23. When He comes

Meditations on “God of Transformation: 23:  When He comes

Acts 1:8   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.”

I suspect most of us underplay the Day of Pentecost, and yet what happened on it brought about the greatest people transformation that has ever occurred. Consider the events. Jesus has returned to heaven and, I suspect, left an even greater hole in the lives of the followers than after his death. He has been with them for about five weeks or so, and had shown them that he was truly back there with them as the risen Christ. He had no doubt laughed with them, talked with them and, of course, he taught them. And then he returns to heaven. In his closing words he has told them to wait for the promise of the Father from heaven, the coming Holy Spirit, and so they continued to meet together and pray. They appoint another to replace Judas but beyond that they do little other than pray. I mean what else can they do, their head who was the one who did ‘the stuff’ or specifically appointed them to do specific things, has gone. Until God comes and speaks with them or does something, they are somewhat helpless.

Jesus has said they will receive power when the Spirit comes but they don’t know how that will be, but they certainly feel powerless in the face of the Jewish and Roman authorities.  The authorities have the power, not them. Jesus had spoken about them being his witnesses there in Jerusalem and then up through Judea and Samaria and then – can you believe it? – to the ends of the earth, whatever that means!  But all they can do for the moment is sit around and pray – and no doubt talk and speculate.

And then the Spirit comes. He comes first with manifestations, sounds like a violent wind filling the house  and then what looks like tongues of fire over each one of them, and yet they are not being burned. And then it happens to them: suddenly they are all “filled with the Spirit” to overflowing and the overflowing is heard as they all start speaking in languages they don’t know, languages recognised by other visiting Jews as from all different countries. But the languages are praise and worshipping God, declaring His wonders. There was nothing pre-thought out about this, it just happened. He came and they did what came naturally and in so doing immediately the first part of Jesus’ last command was being fulfilled, they were being witnesses  to God and as the days went on they would be witnesses to Jesus as the Spirit enabled them. The sound came from heaven, the sight came from heaven, the Spirit came from heaven and the praise came from heaven; this was a 100% God event!

I am aware of the various schools of thought that you find around the church about being filled with the Spirit. Some say it happens when you are born again, some say it happens as a distinct event at a later date, some say it happens again and again. Rather than get bogged down in defending any one of those (and if you want to know what I personally believe is that it should happen at rebirth but frequently happens as a later event and certainly happens again and again) I would much prefer us to focus on the effect of being filled with the Spirit – whenever that happens – and ask the question, do you know personally these outworkings?

On this particular day we have already noted the noise, the sight, the effects in the believers of being able to worship in other languages and then – which we haven’t mentioned yet – Peter being enabled to preach a great sermon and see wonderful fruit, thousands being saved. In Acts 4:8 we read, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said….” In other words the Holy Spirit – refilling him? – enabled him to have great boldness to testify to the religious leaders. A little later we read of the believers praying together and then, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (Acts 4:31) which was clearly an answer to their prayers. Now I can’t help but note that one minute they weren’t filled and the next minute they were, which suggests a more than once experience (although of course there has to be a first time), but the big thing to note is the effect – boldness and enabling to speak God’s word.

For persecutor Saul, when Ananias was sent to him (Acts 9:17,18) he was filled with the Spirit and was enabled to see again, his blindness was healed, sight or vision was given. We also note that very soon he was out preaching (v.20) a possible effect of what had happened to him; now he was testifying to Jesus in his preaching.

When Peter preached to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius we read, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.” (Acts 10:44-46) Although the word ‘filled’ was not used that clearly was what was happening with identical effects as on the Day of Pentecost. Message?  It’s for Gentiles as well as Jews.

Bizarrely after persecution, on one of Paul’s journeys, we read, “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 13:52)  The Holy Spirit clearly filled them and they knew joy which overtook any fears they might have had. Power in another form.  A while later after some believers had been baptized in water, we read, “When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” (Acts 19:6) Again, clearly a filling and similar fruits – gifts of the Spirit. More power.

