8. Different

(We return to our previous series on the Church)

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

8. Different

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

1 Pet 2:9  But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Approach: In this second Part we are going to be looking at the things that make a Christian different from a non-Christian, what they believe and what – initially at least – in general terms, they are. The titles within this Part are:

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

In the third Part we will go on to consider the things that the Bible says happens to believers when they become Christians, why and how they change. For now we ask the question, what makes your ‘church’ different from a social club?

Different: Very well, I will start this second Part with this idea (which is really so obvious that it should not need mentioning, but perhaps is not so clear in some minds) that ‘the Church’ is different and distinct from those who are not ‘the Church’. The word has become so confused and abused over the years that to ask any individual, “What do you think ‘the Church’ is?” will evoke a wide range of answers from the building on the corner down the road, to the national institution or even an international institution. The Greek word, ekklesia, (from which of course we get the word ‘ecclesiastical’) used in the original New Testament manuscripts, has the meaning, ‘assembly’ or ‘called out ones’, thus meaning a group of people who have been called by God (e.g. Rom 8:28, 8:30, 9:24, Eph 1:18, 4:4, 2 Thess 2:14 etc.) Buildings, organisations, institutions may demonstrate the existence of this group of people but first and foremost ‘the Church’ is people who have been called by God – as distinct from those who have no such recognizable calling.

I did wonder about trying to have different sections within this second Part, the first one headed ‘Different’ but the more I have thought about it the more I realise that everything about church is about difference from those who are ‘not church’. In the studies that are to follow, I hope we will look at those many things that make us different from the people next door who are not part of ‘church’, who are not Christians. The result of this, hopefully, will be to clarify in our minds our identity, our activities and our goals which are all quite distinct (and for good reasons) from people who are not part of ‘church’. It may sound obvious but it needs saying.

A Lasting & Resistant Church: From our starting verse above – “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it,” we see Jesus taking ownership of this ‘church’ these ‘called-out ones’ but warning that it (they) will have opposition, but he will ensure that it (they) will stand and not be overcome. That is encouraging, but to enter into the fulness of that assurance we will have to see what else the New Testament says about us, the Church, to live it, experience it, and enter into all that is said about it. Our starting point, therefore, is to see ourselves as a people who are what we are because we have been called by Jesus, called to be a different people, a distinct people, from those who have not been so-called. We’ll see something more about that calling in the next study and then see the differences in subsequent studies. In the meantime, you might like to think about your own experience, your experience of being called, what it entailed and what has followed to make you a different person, a Christian, part of a different group of people.

Not a Club: “But”, someone might ask, “what is the fuss all about? I belong to a bowls club and we the members are different from those who don’t play bowls. We have skills others don’t have, we play the game that others don’t play, and so on; what’s the big deal?”  Or someone else might say, “Well, I belong to a ladies’ group that does charitable work. We are very respectable, we do very good things to help the community, and in this we are different from those who are not community minded and not at all like us. What is the fuss?”  Or perhaps you may come across a third person who says, “Well, I belong to a yoga group; not one of these exercise groups that might just go by that name, but we enter into all the spiritual aspects of it that come from the East, as well as doing the exercises. We are very spiritual, and we’re disciplined and so in that we are quite different from many other people.”

Not a nice religious group: In the UK we have lots and lots of very old stone buildings with spires and towers and beautiful stained-glass windows. In some of them you may find very nice and very respectable good people who come together at certain set times to go through ancient rites led by a man or woman in black robes wearing a stiff white circular collar. Clearly very distinguished, and by that, I mean distinguished from other people who don’t wear black robes and stiff white collars. Their congregation tend to wear suits (the men) and nice dresses (the ladies) and they tend to be very nice people – and some of them are Christians. But are they collectively ‘church’?

Back to the definition: The Greek word used in the original New Testament manuscripts, ekklesia, we said, has the meaning, ‘assembly’ or ‘called out ones’, thus meaning a group of people who have been called by God. Looking at the two paragraphs above, clearly those clubs in the first of those two paragraphs have not been called into being by God and they certainly make no mention of God. In the second paragraph the activities of the people mentioned there tend to focus on a building and specific ‘services’ and both contribute to what they feel about their religion. In fact, if their building was demolished one night and their services were abandoned, they would feel rather naked and their identity under question.

