26. Spiritual Expressions

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

26. Spiritual Expressions

1 Cor 2:13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.

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.

God-centred: at the beginning of the previous study I spoke about focusing on what church was all about, summarized in two suggestions. First, make the ‘Spiritual’ the keystone of your direction, the starting point and then, second, make ‘building people’ your second priority, and we started considering the first of those two things, the need (often taken for granted and therefore not practiced) for being God-centred. This, we said, should impact every expression of our relationship with the Lord and our ministry, and noted how obedience is to be virtually the key starting place for both of those. Now I am aware that this is all about vision, and although these are not things we want to spell out in a brief mission statement, they are nevertheless the realities that we need to keep before us. So rather than plough on into ‘building people’ we need to flesh out some of the aspects of the Christian life and ministry, seen under the magnifying glass of this part – “Being God-centred”.

Spirit-Led: I fear if you go into many churches and randomly ask people in the congregation, what it means to be Spirit-led, you would receive a lot of blank looks, because I have rarely heard it preached upon and taught. Surely we need to build a people who are open to the Holy Spirit, who are learning to sense/listen to Him and respond to Him, producing leaders who lead in the ways of the Spirit, who can be an example and go ago ahead (that’s what leaders do!) in the Spirit.  Surely we need to encourage our people who are unquestionably people of the Word and of the Spirit, to feed and drink and then feed others and enable others to drink, being seen to be people stepping out in faith and in the Spirit and trusting God to turn up, not being afraid to get it wrong.

Spiritual Expressions (Disciplines): If we are to be God-centred, God-focused, we also need to major on Prayer, creating meetings that do not just utter words but who learn to listen to God and then pray out of what they hear. We should encourage leaders to always be at them, and encourage the church to be at them, and give it high profile at every opportunity

In Preaching, we need to focus on who we are rather than ‘this is what you do’ to build assurance, confidence and faith, challenging people to rise to a vision of ‘this is who we ARE and this is therefore what we can rise to’.  i.e. we motivate by preaching grace not law, vision not vices, hope not guilt, reaching up, not driving up. Beware teaching ‘law’ (more Bible reading, more prayer) but instead show attainable goals that build faith. Again and again, can we place an emphasis on being God-enabled in this, rather than just intellect driven.

In Teaching encourage our leaders and then our flock, to be well read, both in the Bible and outside it, feed people and give them a strong base for their belief, also equipping them to resist the thinking of the world, knowing who and what they are and why, to give a springboard to ‘becoming’. As above, again and again, may we motivate by grace and flow out of our relationship with the Lord, being God-orientated at all times.

In Worship, can we encourage expressive and involved and Spirit-inspired worshipping and, as the Spirit is allowed to move, be seen to be an initiator, enabler, a totally involved follower.

The Problems of Leadership: Our greatest failure is to look to people who are successful in the world. I can remember in my youth being in a church where the diaconate of twelve men trouped out of a door at the front of the auditorium with the Minister, twelve men in suits, twelve men at the top of their game, bankers, lawyers, accountants and the like, and the church was proud to have such men at the front. But there were at least six problems with that. First, these were committee men, men good at running organisations, not organic bodies like the church. The church is the body of Christ and he is its head and the Spirit is its energizing and directing force.

Second, there is a great deal of difference between a business man and a spiritual leader. One might suggest that being a deacon is merely being a servant who helps administer the practical side of the church (see Acts 6) but actually the Biblical requirement is that they be filled with the Spirit (back to God again!). The other thing, in my past experience in that particular denomination was that deacons sought to exercise power and authority (in the role of elders) without having either the calling or equipping for that. We’ll look at this in detail later in the series. Third, these men were so proper, so respectable, that I am sure none of them would have dared step out in the Spirit if He might encourage them to do something ‘undignified’.

Fourth, this respectability drove such a wedge between them and the poor people who they were supposed to be serving. Some might say their lives were so different from some of the poorer members of the church (past tax-collectors and sinners?) that they would hardly know how to communicate with them. Fifth, and this goes back to an earlier study in an earlier part, humility was often lacking in these men, so not so good examples of Christ-like servants. Sixth, perhaps associated with this, these men could be seriously opinionated and so when there was a difference of opinion, politics came into play, and church is not the place to play politics. Now all I am doing here is showing from a past example what church leadership should NOT be like. Where the emphasis is on God, on serving and obeying Him, being those who respond to His Spirit and who are filled with the Spirit and with gifts of the Spirit, these things above, tend to disappear.

