11. Big Vision

(we pick up again on this series we started recently)

Ways of Seeing Meditations: 11. Big Vision

Heb 11:13They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.

Disappointments: Over recent decades, in the West at least, there has been a clear trend: many people have given up on church because its failures have become more clear. Yes, this is far from true for everyone and in various places life has abounded, yet for many it has still been true, many have dropped away, maybe not from belief in God, but belief in church.

For some shear repetition has become boring. For others the hurts, caused by thoughtless or insensitive people not being held to account, have created in many a cry that, “I do not feel safe here,” and they have gone. Others have had high expectations of what church should be, could be, but when those expectations, those hopes, never seemed to come about, a sense of disillusionment set in. Some even stepped out in new ventures, new approaches, but years on they find themselves with ‘the same old’, and are wondering.

Proverbs 13:12 declares, Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life,” or as the Message version puts it, Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick, but a sudden good break can turn life around.Over the years I have watched and seen all the above causes why people drift away, and even experienced some of them myself.  I would expand this verse to, “when your hopes, dreams and expectations seem to come to nothing, it creates within you a sense of disillusionment, disappointment, and discouragement, but when that inner God-yearning is fulfilled, it releases a whole new creative energy and supply, a new resource by which to live as you enter into those hopes, dreams and expectations.”    

Faulty Sight (1): Now this creating of an army of not-quite-prodigals has, I believe, two causes and both involve faulty sight or a wrong way of seeing. The first of those failures is genuinely a failure to see what church should be and what it actually has become in the twenty-first century. The failure to see what church should be comes from a casual and sometimes defensive reading of the Bible. When we see great things happening after, say, the day of Pentecost, we excuse ourselves by saying, “Well, yes, but that was the equivalent of a revival where the power of the Spirit was obvious, but we’re not in such a time.” Well possibly not, but surely the characteristics of such a time should suggest to us that this is what God desires. The nature and characteristics of the church are seen throughout the New Testament, and even Jesus’ expectations of his church in Rev 2 & 3. I have written it elsewhere but I believe it bears repeating. I believe the New Testament portrays

“a church that is alive with the presence and power and revelation and activity of God by His Spirit, where God is truly honoured, where life and vitality, where fellowship and friendship, where power and authority, pour through the congregation, through this potentially wonderful ‘body of Christ’, bringing constant life transformations, with conversions, deliverances and healings being a regular feature of their life and the world is impacted and transformed”

If we respond defensively to such a vision then the answer must be that we need to pray and seek the Lord for grace and wisdom to play our part and for Him to come in power. The point in this study, is that many sense that this is what the church should be, could be, and seeing no one taking steps towards it, have become disillusioned and fallen away. 

Faulty Sight (2): The second of these failures, involving faulty sight or a wrong way of seeing, has been the inability to catch the big picture. Let me explain. Heb 11:13, our starter verse speaking of the Old Testament people of faith, reads, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” The JBP version of this is particularly good: “though they had seen them in the distance, had hailed them as true and were quite convinced of their reality.” So. I am utterly convinced of the reality of that stated vision above and that it is what is on God’s heart. However, the big picture recognises that these things only come about by the grace of God. While we pray for His grace and pray for His coming in power, we need to recognise various things: a) He is sovereign and they will only come when He releases His power, b) His timing is not always ours, and that sometimes means a call for patience and perseverance,  c) our part is to remain faithful, available, obedient, prayerful and still yearning for the vision while not being put off if it appears delayed.

Today: This is where I believe we are today nearing the end of 2020. In many places church numbers have continued to drop. In a few places they have continued to rise. In numbers there is a sense of disillusionment and in even more there is an accommodation of the world’s way of thinking for the same reasons as above. So two schools: the ‘it’s not working’ and the ‘but He’s coming in power’. Both are right and both are worth listening to, but in the meantime remain faithful, available, obedient, prayerful and yearning. These are the ingredients, I believe, the Lord desires in us while we wait in these imperfect days. May He find them in us. 