So here is the central message of the Holy Spirit: when He comes He transforms the weak and helpless into power-filled, witnessing, emboldened believers.  If these characteristics are absent from the Church or any individual local church, i.e. the believers,  then the church needs to be praying and seeking the Lord because what we have been reading is clearly God’s intention for His people. Any view less than this has surely got to be unbelief.

31. A Valid Testimony

Short Meditations in John 3:  31. A Valid Testimony

Jn 3:32    He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony.

John, the apostle, is strong on this idea of witnesses. He lived in a period where probably all of the other twelve had now passed away and he was a lone witness to exactly what had happened with Jesus. Hence in his letter we have this sort of language of John’s own testimony:That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it.” (1 Jn 1:1,2) He goes to great lengths to say, ‘This happened in time-space history and I saw it! This is not made up.’

When he came to speak about John the Baptist, he said, “He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light,” (Jn 1:7,8) and later, “Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was,” (Jn 1:19) and then, “Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.” (Jn 1:32)

When it came to Jesus, as he spoke with Nicodemus, he said, I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man.” (Jn 3:11-13)

Now we have just seen, “The one who comes from above is above all.” (Jn 3:31) Referring to Jesus, now the writer (or John the Baptist) declares, “He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony.”  (Jn 3:32) We have already just seen Jesus chiding Nicodemus for not accepting his testimony. In the general passage following we saw, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (Jn 3:19).

Again and again we get this same thing. We should have listened to Jesus because he had come from heaven and knew what he was saying but instead, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (Jn 1:10,11)  We’ll see later in the gospel, when Jesus speaks about being the bread of life that came down from heaven, the listening Jews rejected what he was saying.

4. Witnesses of God

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  4. Witnesses of God

1 John 1:1-3  That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

I suppose ‘Gems’ might refer to verses that stand out in the Bible and the ones above certainly do that. We can perhaps take for granted the most obvious thing that the Bible conveys and that is that God has revealed Himself to mankind. It is not that different human beings have gone looking for God and have found Him, but that God has made Himself known to us.  Initially it was through the nation of Israel and the record of its dealings with Him in a period up to about two thousand years ago. Then it was through His Son, Jesus Christ, and the record of him, in the four Gospels of the New Testament. Finally it was through the Church, some of its representatives and their writings, and the working of His own Holy Spirit in the lives of individual Christians and the Church at large over the last two thousand years.  There has been non-stop testimony if you go looking for it.

But this testimony of the apostle John, written down somewhere in the latter half of the first century AD, has got to be one of the most amazing testimonies ever written down. Admittedly it is couched in language that comes from a Hebrew and Greek perspective – “the Word of life” – but it is so similar to the language of his Gospel that his intent is unmistakable.

In his Gospel he had started out with the same sort of language: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” (Jn 1:1,2) Eventually he explained, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14) and as he unravels the parcel before us, there is no mistake about the fact that he was speaking about Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God.

For John there was no doubting as he used the Greek concept of ‘the Word’ or ‘the reason’ or ‘the purpose behind all things’ to describe Jesus who was not only “with God” but “was God”. Jesus was God in the flesh. Of that there was absolutely no doubt in John’s mind and his Gospel, written decades after the other three, reveals that on every page.

So then we come back to this incredible testimony in his first letter. If we insert the name of Jesus into it, it becomes even more powerful: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Jesus Christ. He appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you that Jesus Christ was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard.

In his Gospel, he picks up things that the other earlier writers had not noticed. They had been so taken up with getting down the bare bones of the story, the basic things that had happened, that they had not dwelt on specific things Jesus had said, as John had in his years of ministry after those three incredible years with Jesus in the flesh. As he got older, John clearly looked back and pondered the things he had seen and heard in those three incredible years  and he realised that Jesus had been giving them indicator after indicator about himself and the others had not bothered with those details. Thus in John we find, in the dialogue in chapter 6, repeated references to him being the bread that had come down from heaven. When Jesus prays in John 17, John remembers Jesus praying, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (v.5)  There is no question in John’s mind that Jesus was telling them indirectly (praying out loud before his disciples) that he had always existed there in heaven with the Father.

