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.

3. Challenged by Scripture

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 1 – Falling Short?

3. Challenged by Scripture

Matt 16:18   I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

Acts 9:31  Then the church … enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

A Brief Pause: We are considering the need to look afresh at what constitutes this thing we call the Christian Church, looking hopefully with humility and grace, while facing the instances of the Church falling short of what it should be, but seeing these as goals to be dealt with, not causes of guilt, failure and discouragement. A concern for people and a desire to encourage love for one another, is also another motivating force in our quest to review modern church life. But there yet are other things that press us on as we consider the need to go down this path. The first of them is the way we approach Scripture and the challenges it brings us.

Refocus: Previously I shared about some people I know who have had a less than wonderful experience of church. Those were all negatives, but you may not have had such experiences and think your church life is something quite different, something good. (If that is so, I am pleased for you.)

I did wonder about painting some big brush-stroke pictures of churches that I have experienced and may be the sort you attend. The danger of doing this is that I could appear destructively critical and that’s not my intention.  Anything I write, is with the intention of getting us to look at what we are doing and ask the question, “Is there something better than this that the Lord wants for us?” Now the problem is that until we work our way through the teaching about the Church in the New Testament, we may think we are all right, and any comments that I may make at this point in these word-pictures will really need the support of the content that will follow in the rest of this series, so be patient with me please.

Open to the Bible? But this talk about the New Testament teaching raises an important assumption here. First, I believe what the Bible says – all of it – and so I do not believe we can shrug off particular verses because we either do not understand them or they scare us. Let’s check ourselves with a few New Testament quotes.

For example: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever,” (Heb 12). Take it at its face value and it means that the Jesus who ministered on earth for three years, is the same Son of God who continues to minister on earth today, through his body, the church, as we’ll see later. And when Jesus said, “Anyone who believes in me will do the works I do,” (Jn 14:12) what does it mean but that we, the Church are to be doing exactly what we see Jesus doing in the Gospels, and if we are not, there is a goal to go for.   Now these may be foreign verses for some and if they are, may I invite you to hang around and see how they can possibly be worked out, rather than run away to something more comfortable.

More Wonderings: I am provoked to ponder on these things whenever I pick up my Bible, especially the New Testament, it seems. Acts 9:31, for example, speaks about the way the very early church started to grow. I was struck by the description of it: “Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit…..”   Trying to be honest, I wonder how many churches that I know (and even more I know nothing of) could say that this is a reasonable description of them, that they are “living in the fear of the Lord”.  Where is this holy respect for the Lord of glory, a respect for a God who shuts churches down (Rev 2 & 3) and even takes His children home to glory prematurely (see 1 Cor 11:30)? Do we even believe in a God who does this? And how many of us, I wonder, could say that, as a church, we know what it means to be “encouraged by the Holy Spirit”? Just wonderings. What picture of ‘church’ does the New Testament convey? Is there something more for which we should be aiming? I believe it is there to be seen in the pages of the New Testament.

Now if you thought you passed the tests of belief in what you read in the paragraphs above, how, for example, did you react to my references in the paragraph above to Rev 2 & 3 and 1 Cor 11? I said nothing there that those passages don’t imply or say specifically.

Preparing the way of the Lord: To prepare ourselves for the days ahead, may we give thanks for all the good things we know of our local churches but pray and ask the Lord, is there something more He wants us to become, to more fully express Him to the watching world. If we can face the truth, we must acknowledge that mostly the number of believers in the West has been declining over the past twenty or more years and our influence on our societies have been negligible. If that wasn’t true, our societies would not have been declining spiritually and morally in that time in the way that they have. But peering into the future also means we face the challenge that the Bible teaches that one day Jesus is going to return in power. What will he find when he returns?

The Coming of the Lord?  Put most simply we have two options. First, we can sit back and just watch the continuing decline and continuing growing dissatisfaction within the church and wait for the Lord to come either in revival (of which there are some signs around the world) or in the Second Coming (and I do believe that event is possibly rapidly approaching). Second, we can ask the Lord to teach us to come in line with His word and be available to His Spirit, so that the Bride will be much better dressed when the Bridegroom returns (see Rev 19:7,8).  Jesus once asked a very simple and short question which I find echoes around in my mind: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) Something to ponder on, and we’ll look at what that means at a later date.