45. Another quick look at Vision

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

45. Another quick look at Vision

Acts 10:3   One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”

Got the Tee-Shirt: OK, we’ve been there, done ‘vision’, got the tee-shirt , “Vision is about Seeing Clearly”, so what more is there to say? In Study No.23 we considered the significance of vision, that it provides purpose and direction for our church to pursue. In Study No.24 we noted the reality of the teaching of Prov 29:18 that without vision we go astray, life ebbs away and death ensues. It is that important. In Study No. 25 we considered the need to be a God-focused people, a people who relate everything about our lives and our church experience to God, being and growing as a spiritual people, and in Study No.26 we expanded on that. But if God is to be at the heart of our vision for church, then running a close second there is to be concern for people, and that we looked at in Study No.27. Those we suggested are to be the key issues at the heart of our vision. So again we might ask, what more is there to say?

Critical Importance: I feel the need to underscore all these things above in this final study on Vision and seek to emphasize how critical this subject is for the modern church. The casual approach to church simply says, we’ll we’ve got it all there in the New Testament, so let’s just follow what we have there – and that is right, in as far as it goes. Having said vision is critical, I am putting it alongside power, obedience and faith as equally critical ingredients for the church today. Why? Two reasons. First, the negative reason, because in reality so often these ingredients are missing from the modern church and that is seen in the poor quality of church life – life compared to what we find in the teaching in the New Testament, that is. Second, because these four ingredients have the capability, I believe, of transforming the church from something that is being constantly side-lined by the modern world which, as I said previously, threatens on one hand to crush it, or on the other hand, to mould it into its own image, and make it into what it is supposed to be – a God-glorifying, life-transforming and community impacting body. Let’s look at an illustration of this from the New Testament.

Peter & Cornelius: So here is the church that has come into being. Jesus has ascended into heaven but has poured out his Holy Spirit on the believers and life is pouring forth – but it is Jewish and looks like it will stay Jewish.  Now Jesus had said to them, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) but one has to suggest that they took this to mean that they would witness into all the Jewish communities around the world because when Peter, as one of the key leaders of the apostles in the Jerusalem mother church, received a vision challenging him to put aside the past and accept whatever God was putting before him, he struggled with this on the grounds that it compromised his Jewishness.   He submits to God’s challenge and ends up preaching in the house of Cornelius, a Gentile.

The Effect: As a result of that – and we tend to forget this – he has to explain all that happened to the leaders back in Jerusalem and we read, When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18) i.e. the door to the world was opened in the minds of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.  Nevertheless, a bit later we find various Jewish believers in Jerusalem were still insisting on all believers being circumcised (Acts 15:5). It is then that Peter stood up and declared, “you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:7-11) Thus when Barnabas and Paul described what God had done through them with the Gentiles, this became easily accepted (v.12 on). Peter accepting the literal vision he had received in respect of Cornelius opened the way for the Gospel to go to the rest of the word – Jew AND Gentile – a wider vision than that held previously by them.

Other ‘Visions’: If we accept that ‘vision’ refers to the revelation of God as to what He wants to achieve through His people, we can see that His words to Abram in Gen 15:13-16 speaking of the next four hundred years, was clearly vision. Similarly when the Lord spoke to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3 & 4) it was clearly vision. Indeed we might go further and say when anyone is inspired of God to declare the future possibilities that is vision, so God’s words to Samuel to anoint David (1 Sam 16:1) is about a new vision for Israel’s future. When David declares before Saul (1 Sam 17:34-37) his intention to kill Goliath, it is vision built on past experience and, although not explicitly stated there, a surge of faith in David. Vision is thus clearly the impartation of revelation from God to His people to release faith in them to step out and do His works.

Growth of Vision: Vision for the local church starts, I suggest, with stating the obvious things of what God wants for His church as shown in the teaching of the New Testament. That is really what all these studies have been about, about establishing a vision of what the church of the New Testament is all about.  Now the sad thing is that because of weakness in teaching in many places, and absence of the motivating ministries of the apostle and prophet, many of these things are not known by many Christians. Thus they become part of a foundation to be laid on which to build faith and vision in modern believers. Now as we go about doing that, I believe we will find the Holy Spirit enlarging our faith so our leadership and congregation start getting excited with specific things He puts on their hearts to become or do in respect of the church itself and the local community, and this will be unique to each individual local church community. Thus laying down this foundation and allowing the Holy Spirit to illuminate it, will become one of the four motivating forces that can set the church on fire in God’s hands and become that God-glorifying, life-transforming and community-impacting body I referred to earlier. May it be so. Amen. Right, we need to move on now to the first of the other three ingredients, power.

