51. Obedience

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

51. Obedience

Mt 28:19,20   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.

Acts 5:32  the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him

Jn 8:51 whoever obeys my word will never see death.”

Jn 14:23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.

So Obvious: It is so obvious this thing about obedience that you might wonder why we are bothering to think about it. Perhaps it is because it is so obvious that we tend not to think about it. Consider: “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.” (Mk 1:17,18) Jesus said to Simon and Andrew, follow me, and they did. That was obedience. Then, Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.” (Mk 1:20) Jesus said to James and John, follow me, and they did. That was obedience. Then, “As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.” (Mk 2:14) Jesus said to Levi, follow me, and he did. That was obedience.

Reasons for Doing: Do you see the pattern? It is one that is followed throughout the Gospels. Jesus tells the disciples to do things – and they do. That is obedience. At the heart of discipleship is obedience, and because it is so obvious that we might forget it, let’s state it, obedience means DOING what Jesus says.  In the ‘Great Commission’ in Mt 28, it is to “obey everything I have commanded you.” Notice the strength of these words. ‘Obey’ means to respond positively to whatever God says. “Everything” means that we cannot take bits of things we find in the New Testament and exclude them. This is all-inclusive, it means nothing Jesus said is outside our discipleship. “Commanded” means instructed with authority. God doesn’t give nice advice. He says, do this. And He expects us to do it. It is not obligatory, and it is a call to all disciples.

Focus: I found myself writing the following the other day: “Church is not for your entertainment. It is for your salvation, your transformation, your equipping and your sending.” Many of us turn up on Sunday morning expecting to be entertained by nice lifting music, and a humourous entertaining sermon so we go out feeling happy. Last Sunday I listened to the minister ask the congregation, “Why are you here? What have you come for?” As I sat there and pondered that, my answer was, “To meet God, to meet with His people, and to be changed.” I was surprised by the force of that and so I think it is worth thinking about.

To Meet with God: As I have indicated a number of times in this series, if the Holy Spirit is leading us when we gather together, He will have inspired the worship team, inspired the leadership and hopefully will inspire us, and it will all be to the end that we encounter God.  Now Job is an uncomfortable book in many ways, but it is also enlightening. Not only does it reveal to us some of the inner workings of heaven, as well as the anguishes of living on a fallen world, but we also see (at the end) the effect of encountering God: “My ears had heard of you  but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself   and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5,6) When we truly realize we have met with God, we are humbled. When Peter encountered Jesus at the lakeside, and Luke gives us the fuller picture, a miracle ensues and Peter realizes he is in the presence of someone who is much more than a mere man: “he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8) Encountering God, means I am changed. This might challenge us to ask, how often do we on a Sunday morning encounter God?

To Meet with God’s people: The picture that comes from Paul’s writings to the Corinthians is that when the Holy Spirit is present when we come together, He will flow through us, one to another. He longs to speak, He longs to convey His power and when He does that through one and another, we are blessed, we are challenged, we are envisioned, we are released, we are changed.

To be changed: Well there it is, we saw it twice in the two paragraphs above, the end result of meeting with God and meeting with His people is that I am changed. But where, you might ask, was obedience in all that? It is in the ‘end product’ if I may put it like that. When I encounter God directly or through His people, the end result is that I am more aware of who He is, more aware of who I am, more aware of His love for me, more aware of His goodness and I am a more pliable, open disciple than I was before. I am changed and the end result is that I desire more to be obedient to all He says, because I have seen the wonder of who He is, and the wonder of His intentions towards me – and I want more and more of that. As that transformation takes place I realize even more clearly that blessing follows obedience because all He ask of me is for good.

The Process: May I take two of my favourite verses (and there are many others) and ponder on them in this context. First, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[i] have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28) Here is the background for my life. God is working in my life to bring good – through everything that happens. But it is not a case of God waving a magic wand so that everything will turn out right. No, He will be working into the situation from outside of me, if I may put it like that, but He will also be working from inside me, by the indwelling Holy Spirit, who seeks to guide me and lead me in right paths. And there it is again – so simple – He says, ‘follow me’ and the blessing flows when I do. That is obedience.

