Saturday, 26 December 2009


Advancement! What a great word this is. Synonyms for it abound. Words like progress, improvement, furtherance, gain, promotion and headway. I’ve never liked the word retreat; especially when it comes to Christian leaders taking time out for a “retreat”. Why not call it an advance. After all, if we are taking time for God, to seek Him and hear from Him – like Jesus did, isn’t that the beginning of all progress and advancement?

The Christian life is about progress; it’s about growing and learning; it’s about inner transformation, thinking differently and therefore living differently. Jesus could challenge people to follow Him because He was going somewhere – He was advancing. Out of His personal advancement came the opportunity to advance God’s Kingdom. This is ultimately why we are here. To push back satan’s kingdom by advancing God’s Kingdom.

The whole of history is in a sense the story of how God has been advancing His purposes. He looks for those who are willing to take a step forward; a step into the unknown, into uncertainty, into territory that is unfamiliar to most, so that His Kingdom can come on earth.

Joshua understood advancement. It meant fighting. Being given the inheritance wasn’t enough; enemies had to be driven out, land had to be taken. And each step of faith caused them to inherit more of what was already theirs. It took time. It often meant being open to divine strategy, like in the taking of Jericho. It meant moving forward, even when they made a covenant with the Gibeionites against God’s express command. They refused to be held back by guilt and self-condemnation. It meant dealing with sin, like that of Achan, so they could advance.

The American President Harry S Truman once said, “Men make history, and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skilful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

The book of Judges is testament to this truth. Israel found herself on a cycle of rebellion and apostasy that lead to some form of oppression or enslavement. Sometimes this lasted for a few years, like the seven year oppression of the Midianites during Gideon's day, Judges 6.1. Often it extended to forty year bondage, like that of the Philistines during Sampson’s time, Judges 13.1. What is crucial to see is that God raised up Judges – deliverers to save the people of God. They led them back to Him and freed them from the oppression of their enemies. Under these judges they advanced. Without them, Israel quickly fell back into their old idolatrous habits that led back to bondage and oppression

Paul was passionate about advancement. He longed for the church to mature and grow up into Christ, Eph 4.12-16. at a personal level he too said 'I press toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’, Phil 3.14. Earlier in the same letter he specifically addressed the issue. Things had not gone well for Paul. He had been arrested and the letter to the Philippian church is one of those prison letters. Yet it is full of hope and joyful rejoicing. Here is how Paul began to see his situation:

But I want you to know brethren, that the things which have happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard and to all the rest that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are more bold to speak the word without fear, Phil 1.12-14.

Here was a situation that looked bad; Paul in prison. No more preaching, no more evangelising, no more church planting. Not by him anyway. But the gospel still advanced because other people became inspired to overcome their fear through Paul’s attitude. And he rejoiced. He would gladly pay that price of sacrificing personal freedom if it meant the advancing of God’s Kingdom and people coming to the saving knowledge of Jesus.

Not only that, Paul does not allow himself to be discouraged but gets on with writing letters to encourage churches like that at Philippi and young leaders like Timothy and Titus. And we have that legacy today preserved as scripture – a significant part of our New Testament. Time and distance from his first arrest had given Paul a new take on his circumstances. Now he could rejoice. God knows what He is doing. There is no need to be discouraged even by what may appear as a setback. That might be God’s way of advancing you. Who knows?

Joseph discovered this. God used all of the rejection and injustice in his life to form a character that could handle the advancement He had prepared for Joseph. And when it came, he was ready. He did not allow himself to become bitter or resentful but put his hope in God – and God was faithful. Perhaps you are facing what looks like a setback; a hindrance to your progress, as you see it. But maybe God sees it differently. Perhaps this is God’s way of preparing you for advancement. Perhaps this is a test of faith that requires you to stay the course. Hold on. Stand firm.

Later in life Paul wrote to Timothy. He gives him some helpful instruction on pursuing success in ministry. 1Tim 4.12-16. He deals with self concept – let no man despise your youth. He deals with his relationship with other believers – be an example. He deals with his focus in ministry – give attention to reading to exhortation to teaching and finally he deals with his call, remembering when and how it was activated in his life – do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. To crown it all he says: Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all, 1Tim 4.15.

This word progress is the same Greek word he used earlier in Philippians for furtherance or advancement. Paul wants the whole church to see Timothy’s progress. As he advances it will inspire the church to do the same. But notice that it will require all his energy – ‘give yourself entirely to them’. It is not outside his reach, everything he needs for success has been deposited within him, but he must stir it up, he must activate it, 2Tim 1.6.

What have you received from God that needs to be re-activated, stirred up so that you can advance? What do you need to give yourself ‘entirely’ to at this season in your life? What readjustment in perspective has to be made so that you can be joyful about where you are in life? What are meditating on that is allowing you to progress? And is your progress evident to all?

The American actor, lawyer and writer Ben Stein once said, “Personal relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, all achievement in real life grows”. I agree. Timothy advanced because a man like Paul saw his potential and made room for him. Jesus did the same with the twelve. Churches advance under good leadership. Nations are blessed under the influence of Godly men – even when they have ungodly kings. Think of Daniel’s influence in Babylon and Esther’s influence in Persia. They were secondary figures in power, but major players in influence. And that’s what really counts.

If you want to progress in life, in ministry, in relationships then become intentional about whom you allow to be influencing you. Paul said, ‘meditate on these things, give yourself entirely to them’. Don’t give in to the aggressive influence of our modern culture through the relentless messages of the media. Be discerning. Fill your mind with something that will help you advance. And as you do others will see your progress and be inspired to live life loud.

David advanced through the friendship and encouragement of Jonathan. In time he took a group of men who were described as ‘in debt, discouraged or discontented’ and led many of them to become mighty men; great warriors who performed unusual acts of bravery. They were transformed by following a transformational leader. God is faithful to give us people who can help us advance. In time, we too become those who influence others to advance and so God’s Kingdom expands and moves forward. Let's be all we can, so that God can do all He can - through us. That's advancement.


Excellence is our second value as a church. It’s a word that has huge currency in the business world since the publication of Peter’s and Waterman’s book “In Search of Excellence” back in 1982. They were two consultants who researched hundreds of organisations to see if there were common factors that made these companies successful. What they discovered became the substance of their book. One of the key things that emerged from their research was that for too long ‘bean counters’ (accountants) had been given too much influence in how companies ran.

Profit was not the only bottom line. In pursuing excellence some companies actually made unprofitable decisions, just because it was the right thing to do. They maintained quality, both in their product and their relationship with customers. And many times this bought them trust, respect and loyalty which, in the long term, had a definite impact on the traditional bottom line. This of course touches on one of the most essential ingredients of Excellence that the scripture agrees with – Integrity.

In Dan 6.3 we read; “Then Daniel distinguished himself above the governors and satraps because an excellent spirit was in him; and the king gave thought to setting him over the whole realm”. Excellence is not just what we do or produce like excellent craftsmanship. True we can have excellent results. Biblically excellence is what we bring to something, an attitude, an approach to life, a conviction about what is of true value, a spirit if you will.

This is what distinguished Daniel. He was surrounded by ambitious men. We see this play out in the rest of chapter 6. They were jealous of Daniel; jealous of his success and favour with the king. But all of that was a by-product of a man who lived by his integrity. What he believed he lived – no matter what the cost was. He learned back in chapter one that God was able to bless him if he walked in integrity. He was tested for ten days to see if a simple diet would nourish him as well as the king’s food was sure to do. After ten days he and his friends looked better and more nourished than all the other men who ate the king’s fare, Dan 1.11-16.

If we are going to pursue excellence we need to cultivate an excellent spirit like Daniel. And that begins with living by integrity. The word integrated comes from the same root as integrity. The more our life is integrated – where the outside world and the inside world match, the more we have laid the ground work for pursuing excellence. Integrity means we are reliable, trustworthy, faithful and true to our word. Excellent results need to be preceded by an excellent spirit.