True Leaders: Now this may not be something that you want to work into your vision materials but it is, I suggest, nevertheless, stuff you want to hold before you as you think about ‘church’. What is a true spiritual leader? First of all, in general outlook, they are not someone who is perfect but someone who knows who they are in Christ, what their calling is, where their resources are, what their limitations are, and what they do when they fail.  I suggest, as far as God is concerned, they will be people of prayer and people of the word. Generally they will people of faith, people who listen to God and who respond to Him, people who are filled with the Spirit and are led by Him, people of vision seeing possibilities that are realistic in God and in the light of the people available, people of humility but who are not afraid to lead with the calling they have in God.

One would hope that they are hungry for God and when tiredness, weariness and exhaustion blunt that, they have the wisdom and humility to step back, sit down and get refreshed. They will recognize availability in the flock and will encourage people to recognize the gifts God is giving them, encourage them in those gifts and maybe even pray for them for those gifts to be released.  They will not be one-man ministries and they will not lord it over others as a CEO but will act as the chief servant being an example to all (see Jesus in Jn 13). We could no doubt add to that list (and may do in subsequent studies) but for now that should be enough to help refocus on the nature of this body we call the church and those who lead it. More will come later but there is just one more thing that needs mentioning here in this context.

Accountability: Leaders need to find spiritually mature (if possible) people who are for them, inside the church, to whom they can be accountable as they share with them, making opportunities for them to sit and listen to, question and encourage them. ‘Outside people’ cannot do this because they will not be there on the ground to watch and be there in it (and our natural tendency with ‘outside people’ is to only share with them things we are comfortable sharing).  ‘Insiders’ should be given permission to be honest, which doesn’t mean you have to follow everything they say but go away and weigh it – and you are more likely to get a realistic assessment. This is simply a safety measure and where it is real and there grows a close and open relationship, it will help guard against the temptations that the enemy would bring that has caused the downfall of so many leaders who did not have that protection.

And So? We have been considering how we can make the church what it is meant to be – a living expression of a relationship of people with their God, something that goes beyond simply mouthing words, and becomes reality that not only blesses the Church but also reveals the Lord to the onlooking world. May that become how it is for your local church and mine. But if we said the starting point for ‘church’ is making the ‘Spiritual’ the keystone of your direction, we said, second, making ‘building people’ our second priority and that is what we will move onto in the next and concluding Part on ‘vision’.

49. Resurrection Necessity

 

Focus on Christ Meditations: 49.  Resurrection Necessity

Acts 2:23  This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

As we move on looking at the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, having considered the warnings beforehand that it was coming, before we move on to look at the facts of the resurrection, it would be profitable to consider WHY the resurrection is so vital to our beliefs.

The Problem Stated: The apostle Paul focused on this subject when he wrote, For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor 15:3,4) In the next study we will consider the greater detail that then follows, but for the moment we need to look at his later remark which goes right to the heart of the matter: “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.” (1 Cor 15:14,15)

Death in History: Our starting point, as we considered in some measure previously, is that Christ was dead and buried. If he stayed like that then he would find himself in a gallery of fame that included other famous religious leaders, e.g. Mohammed, Buddha and so on, let alone lesser but important leaders in history. The starting point has to be that history shows that all great men and women died, were dead and buried, and remained dead and buried. THE claim that separates Jesus Christ out from any other major leader, is that although he died, he did NOT remain dead; he rose from the dead, he was resurrected and in that, he is unique, there is NO one else like him in all history.

Two Critical Overview Consequences: Now look back at what Paul wrote: “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Two things. First we have this New Testament  that, after the Gospels and Acts,  is full of the writings of Paul, Peter, James and John, and they all say the same thing, and it all hinges on the Lordship of Christ because of his resurrection. If Jesus was not raised then all that teaching was wrong and then, secondly, it means that our faith, founded on all this teaching, is unwarranted and pointless. It isn’t simply the fact of his resurrection that is important, it is also the consequences that flow from that. To understand that, we need to look at some of this teaching we find in the New Testament, and there we will see six consequences.