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

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’.

25. The God Focus

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

25. The God-Focus

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.

Starting Point: In the previous study, referring to this one, I said I want, as so often happens, to go backwards and consider most simply a couple of key elements of the life of the church which, I suspect, any talk of vision should include. A while back I had cause to think through some of this to help a struggling colleague who needed help in focusing on what church was all about and I found I summarised what I suggested in two suggestions. First, make the ‘Spiritual’ the keystone of your direction, the starting point and then, second, make ‘building people’ your second priority.

The God Focus: But does this mean? (We have said something of this in the very early studies but it does require reiterating in greater detail). It means first and foremost ‘church’ is all about God. That may appear so obvious we miss it and I am certain in much modern church life it is missed. I have already picked up on this in various ways in earlier studies but let me ask you a question. If your church has a website or maybe a Facebook page, would any wandering investigator who came across either of those be struck by the God-centredness of them or would they, like one church Facebook page I know, think they have simply come across a nice social group and no more. A church website, if it fails to point visitors to God (as well as explaining who they are, when they meet and where they can be found) has forgotten their reason for existing. Facebook pages, I suggest are ideal places to drop nuggets of Biblical truth and testimonies. But the impression I get sometimes is that we are often ashamed to mention what we believe and what has happened to us.

Unbelief, which I believe is so common throughout the modern church, is often exhibited by refusal to talk about God and appear ‘spiritual’. I had an example of this a while back when a church I know was holding a Christmas Bazaar. Christmas, the time that celebrates Immanuel, God with us! This year that church decided to set aside a small corner of the lounge next to the hall that was being used for the main Bazaar and it was being suggested that some spiritual posters be put up to create the right atmosphere and in that little area, one or two people would be there to answer people’s question who might come and stop and talk. “You mean to pray over people?” asked one of the volunteers. “Oh no,” said the woman organiser, “people don’t want to be prayed over.” Well actually our experience tells yes they do, but we might leave that to a later study. Now to be fair that wasn’t the attitude of all of the church but it does demonstrate unbelief.

Relationship, Expression and Ministry: Because this is so fundamental, I think I need to go into basics-mode here. God reveals Himself to us as the supreme Father, the Creator of all things – God! But He also reveals Himself as the Son, begotten (brought out of) of the Father, the one who came to earth to reveal the Father’s love, give his life as a ransom for many, be raised from the dead and ascend back into heaven where he is now seated at his Father’s right hand ruling over all things, ruling in the midst of his enemies until they have all been put under his feet and he hands the kingdom back to the Father. (If you are not sure on all these things then I recommend an earlier series, “Focus on Christ”). But He also reveals Himself as the Holy Spirit, the executive arm of the Godhead, if you like, God expressed to us in daily experience, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, yes the Holy Spirit. Now all three of these expressions, I suggest, should be known and understood by any and every church member who has been around longer than a few months.

But how do we express relationship with this multi-revealed Godhead. Well commonly we pray addressing ‘Father’ or ‘Lord Jesus’  (personally I dislike ‘God’ because it is like addressing me as ‘man’) but when it comes to power or revelation experience we refer to the Holy Spirit, often asking the Lord, perhaps, to “let your Spirit fill me with grace and wisdom” or whatever else it may be. How many churches, despite the history of the last hundred years, still never move in the dimension of the Spirit? We’ll talk more about this in a later study or three! How many Pentecostal or Charismatic churches never allow the Spirit space to guide, inspire, bring revelation or healing and release?