For the true Christian, building or ‘services’ or liturgy or ritual should not be what defines them.  They may all be acceptable add-ons but they are not what defines us, and that, perhaps, is what so often confuses the onlooking world. The danger is almost certainly accentuated by ‘mega-churches’ with their large buildings and car parks, great facilities that compete with the best the world can provide, and a mega-sense of being a ‘big people’ grouping. Unfortunately this sometimes means that the growth of an individual and growth of their relationships with other people can be stunted, as we will see when we come to focus on some of the specifics of what it means to be a part of ‘the body of Christ’.

A Voice from the Past: To focus the distinction between the social club church and the real thing, listen to the writing of an early twentieth-century devotional writer, Oswald Chambers, in his famous devotional, ‘My Utmost for His Highest’: “The experience of salvation means that in your actual life things are really altered, you no longer look at things as you used to; your desires are new, old things have lost their power… If you are born again, the Spirit of God makes the alteration manifest in your actual life and reasoning.”

As you read that, are you uncomfortable with such words as ‘salvation’ and ‘born again’? If the answer is yes, then there is clearly some Bible reading to be done and some serious thinking to be followed through. They are not obscure, irrelevant or hardly mentioned words. Instead, I would suggest, they go to the heart of what ‘church’ is all about, not what I think it is all about but what the New Testament says it is all about, not grabbing at a few random verses to make a point, but catching the entire drift of the New Testament, Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, and the apostles in the ‘Acts’ and letters, and ‘Revelation’ that follow. Those are the fields into which we are going to wander in these days ahead. Stay with me if you will and let’s ask the Lord to open our eyes to see afresh what His word will say to us.

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17. Superficial Religion

CHAPTER 2: Part 8: Freedom from the old religious ways

Meditations in Colossians 2: 17:  Superficial Religion

Col 2:16    Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.

If you’ve followed these meditations for any length of time you’ll know we always pick up on ‘link words’ because they tie the verses together. So here we have a ‘Therefore’ which means the logic or instruction of this verse comes in response to what has just gone before. Paul, in the previous verses has focused on the spiritual realities of salvation, that we were dead, and have been made alive by God, and have been forgiven by Him, after all law or rule-keeping and the failure and guilt that go with it have been dealt with by the Cross. The final focus was on now having to major on keeping the rules and that is why Paul now homes in on these particular expressions of rule-keeping.

When I became a Christian in the last third of the twentieth century I found myself part of the good-evangelical wing of the Church but sadly the refocusing on the life in the Spirit had not come to the fore and therefore so much of instruction to new believers was all about what you can or cannot do. Our verse above is all about behaviour and although the words “You must,” or “You ought,” or “You mustn’t” or “You shouldn’t,” aren’t here, there is an implication that they lurk beneath the surface.

As I hinted above, when the power of the Spirit is absent, all you are left with is keeping rules. This is not to say that we should rely only on the Spirit, for we need both word and Spirit, but if we focus on rule-keeping, again as we said above, we are doomed to failure and then to be subject to guilt. So how does it, or should it, work?

If our awareness of the Lord’s presence is weak and if we know little of the life of the Spirit, then we may come across a simple little instruction from Paul’s teaching such as, Be joyful always,” (1 Thess 5:16) and our human thinking says, “Good Christians are happy Christians. I must be happy, I must be joyful,” and so we put on a superficial ‘face’ whereby we make ourselves look happy; we always smile and we always sound full of the Lord’s goodness – even if inside we are deeply upset over something. The trouble about this is that we convey an  unreal or false Christianity and most people see right through us, and the thing we are upset about does not get dealt with properly and, even more, other people (often non-Christians) think we are on a superficial plane well above them and cannot empathize with where they are at. Untruth and self-deception reign.  The truth is that we are sufficiently insecure in our uncertainty of God’s love for us, our lives are one of pretence.

Now watch this person get filled with the Spirit and start to enter into the wonder of being loved by God. They don’t try to be joyful, they just are as the Spirit who has been given the freedom to work within them, brings out the joy of the Lord – that is real – as they wonder in the glory of God’s love for them. Joy is the outworking of the Spirit (see Gal 5:22) not a hard and difficult thing to be put on by self effort.

