33. Fellowship

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

33. Fellowship

Acts 2:42  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship

1 Cor 1:9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

2 Cor 6:14  Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

2 Cor 13:14  May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

1 Jn 1:6,7  If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another

More than Social Interaction: I am sure I must have written about ‘fellowship’ before but I am not going to search back and so, instead, I will try and come at the subject from a fresh perspective. It seems the natural flow on after having been considering the early believers meeting together every day. Our first verse above speaks about how they “they devoted themselves …. to fellowship.” Now a dictionary definition of ‘fellowship’ is ‘a friendly feeling that exists between people who have a shared interest,’ but in a spiritual context I believe that really doesn’t go anywhere near what ‘fellowship’ is for a Christian. In Study No.29 on ‘Life’ I testified about the presence of ‘something’ that is there between two believers, even when they can’t speak the same language. It is of course the life of God, the Holy Spirit.

A Definition: Fellowship occurs, I suggest, in the interaction between two believers in the dimension of the spirit as the Holy Spirit in them both witnesses to His presence in them. There is often not something conscious but at a deeper level than mere surface conversation, there is this touching of heart to heart, spirit to spirit. Does it always happen between two Christians? I suggest not, because there has to be an open-heartedness to one another and that, for a variety of reasons may not always happen.

What holds back Fellowship? You might think that the presence of the Holy Spirit in each believer would mean that automatically fellowship takes place. Certainly surface conversation might take place but I think there are various things that will stop that deeper level, that open-heartedness occurring. For example where a believer is deeply into sin and deception, I believe their inner protective barriers will be up, even at the sub-conscious level, defending what they are doing, justifying their stance in life.  On the other hand, where a believer has been deeply hurt in life there will be a protective barrier that is difficult to come out from. I know of (and I am sure there are many, many others who are similar) a lady who was a battered wife until it came to a head, went to court and the court ordered the husband away. She finds it almost impossible to escape the past and the effects it is having on her life even today – but there is a way and it is happening slowly. In both of these two illustrations I have just given, there is a defensive barrier, there for different reasons, which hinders true fellowship taking place. In the former one the person is trying to hide their sin, but there are also people whose failure has gone public, and they now struggle with guilt and the fear of public (Christian) hostility towards them, real or otherwise.

Koinonio: Now perhaps there are some, feeling slightly frustrated because they want a more theological approach than I have given here so far, so let me add in this paragraph in passing. The Greek word in the original is koinonio, which has hints of ‘sharing’ or ‘giving to one another’ about it.  It is used in the NIV in Lk 5:10 for ‘partners’ referring to the four famous fishermen called by Jesus, indicating a closeness of relationship there, formed by business. It seems clear from Gen 3 that before the Fall there was this close open relationship between God and the couple, but this was lost by their disobedience resulting in fear and a defensive need to hide away from God (see Gen 3:8-10). That loss of fellowship with God has been restored by the salvation that comes through His Son, Jesus Christ, hence our second verse above: God … has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ.” 

So often in the New Testament, we are said to be “in Christ” and of course we have already referred to the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, or Christ in us. Is that why Paul referred to, “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit”? (2 Cor 13:14). Clearly in each of these instances, where there is reference to our fellowshipping with God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit, it is a contact of the most intimate kind being spoken of. At a spiritual level, what we said earlier about hindrances to fellowship is born out in John’s words: “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.” Living in the light must surely mean living free from wrong in its many different forms that we referred to earlier.

Making Fellowship Possible: The fact that we live in a Fallen World and are often scarred by it, and we ourselves trip over our own feet, so to speak, and get it wrong, mean that actually many of us struggle with defensiveness and therefore know little of true fellowship. Fellowship can be built or restored, I suggest, best in small groups. Now many of us (leaders of such groups) maintain groups where fellowship is avoided, and we do this by focusing on Bible Study or prayer. Now please don’t jump defensively at me for, yes, I believe both are essential to Christian discipleship in such groups, but I would like to suggest that THE greatest priority for such small groups is helping bring about fellowship. Why?

A very practical reason. You cannot love someone fully if you don’t know them and so often in modern church life we hardly go beyond the surface in getting to know people. When fellowship truly takes place it means people have been able to truly open their hearts to one another and this fellowship is evidenced when there is a sense of security. Jesus clearly created that with his disciples, so are we following his example? (see how free Peter felt free to speak out.) How do we bring that about? How do we create security so that our people can come out from behind their masks, be real, fellowship with one another, recognize mutual frailty and become open in new ways to the grace and changing power of God?

