38. God who is Righteous (3)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  38. God who is Righteous (3)

Mt 6:33   seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Eph 4:24   put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Acts 7:51,52 You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One.” 

Where to look? Perhaps there are fewer better places to see the wonder of God’s grace and His righteousness – His ways of dealing rightly with us human beings – than in the way He called people and dealt with them in the New Testament. As we pursue these thoughts about God’s righteousness, His good and right way of doing everything,  our natural concern must be about His interaction with human beings as seen in the Bible and with the coming of the Son of God there is a clarity brought that almost takes your breath away when you pause up and look at it carefully.

When Jesus called: There was something about Jesus, and remember those who encountered him had no preconceived ideas about how God might turn up in human form (apart from rare angelic visitations) and so when they first met Jesus, they did not immediately think, “Oh this is God,”  but there was something about him so that when he encounters fishermen on the beach and invites them to follow him,  “they left their nets and followed him,” (Mt 4:22) and when he says the same to a tax collector at work, he does likewise (Mt 9:9) But if that isn’t bad enough to understand, what is more difficult to comprehend is the sort of people he called.  First of all four rough fishermen, then a tax collector, considered by the local populace to be one of the lowest of the low, probably a crook feathering his own nest while collaborating with the Romans. Another of them is described as a zealot, a nationalist, an extremist possibly intent on revolution. Not exactly men you would think you would recruit to a top religious team.

Serving with Jesus: But then they get under way and you find one of the obvious leaders of this bunch, Peter, constantly opening his mouth to put both feet in it. Then there were James and John, two brothers also seen to be within the inner four close to Jesus exercising pride and arrogance (see Mt 20:20- and Lk 9:54). At this point you might be forgiven for questioning Jesus’ talent for choosing good men to serve God with him. But it gets worse.  As what turns out to be the end draws near, Peter denies knowing Jesus three times, Judas betrays Jesus to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver, and the rest flee and go into hiding, abandoning Jesus to his fate. What a bunch!

Jesus’ Response: Now when Jesus rises from the dead and reveals himself as the glorious, risen Son of God, you might expect him to come down on this miserable bunch like a ton of bricks, but it’s nothing like that.  Instead (read the encounters in Mt 28, Lk 24) he simply encourages them and comfort them. Yes, he does gently chide them for lack of belief (see Lk 24,25) but mostly he just seeks to help them believe. And then comes the most amazing thing of all. He meets with them all back up in Galilee and wonder of wonders he takes that greatest example of failure, Peter, and commissions him to lead the church. Unbelievable!!! But read on in Acts and you see this bunch of failures, full of the Spirit and powerfully proclaiming the gospel and performing miracles. Even more incredible!

And Saul: But Jesus hasn’t finished yet. He may be in heaven but don’t think that’s the end of it. Here is Saul, a prominent Jew, a Roman citizen, a zealous Pharisee, who is all out to imprison these new Christians who are upsetting Judaism, a clear enemy of the Faith, so what might we expect Jesus to do? Strike him down? Well, yes, he does in one sense, he temporarily blinds him, but more than this he calls him to follow him and go and take the gospel to the gentile world. (Read Acts 9)

Righteousness???  Hold on, this is supposed to be all about God’s righteousness, the way God does all things rightly. But it is all as Isaiah declared, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord, “ (Isa 55:8) and Saul, who later became Paul was to write, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.“ (1 Cor 1:27) ‘Right’ as far as God is concerned is redeeming people. For us we might look for revenge or judgment but God comes to redeem us, save us from ourselves and our foolish ways of thinking. God sees past our failures, He sees past Peter’s big mouth and his unknowingness of his own weaknesses, He sees past Saul’s misguided zealousness, and He looks and sees what we can become – Peter the leader of the Church, Paul the greatest missionary ever.

We focus on looking good, appearing religious (try reading Isa 58), appearing spiritual but God sees past the outside (see 1 Sam 16:7) and sees the heart and sees our potential. Yes, Jesus knew exactly who he was recruiting to his team, knew exactly what they were like, knew exactly their potential for getting it wrong, sometimes very wrong, but he sees past the failures and sees what yet can be. Tell me if that is not the right way of doing things!