Back to the Beginning:  So Jesus said, I will build my church.” I keep finding I come back here. What sort of Church does Jesus want, what is he working towards. I recently came across some notes from the past that I had when, over a decade ago, I asked our church to each paint a vision of the church they felt Jesus wanted. Here, to conclude, is part (and only part) of one of those ‘visions’ to whet your appetite.  See how it grabs you, just some of the possibilities:

  • “It would be a place where learning was normal, new believers shown the way, introduced to the Bible, prayer, fellowship, worship and witness, and introduced to the life in the Spirit, introduced to gifts and abilities in the kingdom of God, released, and equipped to find their place in the body that expresses the kingdom of God.
  • It would be a secure place where healing from the past can be received and enabling given to face the challenges of the present. It would be a place where each person knows they are loved, supported, encouraged and empowered to become the person God has designed them to be, individually and within the body. It would be a place where practical and financial needs are shared and met together, and life changes brought about.
  • It would be a place where outsiders are welcomed in and shown the reality of the love of God in word and deed, and the possibility of a new life, forgiven, cleansed, and set on a new path, a life where the power and the personal word of God was shared, received and used to bring change of life. It would, in other words, be a city on a hill whose light shines forth to transform the community.”

Just possibilities. These were, as I said, just some of the things put forward. What would you like to add to a picture of what the Church could be like? Make your own list, and then pray for those things to come perhaps.

63. Discernment

Short Meditations in John 6:  63. Discernment

Jn 6:63   The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life

Life. We all have life, don’t we? We are all alive? That’s true isn’t it? Well, clearly not because Jesus implies that the Holy Spirit brings life – to people who we would say are already alive! The obvious conclusion is that there are two levels of ‘life’. First there is physical life, so often referred to as the life of the flesh, the physical life we experience through the five senses – taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing. Every single living person experiences life at this level.

But then we each have a ‘spirit’, it is said, and here we arrive at the realm of faith where we will either believe Jesus – or not! The problem is that there is no part of our physical body that houses the ‘spirit’. It is probable that we might be speaking of the brain, the part of our body that enables realisation of existence, the area of experience, of awareness, but for the most part, all those things are only in the material or physical realm, aided as we said by the five senses.

In Gen 2 there is the well-known reference to God breathing into the first humans “the breath of life” which some suggest is His Spirit imparted to us to make us alive. The fact that Jesus was to later teach that the Holy Spirit would indwell us, suggests that that initial “breath of life” was simply God’s initial starting ‘life’ off in us.

If this is so, then the subsequent inference from these verses in John clearly suggests that by coming to Jesus there is an impartation of his own Holy Spirit who will impart Spirit-life which enables us to live on a completely different plane, one that enables us to both communicate with God, be sensitive to Him, and be led and guided by Him. This takes us far beyond merely living at the physical level and gives us insight into spiritual realities in ways that nothing else does.

Now what is interesting is that Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life.” In the light of what we have just been considering, this sheds a completely different light on everything that has been said by Jesus in this discussion that has taken up such a large part of this chapter. The words you have been hearing, implies Jesus, come from that spiritual plane and can only be discerned spiritually. If you are spiritual, you will have no problem with them. If you are operating on the purely physical or material plane, you will really struggle with them. Now, in the light of all this, what does it mean to be spiritual? It means to have come to Christ and now be indwelt by his Holy Spirit, and without Him you are not a Christian – see Rom 8:5-11, esp. v.9. This is why it is so important when we study His word that we pray and seek the Spirit’s help and revelation.

61. On the Way (1)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 61. On the Way (1)

Acts 9:1,2   He went to the Chief Priest and got arrest warrants to take to the meeting places in Damascus so that if he found anyone there belonging to the Way, whether men or women, he could arrest them

Gal 2:2   I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.

A Journey: It is interesting that in Acts the new faith was referred to as ‘the Way’ which suggests a journey going from somewhere to somewhere. The apostle Paul several times refers to our faith as a race and of course a race has a beginning and an end. In addition to our Galatians verse above, he said to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) Throughout this series we have contended for the idea that our lives as Christians are a long redemptive process, that it is God’s intention to change me, and you, and the world. Why? Because He wants something better for us than that which we have presently. Never settle for the present, there is more on God’s heart for you.