The Obedience Factor: So great has this cloud of unbelief come in many churches (there are notable exceptions of churches and streams in the Western churches) that I believe we have to almost make a point of emphasizing this in our vision expressions.  One such exceptional stream I know and highly respect declares, “we have made worship our highest priority, believing that it is God’s desire that we become, first, worshippers of God.”  This may appeal to young worship-orientated Christians but it does not emphasize the word that comes up so many times in the New Testament, “obey”. I know this particular stream would wholeheartedly affirm ‘obedience’ but, I suggest, in the light of many church trends it needs speaking out more clearly.  The apostle John was really strong on this in his letter (note every chapter!): ”If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth,” (1 Jn 1:6), and “Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person,” (1 Jn 2:4) and Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth,” (1 Jn 3:18) and “whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister,” (1 Jn 4:20,21) and this is love for God: to keep his commands,” (1 Jn 5:3) perhaps echoing the truth of his master’s words, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching,” (Jn 14:23) also echoed in the Synoptics, for example, “go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19,20)

And So? Time and space runs out so we will continue this in the next study, but for the moment, let’s take this reminder from this study, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment,” said Jesus (Mt 22:37,38) This, in vision terms, perhaps we should be declaring as, “we are seeking to create a growing community of God’s people, who know and love Him and express their love in obedience to His word and His Spirit.” We shouldn’t ever take that for granted and so need to be regularly declaring it in grace.

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.

1. Wonderings about Church

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

Matt 16:18 I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Rev 2:1 To the messenger of the church in …. Write….

I wonder: I wonder how much we let Jesus build his church? Or perhaps another way of putting it, I wonder how much of what we call church today is actually built by Jesus? What is church? How has it come into being? How will it continue to come into being? Are all the people in ‘church buildings’ actually part of the church? Just wonderings. I look around at the various expressions of ‘church’ that I know and wonder how the Lord of the Church feels about them. I’m not wanting to be negative, just real, just curious.

Direction: The overall plan for this series will start as follows:
• Part One: Falling Short – things that have challenged me about the modern Church
• Part Two: Making of Believers: What makes a believer different, what are they?
• The following parts will consider ‘Church’

Objective: In this and the following ‘studies’ of this first Part, I want to consider fairly generally some of the things that challenge me about ‘the church’ today. The heading of this Part gives away my goals, to face the things I see and hear of modern church life that suggest to me that we may be falling short of God’s intentions for us.

In the studies that follow I will use the capital form ‘Church’ to designate who we are as a whole, all the believers across the world, and the lower case ‘church’ where it applies to the local congregation, the local expression of believers.

Structure of Part 1: The Content of Part 1– Falling Short? – will be as follows:
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)

Prompted by Reading: Very well, let me explain what first started me off down this particular track. I have recently been in the psalms and then in John’s Gospel and, in many ways, I prefer meditating on Scripture, taking it as it comes, verse by verse, and the list of such series on this blog will testify to that. However, my starting point is that as I have been praying and reading, I find an urge to return to a specific ‘subject’ or ‘theme’ approach next.

I just mentioned reading and I recently read Francis Chan’s book, ‘Letters to the Church’, and within it he covers various specific subjects or themes for the Church to consider. I am about to read it a second time to make sure I take it in. I think I agree with all he says and, indeed, I find he has been expressing much that has been on my own heart over recent years, but he probably says it better than I might. (He has such church experience that I think I feel a bit like John the Baptist felt: “I am not worthy to undo his sandals!”) So, as I pray, I sense my next area of investigation within these pages should be the Church itself.

Approach: I have, I find, a same concern within me that Chan speaks about, that of the need to approach the subject in humility and without a critical spirit – and that is quite difficult if you are an honest observer of the Church, comparing what is, with what should or could be. Crusading atheists such as Richard Dawkins have been most scathing about the Church or, to be accurate, parts of the Church and, to be fair, many of the points he has made are valid. However, he only refers to a small part of the Church, I believe, and so as an overall criticism of the whole Church, his comments are quite unfair and inaccurate.

My objective, I think, is different from Chan’s because this is first and foremost a ‘Bible-study site’ and so the ‘meditations’ I write start and finish with the Bible (or at least that is its intention, although this first Part will be more discussional). He does seek to build all his comments on the New Testament teachings and I will do likewise though, I suspect, I will have a broader and more basic approach. He observes our shortcomings and prescribes New Testament remedies, all of which I think I agree with. I would like, as this is more a ‘Bible Study’ series, to take simple scriptures from the New Testament and build the picture from there and, for the sake of those for whom perhaps these things are not so familiar, will start at a very much more basic level. So, hold on to that word ‘basic’ if you will.