But what about….?  Yes, there will be times when we read Scripture that we will be left wondering, times when all the answers are not there and we are left with question marks. There are times here on earth when things will appear to be going wrong and in the midst of pain and anxiety we wonder is this a unique time when God has got it wrong. No, it’s just that at this moment we can’t see it or haven’t yet seen it and we are going to have to wait until we get to heaven to have all the answers. I often say that when we meet Him face to face, if He allows us to see the past with His eyes, we will never be able to criticize Him for anything He did or didn’t do. I wonder sometimes if the Lord takes His children home prematurely because He knows what might be coming and so does it to protect us (see Isa 57:1). I also wonder sometimes if the Lord prevents us going down some particular path in life because He knows what is might lead to – harm!    As an old friend used to say, “The things I see and understand in the Bible give me confidence to simply trust when I come across things I don’t yet understand.

And So?  I am sure I must have said it before somewhere in one of these series, but we need to distinguish between faith and trust. Faith comes from hearing; trust is what we are left with when we are hearing nothing. Faith is our response when we’ve heard God. Hopefully in this study I have provided some material that will release faith in us. However there will be times when we are left perplexed, either by scripture we don’t understand, or circumstances that challenge our understanding and in both cases we just need to trust God. Why? Because, as my friend said, of the confidence we built up in Him by the things we do understand. Whether it be faith or trust, may we be able stand assured that whatever it is, our God does all things well.

(We will now pause up this series for two weeks while we have a mini-series taking a fresh look at Advent and the Nativity)

15. God of Variety (2)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  15. God of Variety (2)

Eccles 1:2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”  says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.

Jn 20:30,31  Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Continuation:  In the previous study we briefly pondered some of the varieties of styles of writing, and gaps in understanding we find in the Bible because of when and where it was written and when and where we live today, but now I want us to move on to the much bigger observable varieties, those of the nature of the books of the Bible.

A Brief Outline of the Bible

Old Testament

  • Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy – thought to be compiled by Moses, covering Creation, early history up until the Exodus.
  • Historical Books: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther – a period from about 1280BC through to about 430BC.
  • Poetical Books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.
  • Prophetic Books: Major Prophets (4 + Lam), Minor Prophets (12).

New Testament

  • The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke & John – the life & ministry of Jesus Christ
  • The Acts of the Apostles – the activities of the early church continuing Jesus’ ministry.
  • The Epistles – 21 letters from the leading apostles.
  • Revelation – a book of prophecy for the End Times.

Even from this listing we can see the varieties of writing styles we considered in the previous study: history, teaching, prophecy, poetry.

Books of Cultural Context: In one sense all the books of the Bible come in the context of God and Israel, developing and opening up to God and the whole world. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy in the Old Testament and maybe Hebrews in the New, really paint the background, often in great detail, of the life and culture and beliefs of Israel. Hebrews takes those beliefs and translates them into the context of Christ. It is important to understand this ‘cultural context’ because it stops the modern believer getting confused and wondering should they be living like a Jew. The simple answer is no, because those early books were written first and foremost for Israel and only secondarily for us so that we can learn how God moved with them and the principles by which He operated with them. For the modern Christian the New Testament is the essential reading, with understanding of God and the cultural background of Christ coming from the Old Testament. We need to study both.

Books of Different ‘Weight’ and significance: Our first header verse above comes from Ecclesiastes, a book I love because of the way it shows how pointless a work-driven life is. It was written by Solomon, clearly one of the wisest and eventually richest rulers of history. His basic message is, I have done everything and got the tee-shirt five times over and my conclusion is that all this effort is pointless without God. It has a boldness and brashness about it found nowhere else in the Bible, but its message is vital for these most affluent and materialistic days in which we live. It is simple and straight-forward to read, but uncomfortable if that is your outlook on life. Could you be a Christian without ever reading it? Yes, but you’d be missing out on a powerful message to the Western world today.