John is full of this revelation: this Jesus is and was God and what is more  we are so sure of this because we were there and we saw and heard him and we actually touched him, rubbed shoulders with him in daily life, that we know beyond a shadow of doubt that he was a human being but a human being who was God in the flesh. We were there, we KNOW!

What gems these verses are, just sitting there waiting for anyone with an open heart, who is not so perverted by jaded cynicism, so that they can see the wonder of them. How wonderful!

2. But What…

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 2 :  But what….

Acts  1:6   So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Our verse above shows us the disciples questioning Jesus, but before that I have a feeling that they might have had questions but might not have felt they could voice them, because there is no record in the text. I refer to the verse we had at the top of our page in the previous meditation when Jesus said, Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4,5) Now the text is not very clear at this point but we are led to believe that they are still up in Galilee when suddenly, one day over a meal, Jesus says this to them.

If I had been one of the disciples – and the Gospels show us they were very much like this – I would be thinking, “Jerusalem? They are probably still hunting for us back there, I don’t want to go back there!”  and, “Gift my father promised? Holy Spirit? What does being baptized in the Holy Spirit mean?” That is what the humanity of these disciples would be thinking. Jerusalem had provided THE most traumatic experience of their lives. They had followed the Master for three years, seen him totally in control, healing thousands, performing miracles – signs and wonders if you like – and then in Jerusalem he had given himself up without any resistance when the authorities came, and allowed himself to be killed and then buried. And the disciples had fled and hidden behind locked doors, fearful that they might be next. And then, unbelievably, he had come back from the dead. Their senses just didn’t know how to cope, but now after a number of weeks they were beginning to settle down to a new life and, presumably, a continuation of Jesus’ ministry in the north – away from Jerusalem! Don’t tell me they would not have had all these questions, but neither questions nor answers are recorded by Luke and in the light of what follows it is not surprising.

So we come to this spoken question from the disciples, because Jesus had been teaching about the kingdom and so it is quite legitimate to ask about it’s coming, but note the answer he gives them: “He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But 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 1:7,8) Now familiarity may have dulled the significance of all of this in your mind, so let’s look at it.

First, don’t worry about dates and then, leave it with God. Second, you’ll receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you. Wow! How will that happen? Third, you’ll be my witnesses to the ends of the earth. To the ends of the earth? We’ve never been outside the boundaries of this country? How can we go to the ends of the earth?

But it gets worse: “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” (Acts 1:9)  He just ascended. Hang on, there was no warning this was going to happen! If there had been, surely Luke would have recorded it? What have we just seen? We’ve seen Jesus bringing incomplete teaching that clearly leaves questions. We’ve seen him decline to answer their question. We’ve seen him talk about their future, and they we’ve seen him disappear without any warning. Now, as I say, it is possible you are so familiar with these verses that you have lost the significance of them. What is the point I am making?

The point I am making – and remember this series is about motivation as Christians – is that God doesn’t always make the way ahead clear. He may say many things prophetically to us but still, at the end of the day, we are left walking by faith and constantly looking to Him because otherwise we’re lost and confused.

I had a graphic picture of this once and I can do no better than repeat what I wrote in the basic series of meditations in Acts: Once when I took a small team of four into Malaysia to teach there, we were given a fortnight’s itinerary by the denomination we had gone to, together with plane tickets to get around the interior. On one occasion we were picked up at the small airport by a man with a pick-up truck and taken into the nearby town. He didn’t speak English and so simply signed to us. In the middle of the town, he pulled up, jumped out and unloaded our baggage on the pavement and indicated we should get out. He promptly drove off!

The team of young people with me, turned to me and asked, “What next?” “I haven’t a clue,” I replied, “we just wait here until something happens.” Ten minutes later another vehicle pulled up and an English-speaking local picked us up and took us to the church where we were next speaking. For those ten minutes we were utterly helpless. We couldn’t speak the language and it was a part of the world where few would have spoken English. I suspect that the disciples had a similar sort of feeling at this point in their lives. Now what? What have we let ourselves in for? How long do we have to wait?