Excellence is not about doing things perfectly. Perfectionism is a curse. Perfectionists seldom live with any real sense of satisfaction from their achievements. They see the faults and this robs them of the joy of what is good about what they have done. Perfectionism is usually rooted in a need for recognition that is only achieved when something is faultless. And this is usually an impossible goal. Notice too that perfectionism is always about the end product.

Excellence is not like that. It is about what we bring to a task. Think of Jesus for a moment. He chose to use weak, imperfect people. This is the power of redemption. He saw their potential and called them apostles long before they were walking in the reality of what that meant. They learned from Jesus that it’s not about trying harder; it’s about surrendering all we are to Him so that He can work through us. The Holy Spirit is the excellent Spirit we all need and in time His fruit is developed in us so that we bring excellence to all we do.

Henry Ford once said, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently”. Perfectionism makes no room for failure but excellence is able to learn from failure and move on. Thomas Edison failed over 900 times to produce a working light bulb. When mocked for his failure he said, “I have successfully proved over 900 ways not to make a light bulb”. I like that kind of attitude. He had an excellent spirit and broke through in the end; a breakthrough that has literally reshaped our world.

John Mark had every reason to give up on ministry. Having attended with Paul and Barnabas on their first journey he abandoned them when they left Cyprus and reached the mainland. It must have been difficult for the team because when Paul wanted to revisit the churches he and Barnabas had planted Barnabas was of a mind to give John Mark a second chance. Paul would have none of it. So these two great leaders went in two different directions, unable to reach agreement on this issue.

I am persuaded Barnabas – the son of encouragement who had been instrumental in making room for Paul, Acts 9.26-27; 11.25-26; was able to see past Mark’s failure. This is the young man who went on to accompany the apostle Peter and become to him what Timothy had been to Paul, 1Pet 5.13. He wrote the gospel that bears his name and later in life Paul could write these words, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry”, 2Tim 4.11. These are some of the last words the great apostle ever penned. In them there is a tacit admission that Barnabas got it right.

Failure should never hold you back from pursuing excellence. It is the lesson that should motivate you to try again – more intelligently. The danger with all failure is that we stop trying. After all, failure is embarrassing. Nobody wants to be mocked or noticed in that kind of way. Worse we may even develop a fear of failure and this has a paralyzing effect on us. But when others believe in us we should allow their words of encouragement to enter our hearts – for that will inspire faith. And faith dares to take the next step in the pursuit of excellence.

Another distinctive feature of those who pursue excellence is that they have a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude. It’s like they are ready for resistance and have made up their minds they will overcome. Some do ‘whatever it takes’ at the expense of their integrity. But those with an excellent spirit do so within the bounds of their integrity. It is a gritty attitude of stick-ability. Have you ever read this unusual verse in 2Sam 23.10; “He arose and attacked the Philistines until his hand was weary and his hand stuck to the sword. The Lord brought about a great victory that day; and the people returned after him only plunder”.

This was Eleazer, one of David’s three mighty men. I love this little story. It summarises what I am trying to communicate. Eleazer had a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude. All Israel was fleeing but he stood his ground to fight. He fought so long that when it was all over he couldn’t let go of his sword. It had become part of him! He was stuck with it. And that’s my point. Some people are able to do things in such a way that it looks like it is a part of who they are. The golfer, the tennis pro, the ice skater, the brilliant chef all make it look easy. What they do has become part of who they are without necessarily defining who they are.

The last ingredient is that those who pursue excellence take responsibility for their life and actions. Some people make excuses for the way things are. Blame shifting is easy. It may give us a temporary feeling of being justified but it never gives us a sense of fulfilment or satisfaction. How can it? Excellence requires that you take ownership for the way things are beginning with your own life. As long as you blame parents, siblings, lack of education, work, your boss, life, God you don’t get on with living much less pursuing excellence.

Your life can make a difference if you take responsibility for the way it is now and through the indwelling power of the Spirit seek to change it. And what we experience personally we can experience together. Society changes when the church stops pointing the finger in blame and takes ownership for bringing about change. We bring an excellent spirit to all we do in the community. We fight on behalf of our community and like the people who followed Eleazer the community gets the benefit of the plunder.

What area of life or ministry do you need to take responsibility for? What is waiting to change if someone will just take responsibility for it? Daniel accepted his life in Babylon. It meant a new language, a new way of dressing, a new name, a new education program, a new country; things that speak to our identity. But the one thing he could challenge was his diet. None of those other things were prescribed in scripture. He could let them go. But what he ate. That said a lot about his faith. And we know how that worked out.

Taking responsibility has a way of focusing our attention. Daniel knew where he needed to focus in maintaining his integrity and it left him free to embrace many changes in his life. Into the godless society of Babylon he served and ruled – with excellence. And he was noticed, even by an ungodly king. That’s the beauty of pursuing excellence; it gets you noticed and often leads to promotion. And in such a place we can influence others towards the Kingdom of God.

Think of an area of ministry you have been involved with. Would you describe it as excellent? What changes and improvements would you like to see? What will it look like in three years time? What can you do now to begin to move you in that direction? Are you reproducing excellence in others by the way you approach what you do? I pray that in character we can become like Daniel and touch our world with an excellent spirit.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Our Mission

Having spoken over some weeks about what is the church, I want to focus in on our church, Jubilee. Over the next few weeks I'll unpack some of our values; but for now let's look at our mission statement. Equipping people for life through faith in Jesus Christ. That's it!

The word Equip comes from the Greek word Katartizo. The main part of the verb is artizo, from which we get the English word "artisan", a skilful worker with his hands, and the prefix kata in front intensifies the verb. It carries several shades of meaning. To the young church at Thessalonica Paul desired to ‘perfect’ that which was lacking in their faith, 1Thess 3.10. They had more to learn, more to experience, more to grow into. To the Corinthians he prayed that they would be made ‘complete’, 2Cor 13.9, more well rounded.

This thought is expanded in Hebrews as the writer there encourages them to be ‘complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight through Jesus Christ’, Hebrews 13.21. In Luke 6.40 we have the notion that equipping is about being 'fully trained', placing tools in the hands of others so that they can do every good work, empowered by the Spirit.

The word is used to describe what James and John were doing when Jesus met them – ‘mending’ nets, Matt 4.21. The metaphor is also used in Gal 6.1 for those overtaken in a fault that need to ‘restored’. Clearly as people we need mending and restoring.

Out of the mouths of babes and infants God has ‘perfected’ praise, Matt 21.16. Perhaps we could dare to say He has restored it? For it is to children that Jesus points to when we are to understand how to enter into the Kingdom of God. Their uncomplicated openness teaches us something about the real nature of worship and faith.

Peter tells us that God will ‘perfect’ us after we have suffered for a season. Suffering does seem to have a way of getting our attention and focusing us on eternal realities.

Finally we have the classic text of Eph 4.11 where Paul describes various ministries given to the church by the ascended Lord Jesus in order to ‘equip the saints to do the work of ministry’. Whatever else we think about these ministries one thing is certain; without them the church will not reach its full ‘stature’, its full potential. We need the input of others; those gifted by God to help us grow and mature so that we can be released into all that God has called us to do.

From all these scriptures we can see that Equipping is about training, restoring, mending, completing and perfecting the saints. It involves being ‘hands on’. At times it’s tricky and risky, like helping the Corinthian church see that they were missing it by a mile when it came to relationships. It sometimes requires great humility and gentleness when people are hurt or have failed. Consider the Grace of Jesus in John 21 when He restored Peter. No condemning words, only reassurance and a reminder of his call.

At other times its about giving direction and opportunity for others to grow and develop, like the time Jesus sent out the 70 in Luke 10 or when Paul wrote to Titus and reminded him of why he had left him in Crete; ‘....that you should set in order the things that are lacking and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you...’ Titus 1.5. Clearly he is given an equipping mandate that will strengthen the church.