Now come to the book from which our second header verses are taken, John’s Gospel. First, its setting. If you want the simplest and straight forward of the four Gospels to read, it is often said Mark should be your starting place. The first three Gospels – Matthew, Mark & Luke – are often called the Synoptic Gospels, meaning presenting the same view, and it is clear that there are three different writers or compilers of the things that happened in Jesus life but with some different sources and perspectives. The early pages of Matthew and Luke include what we call the Christmas story, Jesus’ birth.  It is usually though that Matthew is clearly written for a Jewish audience with more prophetic Old Testament references to suit that background, Mark (practically) for the Gentiles, Luke (historically) for the whole world, and John (spiritually) for the church. It is sometimes said that Matthew conveys power and authority, Mark conveys servant-heartedness, Luke conveys sympathy, care and compassion (that you might expect of a doctor writing), and John conveys wisdom and understanding.

John: I believe to catch something of the wonder of John’s Gospel we have to understand something of the traditional scholars’ assessment of John. He was one of the inner three or four of the twelve apostles who traveled with Jesus for three years. He was an elder of the church in Jerusalem and after the sacking of Jerusalem in AD70 (the Christians probably left before then) he ended up as an elder and apostle in the church at Ephesus. For his beliefs he was relatively briefly exiled to the prison island of Patmos where he would have lived in a cave, praying and contemplating the past. It is believed he probably wrote his Gospel when he was at least ninety. Now something I have observed is that as people get older, their short-term memory fails but their long-term memory strengthens.

I can imagine this elderly saint sitting with his young students in the church at Ephesus and his memory drifts back to those three most incredible years of his life when he was probably in his early twenties. Because of the incredible nature of what happened and with strengthening long-term memory, he reminisces with his younger believers and as he does (and I see this happening with older Christians) he finds things coming to the surface, the things Jesus said which the earlier three writers had never bothered with. They had been concerned to record the bare bones of what had happened, but John now recalls what was said and why it happened. Maybe they encouraged him to write it down or it was simply the Holy Spirit’s prompting, but the result is his amazing Gospel, full of depth and profundity, wisdom and understanding that cannot be found in the other three.  The depth of revelation, the blatant declarations of John, leave no room for any other conclusion than Jesus Christ was and is the unique Son of God who came from heaven, lived and served on this earth, was put to death by crucifixion, rose from the dead and ascended back to heaven. Take it or leave it, that is the clarity of John and the New Testament.

And So: I have sought to give a simple outline of the Bible and then give an example of the variety by giving a brief comparison of two of its books, finishing with John’s clear and obvious aim. Perhaps in line with that, it would be appropriate here to conclude this study with a famous quote from that great Oxford scholar and writer, C.S.Lewis, writing about Christ:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Snapshots: Day 75

Snapshots: Day 75

The Snapshot: “These are the laws you are to set before them.” (Ex 21:1) Many people don’t like ‘laws’ but the Laws of Moses are a sign of God’s love. They were clues to how He had designed us to live, how a community can live at peace, how things can be put right when we mess up, how to live differently and distinctly from the pagan nations surrounding them, how to live healthily dealing with various health problems that crop up in this fallen world  and, of course, how to relate to Him. They were specifically for Israel (and not us – many people don’t realize this), an agrarian society that was uniquely called to be God’s people. As Christians we have different ‘laws’ in the New Testament, all enhancing the wonder of our relationship with God through Jesus.

Further Consideration: We have been considering the ‘rules’ we find in the New Testament that guide us in our walk with Christ, rules which, I would suggest, reflect the laws of Moses in their purposes. They tell us how He has designed us to live in Christ, (e.g. Eph 2:1-10) forgiven and cleansed by his work on the Cross, now empowered by His Spirit. They show us how to be put right with God when we mess up (1 Jn 1:9, 2:1,2), how we can live differently from our neighbors (Rom 12:2), how to deal with health issues (Jas 5:14-16) and how to relate to Him (e.g. Phil 4:6,7). As you read through your New Testament watch out for these things and you will see many more instances of each of them. But there are two important things to be said.