  1. Ground for Belief for Justification: Going through Romans, we see this again and again. Speaking about our lives, Paul wrote, “us, to whom God will credit righteousness–for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Rom 4:24) Now see this clearly. The whole of Paul’s teaching is that we are justified by belief and faith, just like Abraham was: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4:3) Abraham’s belief was focused on God’s power to bring new life to his body, give him a son and make him a nation, resurrection power, if you like! We are justified when we believe that Jesus died for us and rose again: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Rom 4:25) The resurrection of Christ becomes the focal point of our belief. If it didn’t happen, we have nothing to believe in.
  2. Ground for Ascension & Rule: The apostle Peter focuses our belief as follows: “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand–with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” (1 Pet 3:21,22) We focus on a Lord who was raised and subsequently ascended to heaven where he rules today. If he wasn’t raised, he couldn’t have ascended and would not be in heaven reigning gloriously today. Our faith would be pointless. Paul said the same thing: “That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 1:19,20)
  3. Ground for Our Power: But that takes us on to another aspect of this, for the power Paul spoke of there was the power we now have: “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph 1:18,19) Hope, an inheritance and power, the same power as raised Christ. i.e. God releases that same power in us That’s what Paul also said in Romans: “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6:4) and “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Rom 8:11) Christ being raised is paralleled with us being given a new life and that life is enabled by this same power. If that power DIDN’T come and raise Jesus, then all this is pie in the sky!
  4. Ground for Eternity: He repeats this with the Corinthians: “By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.” (1 Cor 6:14) But this is not just for now, it is also about our eternal future: “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence.” (2 Cor 4:14)
  5. Ground for the Second Coming: But there is another aspect to be considered: “to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead.” (1 Thess 1:10) We speak about waiting for Jesus’ Second Coming, but if he was not raised from the dead, then his body is still in the ground and has rotted and any talk about a glorious return in power (e.g. Rev 19) is meaningless.
  6. Ground for the Final Judgment: Yet, one more aspect. Men question whether there will be a final judgment. Yes, says Scripture, God keeps His word as the resurrection proves: For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:21) or, as the Message Version puts it, “He has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right. And he has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.”

No, the resurrection provides a) a focus for our belief, b) a parallel for the power that is ours today that enables us to live today and c) which will also carry us into eternity, but it also shows d) how Jesus could ascend and rule at his Father’s right hand, and e) be there ready to return in glory at the appropriate time, and f) a confirmation that God’s agenda for the end is on course. Without it, all of Paul’s preaching was just pure deception and our faith meaningless wishes. That prepares the ground for us to go on and examine the equally important subject of the evidence for the resurrection which we will consider in the next study.

 

12. God’s Publicity Machine

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  12. God’s Publicity Machine

Acts 2:5-12  Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

I think when it comes to gems in the Bible there is always the risk that we pass them by without realising the wonder of them.  I’ve got a feeling if I asked 100 Christians to give me a verse that they might consider to be a ‘gem’, none of them would come up with these verses. They are, I suspect, by and large, verses that most of us skim over quickly. We focus on the wonder of what was happening on the Day of Pentecost and note in passing that it was verified by many Jews in the vicinity but it struck me just recently how wonderful these verses are.

The start is interesting. The onlookers are “God fearing Jews”. They have travelled from their homes all over the place to attend the feast of Pentecost, that great feast celebrating God’s provision through harvest. It was a great feast to attend if you were a Jew.

But then it says they were God-fearing Jews “from every nation under heaven”. Now the New Testament writers were not like modern researchers who would be careful in the literal way they used words. So it doesn’t mean that every single nation in the world is represented here but it certainly does mean that very many nations were represented here, able to witness this incredible event. Now whether they accepted it or not, these Jews who would return home to their particular nation would go home and tell what they had seen and heard. One way or another, this event was going to be broadcast around the world.

In a day when we are used to tens of millions being able to witness an event through the medium of television we may be a bit blasé about this, but the truth was that by sending His Holy Spirit on this Feast Day He ensured that many, many Jews would see and hear what He was doing. The terrible and remarkable events that had occurred fifty days earlier at Passover might have been forgotten by some and those from foreign lands would have heard about it only second hand as a piece of new gossip. As yet it had not had impact. But now something amazing is happening and it has happened on a day when representatives from around the world were there to see it.

There were Parthians who came from the territory from the Tigris to India, Medes from east of Mesopotamia, Elamites from north of the Persian Gulf, those from Mesopotamia, some from there in Judea, including Galilee, some from Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, all districts in Asia Minor, some from Egypt, and some from Rome. This wasn’t the entire world by any means but it was certainly over a large area of what we today might call the Middle East, and even further afield.

