44. Uniqueness

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

44. Uniqueness

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

Taken for Granted: So much of the time, we as Christians take so much for granted. We became a Christian, we entered into the life of the church, if we have moved we may have experienced more than one local church community, we may have even tried out more than one local church community, but the fact is we ‘know church’.  To counter that, the following are things we will consider in this – what I think may be the penultimate Part:

  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

The trouble is quite often we only know ‘our church’ and that means we have little knowledge of the bigger wider world of the church. To make the point that I want to draw out of this particular study, may I share something of my own experience and then you will see where it is going.

Growth:  My own experience, my own local church for a number of years, was a little independent evangelical church. Have said it was independent, the reality was that it was part of a small denomination – until the Holy Spirit started moving among us and the denomination asked us to move on. We were quite small and so having heard about ‘House Churches’ we decided to meet (somewhat squashed) for three weeks in our front room. After that we made use of a public building that had a lounge in it that catered for us for a year or so. The amazing thing was that as soon as we moved out of the denomination (a long and quite exciting story) we started growing in numbers until a year or so later we had to move into a larger venue where we stayed, gradually taking over larger and larger rooms, and there we stayed for over two decades.

Bigger Changes: So far, we are still an independent little evangelical church with some charismatic leanings, but God in His grace didn’t leave us like that. In the period of transition out of the denomination, the Lord wonderfully – and the story is too long to share here – put us into contact with one of the ‘streams’ operating in the UK, in which all the Ephesian 4 ministries were recognised and operated. This meant lots of help and lots of outside input which was quite amazing. As people and as a church we grew and developed amazingly and various of us had opportunities to travel abroad with international ministries which also developed us.  Jump forward twenty years and I felt the time was approaching where, because of age, I should retire, step down and let our leadership team carry on.

Moving On: To give them space to grow, my wife and I left, so they would not be constantly looking over their shoulders for my approval. We searched the local churches and settled in a lovely little congregation of another completely independent free church where we stayed, seeking to serve for some six years, as opportunity arose, until we felt it was time to move on. We moved into a larger denominational church where I have some measure of input. Now without naming them, this is an evangelical denomination that prides itself on being Bible believing and evangelistic, reaching out into the local community in a number of ways – all of which are excellent. There is also a charismatic undercurrent which the Minister desires to grow.

But…. But here’s the thing, in the light of the nearly two decades of operating with apostles and prophets, we find in the two churches we have experienced since I ‘retired’ a remarkable absence of teaching, knowledge of spiritual matters and spiritual warfare, linked to an absence of vision and understanding what vision is about. As we have pondered on this, we realize how rich our previous experience was, having apostles and prophets about, let alone excellent teachers. In the previous part on leadership I wrote about how, having known and experienced apostolic ministry first-hand, these apostles, men who were clearly church-planters, church-builders, men of faith, vision, power and authority, impacted the local church, energized and motivated the local church on, released faith and vision and enabled and equipped and empowered new leaders and new ministries. They were and are, if you like, God’s catalysts.  In their absence, the only word I feel that accurately describes the local church in the West is ‘moribund’ meaning, as various dictionaries put it, in bad condition, veering towards death. Declining denominational numbers suggest this is true.

What is Missing? Apart from the obvious things I have just referred to, what are the ingredients of the New Testament church that are so often missing in the church of today. I suspect for many, if I mention four particular ingredients that were there two thousand years ago but so often are not today, there will simply be a gentle raising of an eyebrow which, if it is true, simply denotes an absence of understanding of four of the vital life forces of the Church. They are Vision, Power, Obedience and Faith. If you don’t believe me, it may be because you are a rarity, a member of a local church where these four things are very obviously demonstrated. Alternatively you may simply not understand what I mean by these four, and so I hope the following pages may explain something of what I believe is often an absence of ‘life’ in the modern church. Although we have considered ‘vision’ in Part 4, I will include one further study as an overview of the need for vision, what is it and so on. Stick with me if you can. But we will pick up the other three before we finish this Part.

The Uniqueness of the Church: And so to the title of this final Part. In Part 2 – A Different People, I looked at some of the things that make the ‘church’ different from any other group or organisation. Now we might say that a business has vision as the senior members of the company focus on their product, how they will develop it and where they will sell it and how they may trade most economically to obtain the greatest profit. Those won’t be the constituents of our vision, but it is vision. If we speak of such a business as having power, it is a completely different use of the word from that which we will find in the New Testament; that we will examine later on.  To use the words obedience and faith in connection with a business is a complete misnomer, unless of course it is a company run by Christians who seek the express guidance of God.