Creating A Secure Group: Leaders of such a group will maintain a new order: God first, the people second, and only then spiritual disciples (Bible Study, Prayer etc.). Leaders of such groups will come with a blaming-free attitude that says, “How can I bless you?” not, “How can I blame you?” Such leaders see that people need to feel secure before they can open up and face their failures, their frailty and their faults. There are two rules that need to be spoken out from the creation of such a group. The first is, “You can say what you like within this group and it will never go outside the group.” Second, “You can say what you like within this group and no one in this group will be shocked or point accusing fingers at you.” When that is understood AND operated, then people start feeling secure and can open up and share the worst sides of their life.

Our response when they do, MUST NOT be to appear shocked,  for each of us has the potential for all kinds of failures and if we haven’t struggled with this particular one so far, it is simply that we have been fortunate enough not to have been tested by it. Our failures (hopefully rare) are ours and before God they are all the same. We come together as redeemed sinners, i.e. children of God, loved by a Redeemer who is more concerned to bless than to blame. This is not to say he doesn’t hold us accountable, for he does, but Jesus’ objective, clearly seen in the way he responded to the tax-collectors and ‘sinners’, is to restore us to a good place before his Father, where we are overcoming those things and eventually not repeating them.

If someone opens up in our group and confesses something of major significance, there are three questions to be asked in gentleness and full of grace: (i) “Have you told the Lord about it yet, and would you like to with us now? (i.e. you give them opportunity to confess it to heaven and receive God’s forgiveness now), (ii) may we pray for you now? (looking to bring God’s love through prayer ministry – see a later study), and (iii) what can we do to help you?” (i.e. is there some practical way we can bring God’s grace to your life situation to help bring change?)

And So?  You might like to read these last paragraphs again and check your attitude and respond accordingly. We are not talking about tolerating or accepting sin, but we are talking about accepting the sinner, because we’re all in the same boat together. Loving them in such a way that they have the courage, within the sense of security we are creating, to honestly face themselves and God, enables them to come to a place of repentance where they receive forgiveness, cleansing and healing. They will not be able to do that while you point fingers!

Final Testimony: I have, in the past, lead Parenting Groups in the local community and by creating this sort of group have had new mothers opening up in tears and confessing how, in the middle of the night when their partner left the crying baby to them, they ended up roughly throwing it onto the bed in desperation – and the group talked it through with understanding, empathy, tears and compassion and enabled change (and this wasn’t even a Christian group!). In another group of mixed maturity Christians (i.e. including some very new in their walk with Jesus), I often felt more like a father-confessor as new believers opened up on things that would shock the Pharisees – but they were enabled to do it, and the love of the group enabled them to face it and change. Perfect love not only casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18) but it enables honesty, confession and transformation. May that be us.  

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

11. A Body that fellowships

Short Meditations on the Body of Christ: 11. A Body that fellowships

1 John 1:7    if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.

There is something special that happens when Christians come together. It is a very different thing from what occurs when say a local club or organisation gathers. I never appreciated this so much as on one occasion when I went on a teaching trip to inner East Malaysia. The denomination we were serving made  up our itinerary and gave us plane tickets to get to various places. On one of the first legs of this journey, to cut a long story short, we ended up in a village in the interior but an interpreter had not arrived. Local church people had identified us as we got off the small plane and taken us to their village where for the first few hours all communication was by sign language.

As we sat cross legged either side of a mat covered with food, eating with these believers, I have never felt more frustrated being unable to communicate freely with these believers who I knew had years before experienced revival. Yet there was something that flowed between us, something that united us, something that was special, even though we could not speak the same language. That ‘something’ was what Christians refer to as ‘fellowship’.

Put as simply as possible “fellowship” is about sharing your life with another Christian, and it is more than merely speaking; fellowship occurs when the Holy Spirit within us communicates a special unity that we have. You can sit in the same room with another Christian, you can be at of a Bible Study or even Prayer Meeting and you can remain separate and distinct – or you can fellowship. Fellowship occurs when you open your hearts one to another and it requires openness and honesty. When there is an openness to one another, the Holy Spirit is able to bring this special sense of unity, of oneness and this is fellowship.

This is the potential of this ‘body’ that is knit together by loving relationships, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. His presence in us is a remarkable thing that so much of the time we take for granted. He brings the revelation of who we are – or who we are not. I have walked into the presence of ‘church people’ and known instantly that there was not a single Christian believer there. I remember another time, in my very earliest days after I had been born again, when I went searching for a local church and sat in the mid-week Bible study and realised that in a group of about twelve, only the minister and I were truly Christians! His presence in us can bond us or divide us. Be aware of the wonder as fellowship takes place.