Notice that this equipping is not just for ministry – it’s for life. Life in all its fullness, for that is what Jesus came to bring, John 10.10, life to the full. Of course this includes ministry but it touches on every area of life, work, health, relationships, marriage, sex, family, church, and politics, anything that relates to life! Nothing is beyond God’s power or desire to restore, complete, mend or perfect.

And all this comes about through faith in Jesus Christ; not simply as a one time commitment but as an ongoing relationship of following the Master. Faith is foundational to growth and development in the Christian life. Without faith we cannot please God, Heb 11.6. But with faith we can. Faith is about having confidence in what God has said.

God’s word has inherent power, but faith is the ingredient that releases that power in our life. We are told about the children of Israel in the wilderness who did not enter into the Promised Land because of unbelief. They did not mix faith with the ‘good news’ they heard and so God’s power remained locked up in His promise, Heb 4.2. Just as a seed remains only a tree in potential until it is planted so God’s word must first be planted in order for its potential to change our world is released. This is what the Parable of the Sower points to. The good soil is the person who out of ‘a noble and good heart keep it and bear fruit with patience', Luke 8.15

James tells us to receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save our souls, James 1.21. Real faith is always accompanied with meekness. It is the ability to take revelation into our hearts and act on it. Faith sees, faith speaks and faith responds with action. But the seeing is always partial, 1Cor 13.9. Our confession is only the bit we know and in that sense incomplete. Our obedience is always tinged with a hint of uncertainty. This is why it’s called faith. It requires us to trust God for all the bits of information we lack, believing that at the end of the day it is not necessary for us to know.

Training people to live this way is not easy. It often begins with a small step that allows us to experience the reward of faith – fulfilled promises. And as we mature it seems that God is happy to let some things just hang, waiting for the right time, His time, when the fulfilment will impact the most people. Joseph learned this about God. Through rejection and suffering God actually prepared Him to fulfil his destiny. He equipped him for this purpose. God plan was bigger than one man and his personal dreams. It was about saving a nation (Egypt) and birthing a nation (Israel). It wasn’t about Joseph’s mission, it was about God’s mission; and Joseph had the privilege of being part of it after he let go of his own sense of self-importance.

What area of your life do you need to be equipped, trained, restored, mended, completed or perfected? Where is there a lack at present? Who are you allowing into your world to address this need? How open are you being with what you see? How open would you be for someone to tell you where they see a missing piece? And as you ponder these questions, dare to ask for help. Dare to get involved in helping someone else. Dare to believe that God can take you further into a great realisation of your inheritance in Him.

The Church - Sent to Make Disciples

In trying to understand the nature of the church I’ve been making a case for recognising that to be connected to Jesus is to be connected to His body – the church. No one gets married to just a head! In the book of Acts they were not only added to Jesus they were added to the church. The two went hand in hand. But now we come to asking the simple question; “Why is the church here?” This touches on the heart of why Jesus is building the church.

In the NKJV of the Bible the word ‘sent’ appears fifty seven times. Jesus came because He was sent – sent on a mission. And in John 20.21 He says to His disciples; “As the Father has sent Me so I am sending you”. God is a God of mission. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved”, John 3.17. God’s mission is redemptive in nature. It is the ‘Missio Die’ as theologians call it. It is not so much that the church has a mission but that the God of mission has a church. And like Jesus we too are sent.

This sense of mission was central to the motivation and focus of Jesus. When urged on one occasion by His disciples to eat He declared; “I have food to eat of which you do not know”. This left them confused thinking He was talking about a secret supply of food. He then clarified His meaning; “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to finish His work”, John 4.32-34. Jesus was feasting on doing the will of God, on participating in God’s mission – until it was complete. The piercing shouts from the cross, “It is finished!” John 19.30 was a testimony to the fact that Jesus completed His mission. This mission fed Him, it inspired Him it compelled Him and He willingly surrendered to all its demands.

This is how it is meant to be for us. Mission lies at the heart of why we are here. There are a number of areas covered by the word mission but chief among them is the mandate to “make disciples of all nations”, Matt 28.19. The word nation here is ethnos in the Greek. It means all ethnic groups. So even in one nation we can find many ethnos and in all major cities of the world ethnic groups abound. The full text says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.....” Matt 28.19-20. In these few verses there are four verbs; go, make, baptize and teaching. The main verb is ‘make’ as in make disciples. All the other verbs serve this greater purpose.

We go because we are sent. Like the labourers we pray to be ‘thrust out’ by the Lord of the Harvest we go in response to the call of God. And as we go we make disciples of Jesus. We baptize them or literally immerse them into God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Further we teach them to do all that Jesus commanded His disciples to do. It is a process. Getting a decision is important but it’s not enough. Asking a girl on a date requires her to make a decision, but having her turn up shows the sincerity of her commitment. Disciple making is like that. We can’t be content with just making decisions. There has to be follow-through. We are here to make disciples.

A disciple is a learner. This implies a number of things:

1. Discipleship is a process. The Gospels show early on how Jesus called the twelve to ‘follow Me’, Mark 1.17. They were invited to enter a process where Jesus promised to make them ‘fishers of men’. And at the end of John’s Gospel in chapter 21 we have a dialogue between Jesus and Peter. The Cross is now a past event. Peter has denied Jesus. Will John now be chosen to replace his leadership because of this momentous failure on Peter’s part? Amazingly Jesus re-commissions Peter, leaving him with the words he first heard when he was called, ‘You follow Me’, John 21.22. Discipleship is more than just an event and a decision; it is a life-long process of following Jesus.

2. There is a clear goal. We are to become more like the Master – Jesus; Luke 6.40, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher”. It’s about living like He did, fully dependant on God the Father; speaking words that bring release, healing and empowerment; healing the sick, exposing religious hypocrisy, becoming like Him in every way.

3. The best word we have today that captures the essence of what this means is apprentice – someone who learns, on the job, alongside a master. It’s about watching, listening, learning and doing – ‘til we get it right. This is what the disciples of Jesus did. They went with Him seeing all He did and hearing all He said. But then they had a go! Sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they didn’t. It was part of the process, part of the learning. Finally they were left to get on with the job – empowered by the Spirit.

Think about your own discipleship for a moment. Where are you in the process? What is challenging you at the present time? Are you breaking through? The believers at Corinth were struggling to leave aspects of their old life behind. There were attitudes and practices that Paul had to challenge, 1Cor 3.1-4. Remember the goal is to become like the Master, living a purposeful life as a ‘sent’ one.

I see four stages in scripture that reflect this maturing process. The first is becoming a believer, a man or woman of faith. It is interesting to me that whenever Jesus encountered people this was always the first thing He looked for or tried to develop in them. The problem I see today is that we have unbelieving believers. People who have made a decision in the past, expressed faith in the past, but in the present moment do not believe. John’s gospel shows this.

Nathaniel is described by Jesus as ‘ Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile’, John 1.47. Nathaniel says what he thinks; no pretence, no hidden agendas. Yet when Philip told him that he had found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, he is incredulous, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth”, John 1.46. In other words, ‘I know that town; no Saviour would ever come from there’. Yet, after exchanging a few words with Jesus, he declares, ‘You are the Son of God, You are the King of Israel’, John 1.49. In one exchange he goes from unbelief to faith.

In the telling of the healing of the Nobleman’s son we have a similar story, John 4.46-54. He asks Jesus to come and heal his sick boy, but Jesus sends Him home with the assurance, ‘....your son lives’. His response is faith, ‘So the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went his way, John 4.50. But the story goes on. On returning home he discovers his son is well and enquires when the healing took place. It was exactly at the time he encountered Jesus the day before. The text concludes, ‘And he himself believed and his whole household’, John 4.53b.