Now what we sometimes forget is that not only did these God-fearing Jews witness the new freedom of the disciples, praising God in the languages of all these foreign Jews, but they were also the ones who then heard Peter preaching what is the first Christian sermon, anointed by the Holy Spirit. These men are included in “those who accepted his message” and are in the “three thousand … added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41)  These men would have returned home as born again believers and would certainly take that news with them.

Today, at a local level, if we want news spreading we put up advertisements or put leaflets through the door. At national level we use television advertising.  What we have just witnessed is not only the birth of the Church but also God’s means of ensuring the good news would be spread, not merely as cold information but as changed and Spirit empowered lives. We often get so caught up with Paul’s part in spreading the Gospel that we perhaps forget that long before Paul got under way and long before the apostles spread out from “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) these forerunners would have already gone ahead and would have started to spread the kingdom. This is a gem indeed!

17. Synagogue Teacher

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 17. Synagogue Teacher

Mk 1:21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.

I marvel at how we take things in the accounts of the Gospels for granted. For instance I don’t think I’ve ever really pondered on the fact of Jesus going into the synagogue of the town where he now lives, and teaching there. The synagogue was first and foremost a place of gathering of the children of God for teaching. But would anyone have been allowed to stand up and teach? The answer has got to be no. It has got to be someone of standing, someone who the synagogue leaders’ trust. So somehow Jesus’ reputation has already grown so that these synagogue leaders are happy for him to teach in their synagogue.

Now it is clear from Jesus’ later teaching that he had not come to bolster up the present religious regime in Israel so it might seem surprising that he goes into the synagogue, the bastion of local religion and teaches there. It is, I suggest, simply an illustration that says that Jesus will take any and every opportunity to speak to the people.

The apostle Paul, in his early days of preaching at least, always started off from the synagogue of whatever town he was visiting. Perhaps it is the Lord giving the religious people, first of all, the opportunity to respond afresh to His love. After all, you would expect the religious people, those with hearts apparently inclined towards God, to be the first to respond when the Lord comes and speaks. Unfortunately that is not always so. Yes, there were people in Israel with clear and open hearts to the Lord as the Gospels show, but many, especially in authority, struggled with Jesus and with what he was saying.

Is it perhaps that God comes and speaks truth always, and we aren’t always comfortable with the truth? Is it perhaps that God comes and demands to be the head of His people and we don’t like being given instructions?

Those of us who ‘go to church’ would, I suspect, be the first to declare our allegiance to the Lord, but I wonder how open we are if He comes and speaks truth and demands obedience in all issues of our lives?

Lord, grant that you find in me an open heart that will listen to you and will obey willingly what you say. Help me, please, to move in faith, responding when your Spirit speaks.

11. Changeover

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 11. Changeover

Mk 1:14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.

If we were first time readers of this Gospel we might, at this point, be somewhat startled by the abruptness of what we read: “After John was put in prison.” Pardon? How did that suddenly happen? Where did that come from? Why was John put in prison? Peter, who we believe is the source behind Mark, has this somewhat abrupt style. Often we find the word ‘suddenly’ being used by him. It was all a bit of a rush in his eyes, a surprise. I’m sure if you were a disciple of Jesus, life was like that. You got up in the morning never knowing what the day was going to bring, and when it did come, it was a surprise. Perhaps that is one of the reasons behind Peter’s style.

We have to wait until chapter 6 to see what happened with John and so for now we’ll simply note it happened and move on. But it is necessary to say that he was imprisoned and killed at the hands of a sinful Herod and his family. It wasn’t a good thing. So, we might have thought that Jesus starting his ministry, waiting until John was gone, was a planned thing, but the events that remove John are really out of his hands.

We might wonder what might have happened if John hadn’t gone to prison. Would he have just stopped preaching and let Jesus take centre stage? Of course we don’t know. It just happened. That’s how life is so often. It just seems to happen and so we have to take the circumstances and get on with them. So John, who has been preaching in Judea in the south, is off the scene and so Jesus starts his preaching as a continuation, it seems, but he moves north to Galilee where he spends most of the next three years exercising his ministry.

Why Galilee? Perhaps because it was furthest from Jerusalem and possible interference from the religious authorities based there. God certainly knew that this is what would happen: in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan– The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (Isa 9:1,2). The light has now arrived, just like Isaiah had prophesied!

Lord, thank you for coming into this world and revealing yourself. Thank you for the light you bring us. Lord, help me to just take the circumstances that I find facing me today, and live with your love and grace – whatever!