But then we come across another of Paul’s little guiding lights: “Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (1 Thess 5:21,22) Back in my early days in the late twentieth century immediately it became, “Oh don’t go to the cinema and watch bad films, don’t drink alcohol and so don’t go to pubs where you will be mixing with ungodly unbelievers.” We didn’t worry about social injustice, caring for the poor, working to deliver people from slavery, saving women out of prostitution and so on; we simply focused on a few superficial prohibitions and as I look back now, I believe it was because our faith was so weak that we were ultra-defensive, unlike Jesus who mixed with sinners and tax-collectors and prostitutes.

Thus Paul says, “do not let anyone judge you by…” and goes into a list of things where ‘do’s and don’ts’ will apply: “what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.”  The reference to eating was probably in respect of kosher food or food given to idols that he deals with elsewhere in his writings. Drink was almost certainly to do with alcohol. Religious festivals was about having to keep the various Jewish feasts. No longer for the believer were these significant matters. To the Corinthians Paul was to say, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” (1 Cor 4:20). It is not about words (directing behaviour) but about life in the power of the Spirit. To the Romans he said,the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17)

As we said earlier, the expressions of our Christian life are to be the outworking of the Holy Spirit in us, not a hard and difficult thing to be put on by self effort. Yes, we will not get angry, or whatever other prohibition is given in the scriptures, not so much because we have to make an act of will and make a great effort, but because the Spirit of love fills us and flows through us and prevents that thing having space. May it be so!

20. The Tide of Acceptance (2)

Meditating on Great Themes in John:  20. The Tide of Acceptance (2)

John 3:19  This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

We spoke about a ‘The Battle for Belief’, and said it is rather like the tide that goes in an out. Now that was true of the ordinary people, it seems, but it also seems that there was a constant undercurrent that flowed against the incoming tide, an undercurrent that was there in the religious people of the day, which is tragic when you think about it; they should have been the people to appreciate Jesus first, but when you accept second best and the best turns up, that is a challenge.

We noted this tide early on in the Prologue when John wrote, The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (Jn 1:5) and then, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. That was John’s overall summary of what happened in the long-term and our verse at the top which comes in what we called John’s Recap reiterates that and explains it. Where people are established in sin they will reject Jesus. You may find that difficult to believe but I once spoke with someone for five hours about Jesus and at the end of it they said, “I understand all that you are saying, and I can see it, but I like this life of sin and I want to hold on to it.” And with that they got up and left. People often reject Jesus because they want to hang on to the life they have, as wrong as it may be.

The thing that upset the religious Jews the most was whenever he referred to himself in divine terms, uniting himself with God, for example, “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds” (Jn 8:58,59).

A little while later, two chapters on, we find the same thing: “I and the Father are one.” Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (Jn 10:30-33)

But this ‘undertow’ or ‘undercurrent’ first came to light when Jesus went and cleansed the temple in chapter 2. After he had done that we find, “Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” (Jn 2:18) which is a fairly natural question to ask in the light of what he had just done, but it was a seed of rejection rather than of acceptance as their future behaviour revealed. Chapters 3 and 4 are chapters of acceptance but they are to do with one man, Nicodemus and then one woman, the Samaritan, and her neighbours. When we come to chapter 5 we are back in Jerusalem and although Jesus heals a long-term invalid, the religious Jews were upset about it because it was the Sabbath, a day when no work was supposed to be done (Jn 5:9,10).

It was shortly after this we see the first of the Jews’ objection to Jesus’ references to his divinity: “Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (Jn 5:17,18)

In chapter 6 we saw the feeding of the five thousand then Jesus walking on water and then his teaching on being the bread of life. It is within this that the Jews get upset again: “At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, `I came down from heaven’?” (Jn 6:41,42) After he later speaks of them needing to eat his flesh we find, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (Jn 6:66) Now this appears rejection more from lack of understanding that anything else and this is rejection by ordinary people rather than the religious Jews of Jerusalem.

As they approach the Feast of Tabernacles John notes, “For even his own brothers did not believe in him.” (Jn 7:5). The crowd in Jerusalem reveal the split opinions about him: “Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, “He is a good man.” Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.” But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews.” (Jn 7:12,13) but it was when he started teaching in the temple precincts that it really warms up: “Then Jesus, still teaching in the temple courts, cried out, “Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me.” At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his time had not yet come.” (Jn 7:28-30)

Again the opposition, although muted, is because of his claims to divinity. It continues, “On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” Others said, “He is the Christ.” Still others asked, “How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.” (Jn 7:40-43) There is clear division and those against want to take it to the next level.