Grace not Legalism: I agree wholeheartedly with Chan that such writing about the Church can be used as a weapon by the critical to bash leaders. Never let that happen. I am aware in my own writings that sometimes my comments that challenge the modern church could be seen as lacking grace, although I never want that to be; that is not my heart and if my writings have come over like that, I apologise.

Preaching and teaching and imparting vision can be quite legalistic, and I suspect there is often a lot of this around. The ‘law’ or ‘rules’ approach says, “This is what it ought to be,” and comes with a heavy judgmental hand on all expressions of modern church life that deviate from New Testament teaching. I would like to present, if I can, a grace approach that says, “I believe (agree with me if you can) that here is the vision of what the Lord puts before us in the New Testament – I wonder how we could rise to apprehend this vision and enter into it?” But of course, to do that we have to identify what the New Testament says, make sense of it, and then, if we can honestly face how we presently fall short of it, ponder on how, perhaps, we can reach for it. OK, so hold on to two more words – vision and grace, if you will.

The Context of Revelation: The structure of the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is intriguing. Chapter 1 presents the Lord of the Church, Jesus, but not in the form of the Gospels that emphasise him humanity, but a human form that is also very clearly divine, and as such he comes to the seven churches of Asia Minor and presents a devastatingly revealing assessment of each of them. This is the Lord who sees all and knows everything about the Church – and that includes each and every expression of it today.

And Today? But whether it is the worldwide expression or the local expression, I wonder what the Lord thinks of these gatherings of us, His people, today? How much do we match the teachings of the New Testament? How secure are we, I wonder, in who we are and how we express ‘church’ here in the first quarter of the twenty-first century? Is it a security that comes from having aligned ourselves against the teaching of the New Testament, or is it a false security that just hopes for the best, a hope built on ignorance, a hope built on, “Well, we’ve always done it like this so it must be all right”? This must be the challenge of all that follows here.

33. The Need for Vision

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 33. The Need for Vision

Rom 8: 24b,25   Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently

An Expecting World: Sometimes the Bible says the very obvious but it is the very obvious things we need to take hold of, things that we may ignore just because they are so obvious. In Romans 8, the apostle Paul has been speaking about the state of the world: We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all.” (Rom 8:22-24a) There is a sequence of truth here that needs noting. He says we know that “the whole creation has been groaning… right up to the present time.” He portrays the world as being in a state of expectation, “as in the pains of childbirth” which suggests that the world as it was, is not the world that will be; there is something being formed that is yet to be revealed.

A Frustrated World: To make sense of that we have to go back into the prior verses: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” (v.19) That’s interesting; his starting place is the sense that the world waits for Christians to be revealed. Why is that so important?  “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it.” (v.20) Because of the Fall, God laid certain limitations on ‘life’ – see Gen 3 – relationships would be strained, childbirth hard yet desirable (v.16), working the earth will be hard (v.17,18), man excluded from the tree of life (v.22,23) and from the presence of God.

Nevertheless Hope: And so it had existed, ever since. And yet, there was this feeling ever since, that there is something more. Relationships with the Lord did spring up – Abram, Isaac & Jacob, a people were formed to relate to God (Israel), and yet even that didn’t work well as Israel failed again and again. Nevertheless, as God spoke through His prophets there was this hope of something better, one who would come who would change things, who would bring peace and harmony with Him.

But, Paul goes on, when God ‘subjected it’ to frustration it was in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (v.20,21) i.e. that there would come a time when the world could be changed by the presence of those who could be called “children of God” which brings us back to our starting place – this world was groaning in expectation of some change which, says Paul, is the revelation and bringing about of a new people, brought into relationship with God through the work of Christ.

Yet not yet: But when we come to our starting verses again (v.24b,25) Paul says we still have this ‘hope’, this expectation of a future ‘something’ and thus implies it has not yet come to full fruition, implying a future fulfillment which he speaks about in v.23: “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Note, ‘first-fruits’; we’ve already received part of the package. Back in v.11 he said, “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.” 

