46. Power – for life transformation

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

46. Power – for life transformation

1 Cor 4:20  For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.

Rom 8:9-11   You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Taken for Granted: I have a feeling that we take the word ‘power’ for granted in some parts of the church. As you may have gathered if you look back over the full sweep of this series, my mind ebbs and flows rather like the waves on the seashore and so there is a sense that some of the things that I suspect may emerge here, have already been touched upon when we talked about ‘life’ in an earlier study, but I feel that this subject is of vital importance in that it distinguishes Christian thought and experience from non-Christian, and nominal believer from real believer.  Rather that lay out a systematic, possibly soulless outline on the theme of ‘power’, I think we may be fed more from Scripture if we meander our way through verses in a more organic way, seeing where the thoughts lead us.

What is Power? I wonder what John the Baptist’s followers thought when they heard him telling the crowd, “after me comes one who is more powerful than I.” (Mt 3:11) Now John was a pretty powerful speaker. Having heard Billy Graham in the past, I would have said he also was a pretty powerful speaker. In fact the modern church has many ‘powerful speakers’, but was that what was meant about Jesus? I don’t think so. Why? Well, later on in his ministry we find people asking about Jesus, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” (Mt 13:54) which must refer back to, “Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see.” (Mt 12:22) Prior to that Jesus told John’s disciples to tell him what they had seen: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised.” (Mt 11:5) Later the apostle Peter was to sum up all this as: “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him.” (Acts 2:22) Power, seen through Jesus’ ministry was God’s life force exercising authority to bring physical and spiritual changes to people.

More than Words: We have already pondered on the use of power in respect of preaching but there is a danger here that we can short-change the kingdom of God. Paul wrote, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” (1 Cor 4:20) When Herod heard about Jesus, having known about John the Baptist – and having had him beheaded! – he knew that John was a powerful preacher, but he recognised that something was going on with Jesus that was more than what happened through John, hence he speculated, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Mt 14:2) This is the primary thing that distinguished Jesus from John, the power of God. During his teaching, Jesus chided the Sadducees, “you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Mt 22:29) I simply make that point because there he noted two distinct things: knowing the Scriptures and knowing the power of God. We (leaders) often pride ourselves on our knowledge of the Scriptures, but I wonder about the power of God?

Power of the Word for Salvation: Now I think ‘power’ is used in two ways in respect of how we come to Christ, how we are born again. First, there is a more general sense. Paul wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Rom 1:16) There is a process that is followed for elsewhere he wrote, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” (Rom 10:17) having earlier written, “a person is justified by faith,” (Rom 3:28) and went on to say, it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” (Rom 10:10)

So the process, which we have considered earlier in this series, is the word is preached to us, the Holy Spirit applies it to us and we are convicted by it in such a way that the power of unbelief in us is broken, and so we confess our sins and repent of them and receive the salvation that God offers us through Jesus’ finished work on the Cross. It is a combined work of applied Word AND Spirit, creating the power to release us to repent. (At one point Paul taught Timothy about, “the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” 2 Tim 2:25 suggesting the work and gift of God, the help of the Spirit, to bring about repentance.)

Power of the Spirit for Salvation: The second way ‘power’ is used in respect of our salvation is through the specific indwelling of the Holy Spirit that comes about  at conversion. Jesus referred to this power when speaking to Nicodemus when he likened the coming of the Holy Spirit to wind – power.  To his disciples he said of the Spirit, “you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” (Jn 14:17) The apostle Paul was to refer again and again to the Spirit in our lives, for example, Do you not know that you[c] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16) and, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.” (1 Cor 6:19) It is foundational teaching through the New Testament, as we have seen in earlier studies, that we are ‘new creations’ (2 Cor 5:17) brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit who comes and indwells us.

Powerless?  What about us today? Paul warned Timothy about the ‘last days’, of people who would be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” (2 Tim 3:4,5) Do we have a form of Christianity, a form of church, that is embarrassed by such Biblical talk and simply reduces Christianity to ‘being nice’ or ‘being religious’? How many churches are there that deny the power of God that transforms lives when they surrender to Christ, not merely transforming them by giving them a new set of rules to live by, but by indwelling them with His Holy Spirit and bringing that transformation from inside-out?