The Range of God’s desire: I have just recently been listening online to a Bible week in the UK, a week that always has very high faith levels, excellent teaching and an expectation of the power of the Holy Spirit working. What I have found interesting and challenging is the language of worship leaders and other leaders as they lead the worship and wait on God, such as, “I believe the Lord wants to reach out to those who have been holding onto fears for many years and release you from them,” or “there are people here tonight who have been struggling with their marriages and tonight I believe the Lord wants you to recommit yourselves to making them work with His grace.”   Now I don’t have a problem with those words as such, but they have triggered a thought in me that I have never seen so clearly before: Yes, God does want to come and minister to those people but also those who struggle with anger, with sexual temptations, with worries at work, with worries about their children, and those who are feeling spiritually lethargic, those who are feeling like giving up, those who feel failures, those who are struggling in a myriad of ways, yes, He wants to minister to ALL of these things, all of these people, so why doesn’t He, because these are surely things He wants to redeem us from? The change in respect of each of these things IS God’s will for us, so how does it work?

Aspects of Change: Does God wave a magic wand and we are changed? No, of course not. The Lord works through clearly defined channels. We can see them in the New Testament and there is nothing hyper-mystical about them. They are easily understood, so let’s consider each of them.

My Self Will: Now there is a clear indication in the Bible that we do genuinely have free will and we have the ability to choose how to act in response to anything God says. The Bible shows that God speaks and expects people to respond. He wouldn’t bother to speak if He didn’t have that expectation. Now we also have examples in the Bible of people who did respond positively in belief (and many of our earlier studies showed individuals who did respond positively to God) but we also have examples of people who rejected what God said and disobeyed Him. At the outset Eve could have refused to listen to Satan, but didn’t and so gave way to his suggestions, the temptation in the Garden of Eden.

Heart Condition? You and I can choose how we respond when we hear the word preached, but it is not that simple. There is our ‘heart condition’ and the things that impact upon it. Heart condition? The Bible speaks about hungering and thirsting (Psa 42:2, 63:1, 107:9, 143:6, Isa 44:3, 55:1, Mt 5:6, Jn 7:37, Rev 21:6, 22:17). The person who hungers and thirst is, without doubt, a more open vessel to receive from God. In the Gospels we find people crying out to Jesus to help them. Is that us? Is it possible to make yourself ‘thirst’ for God or is it something He has to do? Both!

Our Choices: I can choose, in respect of the so-called spiritual disciplines, to make more time to wait on God in stillness, I can choose to deepen my study of His word, I can choose to deepen my prayer experiences, I can choose to purpose to worship more fully, I can choose to take notes, listen more carefully and more purposefully respond to the preached word, and all of these things are our efforts to draw near to God. As I do these things I believe there is a changing that will take place in me as He responds (“Come near to God and he will come near to you” – Jas 4:8), and I will find a raising of faith within me, an increase in awareness of Him, and a thrill and sense of thanksgiving rise in me. I can choose to do these things and then have to trust in His responses. This is my contribution to this part of the redemption process.

But there are also the big life choices – not to steal, not to covet, not to commit adultery, not to tell lies, not to abuse others in word or deed, not to defame others. Those are the negative choices I have to make, but there are also positive ones – to speak well of others, to encourage others, to love others, care for them with compassion, accept others and be there for them.  These are another set of choices that I have to make as part of my redemptive process.

The Faith Level Present: Now there is no doubt that faith is a key issue. John Wimber used to say that faith was present in someone in every recorded instance of healing in the Gospels. But I have watched over the years and this I know, the preacher who faithfully expounds God’s word under the anointing of the Holy Spirit releases faith in his hearers. Such preaching should produce a ‘wow factor’ response. That may be “Wow, that was amazing, isn’t God good, I must serve Him,” or “Wow, God is holy I must bow before Him and commit myself afresh to Him”. If preaching leaves people unmoved, either they have hard hearts, or the preacher is unexcited by God’s word and lacking the anointing of God. Bringing God’s word, preachers can come with a high faith level and expectation and generate or release faith.