Already there has been a measure of this for we have received the Holy Spirit who now indwells us and in ways that are not always clear, His presence in us, can even affect us physically. But back in v.23 he also spoke about how we “wait eagerly for our adoption as sons.” Now we have already been adopted into God’s family the moment we were justified and saved, but the clear implication is that there is yet more to come, more behind this meaning of being ‘adopted’ and that has yet to come.

More? Right, hold on to your seat, for this where it is going to get mind-blowing and challenging. In Paul’s writing here in chapter 8 there is this clear declaration that we have a hope of something yet more to come. In our lives before us, they will be two phases: first, the rest of our life on this earth before we die, and then, second, a future dimension in eternity, certainly involving heaven, but also involving a new heaven and a new earth (see Rev 21). So, hold on to those two phases. Yes, we have that post-death phase that we are clear about because Scripture talks about it so much, but how about the pre-death phase? How do we view that?

Living Today? Do we, perhaps, live with the sense that we have ‘arrived’, that we have everything right now that Christ has for us, or is there something more? Well, I believe we do indeed have the potential for everything that Christ has for us but that we may not have entered into it all or appropriated it all yet. The New Testament hints at the idea that we are to grow up or mature, both concepts which convey the idea of change and development. If you are a Christian of say thirty years standing, hopefully you will have considerably more knowledge and understanding than you had when you first came to Christ. Hopefully you have also experienced much of him, have known the filling and gifting and leading of the Spirit and have experienced him teaching you many things.

Example: Let me give the example of the life of prayer, if we may speak about it as such. Many young Christians just pour out wishes, desires, even complaints to God, often with little understanding and certainly with little thought about whether God wants those things for them – and then they feel bad or doubt when those things don’t happen. As they mature, hopefully they learn that prayer is actually about listening to God and speaking out the things God wants for us, to bring us in harmony with His will. Instead of demanding our answers we, as we mature, ask Him what He wants for us and then as He conveys it, we may pray it with authority and see it coming about. If we have learned that, we have learned that there is more to life, more to praying, more to our relationship with the Lord, and as we enter more fully into those things we become more open and available to Him and find Him leading us into things we have perhaps never previously considered.

Hope for Today: This is the hope Paul is now speaking about in these verses, not only in receiving something wonderful AFTER we die, but having a life of openness to the Lord whereby He is able to teach us and train us and lead us into paths we perhaps had never dreamt of. Take, as another example, the apostles. When Peter first encountered Jesus (Jn 1:41,42) at the Jordon, Jesus changed his name. Later when Jesus went up to Galilee and called him (see Lk 5:1-10) he completely changed Peter’s perception of who he was, and called him to become a fisher of men (Mk 1:16-18). Until then Peter had been ‘just a fisherman’ and happy with that. Now he is changing. Watch him on the day of Pentecost and you see a leader. Traveling around the country (Acts 9:32 on) we see him ministering, just like Jesus; it is almost uncanny. When we first saw him at the Jordon he would never have guessed that’s what he would end up doing. This side of death we have a path that is rolling out before us as the Lord leads us, into ever greater things. Do you and I live with this ‘hope’, this expectation? May it be so.

40. Ezekiel (1)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 40.  Ezekiel (1)

Ezek 1:28, 2:1,2    This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking. He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.

When we arrive at Ezekiel we are confronted by what is arguably the strangest chapter in the Bible. I have covered this chapter in detail in a previous series we started on Ezekiel and so we will only cover it in a general sweep here. Chapter 1 introduces us to Ezekiel, a priest (1:3), one of the exiles taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar (1:1,2), who starts seeing visions about 593BC.

I cannot always help comparing what follows to the incredible clouds that accompany the coming of the aliens in the film Independence Day. It is a dramatic storm appearance with bright light at its centre (1:4) and he then sees what turn out to be four angelic beings (1:5-14) later to be identified as cherubim (10:1,2). With them come the famous “wheels within wheels” (1:15-21) later to be referred to as “the whirling wheels” (10:13). Previously I have summarised this as follows: the wheels were in total harmony with the four creatures. Wheels of course speak of transport and movement and if the presence of wings was not enough, the presence of these big wheels emphasises even more that the angelic presence  is all about coming and going from heaven to earth and back again, conveying the will of God.