First, keeping these laws or rules are not what enables us to be a Christian. We do not earn our salvation by rule-keeping; we receive it by believing in Jesus, that he is the Son of God who has died and risen again and is seated at the Father’s right hand, ruling in the midst of his enemies. The ‘rules’ are just ways we live out this new relationship with God that Jesus Has earned for us.

Second, these ‘rules’ distinguish us from our non-Christian neighbour and our call to him or her is not to follow the rules but to believe in Jesus. Our ‘rule-keeping’ is to demonstrate the wisdom and way of God that has been opened up to us through Christ. Don’t expect your unbelieving neighbour to follow and understand these same rules, because they cannot do that except as an outworking of the faith they have come to accept (hopefully) in Christ. The Laws of Moses and the rules of the New Testament reveal the love, goodness and wisdom of God. Some of those laws are strange to us because they reflected the pagan lives and practices around them to be avoided. Another reason why they are not for us. We have our own in Christ.

34. Led

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

34. Led

Acts 20:17,28  Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church…. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

Eph 4:11,12  Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

Taken for Granted: We have been, may I remind us, considering facets of what the church is, if possible by going back to basics and starting from scratch. The difficulty, as I sought to point out a few studies back, is that church has been around for two thousand years and we take certain things for granted, no more so than when we come to the subject of leadership. In this Part, the following will be the studies before us:

  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)

Where Angels fear to Tread: To try and consider from scratch the whole area of leadership in the church is potentially a hotbed for hostile responses. The Church changed dramatically from that first century after Christ and so our perspective on church leadership is, in many places, set in the concrete of tradition and passing centuries, a concrete that is staggeringly different from that found in the decades after Christ.

Balance: It is too easy to attack modern structures but we should never attack the leaders for many are the godliest men you can find – not all, but many (you only have to follow the news to see ongoing child-abuse scandals to note that not all are godly). Some of these leaders use their roles in very good ways to demonstrate righteous living. Never write off leaders of a part of the Church that is alien to your way of thinking because at the worst these are men or women considering they are following a vocation, a job with a calling, even if some are not sure of their calling when it comes to it; often, in the middle, are godly men and women trapped in an institution, trying their best, even if that falls short of the New Testament teaching; at the best it is men and women with a godly call on their lives seeking to be God’s servants with whole hearts and blessing those in Jesus’ kingdom.

Madness: Having been a church leader for well over twenty-five years, having known many leaders, and having watched many more, my long-term conclusion is that anyone who wants to be a church leader without a very clear calling from God is mad. Sorry to be blunt but leaders are God’s ‘out-front-people’ and as such they are the first to receive brickbats from the enemy, and I know very few leaders who have not been wounded along the way, and some who have had serious mental or physical breakdowns because of being ‘in the ministry’. One has to be honest and say that often the causes of such breakdowns are the people of God, as tragic as that is, and we will seek to cover how to avoid that in the days ahead, as we consider plurality of leaders.

A Difficulty: The presence of these established institutions, because we take them for granted, makes it very difficult to put aside all our presuppositions and start from scratch. Why, some might immediately ask, do we need to do that anyway? Supposing (and it doesn’t) the world said that child abuse, for example, was acceptable behaviour, that would not mean that it is right, especially when we measure it against New Testament teaching. We who are church leaders are not to measure what we do by way the world does things, but by the way God does things as revealed through the New Testament, and the responsibility for holding on to that sits on the shoulders of God’s leaders at large. It is important that we try, therefore, to truly get to get to grips with this subject which is why this Part will extend to at least ten studies.

Who is a Leader? All, whatever shade or hue of ecumenical life they come from, would agree I believe that church leaders, meaning those at the top of the pile, if I may put it so crudely, are to be those called of God; let’s agree on that. It starts with God. But the difficulty is knowing or recognizing such a call. There are, essentially, two different approaches to recognizing calling. The main traditional denominations usually go along with the sense of calling that an individual has, and if other ‘senior’ leaders agree to what they have sensed, they tend to send them off for training and then after a period of education and training, formally release then into a church context. A second approach is to simply watch and observe the life, gifting, and emerging ministry of a member of the church, and give them space to work that out even more and, as the body recognises them, openly accept them as leaders. Training may or may not follow. Both approaches have both pros and cons. But, I suggest, there are two bigger questions to be asked and answered: first, why does the church need leaders (not so obvious as you might think) and then, second, what actually is a leader?