The second verse is, “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) There it is so clear. God has got plans for my life, that He has “prepared in advance” or as the Living Bible puts it, “long ago” with the inference that fits what is said over half a dozen times in the New Testament, that this was planned before Creation. So what is happening now is that the Holy Spirit, living within me, seeks to guide me and inspire me into moving into those things that God Has got on His heart for me. The ‘good works’ are simply the things He wants me to be doing, the things He knows I am suited to doing, equipped to be doing by His enabling. When I move in these things, that is obedience and I am blessed.

A Warning: Now I dare not finish this without warning against complacency. This teaching is not so that we can have a life that is utterly problem free; never be under the illusion that when we speak of God’s intent to lead us into a place of His blessing, it means a life where we are lounging in a hammock in the sun with not a care in the world. It is clear from the Gospels and from Paul’s testimony in the New Testament, that it is often far from that. The reality is that we live in a fallen, broken, dysfunctional world, a world where stuff goes wrong, and God does not sit idly by. Remember what He said to Moses: ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them “ (Ex 3:7,8) This shows a God who sees and who feels and is moved to action, but note what follows: I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (v.10) Moses won’t be alone for God will be with him every step of the way.  That’s how it is with you and me. We aren’t saved for our entertainment, we are saved for our transformation, our equipping and our sending. We were part of the world’s problem; now we are part of its answer – in God’s hands. As we, the church, step out in obedience to His word and His Spirit, He will use us to bring life, freedom, deliverance and transformation to the world round about us. That is what this is all about. Amen? Amen!

47. Power – for life service

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

47. Power – for life service

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

Eph 3:14,16 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father…  that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being

Jesus expresses Power: Power accompanies Jesus. It is a word that appears with him a number of times. For example, after his temptation, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” (Lk 4:14) So as he appeared on earth manifesting the power that IS God, so one day he will return: “they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.” (Mt 24:30). When he started teaching and healing, “All the people were amazed and said to each other, “What words these are! With authority and power he gives orders to impure spirits and they come out!” (Lk 4:36) Later Gospel writer Like observed, “And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick.” (Lk 5:17) so much so that he goes on to record, “the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.” (Lk 6:19)  Now this was so obvious and so specific that when a woman simply touched the hem of his garment in her belief that she would be healed, we see, “At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (Mk 5:30) At the end, after he was raised from the dead, the two men who met him on the road to Emmaus testified, “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.” (Lk 24:19)

And the apostles: Now many of those verses we have just cited come from Luke’s Gospel. Matthew uses power 5 times, Mark 6 times, John 4 times but Luke 14 times. Luke’s Gospel is the one, it is said, that portrays Jesus as the servant but clearly the thing that impacted Luke was the power that was expressed through Jesus. But look at what more Luke brings to us: the fact that this power is passed on to Jesus’ apostles: “When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases,” (Lk 9:1) and “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you,” (Lk 10:19) and finally in that Gospel, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24:49)

Ongoing: This it is that Luke carries on this emphasis when he writes the book we call the Acts of the Apostles: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) i.e. their witness to the world would be because they were empowered by the Spirit. Then, “When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?” (Acts 3:12) i.e. Peter knew that the miraculous healing had not been by his power but by Jesus’ power. So, “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.” (Acts 4:33) This became the ongoing important feature of his testimony about individuals, for example, “Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8) and “Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 9:22) Interestingly, in that latter case the power was an intellectual-spiritual power declaring the gospel and overcoming detractors. Peter, testifying about Jesus spoke of, “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing” (Acts 10:38)

Paul’s Testimony: If we haven’t yet got hold of this truth, listen to Paul’s testimony: “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) and, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” (Rom 15:18,19) and, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power,(1 Cor 2:4,5) and, “I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.”  (Eph 3:7) It was the power that was the Holy Spirit that brought the Church into being. Grace, the ability to preach, the ability to persevere, call it what you will, was all an expression of the power of Jesus flowing in and through Paul.

And us today? How often do you see this power that we’ve seen in all these verses, expressed in and through the church today? It seems to me that so often we substitute social events and carefully preplanned services for the power of God. Let’s suggest some ways that we should see it if it is in the way of Jesus: transforming people when they come to Christ, delivering people from addictions, fears, doubts etc, bringing healing – mental, emotional and physical – bringing power to preaching & teaching, bringing revelation – words of knowledge, words of wisdom, words or prophecy – all expression of Jesus’ ministry. If “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever,” (Heb 13:8)  then surely we should be seeing these things in and through the life of the Church today. Do we have a power-full or powerless church today?