Today we are living in a very controlling world. We have created a great sense of ‘being in control’.  For most of us, the day ahead is unlikely to bring surprises. We may not know exactly how some things at work are going to work out, but apart from the details, life is pretty much laid out in order. We know the time of the train or bus we catch to work, or the time we have to get the children to school. We know the things that need to be done today, and we rarely have doubts about them. If we have to go shopping for food, we know it will be there. If we go to school or college we have timetables that decree at exactly what time we will be where and doing what lesson. If we go on holidays we get all the details worked out before we go, even down to booking plane seats on line before we leave home. Oh yes, in a large measure we are living in a very controlled world and so we don’t like being ‘out of control’. None of this helps faith, because faith involves stepping out on God’s word and trusting Him to move.

To be honest, sometimes it seems as if God is keeping you in the dark and all you can do is just take one step after another through life until His guidance becomes clear. Don’t let these mediations leave you feeling motivation and guidance is a nice clear cut package. So often it is not!

43. Be Ready

Meditations in 1 Peter : 43 : Be Ready with an Answer

1 Pet 3:15 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,

Sometimes there are Christians who are very diffident about sharing the faith. “I’m not sure what to say,” is a common reason given, or “I don’t know how to open up a conversation about Christ.” Well, yes, there are those who are gifted at opening up conversations and they are the envy of the rest of us, but the truth is that they are probably the ones who are gifted as evangelists, a specific calling. Most of us are simply called to be witnesses. Jesus said to his apostles, “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.” (Mt 10:18) and then later on, “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) A witness is simply someone who recounts what they have seen or what has happened to them.

But that still doesn’t help the person who struggles to know how to open up a conversation about their Lord. It is at this point that Peter helps us. He comes at it from the opposite direction: “Always be prepared to give an answer.” An answer is a response to another. They initiate the conversation: “to everyone who asks you…” For some reason, Peter supposes that people are going to ask you about your faith: “who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Now that implies something very specific. It supposes that they know you are a believer. This is the next point at which many of us struggle. We live as a minority (if you live in Britain at least – not so much in the States) and we have allowed the enemy to marginalise us, to push us to the side where in many people’s thinking we are of little importance.

That is simply because people don’t realise who or what we are. My daughter runs a Mums and Toddlers group. One day one of the Mums asked who it was who ran the group. She was told the church. “What’s a church?” she asked. (Yes, this is true in modern day Britain.) Come along on a Sunday morning and see, she was invited, so she came. As she stood in the worship she found herself crying for apparently no reason. She kept on coming and kept on crying. God was at work. She heard ‘the reason for the hope’ that we have and she came to the Lord. Her partner wondered what was going on in her but was scared about the thought of church which he knew nothing about. But when he came to pick her up at the end of each Sunday morning, he was invited in for coffee and was overwhelmed by the love he received and started asking questions. He too came to the Lord. Both of them asked questions in response to what they saw. One saw an organisation putting on a local service for Mums, the other the love of Christ.

If we are living the life of Christ, people will ask questions. Yes, they do need to know who we are and at some point we are going to have to let it be known that we are Christians and that we ‘go to church’ (Yes, I know we are the church, but that’s how the world sees it!). If our Sunday morning meeting is more than a dull liturgy where familiarity has now invoked contempt, then questioners will encounter God.

Another man, now in our congregation, was a devout sceptic and had been so for many years. He was utterly hardened against the truth.  Yet one Sunday he found himself asking his Christian wife if he might come along that morning to her church. He wasn’t sure why, but he wanted to come. He came for about five or six weeks, I think it was, and then one morning in the middle of worship, one of our girls shared a general prophetic word that apparently went straight to the heart of this hard man. He went to the back where some leaders were praying for people and buttonholed one of them and came straight way to the Lord. God had provoked questions within him and now he was given answers which satisfied him. He was gloriously born again.

But perhaps your church experience isn’t like that and so you’ll have to do it on your own. In conversation you quietly drop that you had been in church that weekend, or you simply exude the love and patience and perseverance of Christ that Peter has been talking about in his letter so that indeed you let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds,” (Mt 5:16) and they question you why you are like that.