Bible or…..? One of the battles that is being fought over the Church today is the veracity of the Bible. It always has been a battle and always will be, but when it comes to power in the Church, observe the churches that believe the Bible and make it the basis of their beliefs, and there you will see the power of transformed lives. See churches where it is just a background feature to faith, probably where tradition is more important, and you see lack of power. This matter of ‘power for transformation’ is the second of the four motivating forces that can set the church on fire in God’s hands so that it becomes that God-glorifying, life-transforming and community-impacting body I have referred to earlier.

Believers being transformed is the first step in the power equation; power for service is the second step and that we will go on to consider in the next study. But may I conclude this one with one more comment: I have observed in some places in recent years, a tendency in the church to downplay this power transformation that takes place when a person is ‘born again’, and I believe we need to restate it loud and clear and expect to see it when there is a profession of faith being made. I leave it to the Living Bible to have the last say here: we Christians …. (are like) mirrors that brightly reflect the glory of the Lord. And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him.” (2 Cor 3:18) May it be so!

43. Nature of the Church (2)

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 6 – Thinking about Leaders

43. Nature of the Church (2)

1 Cor 12:27   Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

So what? In this final  study on Leadership, I want to try to bring together some of the things we’ve said so far and see where they lead us. I want to start by picking up the thread from the previous study about deacons. Now even before I go there, may I simply testify to an experience I’ve had when I was leading as an elder and retired. The greatest sense that I had when I stepped down and retired was relief that I was no longer ‘running’ a church. This was some years ago and I have thus had time to ponder on that. As much as I led a charismatic and (we would have said) a Spirit-led church, we had never broken free from organised ‘services’. Now I realize I am about to move onto shaky ground for many here, and the larger the church the shakier it will be, because the more people you have the more they expect an organised service that blesses them, and I have never yet found a local church that risks stepping out without structure. Bear with me, I may not end up where you think!

Years ago I had someone in the church who wanted us to approach every Sunday morning without any preparation except prayer. He and I discussed this at length. Brethren friends suggested their experience was that although that was the intent of their meetings, in reality the lead was always taken by the same people and in reality it was no freer than any other church meeting. Pentecostal churches I have known have been just as structured and hidebound as any other church. Those of you who come from liturgical backgrounds may wonder whatever I am talking about and wherever I am going.

Spirit Led? Let’s put it in the context of much of what we have said earlier in these studies when we talked about the Holy Spirit, life and trying to get back to basics. I think I probably said this before, but compare life with Jesus with our current traditional approaches to meeting together. Now yes, I am aware that Jesus went to the synagogue and then to the Temple to celebrate the feasts but also bear in mind two things he taught. First, God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (Jn 4:24) Be honest, can that happen with a fixed liturgy? (and so called Free-churches may not have it written down but are usually as predictable). What does worship “in the Spirit and in truth” mean? The Message version puts it well: “the Father is out looking for those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.” It means no pretense, no putting on a show, no going on what someone else has written, but what our heart and mind pour out in His presence.

But let’s pick up some of the other things we have hinted at along the way. A church that has a fixed liturgy cannot respond to the directing of the Holy Spirit who may want to come and bring revelation, or healing or deliverance to God’s people when they meet together. Liturgical churches either have to pause the liturgy to make space for God to move and make space after the liturgy. Please don’t hear me wrongly; liturgy can be very beautiful and may be the one time the truths of the faith are regularly declared by the people of God, and in those senses can be a great addition to the experience of the church, but if it means there is no openness to the moving of the Spirit to bring guidance, direction, revelation and so on, we are not only demonstrating a very poor example of what the church can be, but we are failing to reveal to visitors the powerful presence of the living God.

Leaders? But, I hear someone complaining, I thought this was all about leadership? But it is. How we ‘do’ church is down to leaders. In an earlier study I listed a number of reasons why we don’t accept change but persuading the church to catch the vision of the ‘better’ that God has for us, is the responsibility of leaders. As we saw, where there are apostles and prophets exercising their ministry, there will be this ongoing motivating and driving force, but in the absence of such ministries, it is down to the elders-overseers-shepherds to do the motivating. The enemy will constantly be seeking to thwart change and so there will be a spiritual battle which will be overcome by prayer and preaching and teaching. Those are the three primary tools that God uses to mature and develop His people. Very well, let’s look at these three, demonstrated by the leaders.

