us with His love and goodness. One man gets only a partial vision. “victory is won through many advisers.” (Prov 11:14  Also 15:22, 24:6) The good news is that we are not called to serve alone. Service is the flow of life from Jesus to his people (vine and branches), a flow through the body of Christ with its many parts that blesses both the servant and the served. May it be so.  As we move into the next part of this series, on what the Church actually is, we will start with the vital subject of ‘vision’ that we have just mentioned.

(Here again at the end of this Part we present an overview of the series)

Part 1 – Falling Short?

  1. Wonderings about Church
  2. Concern for People
  3. Challenged by Scripture
  4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
  5. Problems with Religion and Revival
  6. Appearance & Performance (1)
  7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Part 2 – A Different People

  1. Different
  2. Believers
  3. Supernatural
  4. Repentance and Conviction
  5. Needing to be ‘Saved’?
  6. A People of Faith

Part 3 – Making of Believers

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

  1. The Significance of Vision
  2. More on ‘Why Vision?’
  3. The God Focus
  4. Spiritual Expressions
  5. Building People

Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

  1. Clear your Mind
  2. A New Creation
  3. Life (1)
  4. Life (2)
  5. Being Together
  6. Fellowship

Part 6 – thinking about Leaders

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

  1. Uniqueness
  2. Another quick look at ‘Vision’
  3. Power – for Life Transformation
  4. Power – for Life Service
  5. Power – for Living
  6. The Need for Faith
  7. More on Faith.
  8. Obedience
  9. Finale – the Church on God’s heart

21. Servant-Hearted (1)

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 3 – Making of Believers

21. Servant Hearted (1)

Matt 20:28   the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many

Matt 23:11,12 The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Mk 9:35  Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Purpose: I said at the beginning of this Part that we would recognise the needs that we have as we come to God and then what He does to meet those needs. I am not sure I’ve done that in each of the recent studies, but I feel it is important to do it at this point. Now I also said at the start of this part that we would move on from the general ways Christians are different from non-Christians to consider just what happens when a person does actually become a Christian, in God’s eyes as declared in the New Testament. Looking back I wonder if this study should have been partnered with No.17 on Humility, because the old life we had lived prior to coming to Christ was, we have noted many times, self-centred and godless. However in the process of coming to Christ, there came this recognition of this attitude and we repented of that and turned from it to become others-centred and godly. The first ‘other’ is of course God and the result of making Him the centre of our life is godliness, and that is expressed in various ways. One of them is in humility and another is in taking on a servant heart – a heart to be available to God to be used by Him to bless His world, starting with the Church.

Servant-hearted?   Our verses above clearly indicate Jesus’ desire for his disciples to also be servants. We said previously that Christians are to be seen as disciples, those who learn from the ‘master’ and who become like the ‘master’. Well this master came, he said, to serve as a servant. A servant is one who does the bidding of another and although we see Jesus using such language as, “What is it you want” (Mt 20:21) in response to the mother of James and John coming to him, it is clear from what follows that he is not here to automatically do our bidding.  However, a short while later in response to the cries of two blind men, Jesus asked, What do you want me to do for you?” (Mt 20:32) and, in response to their faith, healed them both. In the latter case we might suggest that Jesus ‘served’ them – using his power – because that conformed to his mandate (see Lk 4:18,19 and Mt 11:5), the will of the Father for him. Thus we must suggest that when Jesus speaks of himself as a servant it is one who serves the will of the Father, the will of the Godhead decreed before the foundation of the world.

A Starting Expectation: Perhaps we should first recognize the fact of expectations that we find in many Bible-believing circles, the right expectation, that God wants us to be those who are doing, the expectation that the Christian life should be a ‘doing’ life, an active life. Now because of that, we can find many ‘doing things’ in the church context but for not the right reasons, and this takes us to the heart of the subject of ‘servant-heartedness’.  They ‘do’ for the sake of doing, not because it is the natural Spirit-led flow of life and of their relationship with the Father. So, check out these (wrong) ways of thinking why people ‘do’ stuff as Christians:

Wrong Attitudes: So in our starter-verses above we see Jesus teaching that he wants us to be servants and, like him, we are to be first and foremost servants of God, ones who obey God’s calling, but what do we so often find as we look around the church? What is it motivating people to be ‘doing stuff’ in church?

First of all there are those have a pious look about them that says they are serving God but what it is in reality is that they are seeking to appease God. They still think they need to get God on their side or appease Him for their failures (sins), which they seek to cover up by the public display of service. As we pointed out in the previous study, their serving to please and get God on their side, to make sure their salvation is complete is, of course, error. Our salvation is complete and we cannot add to it, so serving for this reason is a wrong way of thinking.