Now Peter takes the pressure right off in the closing words of this verse: But do this with gentleness and respect.” You don’t have to attack people – in fact you mustn’t. Many young Christians (and older ones too) feel defensive about their faith and so become harsh and hard in their presentation. Don’t be! Remember it is God who convicts and converts! All you can do is love and testify. The blind man in John 9 is a lovely example of this: they said. “We know this man is a sinner.” He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (Jn 9:24,25) i.e. I don’t have all the answers but all I do know is that Jesus changed me.

So in your preparation to be a witness, yes, you can think about what life used to be like and how it has changed when you came to Christ and you can think how you would briefly explain in non-spooky terms what happened. For me it would be, “My life was pointless and was out of control and one night I was challenged with the truth about Jesus Christ, that he loved me and died to take the punishment for the wrongs of my life, and so I prayed and asked his forgiveness and for him to take over and lead my life, and all I can say is that I was utterly changed and it’s been great.” Simple isn’t it.

42. Upholding Law

Meditations in Romans : 42:  Upholding the Law

 

Rom 3:29-31 Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law

 

Romans is a steady flow of Paul’s thoughts, but nevertheless there are distinct junction points where that flow seems to move up a notch, and so as we come to the end of chapter 3 and get ready to move into chapter 4 we must recognise a change.  So far in the last chapter Paul has been creating a level playing field for Jew and Gentile. All are lost and need God’s salvation that comes through Jesus. In chapter 4 Paul starts using Abraham as an illustration of saving faith and will move on to open up the theme of justification by faith which he has only briefly mentioned so far. So we are going to draw this particular set of meditations to a close at this point which is fitting.

Because it is a continuous flow of thought we need to remind ourselves what has just gone: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (v.28).  That’s where his previous arguing had come to. But he wants to emphasise  something else now. So he asks this simple question: “Is God the God of the Jews only?” It is something you might think is so, if you casually read the Old Testament, for it is certainly the story about Israel (yet the truth is that they were to be a light to the rest of the world and that comes through literally dozens of times in the Old Testament.)  Oh no, comes Paul with a rhetorical question, “Is he not the God of the Gentiles too?” We may think this is a minor matter but in fact it is a crucial matter. God isn’t only concerned with the Jews; He is concerned with the whole world.

That had been Peter’s stumbling block that we read about in Acts 10 when the Lord gave him a vision about eating unclean animals in preparation for going to a Gentile family. When Jesus had said to the apostles, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” (Acts 1:8) they must have thought he meant to the Jews all over the world. It had come as a real shock to Peter, and most of his fellow Jewish believers, that the Gospel included the Gentiles, the rest of the world! This is important in what is coming, for Paul is soon going to be using the illustration of Abraham and that could have made his Jewish readers think even more it is all about the Jews. But no, this is an inclusive Gospel. The fact that the Gentiles had not had the Law is neither here nor there, for “a man is justified by faith apart from observing the Law.”

Then he answers his own question: “Yes, of Gentiles too,”and then he adds, “since there is only one God.” There is not one God for the Jews and another for the Gentiles. No, the Lord is one and He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”Yes, the Jews, the circumcised are justified by faith, not by keeping the Law. We’ve seen a number of times how futile it is in relying upon your observance of the Law because we all fail to keep it perfectly. No, and this might have come as a shock to the Jewish readers, they are justified (accepted by God) by faith, just as the Gentiles are justified by faith. That is the devastating news that Paul is going to open up on in the coming chapters – justification by faith. Everything about our salvation is by faith. It is all about responding to what God has said about His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one against whom all our responses are measured. It’s how we respond to Jesus Christ that determines whether we are saved or not. That is the uncompromising message of the New Testament.

Paul then envisages his Jewish readers coming up with another question: Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith?” i.e. does faith render the Law meaningless? Does it mean that the Law is pointless? Then comes his answer: Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” Faith upholds the Law?   Yes, later in the letter Paul will illustrate this. We have already seen in the preceding verses; it is Law that makes us realise that we are sinners in need of salvation and so, when we respond to the Gospel by faith, we are showing that the Law did its work and was effective in driving us into God’s arms. What Paul is saying is that by coming to God, by faith in the Good News of Jesus Christ, we are supporting or upholding the role of the Law. Yes it was there as a means of providing guidance and direction for Israel, but as a means of measuring our righteousness it was a failure. It’s role, it turns out, is to show us our sinful tendency and our inability to keep the rules, and therefore our need of God’s help.  In the next set of meditations we will see how this justification by faith is worked out. For the time being, we conclude with the message that has come over loud and strong from these last two chapters: we NEED Jesus to save us because nothing else can!