‘Non-Faith’ Churches & People: Very often ‘church services’ or ‘church meetings’ completely lack faith. Why do you need to depend on God turning up when you have a service all laid out and it must be stuck to? Where is there room for the Holy Spirit to move to bring revelation, fresh direction, empowering to bring healing, deliverance or change generally? Being part of a church that is like this means spiritual growth – the journey along the path of God’s redemptive work in us – is slowed down, either to snail’s pace or actual standstill.  I used to agree with those who said you never stand still, you either go forward or backwards. I’m not so sure that is true, because I do know Christians who appear at a complete standstill in their lives and I suspect they are still thinking the same way and doing exactly the same things as ten years ago. That is not growth, but it is also not backsliding, for they would say they are bona-fide Christians who pray, read the Bible, go to church, worship etc. But have they grown in character and spirituality, wisdom, revelation and insight, are they moving in gifts of the Spirit, being more available and more used of God? No.  Yes, sadly I also know those who once were part of church life but no longer, and who now appear to exhibit little if any spiritual life. Their complaints tend to be about the lack of reality in much church life, but they have opted out from trying to change that from the inside and so simply sit outside and criticize.

The Church Spectrum: But the point I wish to make here is we are not people in isolation in this redemption process, we are part of the church and ‘the church’ can encourage us, release faith in us (which is what the Eph 4:12 ministries are supposed to do) and generally help us to grow – or not! The ‘Church’ worldwide is a complex organism and often more an organisation than an organism. In some places you might find a group of ten believers meeting together with a measure of life flowing between them but having little impact on anyone else. At the other end of the spectrum it is possible to find mega-churches with superstar preachers who justify why a personal jet is necessary, and their pew fodder are supporters who simply finance these stars but show little similarity to the disciples of the New Testament, and the ‘body of Christ’ is no more than an untouched idea in Paul’s writings.  Wherever we worship on this spectrum, can we blame the leaders for failing to lead us to the spiritual heights with God and in transforming the world by His Spirit?  Yes we can, but that is no excuse for us making poor choices that limit our growth. I can choose to study God’s word, to pray and seek God’s face, and worship and witness – or not. I can choose to read books that will stir, challenge and build my faith – or not. I can choose to go on spiritual retreats, Bible conferences and the like – or not. I can choose to contribute to my spiritual growth – or not!

Locked in to circumstances? Sometimes it feels like our life circumstances lock us in and lock us down. Sometimes personal illness strikes, sometimes accidents occur, sometimes we get abandoned or falsely accused and hurt, sometimes we lose a loved one unexpectedly and prematurely and life seems seriously unfair. Sometimes the clouds of gloom or depression hang over us and no one seems to care, and so talk of a redemptive process appears unreal; we don’t appear to be going anywhere. But the thing is that despite what we are choosing to do, or not, and despite what others in the church are doing, or not, God is always there quietly working in the background. and that well known verse of Rom 8:28 still proves to be true: “Moreover we know that to those who love God, who are called according to his plan, everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.” (JBP version) or “we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Message version). Our part in this redemptive process is sometimes to simply hang on in there and be able say, “Yes, I still love God,” and then just trust that in all the imperfect circumstances surrounding us, He IS still working through His redemptive process in us.   Amen.

42. Enough of Sex

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 42. Enough of Sex

1 Tim 3:15  you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

Our Purpose: This is an area where so much more could be written but I have written what I have – and this will be the end of it – because we live in a world where confusion reigns and no more so than in the realm of sexual attitudes and behaviour. The Bible does not make a meal of it because, frankly, life in Israel was such that things such as sexual identity or sexual failures were the exception rather than the growing rule as today. Some people say that it was Paul and not Jesus who spoke about homosexuality and so it is not an issue, but the point is that it was not an issue in Israel, so Jesus did not need to speak of it, whereas Paul was addressing a much wider audience, where it was more likely to have been an issue that needed addressing. It needs addressing in our world because it is something that has been forced into the open in our world and even made the subject of law.

My concern in these four studies (No.39 – ‘Gender Issues’ on) has been to ask questions that challenge some of the things that are apparently accepted uncritically as the norm, while at the same time, for Christians (onlookers and participators, if I may put it like that) face the realities here, as well as the Biblical challenges, but in a pastorally gracious and uncondemning way.