But I thought he already believed? As soon as Jesus spoke to him he believed, didn’t he? So now we come to the point. John is trying to help us see that this Nobleman went to another level of faith. He became a believing believer and it impacted his whole household. They too believed. Is your faith growing? Have you reached a plateau, doing what is within your comfort zone as a believer? Are you allowing yourself to go to new levels of faith? All of us need to be in a faith zone if we are to do anything significant with our lives.

But I see another level, the apprentice. It’s not that we graduate from being a believer. Rather we add the dimension of learning to do what Jesus did while a believer – apprenticed to Him. Today that means we actually allow someone to influence our life, to train us the way Paul trained Timothy or Peter did with John Mark. The concept of an apprentice is age old and is one of the best ways to learn a skill or develop a new way of thinking. In the field of sports most athletes have a trainer or a coach. They help the athlete reach their full potential, bringing all their years of experience and wisdom to bear. They know how much training will stretch them to go to new levels and how much will damage them. We all need that kind of input. Where are you getting yours from?

The third level I see is that of practitioner. Again, we don’t ever really graduate from being an apprentice, yet we do learn enough and have enough success for us to be trusted to do it alone. Most disciplines have a graduation day. Doctors are allowed to practice after years of study, yet they all know that their learning and skill will develop over a lifetime. So it is with ministry. Jesus trusted His disciples enough to send them out on mission trips alone. On their return they reported all that had taken place. It built their faith and they grew through the process, Luke 10.1-20.

The final level I see is that of ‘labourer’, spoken of by Jesus in Matt 9.36-38. A labourer is a practitioner who has been sent. And according to Jesus they are few! For a labourer is prepared to go anywhere they are sent. The Greek word for sent in this text is ‘ek balo’. Two words in Greek that together mean ‘thrust out’. It is this phrase most often used by the gospel writers to describe what Jesus did when He ‘cast out’ demons. They were literally ‘thrust out’. I am left with the impression that these are the practitioners who have a bit of a track record. They know how to bring people to faith and produce disciples. They have done so for some time. Now they are ready to be ‘sent’ to a part of the harvest that needs their skill.

Think of the apostle Paul. He tried to preach in Damascus and had to escape from a conspiracy to kill him. He tried to preach in Jerusalem and again had to get away before being killed. He returned to Tarsus and we don’t hear about him again until Barnabas brings him to Antioch. Years of silent obscurity re-learning his craft of teaching. Then in Antioch some eleven years after his conversion, according to many scholars, we see him in leadership – a practitioner alongside of Barnabas. But after a year of leading the church he is set apart by the Holy Spirit for a specific task. The practitioner is now a labourer, crossing all kinds of boundaries to take the gospel to new parts where the harvest is ripe.

Let me encourage you to pray for this kind of maturity and development in your own life. The Lord of the harvest knows where hearts are open and ready. He was able to encourage Paul at Corinth, “Do not be afraid but speak and do not keep silent; for I am with you and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city”, Acts 18.9-10. Paul must have been tempted to go for a quite life in Corinth. His own confession to them was, “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling”, 1Cor 2.3. But Jesus came with a word that showed Paul the harvest was ripe in this city. The only obstacle he had to overcome was his own fear. And he did. And the church of Corinth was established and grew.

Let’s dare to be developed to new levels of faith, being apprenticed by those who are a few steps ahead of us until we can be practitioners – doers of the word. Then we too will be ready to be thrust out by the Lord of the Harvest into His Harvest.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

What is the Church? - A Prophetic Sign

And while the crowds were thickly gathered together, He began to say, “This is an evil generation. It seeks a sign and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the Prophet. For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation.” Luke 11.29-30. Think about that for a moment. Jesus was a sign to His generation; a prophetic sign, because like Jonah He too is a prophet. I contend that the church is a prophetic sign to this generation of the reality of Jesus. It is a prophetic sign to the Nations that Jesus is Lord.

Paul tells us some amazing things about Jesus in the book of Colossians. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the pre-eminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, Col 1.18-19.

Col 2.9 is even more explicit. “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” The NIV correctly renders Godhead as Deity from the Greek word Theotees. God was fully expressed in the person of Jesus. This is why Jesus could challenge His disciples, “He who has seen Me, has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘show us the Father?’ John 14.9. To Jesus the question made no sense.

All the fullness of God dwells in Jesus and He stands at the head of a new creation. He is both the firstfruits and firstborn over that new creation through the resurrection. In Genesis we have the account of creation. Over six days God made the heavens and the earth. The first three days were forming the earth, the next three were filling it and in the end He made mankind. Humanity stands at both the peak of creation and the climax of it.

To Adam and Eve God said, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Gen 1.28. Notice how the first couple were invited to participate in what God had been doing through creation, ‘forming and filling’ it. They too were to shape the earth and fill it with people – like them, made in God’s image.

But after the fall of Gen 3 we see children born to Adam and Eve that now bears Adam’s image, a tainted version of the original creation, Gen 5.3. Filling would indeed take place through the populating of the world, but the corruption of the human heart that had turned away from God became, over time, a deep grief to God. By Noah’s day the imagination of the human heart was only evil. Within ten generations the depth to which humanity had fallen was clear.

Forming continued too as populations grew and civilisation developed. But as culture developed so did the structures for how society functioned. And over time these very structures became oppressive and enslaving. It wasn’t long before children were sacrificed to idols, poor people were enslaved and women were dominated. As kings emerged the law was whatever they said it was. Men built their kingdoms that conquered, killed, dispossessed, oppressed and enslaved millions.

We saw the kingdom of Egypt that killed the firstborn and enslaved the Israelites for 400 years. God liberated them so that they could experience what it was like to live under His law; a law based on justice and equity, limiting the power of evil in the human heart. For the first time in history a slave could go free after 7 years of service, Ex 21.2. A slave wife had to be fed, cared for and given conjugal rights or set free without having to pay for her freedom, Ex 21.10-11. This was radical given the practice of the surrounding nations around Israel.

But over time Israel did not live up to these laws. They were too costly, morally and economically. It required faith to leave a part of your field fallow every seven years, trusting God for sufficient from the rest of the crops, Ex 23.10-11. It required a generous spirit not to go over the harvest a second time to get what the reapers had missed but instead to leave them for the poor and stranger in the land, Ruth 2.3. So Israel forsook the Lord. As a consequence they went into captivity – back into civilisations that did not know God or follow His ways. It was hard. It was humbling. It was painful.

They experienced the kingdom and power of Assyria, then Babylon. Then came Persia, under whose authority a remnant returned to rebuild the temple, followed by Greece with the conquests of Alexander the Great. Finally the full force of the Roman Empire bore down on Israel. And during all those oppressive years they held on to the words of the prophets; men who saw that God would raise up for them a Messiah, one like unto Moses, a deliverer. His Kingdom would know no end. He would usher in the Kingdom of God.

So when we get to the Gospels Jesus begins to proclaim, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel (the good news)”, Mark 1.15. Jesus challenges their way of thinking. God wants to do much more than set them free from Rome. He wants to undo the power of the curse from Genesis 3. And so in Jesus God deals with sin – the source of all human corruption. Not only that, Jesus is raised to life, but not like Lazarus. He died again! Jesus is raised as the head of a new humanity. Just as Adam was the peak and climax of the old creation God reverses the order. Instead of creating new heavens and new earth He creates a new man – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus then ascended to heaven and poured out the Holy Spirit on His followers. The future has invaded the present through the Holy Spirit. God’s Kingdom is about God’s rule. This is why we pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”, Matt 6.10. Wherever God’s will is done we see a manifestation of His Kingdom – His rule. This was Jesus passion, Heb 10.5-7; John 4.34; to do the will of the Father. Now, through the Holy Spirit, through the new birth, we have the power to overcome sin. We are not just forgiven and acquitted; we are empowered to live differently.