Why do we need leaders?  Put aside my earlier analogy of a desert island where a number of survivors find the truth of the Bible impacts them, and they turn to God through Christ as they find it in the New Testament. Instead take them back to the mainland where they all happen to live in the same area. They decide to continue meeting together and now they are a ‘church’ living in a Western nation, say. Let’s consider various things that they might experience:

(i) They are now in an environment where the world imposes questions on them. They talk among each other about issues raised.  One or two have taken the trouble to dig more deeply into the Bible and come up with suggested answers.

(ii) Life goes up happily until one day some newcomers arrive sowing doubts about the way they are conducting church and life in general. The group now shows signs of confusion that might best be described as that which is seen when a flock of sheep are disturbed and potentially scattered. The ones and two’s who had previously shown signs of leadership step up to the mark and with authority refute the false teaching being brought in from outside. Peace is restored.

(iii) Then one day, two of the members of the group have a disagreement. It could be theological, it could be ethical, it could be over material or practical issues in life. It has the potential for causing division in the group. The ‘leaders’ step in and with wisdom and grace bring about reconciliation, and peace and order are restored.

(iv) A need appears within some in the group and they call on the group to help. The ‘leaders’ preside over that help and ensure it is fair and adequate.

Leaders, we have seen are those who oversee and seek to resolve these various problems or difficulties for the good of the greater body.

So what is a Leader in the Church? Because of the nature of the church and all that we have said about how people become Christians, they are first and foremost believers, Christians who have been born again of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, we would hope in the light of what we have said about ‘life’ and the Holy Spirit, they would clearly be Spirit-filled believers.  Moreover, because we have said our starting place is God, we would hope these are clearly godly people, people who demonstrate a depth of relationship and experience with the Lord, people who put prayer high on their agenda.

Because the church, we have said, is also a place (a body) where lives are founded on the New Testament, we would want these ‘leaders’ to be clear examples of those who understand and keep to that teaching and whose lives are righteous, who are examples to others of right and good and godly living. We would want them to demonstrate maturity, a maturity that is demonstrated by wisdom and the fruit of the Spirit. But as we look at the teaching on loving and caring for one another, we realize that we are looking for people who care about people: first and foremost caring about God, but then second, very clearly putting people as their next highest priority on the agenda.

And So? What have we said in these last two paragraphs? First, problems occur. Problems to do with belief, problems to do with relationships, problems about the way we go about life as Christians, the way we go about the corporate life as church, and the way we fend off heresy, and the way we ensure the church is a place of goodness, righteousness and caring. In other words, these are the needs that arise when any group of Christian people gather together. Second, we find that there are those who rise up to meet these needs but, more than that, they do it out of a living, vibrant, Spirit-filled relationship with God, demonstrating the life He reveals in the New Testament, an example for others to follow. Now that is clearly our starting point and there is much more to be added which we will go on to consider shortly. What I have sought to do, is put aside all we know of ‘what is’ and reflect on why there are ‘leaders’ in church, the needs for leaders and the type of people who will meet those needs.

To finish with, let’s move into Scripture next and note Paul’s instruction to Titus and highlight the things we’ve just seen: “An elder must be blameless, …  Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it,” (Titus 1:6-9) and tomorrow we’ll reflect more on some of the names given to leaders. This is just the starting place.

32. Being Together

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

32. Being Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27. Building People

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

27. Building People

Mt 23:39  the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Jn 13:34,35  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Vision Focus: We perhaps need to remind ourselves we are reflecting upon what it means to have a vision for our church, trying to catch something in more general or overall terms of what the New Testament shows is upon God’s heart and which we can work towards. Without vision, we have suggested, people die from lack of hearing the word and from lack of being fed. In the last two studies we have majored on the need to be God-centred, a spiritual people, but there is another side to this coin, people. Someone, in a conversation with me about the direction of the church, recently uttered the words, “Well people don’t matter.”  I spluttered back, “But they do. They mattered to Jesus so they must matter to us.”