6. Good Witnesses

Meditations in Romans : 6 :  Good Witnesses?

Rom  1:8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.

In this first decade of the twenty first century there has been a full frontal attack on the Christian faith by crusading atheists.  Now the interesting thing to note is that they are woefully ignorant of the truths of the Gospel as found in the New Testament and so that is not the main object of their attack.  No, their attack has been against many forms of Christianity, or expressions of Christianity, that have been observed in the church in the past or are being seen around the world today – expressions that are far from that shown in the New Testament.  In the United Kingdom at least, whenever the media portray a representative of the church they are almost always either weak individuals or quirky-belief individuals.  Never or rarely is there a portrayal of Christians as strong, helpful members of society, people who should be given a fair hearing for the reality of their faith.  Now I know that part of the enemy’s tactics is to demean and neutralise Christians, but it does seem to me that so often we have given him plenty of ammunition to play with!

Now I am sure that the church in Rome in Paul’s day wasn’t perfect but even so, they were a church that the world knew about, and about which Paul could feel good.  This letter by Paul isn’t a corrective letter like the first one to the Corinthians.  No, it seems that this is a church with a strong faith and the news of that faith has gone round the world.  Now that is a challenge isn’t it! Yes, put aside all the negatives that come from the media, but I wonder how the world around us views our local expression of ‘church’?  Paul could talk to God in prayer about this church at Rome and speak very positively about it because of what he had heard about them.  He wasn’t embarrassed about them and he didn’t need to make excuses for them.  No, he gave thanks for what he heard about them.

So what might it be (for he doesn’t tell us) that made this church known around the world?  He says it is their ‘faith’, so what does that mean?  Well the first thing to suggest is that it doesn’t just mean their set of beliefs, because that would not get them a good reputation around the world.  No it has to mean that they are living out their lives with a faith dimension to it.  That suggests that they have been taught to live lives that distinguish them from the rest of the world.  They are people who have changed so that they are marked out so that they have been seen for what they are.  So what sort of characteristics make us people who can have a good reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world?  Let’s suggest a few things.

First, we may suggest, they are people of truth, people who are honest and trustworthy, people who are known for their integrity.  Truth is valued highly by the Lord and so this would be a mark of a good church.   Second, we may suggest, they would be people of peace and harmony, free from arguing, criticising, gossiping, judging and speaking badly of others.  In fact, to the contrary, they will be people who look for the best in one another, who speak well of one another, who encourage and build up one another. They would love and accept one another and be there for one another. They would be a caring community. They would be known for looking after the needy – the widows and orphans.  They would be law abiding, good citizens, caring for their community, both Christian and non-Christian.  They would be good workers and not lazy or careless.  They would be wise stewards of whatever wealth the Lord has allowed them to have, meeting the needs of those who did not have.

It is probable that they would be known for the supernatural dimension of their lives.  They are people who claim to hear God and live their lives in accord with what He has said to them. They see things happening as they respond to what they hear from Him.  They pray and things change. They pray for the sick and they are healed.

Now where do we get all these things from? From the New Testament of course, but as we said earlier, it is probable that they are not perfect and not all these things are patently obvious in their church life yet. Perhaps that is why Paul writes in a very practical way in the latter chapters. One of the obvious things, we have to suggest, is that these people do what they do and are known for what they do, because of God.  They are not just nice people, not just good people – they are godly people and the focus is on God.  As a result of their lives God is glorified, just as Jesus said: let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16)

If they are a growing church then Solomon’s words will also be true of them: “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” (Prov 4:18) – and they are seen!  Where God is Lord, then we will also see the prayer of Jesus being fulfilled: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn 17:20-23).  The presence of God in these people is seen by the world and they are witnesses to the Lord.  May all these things apply to us, His church today!