You see in Jesus is the fullness of deity. But through the resurrection Jesus has been given to be head over all things to the church, “which is His body the fullness of Him who fills all in all”, Eph 1.23. The church is now the fullness of Jesus! If you want to know Jesus, you have to get to know His church. We cannot experience the fullness of Jesus outside of the church. To say you can be a Christian without going to church is like getting married to a head only! It’s nonsense. It’s incomplete. Nobody does that. He is the head, we are the body. Jesus challenged Saul of Tarsus with this question, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Acts 9.5. Notice it is in the present tense. To hurt the church is to hurt Jesus. To hate the church is to hate Jesus. To love the church is to love Jesus, 1John 4.20.

Our lives, together, become a sign to this generation. God is up to something. It won’t always continue like this. This man who went back to heaven is coming again. In the mean time He is building something – the church. You see the real issue is not, ‘Where will you go when you die?’ It is ‘Where will you go when you are raised and stand before God?’ Will it be participation in His Kingdom or banishment – forever? God has not scrapped His creation, He has redeemed it. He has begun by redeeming men from all nations, but all of creation is groaning. It is pregnant, longing to give birth to something new – a new heaven and a new earth. And it will come!

So what now? Well Paul has good theology for us on this issue. Take your body. One day it will be fully renewed and changed. It will be like the resurrection body of Jesus, incorruptible, honourable and glorious, 1Cor 15.35-53; Phil 3.20-21. That means it is the seed of the future. So Paul says glorify God in it now! Greek thinking is dualistic. Plato has influenced many, even in the church today. To him only thought was good. Anything physical was bad, less than spiritual. The Corinthians tended to live this way, continuing the practice of sleeping with temple prostitutes. After all it was only the body! Paul disagrees. We are whole beings. We are joined to God in spirit. We are one. Live differently to show this truth.

So given that the Kingdom of God has broken in with the coming of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we need to carry on with the creation mandate of forming and filling the earth in redemptions power, calling people to repent, to think differently about Jesus, about the future, about themselves, about sin, about judgement, about the structures in society that continue to dispossess people, kill them or enslave them. And where we can, we make a difference. We bring God’s rule to bear in every part of life. Jesus called this being salt and light – a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden. And this is prophetic.

We need believers in every arena of life to bring about Kingdom thinking and living. Daniel did this as the Prime Minister of Babylon. Babylon was a corrupt and oppressive Empire but a righteous man was steering its destiny – at least for a season. And through him God touched the heart of its King, Dan 4.34-37. Banks need insightful analysts not profiteers. Medicine needs wise doctors who understand the complexity of life and how to steer a nation into healthy and righteous legislation. Politics needs men of integrity. The law needs men committed to justice more than their commitment to only consider what is legal.

This is also why Jesus left us with two important practices that speak powerfully of Him. We call these the sacraments, Baptism and Communion. Both have a way of pulling the past and the future into the present, becoming a prophetic sign to our generation. When we do them we are speaking. There is a message to be heard and understood, first by us. Then we can articulate it to the world.

Take Baptism. Paul has this to say; “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, (that’s the past), that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father even so we should walk in newness of life, (that’s the present). For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection”, (that’s the future), Rom 6.3-5.

Isn’t that amazing? Every time we have a baptism service we are testifying to the Jesus of history and pulling His death and resurrection into the present, for we too have experienced forgiveness of sins and a new birth. Resurrection has happened to us in part. For we also testify to a resurrection we shall be participators of that is still future for us. But He is the firstfruits from the dead, 1Cor 15.20-23, the guarantee that we too will have a body like His. And so we pull the future promise into the present by declaring in faith, “Jesus Christ is Lord and is risen from the dead”, Rom 10.9.

Here and now, in the present, we walk in newness of life through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. That is what we have to offer people now. It is a new heart; one open to God. But we are a prophetic sign that points forward and back. Back to the death and resurrection and forward to the coming of the Lord when all men in history will be raised and face judgement.

Communion is similar. Again listen to Paul; For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night as He was betrayed took bread and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me”. In the same manner He also took the cup after supper saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes, 1Cor 11.23-26.

Twice Jesus said we do this ‘in remembrance’ of Him. Communion brings the past into the present through remembrance. Our faith has a foundation. The new covenant has a beginning and like all covenants its power and force continues to the present. No covenant in the Bible was ever made without sacrifice. Blood was always shed. This is the wonder of the cross. What, to many, was a shameful way to die became God’s victory over death and sin, removing the enemy’s power to control human destiny any longer.

We look back. We remember. We prophetically enact the breaking of his body for us. We eat bread and drink wine – His blood. It is a full participation. It all becomes part of who we are as we swallow and digest the elements. And we continue in this act, repeating it ‘till He comes’. For we also look forward to His return and as we do we pull the future into the present. He is coming again. “Assuredly I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God”, Mark 14.25. There is a hope, a celebration we look forward to; the marriage supper of the Lamb.

For God is getting ready to come to us. That’s right. You were not made for heaven, heaven was made for you. The New Jerusalem descends out of heaven. It comes down, Rev 21.2. And the goal of history is proclaimed with a laud voice, “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself shall be with them and be their God”, Rev 21.3 (emphasis mine). Notice the emphasis. It’s not that we are with Him but that now, in the new creation, He can be with us.

Communion is a prophetic sign to this truth. We feast on it – now. We celebrate it – now, in anticipation of a bigger party in the future. You see the meek don’t inherit heaven; they inherit the earth, Matt 5.5. It’s what we were made for! It is what is coming – soon. In the mean time we live differently. It’s more than just a different set of values, its being subject to a different Kingdom, a different king.

Finally John is reminded that, “...the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy”, Rev 19.10. The more we hold to the testimony of Jesus the more we are being true to our prophetic calling. It will cause lines to be drawn for and against the truth. This is the role of the church. We provoke the status quo. We unsettle every expression of injustice and we affirm the good, the noble and the true, wherever we find it. This is the only sign the world will be given. Let’s be true to our calling. Let’s be true to our King. Let’s be true to our destiny. Let's be church.

What is the Church? - A Gathered Community

What is the church? In trying to answer that question we looked at the church as a regenerated, spirit-filled community. We have seen the importance of clearly appointed leadership to equip and mature the people of God. Now we need to explore one of the most fundamental aspects of being church – the gathering or assembly. The Greek word for church, Ecclesia, can be translated assembly or congregation. The very word implies that something unique and special happens when believers get together.

There are many things we can do when we gather as a church. We can pray, preach, give testimony and heal the sick and more besides. What is fascinating about the NT is the absence of a prescriptive approach to what we must do and how long we should do it for. For instance; we are not told when to meet. The early church was birthed out of Judaism. They met on Saturday. For them, the first day of the week was a Sunday, just as Monday is for us today. In their desire to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus they got up early before work and met – every week. We have held to that tradition ever since. It’s a tradition I value, but scripture does not command it!

Nor do we have a command for how long to preach! The only command Paul left Timothy was to do it, 2Tim 4.1,-2 in season and out of season. We don’t normally expect to gather strawberries in the winter. They are a summer fruit. But Paul tells Timothy to be ready at all times, when he feels like and is prepared and even when he isn’t! I remember learning the craft of preaching from my very gifted and articulate pastor. In commenting on this verse he encouraged me, “Peter, some men work on having a prepared message, you should work on having a prepared heart and life, and then you’ll always have a message – in season and out of season”. Good advice that has really benefitted me.

You see where the emphasis is? Not in how long to preach, but in doing it well, convincing, rebuking, exhorting, with all longsuffering and teaching, 2Tim 4.2. We have a few accounts of Acts of the preaching of Stephen, Peter and Paul. They aren’t long. Luke records once when Paul preached past midnight and then on into the morning, Acts 20.7-12. But remember he was only in Troas for a week, Acts 20.6 and this was his last day with them. It’s one of the reasons why visiting speakers can often get away with speaking longer than the local pastor. People know it’s a one shot deal. But the Bible doesn’t tell us how long to preach for.