8. United by Spirit

Meditations in Colossians 2: 8:  United by Spirit

Col 2:5   For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is

A number of times in this letter Paul has given reasons why he is writing to this church he has never visited. He had heard about them from Epaphras (1:7,8) and had heard about their faith and love (1:4) and from the moment he had heard about them he had been praying for them (1:9) with his apostolic heart yearning for them to built up in their knowledge of God’s will (1:9) so they can grow and be fruitful (1:10), and so he wants to extend to them his knowledge of the mystery of God (1:25-29) which he always wants to impart to the church, whether people he has met or not met (2:1) in order to encourage, strengthen unity and build greater understanding (2:2).  He may be away from them in the physical sense – “absent from you in body” – but his spirit is with them – “I am present with you in spirit” – and so rejoices in what he hears of them – “ and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is“ which, again, is why he writes.

We perhaps do not realise fully the wonder of the Holy Spirit within us and the unifying effect he has between us. A number of years ago I had the privilege of being able to teach in churches in Borneo, in East Malaysia. On one occasion I and my small team flew into a small landing strip somewhere deep in East Malaysia where, being the only Westerners on the plane, we were clearly recognised by some locals who signed to us to follow them. They took our luggage and again signed to us to follow them and we trekked a mile into the jungle until we came to a village where they deposited us in a large house on stilts. For the next few hours, while we waited for an interpreter to arrive, everything was carried out by sign language. We were given bedrooms, we were ushered into a room with a single long mat spread down the middle of it and were invited to eat from the many plates of food laid out. Now here is the thing: these men (and they were all men) were clearly Christians. Maybe it was their demeanour and the way they treated us but I realised for the first time – really realised – that we all had the Holy Spirit within us and He united us. It was a strange and, for us, a unique experience and I found myself bursting to want to communicate with these brothers in Christ because I was so aware of the unity there between us. It was the Holy Spirit.

Fellowship is a unique experience to Christians. It doesn’t happen between a Christian and an unbeliever and it doesn’t happen between two unbelievers. There may be a unity of thinking and so on but ‘fellowship’ is a coming together of two Spirit indwelt believers and it is the unity that is there because He indwells us both.

But there is another dimension to this fellowship and what Paul feels for these believers he has never seen; it is our past Christian experience. We are united by our common experience. We all know that we came to the end of ourselves, we surrendered to Him, we were forgiven our sins, we were adopted as God’s children and we received the indwelling Holy Spirit and were born again. This has not happened to my non-Christian neighbour.

But there is also our present Christian experience. Because we are each indwelt by His Holy Spirit we know His guidance, His teaching, His help, His enabling, His empowering. We enter into expressly Christian experiences – we pray we read His word and receive revelation and understanding and we worship. My unsaved neighbour does not do this.

But is it also about our future Christian experience. Our goals ‘in Christ’ are to grow in him and be available to serve him, until one day He takes us to be with Him in heaven. This is not the experience and hope of my unbelieving neighbour.

The apostle Paul indirectly referred to these different experiences when he taught the Corinthians, Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord.” (2 Cor 6:14-17) I always feel very sad when I see young Christians disregarding this warning and marrying an unbeliever. Yes, God in His grace does sometimes bring the unbelieving partner to the Lord but often I see Christians struggling with the anguish of their partner not having the unity we have been talking about in this study.

But look at these verses in the light of what we have been saying: we have unity as believers, a unity in light, a unity in Christ, we are each a temple of the Holy Spirit with the Lord living in us. No wonder Paul was able to speak about how they were present with him in spirit. Again when I have travelled I have been thousands of miles away from my wife and yet sense that unity in the Spirit. It doesn’t matter how may miles divide us, it doesn’t matter if language divides us, all these other things unite us, and especially the presence of His Holy Spirit in us. Isn’t that wonderful!

16. Light & Darkness

Meditations in 1 John : 16 : Light & Darkness

1 John  2:9-11    Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.

John has a tendency to write like the waves on the seashore! A wave comes in – he covers a particular thing – and then goes out, but then shortly it comes back in again – and he uses the same language again. Three times in chapter 1 and now three times in chapter 2 John speaks of light.