The next attack on Jesus comes from the Pharisees and we find, “You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” He spoke these words while teaching in the temple area near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his time had not yet come.” (Jn 8:19,20) and the hostility is because of his claims to divinity, yet again. We have already seen how this culminated in them wanting to stone him (Jn 8:58) The Jews’ refusal to believe becomes even clearer in their cross-examining the blind man healed in chapter 9. Again we have seen their desire to stone him in 10:31-33 for claiming to be God.

It is the Lazarus incident that really brings it to a climax: “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation…… So from that day on they plotted to take his life. (Jn 11:47,48,53) In the closing stages of his public ministry, John records, “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:” (Jn 12:37,38)

To summarise: In Galilee he was completely accepted; it was only when he came south to Jerusalem that Jesus received opposition  Mostly the ordinary people accepted him although they struggled at times with his teaching. The opposition came whenever he even hinted at his origins and it came from the religious authorities, and this gradually built until the tide was right out and the awful events of Good Friday came about.

12. Obedience

Meditations in 1 John : 12 :  Obedience

1 John  2:3,4   We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

In some parts of what appears the Church, it seems that Christian faith is more like a nice social club where we turn up a few times a week and go through various rituals but which have little relevance to the rest of our lives. “Going to church” is just one box in the variety of boxes that make up our lives, and one box does not affect the other boxes. In other words we compartmentalise our lives so the ‘religious’ box does not affect or influence the other ‘boxes’ of business or society or family, or whatever else it is.

Yet this ‘style’ of Christianity is about as far as you can get from Jesus and the New Testament’s teaching. Using the analogy above, what has happened is that, if our encounter with Christ has been genuine, a genuine repentance and surrender to God, then it is like all the boxes of the parts of our lives have been put in one big box and that big box determines, directs and decides all that happens in the smaller boxes. They are now all influenced by the bigger box.

For John obedience is the key issue and it will come up again in his letter. Watch a person’s life and hear of their conversion and then watch and see what happens. If that person’s life starts changing and clearly takes on a new Christ-like nature, where the individual is now clearly following the New Testament teaching and is being filled with love and goodness, and is doing what they are learning are Christ’s instructions, then we will know that what has happened to this person is genuine.

However, watch another person who makes a profession of conversion and we see no changes taking place, then we are being given grounds to suggest, as John does, that this person neither tells the truth about what they have done nor has the truth living within them. Where there is an absence of visible love and goodness growing in this person’s life, then we have every reason to doubt that anything meaningful has taken place in their life, despite whatever they may say.

The individual may claim to be a Christian, but if that simply means they have a high moral outlook on life, that’s not what it is all about. To tie this down we have to go back to their originating experience when they say they became a Christian. If they say they have been a Christian all their life, they are deceived. A person becomes a Christian at some specific point of time. It may indeed be in childhood and that little person may have invited Jesus to be their friend, and that may have been a genuine experience but what invariably happens is, as they grow up, sometime in their teens they have a fresh encounter with God with a fresh, deeper, more meaningful experience of Christ.

But whenever it is, it will be a specific experience. I can accept that for some people it will be a crisis moment and they can clearly identify the moment, and for others it is a growing awareness whereby there is a gradual coming to repentance and surrender, but repentance and surrender there must always be for a genuine conversion where someone encounters God and receives the Holy Spirit.

There is the significant issue: when a person comes to Christ, he imparts his Spirit so that the Holy Spirit indwells us (1 Cor 3:16 & 6:19). He does this when he sees we come to a place of genuine repentance and surrender and he sees we are committed to be obedient to him. The apostle Peter spoke of, the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:32) Thus there are two things that will bring about the change we referred to earlier, possibly over simplistically, as bringing love and goodness visibly into our lives. Yes, there are lots of other things, a desire to read the Bible, a desire to pray, a desire to be with God’s people and a desire to share what has happened with others. All of these things are part of the ‘visible package’ that is this new life and they will be seen in varying degrees of clarity,  but the overall characteristics of love and goodness are THE two primary things that start to be observed in this new life and they are both expressions of obedience.

A disciple was a person who followed a Master, to receive teaching and guidance but they were not a disciple if they did not then obey or put into practice the teaching of the Master. Thus in the famous ‘Great Commission’ Jesus instructed, “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). To be a disciple meant you obeyed Jesus’ teaching. No obedience = no disciple. It IS as simple as that!