Recap & Clarification: Perhaps it would be helpful to itemize some of the things we have considered along the way, by way of recap, and maybe even seek to clarify some of them more:

  • The context is of a fallen world where much is no longer ‘normal’ i.e. no longer like it was before the Fall and after God will remake it at the end.
  • We established some basic sexual definitions to do with identity and orientation.
  • We acknowledged that physically there can be diversions from the norm (fairly rare) that raise extremely difficult questions of identity.
  • Moreover, whether it is genetically caused, relationally or psychologically caused, some people do struggle with gender identity, that veers away from the norm (Never forget that the vast majority of the world’s population is heterosexual, that is ‘the norm’, especially in the light of the Bible’s declaration that God made ‘male and female’, and that clearly was His standard design.)
  • We suggested that a person’s ‘spiritual orientation’ is in fact a bigger issue to be considered before any subsequent gender issue.
  • Self-control or the absence of it leading to promiscuous behaviour, whether in the heterosexual or homosexual realms is an issue when we consider God’s design for the world, and behaviour within a community generally.
  • We wondered exactly what the truth is when a young person ‘comes out’. Is this an unwise misunderstanding of a phase of social, physical and psychological development, or is it genuinely an expression of something that has been there all along as we said above, genetically caused, relationally or psychologically caused? Whatever the cause, that young person now sees their self as different from the norm and is looking for understanding and acceptance.
  • Part of that understanding requires consideration of the difference between friendship and a developing deeper relationship and a commitment context is needed to make sense of that, otherwise it simply becomes just a plea to have sexual experiences that vary from the norm.
  • Finally we considered the subject of ‘desires’ noting good ones that promote life, and not so good ones that cause upset and harm.
  • We recognized a distinction between committed relationships and uncontrolled and uninhibited promiscuous sex. Although the latter may be what the media portray as a potential norm for western society, we see there are dangers, that are only slowly being recognized and acknowledged, that sex separated from a loving relationship creates a struggle to ever know what true love is. Trivializing relationships and making them based upon sex, and not other aspects of being human together, weakens the possibilities of long-term relationships, for when the sex ceases to be ‘good’ the relationship starts to fracture.

A Lost & Confused World: While I believe our statements about how the media portrays sex and relationships, are absolutely true, I feel increasingly like the boy in Hans Anderson’s story of ‘the Emperors New Clothes’ who has not been let in on the belief that the con-men have produced invisible clothes that only clever people can see, and who, when he sees the naked emperor, has the temerity to shout out, “The emperor has no clothes,” and only then does everyone else acknowledge it. The unquestioning cult of promiscuity that seems to lurk in the background of modern life, whether heterosexual or homosexual, accepted and even promoted by TV script writers, largely exists without challenge in high places or newspaper columns. At the same time we have gone through several years of revelations about sexual abuse by ‘celebs’ and are shocked. How can we take the brake off sex generally and then be surprised when it had bad spinoffs in so many directions?

Church, an Alternative Community: In case you have lost the thread, this series is all about redemption and perhaps we dare think about redeeming society by example. The example is to be different, and our norm is to have lasting, lifelong committed relationships of members of the opposite sex. Yet, where there is a breakdown, or breakaway from that, we should be a place of compassionate security where people struggling with their identity can be loved, and people struggling with breakup of relationship can be helped back to a good place, and we will go on to consider this latter problem n the next study.

Accepting the Different: The church I led before I retired was largely middle-class, middle-of-the-road evangelical-charismatic, with very ordinary people, and one day a middle-aged man wearing a Mohican haircut and a coat of many very bright colours, turned up. We welcomed him without reserve. It turned out that he had just been released from a mental institution following years of prison for having committed arson and murder. One of our men had visited him for some time while incarcerated and he had made a profession of faith while in prison – but he was still (and remained) a seriously distinct character who stood out among the ‘ordinary people’.

So can we ‘ordinary people’ extend the mantra that we so often use – “God loves you exactly as you are, but loves you so much that He has got something better for you than what you have at present” – to include anyone who is different from us, here with gender identity issues, people who are struggling with sexual self-control, people who are abused, people who are suffering relationship breakup, and can we truly be a healing redemptive community?  That is the challenge, to seek the wisdom of God to face these issues with integrity while remaining full of compassion, to be a real healing redemptive community through whom God can move to change lives.