We could mention praise, prayer and communion; all practices that are part of our church life, yet we are given the freedom to choose, when, where and how long to do them for. And herein lays an important truth. God trusts us. In scripture He prescribes the ingredients for a healthy diet that promotes spiritual growth, we get to choose what to put in and how much to eat! Like a good chef, leaders have to discern what the church needs in this season. For one of the major roles of a leader is to feed the flock. This is more than teaching. It is the sum total of all that we experience as a church in any given week.

One of the mistakes I have seen is churches that try to have too many ingredients in one meeting. It is all crammed in. Then cell group leaders try to reproduce midweek, what happens on Sunday. It becomes a mini service. This is not good practice and often leads to meetings that are too long and difficult for outsiders to endure or relate to. And before you accuse me, I’m not promoting a seeker sensitive approach. I’m simply saying that we think through what we are trying to achieve.

Take prayer. In my opinion it is one of the most difficult meetings to lead. I have experienced lots of prayer meetings. In many I couldn’t wait till they were over. They usually represented about 10% of the church. This was a mixture of the dedicated few, the whacky and those who could find no other expression of ministry in the church; so they came to prayer meetings! One by one folk would pray. Some were articulate and to the point. Great! Others went on and on till a great sleep fell on the others. At other times there were long periods of silence. It wasn’t waiting on God. It was lack of preparation.

Yet prayer is central to the Christian life and vital for the church. In Acts it was energetic and powerful. So my goal as a leader is to get all praying and wanting to come back for more. I prefer to get people to commit for one hour. Two or three worship songs can help us honour the presence of God. Then, following the example of our African brothers, I like to get people praying all that the same time, even if it is only for a minute. I share a scripture to pray out of. That’s what they did in Acts 4. This is not a time to preach; or if it is, then it should only for a few minutes. It guides the prayer so that petition is rooted in the authority if God’s word.

Breaking into groups of three or four even in the same room gives more opportunity for all to pray and cover more needs. And from here we can build. Build people’s hunger while also building their capacity for more. Now that’s the way I do it. It works for me. In other parts of the world they pray regularly all night. You could argue that they have a more mature expression of prayer because they can sustain it longer, but you can’t argue that my way has any less value. For the Bible doesn’t give value to the length of a prayer (quite the opposite actually), only that it is heartfelt and God centred, Luke 18.9-14; Matt 23.14.

Paul helps us by giving us the most important criteria for evaluating any gathering –does edification (building up) take place. So if we prophecy it must not be self-serving as it was in Corinth. It must be for edification, 1Cor 14.3. So Paul tells them, The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, 1Cor 14.32. Today he’d say something like this; “Get a grip; use some self- control. Don’t go on and on stealing the limelight. If someone gets another revelation sit down, shut up and make room for them. Let others have a turn”, 1Cor 14.30. For the goal of any meeting of the saints is edification, 1Cor 14.26

Paul had to challenge the Corinthians; “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not”. The issue is not, ‘What do I have the freedom to do?’ That is a very self-centred way of living. It is the wrong question. The real question is, ‘What will edify people in this situation?’ That is much more challenging and requires a different motivation, faith working by love.

Paul also reminds the church at Corinth that even his authority is for the edifying of the church, not to pull people down, 2Cor 10.8; 13.10. So regardless of what we do as a church in terms of what is allowed, it must edify the saints. In Corinth the opposite was happening. 1Cor 11.17 is telling. “Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse”. Imagine that. People went to church and came out feeling worse rather than better.

The specific issue at Corinth was a group of believers who celebrated communion by getting drunk. Unbelievable! But notice how Paul deals with this. He brings correction. He reminds about what Communion is all about. He then warns them that to continue in such a practice is not to discern the Lord’s body and can lead to discipline. He tells then straight that this is why some in the congregation are weak, sick and even dying, 1Cor 11.23-34. But notice what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t tell them to abandon meeting together. He rather encourages them to get it right.

Many want to abandon the gathering of the church. Matt 18.20 is quoted and then applied to all kinds of situations. Four believers out for a meal in a restaurant is now a church. I’m not convinced. For one thing it’s poor exegesis (looking at the meaning of a text in its context). In Matt 18 Jesus has just been speaking about how to deal with personal offences. It is about church discipline. His authority is present to ratify any decision made by the church members to exclude an unrepentant believer.

This word gather is special to Jesus. He encouraged His disciples to pray for more labourers for the harvest because of the need of the people. He saw them as “weary and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd”, Mat 9.36-38. And so in Matt 23.37 the good Shepherd laments over Jerusalem who will not allow herself to be ‘gathered’. Yes they came together as crowds to hear Him speak, but Jesus is thinking of something more than a crowd when He speaks of being gathered.

Gen 49.10 tells us that ‘to Him shall the gathering of the peoples be’. It is about those who gather for the purpose of being ‘built up’. Paul commends the Ephesian elders to “God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up (edify you) and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified’, Acts 20.32. Many have horror stories of meetings and churches that have done more harm than good. But that is true in every area of life. We don’t stop going to the doctor just because of a Harold Shipman who killed over 218 patients. We don’t stop eating just because we get food poisoning at one restaurant, (though we may think twice about eating there again).

My point is simple. We live and learn and move on. Think of Jesus. Luke 4.16 tells us that He went into the Synagogue on the Sabbath day, ‘as was His custom’. In other words it was His habit of life. He had grown up doing it and He didn’t abandon the practice as an adult. We read story after story of Jesus speaking and healing in the Synagogues, Mark 1.21; 3.1; 6.1-6. Mark 1.35-39 tells us that Jesus went into every Synagogue throughout the region of Galilee. They did not always want to hear what He had to say but that was where the people of God gathered – and Jesus was there too.

Of course Jesus also taught in boats, houses and on hillsides. There were other meetings at other places and other times. But the Synagogue had a long tradition within Judaism and Jesus honoured it, even though it is not prescribed in the scripture. It grew up during the years of captivity when the people of God had no temple and sacrifice to relate to. So they gathered to worship, pray and read the scripture and hear someone try to make sense of it. And even though these Synagogues needed reforming, many Godly people were in them, waiting to hear and respond to the truth.

This was also Paul’s practice. He first went to the synagogues to preach the gospel. It was where most of the first converts for every church he planted were taken from. I often hear or read of people who frame things like meeting together on Sunday as an either/or choice. Either you are for traditional church or you are for house church. Either you have formal meetings or informal meetings. Either you have ordained leaders or lay leaders. Well why can’t we have both? Why must it be one or the other? Who declared that they were our only options? Western Europe has a long tradition of meeting on Sunday’s. Why abandon it? Rather why not use it and shape it to build the church. Maybe some ingredients should be changed. That will require courageous leadership. Let’s learn to do it better. I suspect that the baby and the bath water have been confused by many.

In Heb 10.24-25 we have a wonderful exhortation. “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much more as you see the Day approaching.” The focus here is clear. We are to be cheerleaders who cheer others on as they practice good works from hearts of love till the Day He returns. It happens wherever and whenever we come together. To stop doing so is to forsake a truth that is inherent to us being church, the assembly, called out ones, those gathered in the Name of Jesus.

In the early church they met daily – in the temple courts and from house to house. Not just for friendship, but to apply apostolic teaching, enjoy fellowship, celebrate communion, pray together, share their possessions and praise God, Acts 2.42-47. Sounds good to me. You see you do need to assemble with other believers to be a Christian. God added people to the church because Jesus is its head. It was proof that they were truly born again. They had learned to love what He loves and gave His life for – the church, Eph 5.25.

So if you have needs that a Sunday service isn’t meeting, don’t worry. There are other times and places were your needs can be met. It doesn’t all have to happen on a Sunday! Readjust your expectations so that you can enjoy what does happen there. I pray that as you listen to the many voices challenging the way church is done you will listen with discernment and test it all against the truth of scripture. Change is often good and needed. But so much of what is hailed as change today is nothing more than a re-arrangement of the furniture in a field. The house has been abandoned; great in the summer, but not very practical when winter is on the way. Unlike Jerusalem, allow yourself to be ‘gathered’ with God’s people where you can be protected, fed and built up in your faith.