A Response: If our honest answer is a negative one, then I suggest we should be seeking the Lord in repentance, asking his forgiveness for having lived in unbelief, and crying out to him for a fresh outpouring of that power in our individual lives and ministries. May it be so.

28. Clear your Mind

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

28. Clear your Mind

Mk 2:21,22  “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”

The Problem of Presuppositions : A presupposition is, according to a dictionary, “a thing tacitly assumed beforehand at the beginning of a line of argument or course of action.”  I concluded the previous study with the following words: I want to start by considering what would we do if we were starting utterly from scratch. The next few studies will be:

28. Clear your Mind

29. A New Creation

30. Life (1)

31. Life (2)

32. Being Together

33. Fellowship

So take a dose of amnesia, sit down on a desert island with a Bible, and see what might happen. I have tried to put myself in the position of starting completely from scratch, as if I knew nothing about church life at all, but the trouble is I have all these assumptions, these presuppositions, because I have history and I’ve just written twenty-six studies on the beginnings of it. It’s almost impossible to clear my mind of what I know from the past fifty years of being a Christian. But why should I want to do that? To perhaps see if it is possible to imagine what Jesus wants of us, without all the clutter of my (our) history.

An Imaginary Scenario: Supposing I just had a Bible, found myself on a desert island with a bunch of other people and we’re all unbelievers who have never been to church. We know nothing of church. I read the Bible I find in the remains of a wreck that got us there, and as I read my heart is strangely warmed on one hand yet convicted on the other. There is a sense of truth about what I am reading and I am warmed by the sense of love that comes through the stories of Jesus in the four Gospels and then I find myself convicted that I know nothing of this love. As I read on through the New Testament, I hear more of prayer, of talking to God and so one day, on my own, I talk to Him for the first time. I tell Him how wonderful I find the things I’ve been reading and yet how sorry I feel that all these years I have not known of it or experienced it, and I ask Him to change me, take me and do whatever needs doing in me to make me the person He would like me to be. I assume, having come down this path, it is first and foremost to experience more of this love that I have been reading about while at the same time letting Him (somehow?) speak to me to show me more of what He does indeed want me to become.

Church? But then one day I share what has happened with another of the survivors and they respond in exactly the same way as I did. Amazingly the word spreads like wildfire and before we know it there are over fifty people who have responded in the same way. As we read the Bible, we realize we are what the Bible calls ‘Christians’. “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11:26  See also Acts 26:28) and then we realize we have run across the word ‘church’ a number of times: “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it,” (Mt 16:18) and “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Mt 18:17). Then later, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events,” (Acts 5:11), and “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem,” (Acts 8:1) and “But Saul began to destroy the church,” (Acts 8:3) and, Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened,” (Acts 9:31) and “News of this reached the church in Jerusalem,” (Acts 11:22) and “Barnabas and Saul met with the church,” (Acts 11:26) and so on. We see that ‘church’ were the Christians gathered in various places, presumably where they lived. But what more can we gather about this concept of these Christians who gather together? Why do they gather together? What do they do together?

Back-tracking? Yes, I realize as I said that I have already written a lot of words describing how this body of people comes into being, but what do they do in the New Testament and why? If I’ve taken rather a tortuous route to get here, this far in this study, it is simply because I have history that includes the knowledge of so many different churches and it is almost impossible to clear away my presuppositions of what church ought to be, but I can’t help thinking that going back to basics must be a healthy exercise and if it challenges some of the things we do today, so be it.

Where to Start? The Gospels are not the obvious place to start; following the Son of God in the flesh was a limited-period experience. The easier starting place – as far as experience in history rather than principles in teaching is concerned – has to be Acts. At least it shows us a) how the church started off without the physical Jesus in their midst and b) what God led them to do. Now in respect of that latter thing, some of the things they did were clearly led or inspired by the Holy Spirit and others were natural responses to who they now were and the circumstances in which they found themselves. Let’s try and tabulate those two things:

Things clearly inspired by the Holy Spirit Natural expressions
All filled with the Spirit 2:4 Prayed together 1:14 (men & women together)
Spoke with other tongues of other nations 2:4-11 Peter preached 2:14-40 Chose replacement for Judas 1:15-26 (Some point out nothing more heard of Matthias!)
Apostles performed signs and wonders 2:43 Taught by apostles, met in fellowship, held ‘communion’ and prayed together 2:42
Peter & John heal a cripple 3:1-8 Met regularly, had everything in common even selling goods to help others 2:44,45
Gave answer to leaders 4:8-12 Met regularly for breaking bread together, praising God and seeing more added 2:46,47
Sprit falls as they pray 4:31 and enabled to speak boldly Went to temple prayers 3:1
Peter exercises word of knowledge and Ananias dies 5:3-5  Ditto his wife  5:7-10 Preached to crowd  3:12-26
Signs & wonders performed by the apostles 5:12 Arrested for preaching Jesus 4:1-3
Angel releases apostles from jail 5:19,20 Prayed together 4:24-39
Apostles arrested & jailed 5:17,18

That is probably enough to go on with. In the left-hand column some of the things are specifically explained as happening as the Spirit filled individuals, power fell, angelic help given, but some, the miraculous happenings at the hands of the apostles, are clearly impossible to humans and are therefore obvious manifestations of the work and power of the Spirit.

Early Spirit Activity: Here we see inspired preaching, healings, signs and wonders, all very clearly the work of God in their midst. In each instance we see men inspired and empowered by the Spirit, i.e. responding to and being used by the Spirit. For future consideration, the questions might be asked, were these things purely for that point of history? Well  history denies that. The records show that at various times (relatively rarely before the 20th century) such things have been seen in a number of parts of the church. Following the Spirit outpouring in the early part of the 20th century, and then subsequent movements of the Spirit  (Charismatic movement, Toronto Blessing, Wimber movement etc.) in the late decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, it is obvious to anyone with integrity who bothers to research these things, these things have had a resurgence in various denominations and ‘streams’ within the Church. Perhaps we need to look later at why.

General Lifestyles: Without doubt the early church was impelled by the wonder of the Spirit’s outpouring, and their ‘life-in-common’ lifestyles are sufficiently challenging that we need to consider them more fully in subsequent studies. A common prayer life, regularly meeting together, specifically to remember the Lord, sharing with one another, caring for the less well off, etc. seem to be uncontroversial characteristics of their corporate life that perhaps we need to think about emulating. Watch this space!

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!

15. No Longer Orphans

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

15. No Longer Orphans

Jn 1:12,13 to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

1 Jn 3:1 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

Me – Us?: I wonder if you were asked what aspect of ‘being a Christian’ stood out most to you, what you would reply? A believer? A church-goer? A good person? I want to suggest in this study that our starting and finishing point is that I am a child of God. That speaks of origins and identity, and it speaks of ongoing relationship, and it opens up thoughts about the future and our eternal destiny. Let’s browse together in this field.

Alienated: Psychologists talk about alienation, environmentalists talk about alienation, Marxists talk about alienation. It simply means being separated or estranged from some essential part of life. That counterfeit religion, Marxism, blames capitalism for isolating and dehumanizing people, psychologists blame relationships for human breakdown, sociologists blame society for human injustices that warp outlook. There is always a cause and always an effect. Sometimes in the context of his writings, the apostle Paul used the word ‘Gentiles’ to simply mean those who had no relationship with God. Speaking of this group he said, “For they live blindfold in a world of illusion and cut off from the life of God through ignorance and insensitiveness. They have stifled their consciences and then surrendered themselves to sensuality.” (Eph 4:18,19 JBP) See the cause: ignorant of God, insensitive to Him, hardening themselves (their consciences) to Him. See the effect: they just live lives given over to the five senses – and that is all. They are alienated from God, separated and cut off from Him, and thus live in a world of illusion, of deception, of delusion, and it feels lonely.

The Big Picture: The truth is that God created and brought this world into being and designed us to be people who had a relationship with Him, but that was lost at the Fall. There may be a bundle of secondary reasons why we experience difference sorts of alienation – from ourselves (not facing who we truly are), from others (not being able to relate to others), from society (who we see as hostile and cruel) and so on, but the ultimate truth is that because we are alienated from God, the One we were designed to relate to as Father, all these other things tend to be dysfunctional, not working as they should. And that is how it would stay if God had not foreseen all of this and planned to counteract it by the work of His Son and His Spirit.