The Jesus Approach: It is perhaps so familiar to us at Christmas that we perhaps forget it, but part of the Christmas story – and especially as it flows out of Isaiah’s prophecies – is ‘Immanuel – God with us’. The incarnation is all about God leaving heaven in the form of His Son and coming and living as a human being (not as an angel or some other ‘spirit-being’) to share in the experience of humanity and to reveal His love to us through that channel – as a human being. Yes, it is vital that we restore the God-focus to church but equally that we catch afresh the significance of being human beings made in the image of God who Jesus came to save.

As we read through the Gospels we see Jesus calling twelve men to travel with him for three years, to be with him, learning of him, to be like him. There were also a number of women who also traveled with him, and with whom he appears completely comfortable. But then the Gospels are filled with personal encounters, Jesus interacting with individual human beings, but when it comes to references to people groups we find he was completely at ease with the tax-collectors, prostitutes, and ‘sinners’, the riff-raff of society. Yes, he ate and drank with socialites as well and so we see him with a wide spectrum of people.

Thinking about People: The Church is about people and so perhaps we should consider, in the context of vision, what we think about that we do as people, with people. Perhaps we could consider a) how we relate on a normal daily basis with one another in church, b) how we view past hurts, c) how we go about serving together and d) how we go about reaching out to others, all good valid points for consideration as we look forward and ask, “What sort of church is it that God wants?”

Daily Encounters: The ethos of the church has to be love (and we’ll consider this in detail at a later stage). Very briefly, our starting point is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” (Jn 3:16) to which John adds in his letter, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son,” (1 Jn4:10) i.e. it starts with God’s love for us. As we experience that and are filled with the Spirit of love (for “God is love” – 1 Jn 4:8,16) we respond to Jesus command, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) We do this by loving, caring and accepting one another, learning to be encouragers, being there for one another. This is the starting vision we would want to convey, a church for whom people are important.

The Past is Important: Now I have referred to this already in a past study, but a danger that we have is to assume that once a person becomes a Christian, everything is fine and the past is sorted out. History and experience shows that this is not always so. Why? We live in a fallen world and a world that in the past century (at least here in the West) that has strayed badly from God’s norms. Thus we have many people damaged by past relationships going wrong. But it’s not just that, there are hurts from things beyond our control, inabilities to conceive, death of babies, death of children, death of loved ones prematurely through disease, all of these things cause hurts and often leave deep scars. Over the years I have had the opportunity to be in contact with ministries that minister to all of these sorts of things and I conclude, after having watched this for many years, that in any church of any size, part of their vision must be to seek healing for their hurting members, either through regularly (perhaps once a year?) bringing in an outside ministry, or training up our own people to so minister. All part of vision.

Serving Together: We have covered this in some detail in the two previous studies on servant-heartedness, so let’s abbreviate this to creating a church where individual gifts can be discerned and encouraged and developed and given space in which to operate. A big subject we will no doubt cover again before we finish.

Reaching Out Together: To misquote Jesus’ parable (Mt 13:45,46), having found a pearl of great price we will want others to find it as well. Now let’s try and remove some guilt from church. There will be those who have the gift of an evangelist (Eph 4:11, 2 Tim 4:5) and we need to encourage them, protect them and give them space and opportunity in which to operate. But we are not all evangelists. Some of us are what I call ‘people-people’, people who are natural communicators who get on well with anyone, but not everyone is like that. Introverts (and it is not a sin to be an introvert!) are not naturals like that. Yes, Jesus does call us all to be witnesses of his, and so there will come times when in conversations we need to speak out for him, but it does require sensitivity.  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) Some of us are good at creating and making such opportunities, others of us will just be salt and light and then have people asking about us.

Preparation: Now if you anticipate having such a conversation, because a friend or family member asks you about your faith, about God or about church or anything spiritual, it is useful to prepare before hand what you are going to say. To save space, here I will simply suggest that part of our vision is to prepare our people for this, train and equip them to be witnesses or evangelists, and within that, design special services or special gatherings (or just meals) where not-yet-believing friends or family can be invited in to hear and consider the possibilities of faith. Unless we put it in our vision, it probably won’t happen.