Monday, 19 October 2009

What is the Church? Part 1

Have you ever asked yourself the question, “What is the church?” If you are a believer, it’s a good question to ask. There are lots of definitions around today, and depending on which one you believe, will radically effect the way you do church. In order to fully understand church we need to do a number of things. First we need to explore the pages of scripture to see what God has to say. It is after all His church.

Second we need to look at history to see where we got it right and where we got it wrong. “Any people not interested in their past are not likely to be much concerned over their future.” So says Dr. Winthrop S. Hudson, president of the American Baptist Historical Society. I agree. If we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. I may have what I believe is a Biblical view of church that has been tried in the past with disastrous results. I would be wise to know that.

Finally we need to be sensitive to how we outwork our understanding of church within our cultural context. Some things don’t cross over. Preaching for an hour and a half in Africa is possible but in most Western churches it is a big ask. In this series I will try and integrate all three of these approaches as we look at this important subject.

Here are some statements I often hear that bother me. “I don’t need to go to church I am the church”; “You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian”. There is enough truth in them to be believable and enough error to be deadly to any real spiritual progress. And that is the problem with lies. They always contain an element of truth that is taken to an extreme. I will challenge both these statements along the way by explaining my understanding of church. Further, I will try to show how deeply rooted these statements are to a Western mindset.

We find the word church on the lips of Jesus in only two places in the gospels, Matt 16 and Matt 18. The first time the church is introduced is when Peter has a revelation of the person of Jesus. He finally gets who Jesus really is. No one told him this truth. It came by revelation from the Father. The Jesus he had followed, heard speak and seen heal was in fact the Messiah; more than a prophet, more than a good man and more than a great teacher. And when Peter sees who Jesus is, Jesus begins to tell Peter who he is – a piece of the rock built onto the foundation of Jesus Himself. That’s how it works. We get to know who we are by getting to know who He is first.

The second time Jesus mentions the word church is in Matt 18. It is in the context of church discipline and dealing with personal offences. I will return to this text later in the series. For now the key thing to observe is that both these passages are highly relational. They point to the reality that church is about people in relationship with Jesus and in relationship with each other. This is foundational. Before we commit to buildings or programs we commit to Jesus and each other.

The first distinguishing feature of the church is that it is a regenerated community of Spirit-filled believers. The New Testament bears witness to the life changing power of Jesus Christ. People are lost; dead in trespasses and sins, Eph 2.1. Jesus has made forgiveness and reconciliation possible. We can be born again or born from above, John 3.3. Jesus doesn’t just model a new pattern for living; He imparts His life through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. And His Spirit fills us in order for us to continue in His mission, Acts 1.8.

This is what distinguishes the church from a club or any other association. It is not first and foremost organisationally constituted. It is organic. He is the head and we are the body of Christ. It is relational, not just at an emotional and intellectual level but at a spiritual level. Regardless of our past we must all wrestle with the claims of Jesus and His gospel. The Corinthian church had some very shady people with very shady pasts. Paul lists their sins; fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers and extortioners. He declares; “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God”, 1Cor 6.11.

They had a past but God broke in and changed them, renewed them, regenerated them. Now they were indeed the church, despite their immaturity and failure to live up to their call. And that is why Paul wrote to them. He needed to address issues that were hindering their witness and progress in the faith. Their past no longer defined them – the gospel did. They were now under the Lordship of Jesus and that had to be worked out in the context of community; the community of faith residing in the midst of the larger community acting as salt and light.

Jesus was anointed by the Spirit, Luke 4.1,18. He lived with a conscious sense of His presence. Not only that, He moved in the power of the Spirit, Luke 1.14. And John prophesied that it would be Jesus who would baptize believers in the Holy Spirit. It was that baptism on the day of Pentecost that literally gave birth to the church. It makes the church highly distinctive and unique. We cannot fulfil our call or the mission of Jesus without the ongoing power and filling of the Spirit. When we sin we grieve the Spirit and in time power is lost to the church. We lose our distinctiveness. The salt loses its savour.

It is not enough to be regenerated. We need to heed Paul's advice to ‘walk in the Spirit’, Gal 5.16 and to be ‘filled with the Spirit’, Eph 5.18. This verse has a number of features in the Greek. It is in the present continuous tense. A better translation might be, “be continually being filled”. It is also on the imperative mood, which means it is a command. We don’t have any real choice if we are to be obedient disciples. This is not about being Pentecostal it’s about being Biblical. Finally it’s in the passive voice, meaning we can’t make it happen. We can only position ourselves in faith to receive what God wants to do; fill yeilded vessels.

The second distinguishing feature of the church is Biblical leadership. I grew up in a little Brethren church. There were many things about it I can commend. The sincerity of the friendship, the hospitality, the commitment to simplicity and scripture were all helpful foundations for me. However, there was such a strong emphasis on the universal priesthood of all believers that little room was left for real leadership to be practiced. My recollection of the elders was that for the most part they functioned more like caretakers and managers than leaders.

For the church to be the church there must be qualified leadership. And by qualified leadership I don’t mean those who have a BA in theology or have been to seminary. That may help. I mean that the leaders have a clear sense that they are called and gifted by God for this function. For leadership is a gift, Rom 12.8. It is Christ’s gift to the church to equip and mature the church. He does not leave it leaderless.

In Matt 9.36-38 we have a telling account that reveals a lot about Jesus attitude to leadership. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The Harvest truly is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the Harvest to send out labourers into His Harvest”.

The word for weary is better translated harassed. It’s not simply that they were tired. They felt ‘got at’, by life, by circumstances, by others. The problem was a lack of shepherds; people who could care and help, the way Jesus did. People with hearts like His, moved with compassion for their distress. God’s love for people is demonstrated by Him giving leaders – shepherds after His own heart, Jer 3.15, “who will feed you with knowledge and understanding”.

Many of the leaders in Israel were sent to “Shepherd” the nation. David is the prime example. He was a warrior, a poet and a King but fundamentally he was called to shepherd Israel; 2Sam 5.2, Ps 78.72. When Ahab betrayed this sacred trust God warned him of Judgment. Eventually he died in battle. Micaiah prophesied the outcome of the war he would have with Syria; “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, “These have no master.....” 1Kings 22.17. The sheep were scattered because their evil leader was dead. In the same way Jesus prophesied the impact of His arrest, trial and death; Then Jesus said to them, "All of you will be made to stumble because of me tonight, for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.' Matt 26.31. A lack of leadership leaves the sheep vulnerable.

And so Jesus encourages His disciples to pray. Pray to the Lord of the Harvest for labourers to be sent out into His harvest. Notice there is nothing wrong with the harvest. That’s not where the problem lies. Unsaved people with needs are all around us. We need leadership; labourers who can shepherd like Jesus does. Jesus took time to train twelve men who could lead the church into His mission. It was the first issue that the apostles resolved in the book of Acts. They replaced Judas.

When the Holy Spirit began to form disciples from those who shared the gospel with non-Jews, Barnabas was sent by the apostles to Antioch to see what was going on. He ‘saw’ the grace of God at work, Acts 11.23. A great many people were added to the Lord. But Barnabas knew that if this was going to have any meaningful shape to it as a church it needed leadership; a specific kind of leadership; one that understood the universal nature of the gospel. And so instead of returning to Jerusalem he went off to Tarsus to seek for Saul. Together they met with the church. What God had begun they gave shape to. That is what leadership does. Antioch became the foremost missionary sending church in the NT.

Notice that in Acts 13.1 Luke records the names of the leaders in Antioch along with their spiritual gifting. What began with Paul and Barnabas grew and three more leaders were added in the first year. Notice too that Luke does this to help us understand that when the Holy Spirit separated Paul and Barnabas there were three others leaders in place to take over. They did not leave a leadership vacuum, Acts 13.2-3. God’s care for the flock is always expressed through the appointment of shepherd or servant leaders.