The Problem of Sin: Have you ever thought that when God said, “you must not eat from…” (Gen 2:17), the first and only prohibition, in their perfect provision for Man, the Godhead knew that living with provision was fraught with dangers? Eating too much would cause obesity. Making and using alcohol in excess would have many harmful effects, and so on, so many potential hazards – and so many hidden boundaries. Throughout the Creation, excess would harm but wise use would bless. And thus man would have to learn about boundaries, so God applied a limitation to just one tree to teach the lesson, and man learnt to restrain his appetites as wisdom decreed, an expression of love, of relationship, an acceptance of God’s wisdom in provision.

But then came, “Did God really say…”  (Gen 3:1) and behind even just one boundary, one limitation, there lurks temptation, temptation to reject, temptation to ignore, temptation that says, “Perhaps He didn’t mean it, perhaps my way is best.” Temptation is there behind the many hidden boundaries that wise usage means are there. Temptation had to be faced and overcome or given way to, and whichever way, lessons learned. And thus God stood back while a tempter came, the test faced, and the Fall experienced, and life would never be the same again. And that is how it has been for you and me ever since. We sin, we do wrong, we miss the mark, we fall short, and all these things alienate us from God. In the same way that Adam and Eve hid from God immediately after their disobedience (Gen 3:8), the deep-down sense of our failures, our inadequacies, our falling short, mean that we too feel alienated from God. We should be children of God but we lost our relationship, we became orphans.

Adopted? Which is what makes that verse in the first chapter of John so wonderful: “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (Jn 1:12) We ‘become’ – we weren’t but now we are adopted into God’s family, taken back into the family where we were designed to be from the start. Expanding that, as the Amplified Bible puts it, to as many as did receive and welcome Him, He gave the authority (power, privilege, right) to become the children of God, that is, to those who believe in (adhere to, trust in, and rely on) His name.” See the new cause: believing, sticking to, trusting in, relying on Jesus – that is what brings about this new relationship. See the new effect: we become children of God, and when it says, “He gave the authority”, those other words explain that God conveys the right to be called a child, the privilege of being a child of God, and the power to be a child of God. Keep on turning those words over. I not only have the privilege of being able to be called a child of God, I have been given a legal right from heaven of having that title – and it doesn’t stop there – and I also have the power to live as a child of God.

Divine Act: But how and why? Because of what follows:  children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (Jn 1:13) There is early warning of what was to come a couple of chapters later – “Children born…. Of God”Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.” (Jn 3:6,7) So why, to use the language above, do I have the right to be called a ‘child of God’? Because I am a product of the work of God, Him justifying me, Him placing His Holy Spirit within me to indwell me. Why do I have the power of a child of God? Because His power indwells me.

Different! Do you remember the first study in this Part (no.8) was all about the fact that a Christian is different from a non-Christian? Here is the second of the things that come about when we are born again that make us different – I am given the right to be called a child of God because I have been born of God – He has made me that when I surrendered to Him, and that is only possible because of the work of Christ on my behalf on the Cross, (It is for you also if you receive it as such!) and the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit in me for the rest of my life. How wonderful!

13. A People of Faith

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 2 – A Different People

13.  A People of Faith

Heb 11:6 without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Lk 18:8  when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Rom 10:17  faith comes from hearing the message

Faith? I have a feeling that as we come to this subject we come to the heart of the challenges that I find confront me as a leader and as I let my eyes wander over the congregation of whom I am a part today. But it is also at the heart of what it is to be a true Christian. It is this subject of ‘faith’, and it is vital that we distinguish belief from faith.

Faith & Belief:  Now we must not confuse faith with belief. The apostle James nailed this one. Listen: faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (Jas 2:17-19) We started this particular Part by considering that all Christians are believers (Study 9) but see what James says: (i) Faith has to be accompanied by action.  (ii) Deeds alone are not a substitute. (iii) Belief alone is not adequate. Faith is belief in action.

Belief, the Starting Point: In that previous study no.9 I noted that there has to be a body of belief which led us through into this new life, and we considered believing that Jesus is the unique Son of God who has to be our Lord and Saviour. It is that initial belief that motivates us and which the Holy Spirit uses to convict us so that we come to a point of surrender and repentance. That initial believing and that initial action is what theologians call ‘saving faith’, it is the belief plus action that opens the door for God to come and declare us justified (which we will go on to consider in the next study) and adopted (the subsequent study) and then indwelt by His Spirit. We tend to be a little casual in our language and so we often just call Christians ‘believers’ (as I have done previously) but the reality is that ‘belief’ is just the starting point and the ongoing life is – if there is to be any reality in it – a life of faith. So what does that mean?