End Goals: I don’t know what the latter part of what I have called my mantra may mean for an individual – “but loves you so much that He has got something better for you than what you have at present” – but God does. In studies 28-30 we considered “Redeemed to”, the things the Lord seeks to bring into our lives and in study 33 “God’s End Goals” we sought to focus on this challenge that God is seeking to move each of us on to be something better than we are today. For those of us struggling with life – in identity crises, or who are struggling with ‘being different’, or who are struggling with the nightmares that still occur from past abuse, or those who are struggling with the aftershock of breakup of relationship, or maybe are struggling to prevent that breakup – we all need the wisdom, love, care, compassion and grace of God that should come through others who can stand alongside us, weep with us,  anguish with us, and be there for us – and that is what the Church is supposed to be. That is how this ongoing redemption is worked out, or at least, should be worked out. May we rise to that.  We would do well to end with the apostle Paul as the Message version puts it:

“There’s more to sex than mere skin on skin. Sex is as much spiritual mystery as physical fact. As written in Scripture, “The two become one.” Since we want to become spiritually one with the Master, we must not pursue the kind of sex that avoids commitment and intimacy, leaving us more lonely than ever—the kind of sex that can never “become one.” There is a sense in which sexual sins are different from all others. In sexual sin we violate the sacredness of our own bodies, these bodies that were made for God-given and God-modelled love, for “becoming one” with another. Or didn’t you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don’t you see that you can’t live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body.” (1 Cor 6:19-20 Msg)

30. Redeemed To (3)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 30. Redeemed To (3)

Eph 2:6,7    God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Recap Again: We are looking at the verses in Eph 2 that follow on from those where Paul describes our ‘old life’ and we said that from verse 4 he balances out those things with the things God had made us to be and is making us to be: alive to Him (v.5), joined with Christ (v.6), recipients of His incredible blessings (v.7). In the previous two studies we considered something of what it means to be ‘alive’ spiritually, and what it means to be joined with Christ, seated with him in the heavenly realms.  We move on now to the third aspect.

Incomparable:  The idea of ‘the riches of his grace’ sounds manageable until we note the word ‘incomparable’ which simply means cannot be compared to anything else, unmatched, unique, unparalleled, i.e. there is NOTHING else like it! Whatever this means it is mind blowing and because it is that enormous, that incredible, it is probably challenged by our intellect that says, ‘Surely that can’t be!” And of course you know who from Gen 3 is there in the background encouraging us to think like that. Our great danger as Christians, is that we get caught up in family life, caught up in our work, caught up in the bizarre goings-on of the world today, and we lose perspective, we forget who we are, who God is and what he has done for us, and so we live mundane lives of struggle instead of gloriously equipped lives of blessing. Let’s change that! Let’s think about what these things mean!

Familiar acts of God’s Grace:  There are certain aspects of God’s grace, His working out the effects of Christ’s work on the Cross when He finds a responding repentant heart in us, that I refer to quite often in these studies and because they become familiar they tend to lose their wonder.

First, there is the fact of our justification when we turn to Christ, the fact that God puts us legally right with Him and with justice, ‘just as if’ we’d never sinned. That involves forgiveness and the removal of our guilt so that we can be at ease with God and no longer fearful of any punishment.

Second, there is the fact of our being adopted as God’s children (Jn 1:12,14, Rom 8:14-17, Gal 3:26, 1 Jn 3:1) and we receive a new identity, ‘sons of God’ (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6, Eph 1:5) which implies the possibility of an intimate relationship with Almighty God, a sharing of His heart, and an entering into His ‘business’ (that’s the significance of ‘sons’ in the OT).

Then, third, to enable those things to be worked out practically on a day to day basis, He imparted His own Holy Spirit to indwell us, to both empower us and be a conduit of revelation from Him to us.  Now I just said that these things become familiar and familiarity takes away the wonder of the reality, so let’s try and expand on those things and try and capture something of the wonder that is there.