Second, there are those who seek to impress others. and this can be true in several different ways. First, this can be most simply the member of the congregation who wants to please the Pastor, the Minister, or whatever other name the leader is known by. After all he preaches his heart out that we should be servants of God and so we want to please him and honor him, so we think we are serving to bless the minister, but actually that is a wrong focus. At this point someone might be asking, “But does it matter as long as we’re serving?” Well actually, yes, because our serving should flow out of our relationship with God, not with the minister.

Second, it is also possible that the leader isn’t serving for a right motive. We would hope that he/she is serving God and that is as a result of a specific calling, but it is quite difficult to be a minister without having that sense of being observed by the congregation, some of whom at least will be thinking, “Is he/she earning their money?” so another aspect of this one is that the Pastor-Minister-Leader may feel driven as an ‘employee’ of the people not as a Spirit-led child of God with a special calling.

Third, in this ‘impressing others’ category, there is also personal fulfillment issues in the person serving, not only the main leader, but it could be the church secretary, a deacon, even a worship leader. Being seen to be an ‘out-front person’ is without doubt a potentially ego-boosting experience and it is only attention to that previous study on humility that can stop a subtle growth of pride in ‘being a leader’.

So, third, returning to the primary general wrong attitudes that we can hold, there are those who serve out of a guilty conscience because they feel they ‘ought’ to serve and ought to be seen to be doing something.  One of the greatest temptations of the modern church (and this is primarily at leadership level) is that we hear what other people are doing, we hear of their successes and so if they are successful in that way then, we think, if we do the same thing we too will be successful. So we scour around the Christian world and come across a variety of things that others are doing, maybe even established organisations that can be most helpful in a particular ministry, and we leap at those things as ways that will show God we are being obedient. They are quite likely to be things that could come under the umbrella of ‘reaching out into the community’ or even ‘growing the church’ – and that surely must be good (we think). But was it what God wanted?

And so? Well there is a lot there to digest and think about and we have yet more to cover, so let’s end this particular study with a summary statement: we are called to be servants but that means servants first and foremost of God, and the way we express that servant-heartedness should be as an expression of our loving relationship with Him and the things He puts on our hearts to do. We’ll consider some more of this in the studies ahead.

20. No Add-ons

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 3 – Making of Believers

20. No Add-ons

Jn 19:28-30  Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

The Cross?  There is an aspect of being a believer that I think we should cover and this appears the appropriate place to do it. In the previous study we touched on the subject of sacrifice and inevitably that takes us to the Cross. Now when we use the words, ‘the Cross’ like that, we don’t just mean the two pieces of timber that were used to execute a criminal, but the work or effect that Jesus dying on that wooden execution piece had. It covers everything that Christ achieved.

Sacrifice: Yesterday we touched on the fact that the New Testament speaks of Christ dying as a sacrifice, and we quoted, Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; (Heb 9:28) but it comes up many times, for example, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed,” (1 Cor 5:7) and “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood,” (Rom 3:25) and “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” (Eph 5:2) and “Christ ….has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb 9:26) and “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” (Heb 10:10) and “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world,” (1 Jn 2:2) and “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:10)

The Sin-Bearer: Isaiah had made this clear: “by knowledge of him my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities….. For he bore the sin of many” (Isa 53:11,12) In that he was summing up the work of the whole sacrificial system within the Law of Moses whereby the guilty were to offer a sacrifice of an animal and by placing their hand upon it as it was killed, the picture was that their sin was passed to it and it was dying to take the punishment of the sinner. The apostle Peter echoed this when he wrote, “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” (1 Pet 2:24) When the word ‘atonement’ is used (see above Rom 3:25, 1 Jn 2:2, 4:10) it again reflects the Old Testament Law. It basically means ‘a making at one’ (at-one-ment), bringing us back to God by removing the one thing that separates us, our sin, our guilt, the punishment that justice demands.  In the Gospels we find, the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45 & Mt 20:28) There we find implied the same idea of a substitute that was implied in the Old testament sacrifice of atonement. Jesus stood in for us and carried all of our sins in himself on the cross at Calvary. Paul echoes this in 1 Tim 2:6 and the writer to the Hebrew in Heb 9:15.

Finished: looking at our starter verses, just before he actually died, hanging on the cross, we find John observing, “knowing that everything had now been finished,” Jesus received the drink and declared, “It is finished.” There is no further commentary by John in the text but his previous comment indicates an understanding that the life of revealing the Father to the Jewish public and then his work as the atoning sacrifice to take our sins and our punishment, was completed. There was no more that he could do. As he dies he carries our sins and takes our punishment.  There was no more that anyone could do.