Preaching: Put most simply, preaching is the declaring of the truths of the Bible so that the intellect is informed and the will challenged. But preaching has to be a faith exercise, a declaration of the truths that God has spoken into the hearts of the preacher as he has waited on his Lord. What a difference there is between sitting down and concocting a neatly packaged three point sermon  that has been arrived at by hours of striving, and a message (which may have three points!) that has come from waiting in God’s presence and is stirred by the heart of God in the heart of a preacher who is convinced that the Bible is the vital inspired word of God and the Gospel is the power of God that brings salvation.” (Rom 1:16) God’s redemptive saving process is brought through the application of the power of the word of God. Lives change, the church grows and matures, and the world will be impacted.

Teaching: Put most simply, teaching is the expounding the truths of the Bible to provide a foundation of belief and faith on which the believer’s life is founded, strengthened and built up.  The more we spend time in God’s word, the more we study it, the more we seek the Lord to understand it, the more confident we will be as to the veracity of the whole book. The more we do this, the more we may find there are things we have accepted in the past, because traditionally the church has accepted it thus, but are not as we have previously thought. One of the challenges that seems to be rippling through the modern church is the difference between trying to scare people into the kingdom and trying to woo people into the kingdom. There is a delicate balance between the two that can only be resolved by a strong knowledge of the whole Bible and an openness to the Spirit’s teaching. There is a constant battle, not only to proclaim the truth, but how we are to proclaim the truth. Many modern believers only tolerate a twenty or twenty-five minute weekly sermon, but that may be because of the quality of what has been put before them. Seeking God, catching God’s heart, catching the wonder of the truth, all these things will contribute to the leader being able to feed the flock in ways that leave them going, “Yes! And more please!”.

Prayer: If you find a ‘leader’ for whom prayer is not of vital importance, I question whether you have a spiritual leader. Where leaders do not demonstrate that by pausing up in the presence of God, pausing to recognize the one to whom we speak, yet taking any and every opportunity to pause the activities of the people of God and come to the One in whose name it is all being done, then it is likely that there will be a shallowness in the people of God and a vulnerability to enemy attack.

Back to the Service: I suggested earlier that leaders are responsible for how the church goes about meeting, worshiping etc., and raised the question of how we can allow the Spirit of the Lord to have space, and the struggles we have in seeking to walk a path between over-organising our services and under-planning them. The first produces sterile performances and the second can produce a shambles. So is there something between? The key, I suggest, might be summed in the adage, “Planned but flexible and open to change.”

Planned and Flexible? In other words, although there is a general idea – formulated while waiting upon the Lord beforehand – of where the service is going (and this may include  the worship leaders having an idea of what music is wanted, and the preacher having a structured sermon to deliver, and maybe a variety of other things to be gone through – the infamous ‘Notices’ of which a book could be written, possibly a set time of prayer etc.), the role of the leaders becomes more and more to be listeners to the Spirit so that at any time there can be a change of direction etc. The worship team may suddenly sense the manifest presence of God and either pause up to appreciate His presence or may direct a perhaps quieter, more reverent worship time, and times may be given for the releasing of prophetic words and subsequent prayer ministry.

Here there needs to be a flexibility and wisdom as to how to administer such times so that the majority of the people are not mere spectators. Having space at the back for people to respond to such words and to go to receive prayer ministry, enables the time to proceed without the majority sitting a little bored.  It is in such situations that certain words become highly applicable. For example our starting verse: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”  (1 Cor 12:27) In other words, we need to release gifting in each and every member so a ‘service’ is not merely a time for out-front participation by the leading few, but the whole body be encouraged to learn to listen to God and participate with whatever He gives. This is down to the leaders to bring about in the long-term training of the body of Christ. There is also, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 5:21) Yes, I know Paul is going to expound on family relationships, but doesn’t it apply well here as well? Failing to be aware of one another and, I suggest, encourage all to be part of the active body, was part of Paul’s corrective words to the church at Corinth (see 1 Cor 11)

And so?  So much to think about. What sort of church do we want, or more to the point, what sort of church does the Lord want? Much to think about, much to pray about. Dare we become something far more glorious that we know at the present, and something that is definitely not boring, but is instead life-bringing and life-transforming, as His revelation and His power is released in our midst to His glory. Amen? Amen!