His starting point had been, God is light; in him there is no darkness at all,” (1:5) but then he had applied it to our lives: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (v.7)

Back in his Gospel John recorded Jesus as saying, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (Jn 3:19-21)

He seems to use ‘light’ as good or goodness, purity, holiness.  Thus it becomes, “God is good … if we walk in his goodness as he is good… we have fellowship” and “God’s goodness came into the world (in the form of Jesus) but men loved bad things rather than goodness …. Everyone who does evil hates goodness and does not come under the spotlight of goodness for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into God’s goodness so that it may be seen plainly  that what he has done has been done through God.” i.e. when we come to God His goodness permeates our lives and reveals Him through us. That’s what we saw in the previous meditations.

If we hadn’t got the message clearly the first time, John now presses the point home: “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.” i.e. if you purport to have come to Christ and are now a Christian, but hate your brother then it is obvious that you are not living in God’s goodness but are allowing evil to remain in you.

To emphasise it even more, John looks at it from the positive side:  “Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.”  Love is an expression of goodness and so if instead you love your brother you are revealing goodness. One of the things about goodness is that it helps us walk firmly and not be brought down by temptation or sin. While we remain in God’s goodness, living it out, there is no room for bad to creep in and so we will not stumble and fall.

But then he bounces back to the negative again: “But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.”   Blinded by darkness?  That’s an interesting analogy, but a true one! A person who has allowed hatred for his brother to either remain or take a hold in their life, is not living in goodness but in bad, and when we are living in the bad, it is genuinely like darkness and we lose our way and can’t see where we are going and simply stumble around. We normally speak about being blinded by a bright light, but of course darkness blinds us because in the dark you cannot see. If we allow bad into our lives it brings darkness and in that darkness we start to lose focus, lose awareness, lose sense of purpose and direction.

Now here is the tricky thing: how many of us have allowed something to either remain in our lives after we came to Christ, or allowed something into our lives since we came to Christ, that actually constitutes ‘darkness’? Remember ‘darkness’ is simply wrong, any wrong. John’s example of wrong, is hating your brother. Literal brother or spiritual brother or brother in humanity? It doesn’t matter.  If we have something against a family member, or something against a member of the church, or prejudice against groups within humanity, we have allowed darkness in!  But here’s the other tricky thing: if we have allowed darkness to reside in us, have we realized that we are, at least, partially blind?  What can’t we see because we are in darkness in this area, at least, in our lives? Well obviously that the attitude that we hold is wrong, and we are blind to that, but to what else might we be blind?  How much does the modern church ‘fail to see’ because we tolerate darkness in our lives? It bears serious thought!

5. Walk in the Light

Meditations in 1 John : 5 :  Walk in the Light

1 John  1:6,7   If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

In the early part of this twenty first century crusading atheists have attacked God and the Church and one of the key prongs of their attack has been based on poor examples of Christianity, people whose lives have not lived up to the call of Jesus. There is in these verses a call to a great separation and it is a call to every believer.

Now it may be that John was speaking out in these verses against those who purported to be believers in that time, yet whose lives could hardly be distinguished from the rest of the world. Some religious groups said it was all right to live how you wanted. It was the argument that Paul went against in his letter to Rome:What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? ….. Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (Rom 6:1,15)

John is a great one for calling Christians to live godly lives, lives that are pure and righteous. He does it by contrasting light and darkness. We have already touched on it in the previous verse meditation. Referring to Jesus in his Gospel, John wrote, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (Jn 1:5) and “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.” (Jn 1:9)

John uses light and darkness to describe right and wrong living, because the analogy is so clear – light and darkness  cannot exist in the same space at the same time. If you go into a dark room and turn on the light the darkness disappears. It is as simple as that. So, says John, Jesus is light and if you claim to be united with him in fellowship, and yet carry on sinning, that is proof that Jesus’ light is not in you, you are not in fellowship with him and all you say is a lie about being a believer.

When we talk about becoming a Christian we talk about inviting Jesus into your life. Now if you do that – genuinely – then his light will prevent you from sinning. Another way we put it is to talk about the Holy Spirit coming to live in us. He is light and if He genuinely lives in us and we fellowship with Him, then darkness cannot remain in us, sin cannot remain in us. The key word is ‘fellowship’. In his Gospel, John remembered Jesus, at the Last Supper speaking of similar things: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” (Jn 15:5) Remaining in, or, as the older versions had it, ‘abiding in’ simply means living in harmony with Jesus, fellowshipping with him.

Sanctification – that change of life to become more like Jesus – is both an instant and a gradual thing. It is instant and starts from the moment we come to Christ and he places his Holy Spirit within us. At that point the goal of our life, all of our aims, changes. From that moment living for God becomes the all-important thing; that’s what we mean when we talk about surrendering our lives to Him. From that moment on, His will is the all-important thing for us, but the trouble is that often there are things we haven’t realized God wants to change and, in fact, the change will take years and years. But whenever we recognize something that is not right, we must deal with it immediately – for it is darkness and it can no longer exist within us.