The Point: Why am I writing this particular study?  Because so often we find make-believe believers, or young believers who have not been taught, struggling and striving to be good to appease God, or get on God’s good side, as if there is something they can do to win his approval. No you can do nothing. I find myself so often referring to “the finished work of Christ on the cross,” and I do that because we need to be reminded of this. Listen to Paul: “What happens now to human pride of achievement? There is no more room for it. Why, because failure to keep the Law has killed it? Not at all, but because the whole matter is now on a different plane—believing instead of achieving. We see now that a man is justified before God by the fact of his faith in God’s appointed Saviour and not by what he has managed to achieve under the Law.” (Rom 3:27,28 JBP) The NIV puts it, “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded.”  None of us can boast, none of us can do anything that can cover up our sins and hide them from God, none of us can do anything sufficient to make up for them, in fact the more we do the more we express our self-centred godlessness, because we are trying to save ourselves and we are rejecting God’s provision for us.

But I want to do good! Of course you do because that is what God wants for you and what the Spirit energizes us to do. But that is just it, ‘good’ for us now is first simply believing in Jesus and utterly trusting him for our salvation, and then, once we are born again, following his word and his Spirit as he leads you. (And that takes us back to the study on being a faith people). Going to church, praying, reading the Bible, worshipping, or witnessing, none of these things make you ‘more worthy’ to be called a Christian, they are just outworkings of the faith you already have. If you try to use them to please God and ‘improve your salvation’ you fall into the trap that the Jewish Galatian Christians fell into when they went back to placing reliance on circumcision and received Paul’s very strong censure (see Gal 3). It is never ‘Christ plus’! Jesus has done everything necessary for your salvation; all you can do it receive it with thanks and praise and worship Him for His gift. Please, rest in that and stop striving.

19. The Reality of Sacrifice

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 3 – Making of Believers

19. The Reality of Sacrifice

Rom 12:2  I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Mt 10:37-39  “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

Mt 16:24  Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Sacrifice?  It is an interesting thing but in the New Testament there is virtually nothing about you and me being sacrifices for God. Now why would that be? Perhaps it is to make sure we don’t try and take on any ‘noble’ thoughts about us contributing to our salvation. There is much about Christ being sacrificed for us, for example, Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; (Heb 9:28) and when Jesus taught, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds,” (Jn 12:24), although he was clearly referring to himself, he was also laying down a principle that applies. But there was also the teaching brought from the Old Testament, “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Mt 9:13) In other words God is not impressed by self-serving sacrifice. Isa 58 is the classic chapter that hammers in nails in the coffin of self-serving sacrifice, seen in that instance in fasting and appearing religious while in other ways not bothering about righteousness.

Right Perspective: As we’ll see there is an element of sacrifice that is essential in being a Christian but it is NOT in any way for winning approval or achieving self-righteousness. In earlier studies we majored on conviction and repentance as two key elements that are necessary to come to Christ and we’ve also talked about giving up the old life of Sin and, indeed, the language of having died to sin (see Rom 6)  should be familiar to us. But consider that life that you ‘gave up’.  There was nothing heroic or noble about giving up that life because it was a life dominated by self and sin and prompted along by Satan, a life where we were enslaved to living by the senses and by human effort and striving. When we came to Christ, yes, there was a surrender, but that involved a recognition that that old life was one to be delivered from and you need God’s help even to come to that point.

Right Values:  When we came to Christ we were, by the help of the Spirit, re-evaluating our lives and recognizing that Christ was to be valued over and above all else. He alone could be the source of our salvation, which is why Jesus taught, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”. (Mt 10:37) In other words if you value people, even your closest loved ones, more than Jesus, you will always be putting them first and that will hinder you following the guidance that Jesus will bring you. If we listen to people who don’t love Jesus (implied) we will never fully receive his salvation. When Jesus went on, “whoever loses their life for my sake will find it,” he was referring to this letting go the old life so that he could bring us into a new life. Indeed to counter-balance that teaching of letting go close relationships, Jesus taught, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Lk 18:29,30) It is a promise of blessing that make up many times over for anything you think you might have lost.

Right Sacrifice: Yet there is that one powerful word from the apostle Paul: “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”  The Message version is particularly good at this point as it expands verses 1-3 of Romans 12: So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.” Isn’t that good? The “place it before God as an offering” is almost swallowed up in the goodness of God that follows because it focuses the life God has for us as THE best thing possible for us. It’s like we hand our life to Him each day and say, “Here it is Lord, just as you said, all yours for you to bless!”