Following this we are told that above these four living creatures was ‘an expanse’ (1:22), above which was a throne (1:26) on which was seated a human figure, but much more than a mere human figure (1:26,27) surrounded by multi-coloured brilliance (1:28a). It is at that comes the first part of our three starting verses: “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.” (1:28b)

In other words the whole of chapter 1 comes as a preamble to the actual calling of Ezekiel. Whereas in Isaiah the heavenly vision was limited to four verses, here the vision fills an entire chapter and Ezekiel identifies what he sees as “the glory of the Lord” and so incredible, so powerful is this weird picture that we find, “When I saw it, I fell facedown.” (1:28:c) It may be that this was from awe but in what follows the implication was that all his energy drained away and he collapsed.

Now we come to his first encounter with the Lord: “and I heard the voice of one speaking.” (1:28d) As we go into chapter 2 we find first of all an instruction, “Son of man, stand up on your feet,” and then a reason, “and I will speak to you.” It would appear that the Lord did not want him to be a quivering wreck on the floor but as His representative who would receive from Him face to face.  To help him do that (and this is why I suggested all his energy had left him), “As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet.”  It is the power of the Spirit that raised him up.

Then the Lord speaks to him and gives him his ministry instructions: “He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn.” (2:3,4)  This is remarkably like the warning given to Jeremiah but this should not surprise it, because they were to go to the same people!

Having observed all this, we might now ask, why do you think the Lord gave Ezekiel this vision whereas He gave Isaiah a much briefer insight into heaven, and Jeremiah no such insight? Well, let’s consider again Ezekiel’s position. Whereas Jeremiah’s ministry was carried out in the security of Jerusalem, despite the opposition we received there, it was relatively secure. Ezekiel, however, has been carried away by Nebuchadnezzar’s army to Babylon with all the accompanying trauma. Ezekiel came from a priestly family and when he had been carried away in that first ‘deportation batch’ with Jehoiachin in 593BC (1:2) he had no idea whether he had any future left. Five years passed (1:2) and it appears he was now age thirty (1:1). Now thirty was the age that a young man of a priestly family would take up his duties and so at the time when this vision comes, he is living in a foreign land, living with the disappointment that if he had still been back in Jerusalem he would just be starting his priestly ministry in the Temple in Jerusalem, but there is no hope of that now.

Imagine you are the son or daughter of a very wealthy businessman who, throughout your younger years, has been promising that when you are thirty he will hand the CEO  role over to you, but then when you are twenty five you are kidnapped and deported, sold as a slave on the opposite side of the world in a country where you have no resources and are utterly reliant upon your captors. How would you be feeling? Helpless and hopeless. There is nothing you can do to change your situation and to all outward appearances you have no future. If there is to be a change, it has to be pretty dramatic. This is Ezekiel – and it is dramatic!

Ezekiel is going to become God’s mouthpiece to the Israelite exiles and, even more, his words are obviously going to get back to Jerusalem to back up all that Jeremiah is saying back there. Why? “And whether they listen or fail to listen–for they are a rebellious house–they will know that a prophet has been among them.” (2:5)  There is the same thing we said about Jeremiah’s ministry. It’s not about whether he manages to turn the hearts of the people (for he won’t), it’s about being God’s witness against this people so that all of history will see and know. Hence his instruction, “You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious.” (2:7) These words will be written down and they will be a testimony against Israel and the next generation will read them and know the truth and repent so that in forty years after the fall of Jerusalem they will be ready to come back, a purged people.

So Ezekiel receives this incredible vision (and there is more of it in chapter ten) which refocuses all of his thinking and overrides all of any potential fear or anxieties he might have as an exile, and he will be focused on his one goal – to speak God’s words to God’s people. The glory of the Lord – which represents the very presence of God will become a key feature in this book as it goes on. Like no other prophet he is aware of the movement of God in His dealings with the holy city.

For 99.99% of us, we are unlikely to have such a vision because we will not have such a calling, but God will speak to us and the question has to be, will we obey what we hear? It seems that God uses two major things to turn human thinking: either a dramatic vision, such as that in chapter 1 (which is rare) or catastrophe or upheaval, which is far more common. We get such things depending on God’s calling or our stubbornness, but whatever form comes, it will always be the loving God bringing what He knows is best for us, best to bring us into a good place with Him.