And So?  So there it is: vision is presenting a picture of what we believe God has on His heart for us in such a way that we can see things to work on, goals to aim for. If it is of God’s heart and we get God’s grace to share it, we should win over the vast majority of our flock to it, to enter into a future that draws us closer to God, enables us to experience His presence, His equipping, and His empowering, and gives us exciting purpose and direction for the days ahead. The excitement is in what we could become with His enabling and linked with that will be anticipation of the church changing and us bringing changes to the world around us – for good! So I guess it is time we moved on into the real stuff that thinks of what church is about in real terms. As we go into the next Part, perhaps with an eye to where we have been in this part, I want to start by considering what would we do if we were starting utterly from scratch. So take a dose of amnesia, sit down on a desert island with a Bible, and see what might happen

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

Part 1 – Falling Short?

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

Part 2 – A Different People

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

Part 3 – Making of Believers

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

Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

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

Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

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

Part 6 – thinking about Leaders

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

Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

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

23. The Significance of Vision

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

23. The Significance of Vision

Prov 29:18 (NKJV) Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint (or ‘no prophetic vision’)

Prov 29:18 (AV) Where there is no vision, the people perish

Prov 29:18 (Message)  If people can’t see what God is doing,  they stumble all over themselves; But when they attend to what he reveals,  they are most blessed

Eph 2:10 we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

At Last:   At last we come near to the subject of the Church itself. In Part 1 we considered reasons for approaching the subject of the Church, in Part 2 we considered what made Christians different, and in Part 3 we considered the making of a Christian, or what happens to change the person.  The Church is made up of people, that’s what ‘church’ is, we saw from the early days, and so it was important to cover these previous studies, but now we come to what church actually is, and in so doing I hope we may be able to get a completely fresh insight into who or what this body of people is supposed to be, at least according to the New Testament, the whole of the New Testament, and we will do it in this particular Part by focusing on the subject of ‘vision’. In this short Part we will cover:

23. The Significance of Vision

24. More on ‘Why Vision?’

25. The God Focus

26. Spiritual Expressions

27. Building People

Vision?  I couldn’t help using the Prov 29:18 reference (which we may come back to later) because it always has been a key verse people use for this subject. Having said that, I would simply like to ponder on what vision is and why it is so important. A small anecdote might, however, bring a warning against just going through a procedure. Quite a number of years ago, the church that I led decided to go down this path and so we spent some time waiting on the Lord and formulating that we felt He was saying to us. We came up with a ‘vision statement’ which was relatively general, could be easily understood, fitted scripture, and could be applied to any church. Yet it did have specifics that we could work towards. This we did. A number of years later I was aware that we had worked well on this vision with one exception. There was one part we had not got to grips with. Nevertheless, I felt we were still on track. That was until someone said one day, “We don’t have a vision!” To cut a long story short, with an extended leadership team, we spent another complete year, starting from scratch, praying and seeking for clarity. By the end of this long and not always happy process, we came up with an end result. I will never forget the day that one of the newer members of our leadership team looked at this end product and said, “You know, this is identical to the one we had those years back.”

Lessons? I think, having gone through that double process, there are some lessons to be learnt. First, it is good to wait on the Lord to seek for a sense of purpose and direction. Second, if you do formulate a ‘mission statement’, it should have specifics within it that you can work towards in such a way that you know you have achieved them, i.e. in some way or other they should be measurable. Third, it is vitally important I believe that we convey the statement to the church and catch their heart with it so that they are all on board with it. That means, as I noted above, that it is in line with scripture and easily explainable and people can see what they are working towards. Fourth, it is equally important that it is not merely a piece of paper that is trotted out at an annual ‘vision Sunday’ but is something that a) the whole leadership buys into, b) is constantly brought before the church as a reminder of where we are going, and c) we constantly check all we are doing against.