Isn’t that exactly what He has promised? the riches of his glorious inheritance.” (Eph 1:18) “the incomparable riches of his grace.” (Eph 2:7) “the boundless riches of Christ.” (Eph 3:8) “his glorious riches.” (Eph 3:16) the riches of his glory.” (Phil 4:19) “the glorious riches of this mystery.” (Col 1:27) “the full riches of complete understanding.” (Col 2:2) If you want fuel for worship then just look up each of these verses in context. It’s like the Lord says, “Hey, let’s do a swap. You give me your old life and I’ll give you all these things.” Nothing to complain about there!

Taking up your cross? But then there is this unpleasant picture (as we see it) of having to carry our cross that Jesus refers to: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Mt 16:24) Well, again the Message version puts verses 24 to 26 very well: “Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?” Look, everyone living in this Fallen World ‘suffers’ at some time or other, but Jesus promises to help us through it.  But it’s more than that (and the Message misses this bit) because ‘taking up your cross’ is simply shorthand for saying, ‘keep with yourself a constant reminder that you have died to your old life and you are now walking in a resurrection life.’

Reminder of the Past: We said above that it is all about getting a new perspective.  So how do you “deny yourself”?  Well you remember that HAS happened to you: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20) It is a teaching that is repeated again and again (see Rom 6:6, Gal 6:14). Again the Message version puts it, “I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God.” i.e. I ditched the old life when I came to Christ, it’s like I killed it off (with God’s help), crucified it, if you like.   This ‘cross’ I’m carrying now is not what I’m walking towards, it’s a reminder of what has happened, what I’m walking away from, resurrected if you like, now living with the power of the resurrected Christ within me. That’s how we now ‘deny ourselves’, not by lots of self-effort, but by remembering that the old life has gone and the life I now have is his life, his power, his energy, his purposes, his plans, his goals.

In Practice? well, yes, there is a dimension of this where we make choices, acts of will, because we still have free will and so we have to employ it and ensure we live in line with what Christ is purposing for us.  Hence the apostle John taught, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 Jn 3:16)  There it is, the use of our conscious will to conform to or comply with the will of God that Jesus is working in us. That is the life we now live, resurrected with his power in us, dead to the old ways, alive to God, raised by Him. (See Rom 6:11, Eph 2:4-6, Col 2:13, 3:1) This is the truth of your life and mine as those who have been born again. That resurrected life means being open to and receiving his life, his power, his guidance, his wisdom and his grace. “if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”  (2 Cor 5:17 RSV) Hallelujah!

18. Getting on a Learning Curve

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 3 – Making of Believers

18. Getting on a Learning Curve

Mt 11:29   Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Heb 5:12-14  though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Students:  When we speak about a learning curve we refer to a person’s progress in gaining knowledge and experience. When we speak of a ‘steep learning curve’ we mean there has been a lot of learning in a short period of time. If it is a shallow learning curve it means we have learnt very slowly over a longer period of time. On a graph of learning (the vertical axis) and time (the horizontal axis), a straight horizontal line denotes no additional learning taking place. Now I wonder what your learning curve looks like?  Not long ago, after I had retired from leading my own church, we went to a large local church (large for the UK that is) and both my wife and I were dismayed at the ignorance that was obvious in this church.

Learning what? “Hold on,” I hear some saying, “what are you suggesting you wanted to see there? What do you want for us?”  Well, let’s talk about what first of all, and then why.  I heard someone the other day say out loud, “My knowledge of the Bible is rubbish,” and yet I know that person has been a Christian for many years. What have they been doing, what has their church been doing all those years? When I became a Christian over fifty years ago, within two years I was leading seven different bible studies a week. I was hungry for God’s word and found others who were similarly hungry. And then I go into the church prayer meeting and I hear people just throwing out requests to God like He was a market stall holder giving out goodies. Where is the sense of the God of strategy and purpose who is found when we wait upon Him and seek Him in prayer? Why haven’t these people been taught what prayer is all about so they see it as the lifeblood of the church’s experience? So I look around and hear people confessing how difficult their lives are and I wonder about the absence of teaching about overcoming, about spiritual warfare in prayer, and personal prayer ministry? Where are these things? And that’s just a start!