Faith comes from hearing: One of our verses above from Romans 10 suggests that, not only is faith belief in action, it is action in response to God. God speaks, we hear and we respond. THAT is faith. Now if you are stuck in unbelief you will say, “But I can’t hear God.” Yes, you can. There are different levels of ‘hearing’. For instance Rom 10:17 that we only partly quoted, goes on, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” Where do you find that “word about Christ”? In the Gospels in the New Testament. The apostle Paul declared, “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe,” (1 Thess 2:13) and thus put his own speech on the level as that of the prophets of old, and was therefore ‘the word of God’. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.” (Heb 13:7) Then of course there are Paul’s famous words, “All Scripture is God-breathed.” (2 Tim 3:16) If God breathes it, it is His word.

We ‘hear’ when we read the Bible, we hear when we hear a preacher or a prophetic word brought, we ‘hear’ when the Holy Spirit whispers truth into our hearts and minds – but it depends on the state of our heart.  You could listen to a preacher and say, “What rubbish!” despite the fact that he was anointed and spoke with God’s authority. You can open the Bible and randomly read and nothing happens. On the other hand you can feel spiritually hungry and pray, “Lord, please speak to me through your word,” and suddenly it goes alive and you are challenged and transformed. So faith is also a heart response – a right heart response – to what you hear. If you have set in your mind that God doesn’t speak then you won’t hear.

A Personal Story: Relationship with God, which is what faith is all about, can touch our hearts and minds and emotions. I was recently reminded of something that happened to my wife and I many years ago. We belonged to a little evangelical church. We knew little of the life of the Spirit, even less of gifts. One day we heard some news about someone in our family, someone not particularly close and also many miles away. I found myself strangely disturbed by this news and felt in real anguish for them. This feeling carried on and I shared it with my wife and said I had a feeling that I was feeling what God felt for this relative. She responded negatively, “That’s presumptuous, we can’t feel what God feels.” Well we had an ongoing conversation about this that went on and off for the next three days. It was three days later that we attended the church prayer meeting and during the course of it, the pastor’s wife brought this ‘prophecy’. It wasn’t directed so no one else knew it was for us but in it the Lord said very clearly that He had been listening to us and, yes, He had shared His heart with me so that what I had been feeling was from him. It then got scary, because the prophecy went on to literally quote things we had both said in this ongoing three-day conversation, giving point by point answers to what we had both said!  That woman spoke out in faith; we heard it as God speaking by faith. That was relationship, that was communication with God.

Belief then Faith: Consider for a moment the first of our starter verses from above: “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Heb 11:6) Do you see that? Belief in God comes first but it is clear that the writer means a belief that goes into action – seeking God – and that action is faith. Indeed, as Christians, everything we do is supposed to be by faith. My starting point is turning to God. I do that freshly every morning. For me, my personal practice is first thing in my ‘Quiet Listening Time’ to declare my submission to Him and reliance upon Him, for His salvation, His direction and His presence. I present me and my family to Him with thanksgiving. And I listen. That is just my practice. These days I have learnt to have a notebook beside me and I jot down the things that start flowing in my mind. I get guidance for the day or the days ahead. Look at the verse again. Do I hear complaints that “God never rewards me”? Is it because we don’t “earnestly seek him”?

Ready for Return: Finally, let’s pick up that verse we’ve mention before, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) I’ve said it before, but I find that a real challenge. The things I wrote about in study no.4, ‘Wondering about Fitness of Purpose’, make me feel we are rushing towards this Doomsday scenario and I wonder how much more the Lord will allow, and I wonder if He will use these things to bring the catastrophes that are spoken about in the book of Revelation. Godless mankind has brought into being – and is in the process of bringing into being – means of self-destruction in ways and magnitude never dreamt of a hundred years ago. Whether it is then, or simply when He calls us home, will He find in us a people of faith? Not a people who live by rules or rituals but a people who live out of a living relationship with the One True God, mediated by His Son who sits at His right-hand ruling in the midst of his enemies, and enabled by His Spirit who indwells all true believers. A people of faith? THAT is ‘church’.

Next we will go on to see what happens to us that make us different when we come to God through Christ and are born again.