Our Justification: Many see this as some theoretical, theological aspect with little practical outworking but exactly the opposite is true. The fact that we have been justified by God means that we don’t have to work to try to impress God, get Him on our side or even to forgive us – because He has already done that. How many Christians subtly still try to DO things to make themselves right with God? You can’t He’s already done it. Reading the Bible, praying, witnessing, going to church, are all good things in themselves but they are not what makes you a child of God, they are, as is often glibly said, ‘the icing on the cake’. You and I are guilt free, forgiven, and children of God.

All over the world there are millions of people who do not know that about themselves, and it has crippling effects. Only yesterday I sat in a (non-Christian) forum about homelessness and listened to a number of those from the local authority and other agencies who work with the homeless, and as they rolled out the causes, again and again they mentioned relationship breakdowns and even mental health issues, and both causes, they said (these non-Christians) were increasing daily and are often interlinked. This in a nation that is one of the most affluent in the world, that has so much and yet so little because the vast majority (possibly between 93 to 95%) are self-centred and godless. Most show little interest in God or spiritual matters, so caught up are they in materialism. On the outside, so much seems good in the nation, but look into individual lives and you find people who feel guilty but don’t know why, people who struggle with themselves and with the people around them for self-accreditation, self-approval, but constantly fail to get it. Why? Because it only comes with God’s forgiveness because of Christ.

Our adoption: Then, we said, there is this matter if our being adopted as children of God, even ‘sons’ of God. The world derides us and says how dare you make such claims, but our answer has to be that it is not OUR claim but that of the Bible and of God. This is our anchor point in life, everything hinges on this, my goals, my desires, my aims and objectives, my endeavours. Yes, I may have a job, yes I may have various roles in life – husband, father, worker etc. etc. – but actually the meaning that underpins my life NOW is that I am a child of God.

Father: Some of us struggle with the concept of God as Father, because of our earthly experiences, but dare you see Him as loving, gentle, caring, compassionate, understanding, forgiving (all things the Bible says of Him) and see yourself in a picture, as a little child snuggled up on His lap, totally secure, utterly bathed in love and peace, because that is what this idea of adoption enables us to have.

Empowered: This is what He is redeeming us to, to realise the reality of this, that His Holy Spirit really and truly does indwell us, a concept that is unbelievable by the world, that God could put a part of Himself in us, to link us to Him, and to act as a power source and channel of revelation. While the world struggles with self-help courses and so often wakes each day with a sense of dread at the day to come, you and I wake with the knowledge that we are children of God and have within us a spring of living water, just waiting to spring up afresh for today, to refresh us, wash us, to satisfy our thirst and be a life source for the day. But it is not just an impersonal power source, like adrenalin, it is HIM. But here is the challenge; if you are like me, it is a struggle to believe that reality, it is something we have to declare again and again. The Bible says it, so I must believe it. It is a reality and yet it is a reality that clashes with my old self-centred focus that so often is there. I have to purposefully pause and be still to know that He is God – here, now this moment, and He indwells me, and He’s here for me.

The Reality: Be honest, the things of the day call, the concerns of the day distract, I wake up after a poor night and feel weak, the burdens of life call to me, the lacks of church life cause me anguish – but He is here and I need reminding of that, I need to declare it afresh and then experience it, and when sometimes it is not so clear and obvious, just trust. But the truth is still here in this; on a bad day when I feel weak, suddenly, almost inexplicably, strength seems to come from somewhere, and I sense His provision to enable me to get on being the person He’s called me to be and do the things He’s called me to do. On a bad day when I feel confused and the way of the world seems even more chaotic and the church doesn’t seem to be living up to its potential, suddenly, almost inexplicably, a peace descends, and I know He is still in charge, and together we can face it. On a bad day when I am confronted with perplexing problems and paralyzing situations and antagonistic people, suddenly, almost inexplicably, a sense of what needs to be done settles in my mind and that sense of peace returns and He conveys His wisdom to see us through the maze of life.

Perhaps more than any other study I have ever written, I am left with a sense of having fallen short as we have started to ponder what these words – incomparable riches – mean, a sense that rather like the iceberg, still nine-tenths of it is still hidden. Maybe I’ll have to try to continue it tomorrow, maybe not, we’ll see.  But this is what He calls us to, this is what He is redeeming us to. I am a child of God.