But why? Stop and think what has happened when a person becomes a believer. Listen to how the Message version puts Paul’s description of what our old lives used to be like: “It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us.” (Eph 2:1-3) Look at that – you let the world tell you how to live, a life of unbelief and disobedience, and self-centred in every way. To the Romans he said, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Rom 12:2)

The ’what’ again: So we turned away from our old life which was going nowhere except downhill. We were convicted by the Holy Spirit of the mess we were in and we turned to God and received His salvation through Christ. Right! Now before us we have a whole new life, one that is not self-centred but Christ centred, one that is not godless but God-focused (godly). We have so much to learn! Now I would suggest that there are the following areas of learning we need to look at:

  • learning who God is and what He is like (correcting all the old false ideas we had previously),
  • learning what a relationship with Him means,
  • learning the character He wants to form in us that is Christ-like,
  • learning how to relate to others in a Christ-like way,
  • learning how to manage my life righteously (e.g. handling money at work etc.),
  • learning to recognize my gifts and talents that he has given me,
  • learning how to become like Jesus and do his works as he leads me (part of his ‘body’ that we will consider in detail in a later Part).

The call of a disciple: Those who Jesus followed in the Gospels were called disciples. A disciple is first and foremost a follower who learns to be like their ‘master’ (or teacher or mentor) and the important word is ‘learns’. When Jesus commissioned the church he told them, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19,20). It was a call to create a church who learnt to be like Jesus, not only in character but also in action. Sadly in the modern church we focus on the character part, but we limit the ‘doing’ to what some have called the ‘spiritual disciplines’ – prayer, Bible reading, worship, witnessing – and have stopped there.

A Step Further: But is that all that Jesus expects of us? He taught a lot on prayer, but virtually nothing about preaching or bible reading, although there is this strong indication that the church should be teaching the truths we have been talking about. Worship, yes, a natural expression of love for God when we come together. Witnessing, a natural sharing when we rub shoulders with our neighbors and they ask us why we are so good, loving, gracious, caring, compassionate etc. etc. as we are. But consider what Jesus said he was doing: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Mt 11:5) and then his teaching, “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12)

A New Mandate for your Life? Now it is clear from the Gospels that Jesus meant each of those things literally and physically, so somewhere along the line, I suggest, we need to learn to do those things, or at least get the whole body to do those things, because (and we’ll see it in a later Part) there are some described as those with the gift of healing (1 Cor 12:9,28,30) which implies not everyone – so relax, it may be you or not.

But how about spiritualising those things above, which I think is legitimate for this exercise, to take the pressure of those who fear the literal translation. Let’s see if this is any easier for you. Can we expand that verse in Mt 11:5 as follows: “(i) those who have been spiritually blind and have been unable to understand and receive the gospel, have been enabled to see and understand it; (ii) those who are limping through life, lacking strength, lacking purpose, lacking clarity, have been enabled to walk tall with purpose; (iii) those whose lives are blighted by past bad relationships, bad experiences and lies from the enemy, have been ministered to by the love of Jesus, forgiven, cleansed, restored and set running with purpose; (iv) those who had apparently been unable to ‘hear’ what we had been saying to them, suddenly now start showing they are hearing it; (v) those who are clearly spiritually dead heed the Gospel and receive his life and are raised to new lives, and (vi) those who have been made to feel they are nothing have received the good news that in God’s sight they are precious. How about that as a fresh mandate for your life, what has happened to you, for the things you say and do, and for the mandate of the church?

Challenging the Impossible: But, I hear some saying, I’m not sure I can do that. Isn’t it merely a matter of you learning to do it, learning to listen to God, learning to seek Him for His wisdom, His words, His faith? But I’ve got so little faith, I hear another say. Excellent, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Mt 17:20)  Go back to the study on a faith people. Faith coming from hearing. When you hear God and respond to what you hear, THEN stuff will happen, but it is a learning exercise and it starts with that realization. The truth is that Jesus is the Master-Teacher and he knows you are a slow learner (!!!!). Why do I say that? Because he chose twelve close disciples who traveled with him for three years and who saw all the incredible things he was doing and heard all the amazing teaching, but still got it wrong, still argued who was the greatest, still wanted to call fire down on those who didn’t agree with them, still betrayed him, still denied him, still abandoned him – but he kept on with them. Peter is our best example of a failure and yet still appointed to lead the church (read Jn 21). Amazing! Then see him in Acts doing the stuff. Talk about a learning curve!

And Us? Hungry for the truth? I hope so. Become a learner. Got questions? Become a learner. Got doubts? Become a learner. Got a murky past? Become a learner. God failures? Become a learner. Unsure of the future? Become a learner. Unsure of your part in the church, the body of Christ? Become a learner. Learning knowledge? Yes, but more than that, be a doer, a listener to God, one in whom faith grows, one who learns to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s daily leading, grow in it. And when you stumble and fall and get it wrong, get up again and learn from it. Learning includes failures and mistakes and Jesus doesn’t abandon you when you get it wrong; he wants you to learn from it. It’s a life of learning, lifelong learning. Amen? Amen!