(Here again at the end of this Part we provide 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

12. Needing to be ‘saved’?

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 2 – A Different People

12. Needing to be ‘Saved’?

Heb 2:3,4 ‘This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

2 Cor 7:10  Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death

Salvation?  In the previous study I faced the challenge about the language of ‘salvation’. Apart from the Salvation Army the word salvation gets rarely used in modern life and so for some, the use of this language in a religious context appears either old fashioned or overly emotional. Yet it is a word that appears in the New Testament many times. Talk of ‘being saved’ is slightly more common in modern life for we use it of people being rescued from a sinking ship or people being rescued from a burning building, or even of captives being rescued from the hands of terrorists. In every such case, ‘being saved’ means being delivered from the threat of death. In the Bible that death is seen in the light of the Judgment of God.

A God of Judgment? Because there is a modern tendency to view God through rose-tinted glasses and many see Him as a distant figure who, having once set everything in motion, now just sits at a distance watching us make a mess of things. (That is ‘deism’). The thought of God intervening or interfering in human life is, to such people, almost abhorrent. Religion, for them, comprises performing acts of devotion (going to church and performing the rituals) but expecting no more. The talk of interaction with God and encountering the power of the Holy Spirit, simply frightens such people. But the truth of the whole Bible is that God does judge, God does intervene – now! – and not just at what is referred to as the Final Judgment. But the bigger picture shows a God who does judge but also provides a way of avoiding that judgement through repentance and trusting in the finished work of Christ on the Cross. That is salvation.

The focus of salvation: Because it may be that some might think I am exaggerating here, we do need to eyeball this truth. When the angel came to Joseph in a dream, he said to Joseph, speaking about Mary, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,] because he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21) You may find an additional footnote in your Bible that Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua which means, ‘the Lord saves’, i.e. another way of saying he will be a deliverer – from sins, and by implication, from the death that follows: “the wages of sin is death,” (Rom 6:23) i.e. death is the end product of sin, of this life that I have referred to as being self-centred and godless.

That is what this is all about, of God providing a way whereby we can be delivered from a self-centred and godless life and from the death that it brings. NB. Death here should be contrasted with the eternal life that is so often referred to as the outworking of salvation: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)

The Language of Salvation: But this is not a rare or occasional use of this language. Let’s spend a little time considering this by picking out a few of the verses of the New Testament. Observing the apostles in Acts, we find as Peter speaks about Jesus, Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) That is somewhat uncompromising, especially in this modern world that wants to be all things to all people.

Again, speaking of this coming to the wider world and not just the Jews, the apostle Paul declared, “I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles,” (Acts 28:28) and then to the Romans he declared, “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 we see it, a declaration that the good news of Jesus coming as a saviour-deliverer, came to the whole world, Jew and Gentile. But was it a passive thing, simply an act of God so now we can ignore it because God has simply forgiven us, and we are all saved? Well, not exactly.

“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” (Eph 1:13) So writes the apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus.  This takes us back to an earlier study (No.7) about Christians being believers, and belief is the first stage towards all that subsequently follows. What follows is a transformation that we have considered in Study No.8, first at the act of conversion, of us being ‘born again’ and then in the ongoing life: continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.” (Phil 2:12,13) There salvation is seen, not just as what happens as we surrender and repent, but everything that follows in our lives thereafter.

We started this section with a quote from the apostle Peter in Acts, so let’s finish it with a quote from his first letter: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Pet 1:8,9) Faith opens a door to life with Christ and Christ delivers us (an ongoing process) from our old self-centred and godless life. Being a Christian thus means receiving and living out this life of relationship with Jesus. (You can check out a few further ‘salvation quotes’ in 1 Thess 5:9, 2 Tim 2:10, Heb 2:3, 5:9.)

And So? What are the key points that stand out in what we have been considering in this study? First, I would suggest, this language of ‘salvation’ is not merely common to the New Testament, it is fundamental to it. Second, it is seen as something available for the whole human race and yet only applied in conjunction with belief.   Third, it is spoken of so many times and in such a basic and fundamental way, because the big issue that the New Testament deals with, is how can sinful men and women (all of us) be saved from the demands of justice, applied by the judgment of God? Fourth, but it doesn’t stop there; having been saved from it once, how can that deliverance be continued on throughout our lives on this earth, in such a manner that justice is still being satisfied? The answer to this, more fully, is how God then views us, and that will take us into exactly what happens, as far as heaven is concerned, at our point of conversion, and that is where we will go on to soon.