46. Conclusion

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 46. Conclusion

Jn 12:32  “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

Rev 1:5   Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

How to put all these studies together? It is impossible in a relatively small space to cover every one of the studies of the past six weeks. All we can do is observe our starting point, our finishing point and the key parts in between.

Jesus our model for growth: Our starting point was our ultimate goal which was to consider the New Testament call to us to grow. Our framework for that was John 12:32 above and I suggested from the outset that there were expressions or outworkings of that verse: first, Jesus lifted up on the cross to die for our sins, second, Jesus lifted up from death by his resurrection and, third, Jesus exalted on high through the ascension, so he is now seated at his Father’s right hand, where his presently ruling.

Jesus’ model applied to us: That was the framework, and I suggested that this same framework can be observed in the Christian life – first, our call to die to the old life and to sin, then second, our call to live the resurrected, Spirit-empowered life, and finally, to realize and see that that we are seated with Christ in the heavenly realms where we are to rule with him, as the Spirit-led body of Christ on the earth, that is bringing in the kingdom or rule of God on the earth. Perhaps a few key items for each of those.

Death: Without death to the old life and to our old way of doing things and our old ambitions, we cannot come and receive Christ as both Saviour and Lord. Christ cannot bring his salvation to us and cannot lead us in a new life if we insist on holding onto the things of our old carnal life.

Resurrection: Without death there can never be resurrection.   Resurrection is the shorthand picture of what takes place when we come to Christ. When we are ‘born again’ it is a work of the Holy Spirit who God places within and so the Spirit becomes an inner source of revelation (teaching) and power (for life transformation and service).  All the virtues and all the gifts and fruits of the Spirit find their origin and expression in Him.

Ascension: This is the area that many of us struggle with most. It is first of all seeing ourselves seated with Christ in heaven, linked by his Holy Spirit, second, it is understanding that now he is there ruling over the affairs of the world, even in the midst of his enemies who will eventually be destroyed, enemies that are all things contrary to the way God originally created this world perfect, and third, it is seeing ourselves as now his body on the earth, directed by him from heaven, led and empowered by his Spirit on a daily basis and, finally, fourth it is understanding that his body now, as two thousand years ago, is to work to bring the kingdom or rule of God on the earth.

It is the enormity of this third phase that leaves many of us struggling and is, perhaps, the most difficult area for growth. Perhaps there are various reasons for that. First, it is a spiritual experience that is expressed into the physical world. We are all right with the spiritual bit (e.g. simple prayer) but when that is extended to hearing God and responding to His directions that mean us stepping out in the physical world to bring physical changes, our faith wavers.

Second, we have settled in the past in the good, but only partial, teaching that the spiritual parts of being a Christian are just about being a witness, sharing the Gospel with friends, family etc. etc. Now that is good and right, but it stops short of Jesus call that said, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12) and his explanation of those works is seen in Matt 11:5 and Lk 4:18,19. The other ‘spiritual’ aspect that we have watered down is in respect of prayer which is so often simply reduced to telling God what He ought to do and uttering words into the air, instead of it being a life-filled experience where there is a two-way communication. It is the so-often absent ‘hearing element’ of prayer that releases faith for action.

And So: So there we are, death, resurrection and ascended to a place of ruling, that is our syllabus or our learning program, a program that is not merely about learning words but putting them into action (Mt 28:20). To conclude, note our second starter verse from above: “Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” (Rev 1:5) There again we have the three phases of the life and ministry of the Son of God.

First, he was a faithful witness, sharing in all the Father was doing (Jn 5:17,19), perfectly fulfilling the plan of the Godhead, formulated before the beginning of time and resulting in his death on a cross for the sins of mankind. Second, he is the firstborn from the dead, having been raised to life after death. Third, he is now the ruler of all the earth, seated at his Father’s right hand, working slowly and purposefully in the midst of his enemies on the earth to bring the rule of God which will be culminated in his Second Coming. Oh yes, there is very much yet a future element to all this, as there is for us. That says to us that we are working towards a guaranteed future when, if we learn these things, we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” while at the same time being welcomed home as the sons and daughters, the children of God, that we are.  Hallelujah and Amen!