17. Superficial Religion

CHAPTER 2: Part 8: Freedom from the old religious ways

Meditations in Colossians 2: 17:  Superficial Religion

Col 2:16    Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.

If you’ve followed these meditations for any length of time you’ll know we always pick up on ‘link words’ because they tie the verses together. So here we have a ‘Therefore’ which means the logic or instruction of this verse comes in response to what has just gone before. Paul, in the previous verses has focused on the spiritual realities of salvation, that we were dead, and have been made alive by God, and have been forgiven by Him, after all law or rule-keeping and the failure and guilt that go with it have been dealt with by the Cross. The final focus was on now having to major on keeping the rules and that is why Paul now homes in on these particular expressions of rule-keeping.

When I became a Christian in the last third of the twentieth century I found myself part of the good-evangelical wing of the Church but sadly the refocusing on the life in the Spirit had not come to the fore and therefore so much of instruction to new believers was all about what you can or cannot do. Our verse above is all about behaviour and although the words “You must,” or “You ought,” or “You mustn’t” or “You shouldn’t,” aren’t here, there is an implication that they lurk beneath the surface.

As I hinted above, when the power of the Spirit is absent, all you are left with is keeping rules. This is not to say that we should rely only on the Spirit, for we need both word and Spirit, but if we focus on rule-keeping, again as we said above, we are doomed to failure and then to be subject to guilt. So how does it, or should it, work?

If our awareness of the Lord’s presence is weak and if we know little of the life of the Spirit, then we may come across a simple little instruction from Paul’s teaching such as, Be joyful always,” (1 Thess 5:16) and our human thinking says, “Good Christians are happy Christians. I must be happy, I must be joyful,” and so we put on a superficial ‘face’ whereby we make ourselves look happy; we always smile and we always sound full of the Lord’s goodness – even if inside we are deeply upset over something. The trouble about this is that we convey an  unreal or false Christianity and most people see right through us, and the thing we are upset about does not get dealt with properly and, even more, other people (often non-Christians) think we are on a superficial plane well above them and cannot empathize with where they are at. Untruth and self-deception reign.  The truth is that we are sufficiently insecure in our uncertainty of God’s love for us, our lives are one of pretence.

Now watch this person get filled with the Spirit and start to enter into the wonder of being loved by God. They don’t try to be joyful, they just are as the Spirit who has been given the freedom to work within them, brings out the joy of the Lord – that is real – as they wonder in the glory of God’s love for them. Joy is the outworking of the Spirit (see Gal 5:22) not a hard and difficult thing to be put on by self effort.

But then we come across another of Paul’s little guiding lights: “Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (1 Thess 5:21,22) Back in my early days in the late twentieth century immediately it became, “Oh don’t go to the cinema and watch bad films, don’t drink alcohol and so don’t go to pubs where you will be mixing with ungodly unbelievers.” We didn’t worry about social injustice, caring for the poor, working to deliver people from slavery, saving women out of prostitution and so on; we simply focused on a few superficial prohibitions and as I look back now, I believe it was because our faith was so weak that we were ultra-defensive, unlike Jesus who mixed with sinners and tax-collectors and prostitutes.

Thus Paul says, “do not let anyone judge you by…” and goes into a list of things where ‘do’s and don’ts’ will apply: “what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.”  The reference to eating was probably in respect of kosher food or food given to idols that he deals with elsewhere in his writings. Drink was almost certainly to do with alcohol. Religious festivals was about having to keep the various Jewish feasts. No longer for the believer were these significant matters. To the Corinthians Paul was to say, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” (1 Cor 4:20). It is not about words (directing behaviour) but about life in the power of the Spirit. To the Romans he said,the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17)

As we said earlier, the expressions of our Christian life are to be the outworking of the Holy Spirit in us, not a hard and difficult thing to be put on by self effort. Yes, we will not get angry, or whatever other prohibition is given in the scriptures, not so much because we have to make an act of will and make a great effort, but because the Spirit of love fills us and flows through us and prevents that thing having space. May it be so!