But why? It is important that we understand that the vision we have been talking about is something we, collectively as this local church, are working on to achieve something we can all understand. But why, I still hear. Stop and think of some of the things we have covered previously. How we come to the Lord: conviction, repentance, conversion, and so on. We have become a Christian and we have a life that is now (or at least starting to be) as different as chalk is from cheese in comparison to what it used to be. We know, at the outset, little of the teaching of the New Testament (if not the whole Bible) about God, Jesus and who we now are. There is a whole new world and whole new future ahead of us. We need teaching. On a desert island over many years, alone with a Bible, we could come to our own conclusions, but we are now relating to a whole bunch of other people who have also arrived at this same point as you – some of them many years back, and we find they have ideas, standards, approaches to life, that are quite alien to what we have known in the past.  Moreover we find that we too have a different way of thinking about the world around us and we soon catch the idea that the Bible has a lot to say about all of this.

We need teaching:  But then these things start to really sink in and we realize we are part of a corporate body, that the Bible speaks about and so when we are harmonising and working together with others in this ‘body’, the church, we can achieve greater things. How and why?  We need teaching. Now this process of us as individuals and us as a body is a long-term process. It is going somewhere. I touched on this in Study no.3 in Part 1 when I gave an example of a part of a vision from the past: “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.”  (We also considered the subject of learning in Study No.18). Now I wonder if this is the outlook, expectation, or vision of your local church, or do people simply turn up week in, week out, participate in the service and go away without any ‘big picture’ of an underlying purpose to what is going on (which will be much bigger that just this element – the whole of this Part really answers this).

Less formally: Sometimes the formal approach is limited, I believe, in conveying something of what we believe the heart of God wants for us. Here is another example of part of a vision that came from one of the women members when I invited our church years back to write: “It would be a place where people meet with Jesus and their lives changed. People would leave wanting more. The place would be used at other times for Bible studies, full of relevance and LIFE!!! Banquets to invite friends to …. not Outreach, no, no, no! It would just happen as people came in contact with those who knew Jesus, as they saw our lives and community. Old people’s groups, coffee mornings, drop in centre, toddler group, creative group, singing, kids, young peeps having coffee, discussion, a place to be. Stillness group, listening group. The Police would be dropping in often to chat, we would be able to work with them and minister to them too. Other counsellors, people in the community, would also just turn up, be interested, involved. Much prayer, much ministry, all sorts, vibrant, real, true.”

Life Flowing: Wow! I emphasized that it was written by a woman, because I think it just oozes ‘relationships’, because so often the women of the church are so much better at that aspect. In fact, strangely enough just recently, we brought together a small group to meet for an evening to wait upon the Lord and just be His kids together and see what would happen, and it just happened to include the lady who wrote that passage many years ago. After the evening she instantly instigated a Whats App group for this little gathering which will meet monthly, and instantly there was banter and chatter and relationship communication that would have not been possible twenty years ago. My instinctive reaction was, “Wow, how wonderful – life! Life flowing between the members of this group in a dimension that had not been possible on that first evening. Incredible! Relationships! Awesome!”

And so? And so in this first introductory study about vision, although I haven’t identified it as such, I have been talking about expressions of what Paul spoke about to the Ephesians: “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) and as much as I think that applies to us as individuals, I also believe it applies to us as the corporate body we call the local church. There is much more to say and we’ll say some of it in the next two studies. For the moment can I finish with some outline notes I sent to a colleague a year or so back as he was struggling with the whole concept of vision:

Vision is:

a) a picture of how the future can be, combined with

b) achievable goals that are understood by the people and are seen to be do-able by the grace of God,

c) an action plan of a course to be followed that:

i) identifies the gifts within the church,

ii) releases people and enables people to use their gifts (and thus feel fulfilled),

iii) includes teaching that envisions the hope and the means of achieving it, and

iv) specific training that equips and releases people to play their part in the body.

Vision is about getting:

  1. The heart of God for our future
  2. The wisdom of God how to achieve it
  3. The power and anointing of God for it to be achieved by God through us.

Vision, to become fruitful, must

  1. Come from the heart of God
  2. Touch the lives and hearts of the people
  3. Be bought into by the majority
  4. Be spoken of regularly
  5. Be worked at continually

It is not restatement of where we are but where we’re going.