When we fellowship or commune with God, He lets us know when they are obvious things that need dealing with. He takes away our peace and we become aware that here is something that must change. How many Christians, I wonder, never commune or fellowship with God? I wonder how many just hold him at a distance in their lives? When you do this you can tolerate wrong things in your life – but be warned, that has spin-offs!

If we hold God at arms’ length, then we don’t fellowship with Him and if we don’t fellowship with Him it means we don’t fellowship with other believers. It is the Holy Spirit within us who enables us to fellowship heart to heart, spirit to spirit, with other believers. But on the positive side, when we do fellowship with Him and with one another, that is how His life in us is supposed to work and that is the outworking of His salvation that He wants in us. That is why John appears to ‘tack on’ this reference to the blood of Jesus, his Son, which purifies us from all sin. It is the outworking of our salvation is to be practical, not merely theoretical.

So often we seek to separate off references to our salvation and being cleansed from our sin, from practical living, but practical living is the outworking of what Jesus has achieved on the Cross. It wasn’t simply that our consciences can be cleared; it was also to enable us to live new lives and that newness involves interacting with other believers at a deep and meaningful level. If we sin and hold darkness in our lives, that prevents fellowship taking place – fellowship with God and fellowship with other believers. We will have an appearance of a Christian faith, but it will not be what God has for you, it will fall short of that. That is how significant these verses are!

10. Shutdown

Meditations in Malachi : 10. Shutdown

Mal 1:10  “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.

I was amazed when I first studied the Law – well no perplexed first, actually.   Why were those long dreary chapters at the beginning of Leviticus about different sorts of offerings, and why were there those tedious chapters in the latter part of Exodus about the Tabernacle and the priests? None of it seemed relevant to today, so why was it there, and then eventually I understood. This was the Lord recognising that His people would get it wrong so that they would feel guilty and then feel at a distance from the Lord, this was the Lord making a way back for such people. This was also the Lord making provision for those whose hearts might overflow with love for God who just wanted to bring Him a gift.

That was what all those laws were about, about regulating how those things might happen through the sacrifices. That was what the Tabernacle and then later theTemplewere about. They were places of focus on the Lord, places where the Lord initially made His presence known, places that He filled with His glory, places of fellowship with God and places of reconciliation with God and restoration of a relationship with the Lord. That was what the Temple was all about. It was for the people to come and do two things: offer sacrifices and pray (remember Jesus called it a house of prayer). The Tabernacle and then the Temple were all about relationship with the Lord which is why, when the Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 587BC, it was so devastating for Israel. When Jeremiah spoke about restoration after seventy years, that seventy years was the period between the destruction of the Temple and the completion of its rebuilding, exactly seventy years!

But God isn’t fooled by play acting. That had been going on before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and Jeremiah parodied their reliance upon the presence of the Temple (Jer 7). Now the same thing was happening again. The apostle Paul prophesied about the last days: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God– having a form of godliness but denying its power.” (2 Tim 3:1-5) There is the same thing: there will be a form of religion (godliness) while all the time men and woman are living lives that are very different from God’s design for them.

The people of Malachi’s day were declaring that they were godly because they were performing religious acts and then comes this terrible word of judgment through Malachi: “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.”   Shut down all this religious nonsense, is what the Lord is saying, for that is actually what it is – religious nonsense!  Did God want His people to perform religious acts in the Temple with no meaning behind them? No! God’s intent had been to provide channels for blessing Israel, for making ways back to Him and for legitimizing their gifts to Him. The Temple was for prayer and worship and reconciliation and those things, to be genuine, have to come out of wholeheartedness.

The Lord is concerned more what goes on inside a person than the things they do outwardly. Outward acts can be pure pretense. In medical terms, sometimes people come out in a skin rash and it is a sign of tension or stress within. It is the reality of the inner life that God is concerned with, not the charades that people put on. Who are they kidding? Do they think they will make God think well of them? Does “going to church on a Sunday morning” make God feel good about us? No, it should be an expression of the love we have for Him on the inside.

Around the world, often the churches with the greatest reality are those in countries where the church is persecuted and driven underground. When those people gather together under threat of arrest, there is a reality and a depth of love not found in the West. How tragic it is that our love is only proved real when it is challenged! When will we come to our senses and call out to the Lord for a reality of relationship? Will the Lord have to shut our churches down before that has to happen? May it not be so!