So vision, yes, power, most definitely and obedience and faith, unquestionably. These four we desperately need in the Church today if we are even to survive, yet more, to flourish.  The pressures of modern life in the West, as I have written in Study 4 of Part 1 of this series, threaten on one hand to crush the modern church, or on the other hand, simply to mould it into its own image, which is very different from the unique organism seen in the New Testament. These four things that we will examine here are, I suggest, the most crucial issues in the life of the church and will be determinants of its future. I hope you pray over each of these studies but please, please, do pray over the remaining ones in this penultimate Part so that possibly together we may catch fire and become instruments that Jesus can use in these Last Days.

3. Jesus the Word

Meditations in Hebrews 1: 3.  Jesus the Word

Heb 1:1-2  In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, 

So, in the drama of the world, the curtain falls on the Old Testament with a restored Israel having rebuilt the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem and are now settling down after a most traumatic period of their history where they had been exiled and then restored. Prophetic words have come in more recent years through Malachi and Zechariah but those had been largely to encourage the rebuilding work, but that was now complete. What next? The record is there, centuries of God communicating with this nation through His prophets, what more might He say? Time passes and nothing. More time passes and still nothing. Several hundred years have passed and still nothing.

The scholars look at the scrolls and wonder. There have been prophetic hints that there will be one who will come, a messiah, but the prophetic words seem so contradictory that different schools of thought declare different things about him. Suffering seems to be part of the prophetic package, but then so does the thought that he will be a mighty ruler, but how can the two harmonise? The apostle Paul was later to use the word ‘mystery’ to describe this conundrum (Rom 16:25, Eph 3:2-11, 6:19, Col 1:26,27, 2:2,3, 4:3) and it was a mystery because God had not made it fully clear, and yet in the fullness of the New Testament revelation, at least seven times the scriptures declare that the mystery that was Christ was planned by the Godhead before the foundation of the world. Merely because it was a mystery to us, that doesn’t mean it was to God. The plan of sending Christ was not a last-minute crisis plan because everything was going wrong. No, God had planned it when He looked into the future in what would become time-space history and He saw sin and saw the need that would be there and saw the only way to deal with it, and so they, the Trinity, decided he would come, he would die and he would be raised from the dead, all before He spoke the words, “Let there be light”.

What I find strange, at first sight at least, is that the writer to the Hebrews does not lay out a history of Jesus Christ. Why? Well, that has already been done. It is probable that at least three of the Gospels are in existence and the church is up and running. This book doesn’t come over as a gospel weapon demanding belief and repentance, but more like a treatise for Jews who already believe, to bolster their belief with in-depth understanding of the wonder of the Christ. The basic facts of Christ were already well known. Probably the best we can say is that it was written before AD70 when the temple was destroyed because all references to the temple are still in the present. They know about Christ, they are believers.

And thus we come to this incredibly compact ‘prologue’ as some like to call the first four verses and because they are so compact it is so easy to skim past them hardly taking in the wonder that is here compacted into such a small space.  So (yes, you can breathe a sigh of relief, we have got here) we come to the text, now God has spoken to us through His Son. Even at this point in history, it is possible they do not fully realise what this means. It is going to take the aging apostle John, living in Ephesus, to take his years of reflecting on the wonder of those three incredible years with Jesus, and conclude he needs to write it down, an insight that went much further that the three Synoptic Gospels. John has memories, John was there, and in old age those incredible memories are sharp and clear and he realises that so much was said and done that the first three had nor picked up on. And so, for example, we have John remembering Jesus speaking about being the bread that has come down from heaven (read John 6) and we realise the ‘person’ who comes into the Gospels as a tiny baby had already existed in eternity, he didn’t just begin two thousand years ago. It is almost certain that Hebrews came before John’s Gospel but that makes even more amazing the revelation that comes through these first four verses of just who Jesus the Christ was.

John in his Gospel speaks of Jesus as ‘the word’ and although that would have much significance for Greek readers, put very simply a word is a basic form of communication. Jesus is God’s communication to this world. When our writer says that God has spoken to us “by his Son,” we should not just take that to mean He has spoken only through Jesus’ words but by everything that happened to Jesus, what he said AND did. All those things shout into history; “THIS IS THE UNIQUE SON OF GOD. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN AND NEVER WILL BE ANOTHER BEING LIKE HIM!”

This is not in any way to detract from Jesus’ words which in themselves were often so wonderful, but it says look at the wonder of what he did and that will also speak to you. The apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost understood this: Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 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.” (Act 2:22-24) There it is, so much information again in such a short space: Jesus a man, a man from Nazareth, who did miracles, wonders and signs to show who he was and to turn eyes to God, a man who was acting out the will of God planned from long past, the will which included him being crucified but then being raised from the dead. This is the Christ we follow. But Peter didn’t say everything in that encapsulated history, he didn’t have time to do that. He didn’t tell of the wonder of the events surrounding Jesus birth, which were already told by Matthew and Luke, he didn’t tell of so many of the things John remembered and which make his Gospel such a wonder, but he said sufficient to mark out Jesus as unique.