15. Tongue & Heart

Meditations in James: 15 :  Tongue & Heart

Jas 1:26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.

I have this picture of a heavenly watcher keeping score of all the different sorts of sins being committed on earth. I’ve got this horrible feeling that it’s not the sins of physical or sexual violence, or of taking other people’s property, that score the most, it’s sins of the tongue. Why? Because it is so easy to do!  Go into any room where there are a lot of people and just listen.  People talk. People talk a lot. In the 12th meditation of this series I quoted a verse from Proverbs which has convicted me in the past: When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” (Prov 10:19).  Some of us are quieter than others. Perhaps they are the wise ones.

Being in a church context, I’m often in a room with lots of other people and I enjoy just sitting and watching what is going on. I hope that in the church the talk is good. Mostly in my presence it is, but what about behind the closed doors where just two or three are discussing the many facets of a church’s life. If Jesus was sitting quietly in the background, listening in on what was being said, I wonder if some of the things actually would be said?  Paul challenges us about malice, slander and telling lies (Col 3:8,9). Malice is speaking unkindly about another person. Slander is speaking falsely about another person, and lies are simply not speaking the truth. Listen to the gossip in the street and it’s always about other people, and so often it is either unkind or inaccurate. For people in the world, we should expect it for they have no standard to keep to, but for people who claim to be religious, now that is something else!

But it may not be behind people’s backs; it may things said directly to someone. They may be unkind and harsh. They may be critical and demeaning. How about the husband who makes derogatory comments about his wife, or the wife who is nagging or even scathing about her husband? According to James’ general comment here, these things should not be. Or there is the parent who snaps at the child or the teenager who answers back to their parent’s rebuke. These things should not be.  Or maybe it is at work. Here is the boss who acts like a bully to his or her employees. Listen to their forceful demeaning words. If they are ‘religious’ it should not be so. Or here is the employee making excuses why their work is substandard, and the truth is not being completely told. Then there is school or college, fertile grounds for harsh use of the tongue, especially when discipline is not all it could be. Everywhere you turn, there are people and people have a habit of using their tongue and not for good and edifying purposes.

With his use of the words religious’ and ‘religion’, James seems to make an all-sweeping inclusion of anyone who purports to have spiritual beliefs, beliefs about God. Forget it, says James, if you can’t even control your tongue, your ‘religion’ is worthless. Now that is strong language! It actually says to a lot of people that their beliefs and even actions on a Sunday are worthless.  Why is he so strong on the subject of the tongue? Well it will come up again in his writings but let’s consider the motivation behind what comes out of the mouth.

Isaiah said something very simple: For the fool speaks folly (Isa 32:6). What he was saying was that because a person was a fool, he will speak foolish things. The two go together. The opposite is true also. Later he spoke of: He who walks righteously and speaks what is right (Isa 33:15). If the intent of your walk through life is righteousness, then you will speak righteously. On one occasion Jesus challenged the Pharisees of his day: You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” (Mt 12:34,35). Did you see what he said? The mouth speaks what is overflowing from the heart. If you have a heart that is not fully God-centred then out of the mouth will come self-centred words.  Sometimes people speak hostile attacking words because deep down they feel threatened.  Their outward angry words reveal an inner defensiveness. Young people today, from broken families, so often speak hard and harsh words as they reflect the inner pain and insecurity that they feel.

Oh yes, the reason James is so strong about what comes out of the mouth is because it reflects what is going on inside. You may ‘say’ you are religious, but if that faith is not bearing fruit inside you and bringing inner change to you, as evidenced by the words you speak, then that religion isn’t worth much, is it!  The truth is that if we really want to we can rein in our words, but that is very difficult if the heart hasn’t been dealt with. Becoming a real Christian is a heart experience. Our heart is broken and we give it to God to transform. In that attitude, He works and we are brought into a new place of security and love, and that is reflected by the words that then come out of our mouths. However, all along the path, the enemy is trying to stir up something else within us, so that out of our mouths come hurtful, harmful, unkind or untrue words. Yes, there may be the occasional slip, but if the heart is being transformed, then they will only be an occasional slip. For the most part, our words should be as Paul said, Let your conversation be always full of grace (Col 4:6). But remember, it’s a heart thing first and foremost, so check out your words and then consider whether you need to go to the Lord for further heart surgery.