4. The Nature of Cherubim

Meditations from Ezekiel: 4.  The Nature of Cherubim

Ezek 1:10  Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.

We are, we must remember, considering a vision and we have already noted that the things Ezekiel sees are beyond his understanding and experience and so the most common word he uses to describe what he sees is ‘like’.  But it is a prophetic vision and prophecy either simply declares the glory and greatness of the Lord or it declares His intentions. Moreover prophecy often declares the truth in picture or symbolic form and so when we come to the things before us now, we have to ask, what is this picture or this part of the picture seeking to convey to us?

Pictures of Cherubim: We are considering these ‘four living creatures’ who take up so much of chapter 1 and we have noted that Ezek 10:1,2 identifies these four living creatures as cherubim, i.e. angels, but the descriptions here are nothing like those that we would normally attribute to angels.  So let’s suggest that what we have here in this vision is a prophetic picture conveying truths about these ‘angels’. So what do we see?

The description starts, In appearance their form was that of a man.” (v.5) That is an easy starting place because that is the image we normally have of angels, they come in human form. Yet the writer to the Hebrews tells us, “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve.” (Heb 1:14) Even as God is Spirit, so angels are actually ministering spirits from heaven who, when sent to earth to serve the purposes of God, come in human form. It continues, “but each of them had four faces and four wings.” (v.6) More is said about both their faces and their wings in a moment so we’ll leave the comment.

Their Legs & Feet: “Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze.” Straight legs identify them with human beings who, although we have knee joints, transport ourselves mostly straightly and straight usually denotes directness or purpose and it is true that angels go with purpose of God. When they serve God they are always purposeful. But then this symbolic, prophetic picture shows feet of a calf. Malachi once prophesied, “you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” (Mal 4:2) Those who live on a farm with animals will testify to the calves who, when let loose from the pen, often prance around. They have an agility, an ability to be light footed, they are secure on their feet. But their feet also “gleamed like burnished bronze.” Burnished bronze speaks of strength and hardness. These beings can go anywhere without fear of what they tread on. To summarise, these creatures, these angels, move with God’s purpose, move with lightness and agility and are able to go anywhere. It is that simple.

Their Wings: Reference to their wings is spread out through the chapter so let’s group all the references together: “each of them had … four wings…..” (v.6) Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings, and their wings touched one another….” (v.8,9) Their wings were spread out upward; each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side, and two wings covering its body…. (v.11) ….. Under the expanse their wings were stretched out one toward the other, and each had two wings covering its body…. (v.23)

Now when we look at birds, wings speak of movement, of flight, and associated with these verses we also find, “Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved…. (v.9)… Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went….. (v.12) When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army. When they stood still, they lowered their wings.” (v.24) So their wings show us that these are not merely stationary guards but they are creatures of great movement: “The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning,” (v.14) and one might suggest from what we have learnt earlier that they go quickly to perform the will of God for the sake of the elect and their movement is quick and immediate. Note in verse 11, they go “Wherever the spirit would go.” They go as the Spirit leads.

Their Faces: We now come to the really strange aspects of these pictures.  “Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces.” (v.10,11) OK, remember, it is just a symbolic prophetic picture. What do each of these animals suggest to us? Man = humanity. A lion = strength and a ruler (king of the jungle). An Ox = service & work (an Ox is a beast of burden used to pull ploughs, carts etc.) An Eagle = revelation (an eagle soars high and sees all.) The face of the man (their humanity) predominates because it is at ‘the front’ so, as we’ve already learnt, they go to do the will of God for humanity but in so doing they go with the strength rule and authority of God (Lion), they go to serve (Ox), and they go with revelation (Eagle).  Isn’t it simple and straight forward! As long as you remember it is simply a symbolic prophetic picture.

Why?  So why is it like this? Well perhaps we might suggest that God does not share his pearls with swine (Mt 7:6) and so understanding of these things will only be given to those who seek Him and really seek to know what He says. Many people will see the words and turn away confused. That’s why Jesus said he would teach in parables (read Mt 13:10-17) You bothered to read this far. Be blessed!