Peter was not a theologian and so did not try to explain the theory and detail behind the events. Later theologians, trying to formulate the truths that had been conveyed through the New Testament, having to stand against heresies in the early centuries of the Church, would speak of Jesus as begotten of the Father which simply means, come out of the Father, as they sought to explain that Jesus was God, of the same essence as the Father, one with the Father, truly God himself. It is a word that only comes up one in an Old Testament prophecy but it is the nearest we can come to trying to understand the incarnation, the coming of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ.  We will ponder more on it as we consider the wonder of what these first four verses say. Ask the Lord to open your eyes so that you may see as you’ve never seen before.

1. Introduction to Hebrews

Meditations in Hebrews 1: 1. Introduction to Hebrews

Heb 1:1-4  In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

A little while ago I started writing a series of short meditations here in Hebrews. I write ‘short meditations’ when I feel under pressure and don’t want to spend quite so long each morning reflecting in depth. The ‘short meds’ are also, I realise, easier to read and so some prefer them to wading through a much longer study in God’s word. So, I started doing this series on Hebrews and got about half a dozen verses through and thought, “This is wrong, this area of Scripture is so full of truth this doesn’t do justice to it, this ‘short’ approach,” so I stopped. The point I would wish to make is that I believe Hebrews is  one of the ‘mining areas’ where you find you are stumbling over gem after gem in every paragraph (Ephesians is also like that). It cannot, indeed it must not be rushed!

But there is a danger in approaching passages like this, passages that are so full of specific truths and it is that as we focus in on one little phrase and then a next little phrase, we can so easily miss the big intent of the writer. For instance, as I quickly peruse these four verses above, I can see there are at least ten gems there to be put under the microscope.

Several years ago, our local jeweller introduced me to diamonds and told me there was a whole range of colours for diamonds and showed me a small spectrum of ten diamonds, I think it was, in a small display box and said, “Tell me what you see.” I peered at these diamonds for a minute or two. My instant respond was, “They are all the same,” but as I studied these stones that appeared the same I came to realise the range was from lighter to darker, hardly discernible but lighter to darker, more yellow at one end. When I made this comment his assistants applauded me. “Let me tell you,” he said, “what a trained jeweller who deals in diamonds has to do. They have to take a test whereby 360 stones are poured out on a table ad you have to order them in colour hues. The last time I did it, I got four wrong, which is considered quite good.”

If a jeweller takes that amount of trouble learning about diamonds, can we not take equal time in discerning the truths of God’s word?  So be warned, we are going to put each one of those gems above under the microscope and ask the Holy Spirit to teach us and enlighten us, to challenge us and feed us. Now over the years I have built up a testimony and it is this: every time I do a study and pray and ask for the Lord’s help, I come away at the end going, “Wow, that was amazing!”  Every time. Now your problem if you read these notes is that you are getting them second hand and if I am honest I have to say I write for my benefit first and last. If, somehow, you can be blessed by them being here, then I am glad, but  the best way is to do it yourself and let God feed you directly. So, read these notes by all means, and if you get blessed by them, I am pleased – but there is a better way.

OK, back to these verses. They are history laden with revelation. If we have read them many times before we may take them for granted but the level of revelation here is immense. They are staggering. In no other world religion will you find such a compressed package of revelation that says so much and makes such staggering claims. If you ever wonder what makes Christianity unique among the world religions, these four verses will give you the answer several times over; in fact I count eight things here about Jesus Christ that mark him out from any other person in all of history. That is how powerful these verses are.

Hebrews, I find, is a bit scary, if that is the right word. It is very Jewish and was clearly written to early Jewish Christian believers and it is packed with Old Testament information. Indeed, in the following remaining verses of chapter 1 there are seven quotations from the Old Testament. In the whole book there are more than 80! I once heard someone say, “Oh, we Christians don’t need the Old Testament.” Well ‘need’ might be quite an emotive word in this context but this book shows us that our understanding of our faith is greatly enhanced by our knowledge of the Old Testament.

But the clue to the thrust of chapter 1 is given away in verse 4 as the writer, speaking of Jesus, says, So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.” There was clearly a cult who were focusing on angels and so in chapter 1, after the ‘Prologue’ of verses 1-4, the rest of the chapter goes on to show how Jesus is greater than angels. The rest of the book is about how he is greater than anyone or anything shown in the Old Testament. As a book it is fascinating as it does this.

The writer?  For quite some time it was thought to be Paul but there are so many differences in style so that is generally rejected.  One of the early Church Fathers, suggested Barnabas, and Martin Luther suggested Apollos but generally it is agreed we just don’t know, but that won’t detract from it. Whoever it was, was someone who had deep insight into the wonder of the person of Jesus Christ, a level of revelation that is incredible!

To conclude this first introductory note, we can do no better than suggest you read through these first four verses several times before you finish, and then you can finish by worshipping the One that this is all about, for we will get no further than these verses in the coming week:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.