When Paul wrote to the elders at Ephesus he reminded them to, “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock of God among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood”, Acts 20.28. Paul was leaving these men. He did not anticipate seeing them again; so he reminds them of their mandate. This was Paul’s pattern throughout all his church planting activity. He established churches and then appointed elders. It is why he left Titus in Crete, Tit 1.5; and why he sent Timothy back to Ephesus years later. New leaders needed to be appointed because Hymenaeus, Alexander and later Philetus had strayed concerning the truth, 1Tim 1.20; 2Tim 2.17-18.

In the first missionary journey recorded by Luke we find new believers referred to as disciples, brethren or believers. It is not until Paul appoints elders that they are called a church, Acts 13.52; 14.2, 20-22; 23. In the NT governance is an important part of what constitutes a church, for without it there can be no discipline, equipping or maturity, Eph 4.11-16. Paul sees this authority as necessary for the good of the church, 2Cor 1.24; 10.8-11.

So we need good leaders. I find that there is an absence of Godly leadership in the church. When I first went into ministry people emphasised the call of God. We don’t hear much of that today. We speak of salaries, job descriptions, boundaries and accountability. All that stuff has its place. But fundamentally we need to know we are called. Moses had that conviction as did Joshua, Samuel and Jeremiah. They all had an encounter that left them with an overwhelming conviction that they were first and foremost a servant of God.

At Paul’s conversion Ananias prophesied that he was a ‘chosen bear My Name before Gentiles, Kings and the children of Israel, Acts 9.15. He had a deep sense of call. This is what Jesus is telling us to pray for in Matt 9.38. We need the Lord of the Harvest to ‘send out’ labourers into His Harvest. The Greek for send out here is telling. It comes from two words; ek – out of and Balo – to throw. It is the word consistently used in the NT to describe the action of Jesus when He commanded demons to leave people. They were ‘sent out’, thrown out, cast out.

A certain violence or conflict seems to attach itself to this phrase. In the same sense God had to challenge many of the leaders He called. Moses was reluctant to go, as was Gideon and Saul. There is an inertia that must be overcome. Just like a space craft has a huge rocket to help it break through the earth’s atmosphere so we need an initial thrust to launch us into ministry. Once in space retro rockets are sufficient to steer the space shuttle. Jesus is clear. Sheep need a shepherd but God has to be the one who calls them. Ordination is only a formal recognition of what God has done. As John the Baptist said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from Heaven”, John 3.27.

Without leadership we may have a group of disciples but we don’t necessarily have a church. It may be a church in potential or it may just be a group of disgruntled Christians avoiding real accountability or hurt from overbearing leaders in the past. Our willingness to trust again is crucial to our wellbeing. Without taking that step we are locked in to the pain and disappointment of the past. Kings rose up in Israel that did not follow God. Consequently they were scattered. But when the people turned to God, He gave them good Kings – and they dared to trust again.

When on the run from King Saul David attracted all the men who were in distress, in debt or discontented to him at the cave of Adullam, 1Sam 22.2. Perhaps they felt they had no other option. He became Captain over them, the text says. By the time we read of them in 1Chron 11 he has transitioned most of them into mighty men; outstanding men of valour. This is what Godly leadership is able to do and why we desperately need it in the church.

My prayer is that we will be careful when we talk about church. We need a fresh appreciation for what Jesus died for; “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her....Eph 5.25”. When we talk against the church we dishonour the head of the church. Rather we should be moved with compassion to pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send out labourers into His Harvest. And when they come, let’s welcome them and make room for them. They can help us prepare the Harvest for the end of the age.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Dare to Take the Next Step!

Joshua chapter 1 is prescription to Joshua for successful ministry. Victory is assured to him – one step at a time. It will be a process. The inheritance is defined and Joshua is commissioned to lead the people – fearlessly. But notice how he must be the one to take the first steps. He must lead by example.

The challenge however comes when we gain sufficient territory to feel ‘on top’ but not enough to say we have taken full possession. That was the temptation facing Joshua’s descendents in the book of Judges. They had taken enough land to feel secure but didn’t realise it wasn’t enough to be safe. They underestimated the power of the enemy to gain strength and in time enslave them.

This is a sobering lesson – if we can hear it. The only security they had was in continuing to fully possess their inheritance. In other words they had to take the next step – hence the title of this article. The word most repeated in this chapter to Joshua was to be strong and courageous. He had to dare to take the next step. And so do we.

Here are some observations I’ve made from this text and my own experience:

1. You have to let go of the past in order to embrace the future.
What do I mean by let go? Let’s be clear here. I don’t mean forget it. That is often an unreal expectation and highly problematic. The past has helped to shape who we are today. And if the past had had a significantly positive impact why should we forget it? So much of Joshua’ leadership was developed under the mentorship of Moses. It was good, powerful and life-changing. Joshua would do well to remember many of the lessons he had learned from Moses. Certainly he could look back with deep appreciation for all that this great hero had invested in him.

No doubt someone wants to throw Is 43.18 TNIV at me – “forget the former things...” Let’s dig a little deeper into this verse. I believe that by the phrase “forget”, God is talking about not dwelling on the past to the point of being distracted from the present moment and the future that He calls us to walk into. The King James Version of Is 43.18 says, “Do not remember the former things...” What we hold before us effects our future.

This happened to the children of Israel in the Desert. They constantly hankered back to Egypt – which was not that great, but time and distance seemed to make it look better than it really was. They became dull to what God was doing all around them. In that sense they needed to forget the past. When God forgets our sin He doesn’t literally forget them; but He does choose not to dwell on them or hold them against us. We need help to cultivate the same kind of attitude.

The past may have been great. But it is the past. What is God doing now? What is God saying now? How can we move into our future with God? These are the important questions. God reminded Joshua; Moses is dead – move on. Sometimes we draw a line between us and the past. God challenges us to. He gives us a new focus related to His purpose. This is what we must embrace.

Samuel had to do this in relationship to Saul. He had anointed him. Everything began with such promise. But Saul rebelled – on more than one occasion. In the end God rejected him from being King. Samuel was devastated. He cried and mourned for Saul. In the end God had to challenge him to move on. Why? Because God had. He had already seen and prepared the next King. And Samuel had a job to do. He needed to overcome his own disappointment and get on with God’s purpose. He had to let go of the past in order to embrace the future.

2. You have to establish a new set of priorities
Joshua now had to speak what had been the focus of his meditation while leading the people into their inheritance. He had moved from being an assistant to being a leader. His connection to Moses remained by reading what Moses had written. But he had to rely on God – not Moses. And God promised to be with Joshua in the same way He was with Moses. Re-adjusting to new priorities is never easy. We get comfortable with our routines. Yet we often can’t take the next step without some change.

I have learned that as believers we are good at adding to our schedules but not good at taking away from them. No wonder we experience burn out. For every new thing God calls us to do we need to lay down some things, re-prioritise and have sufficient energy to walk into the new. It means saying yes to some things and no to others. And God was very direct in telling Joshua that his focus must be the Word.

It is similar to the early apostles who, when under pressure to resolve the unfair distribution of food to the widows, appointed 7 other spiritual leaders. Their reasoning was simple; “It’s not right that we should serve tables but we will give ourselves to the ministry of the word and prayer”, Acts 6.1-4.

They weren’t trying to get out of serving; they were simply focused on where they should serve. And labouring in the word and prayer is hard work. What good things are you doing that you need to lay down in order to pick up what God wants to give you? What are you holding on to that someone else could do if you empowered them? Notice that the outcome of this appointment in Acts 6 was the growth of the church and the satisfaction of the people while extending the development of leaders – Philip and Stephen in particular.

3. You must learn to walk in obedience to what God has said, even when it appears foolish.
Imagine an army general being told to march around a walled city in total silence. No speaking, no fighting, no questions! Imagine building a boat hundreds of miles from land like Noah did. Imagine holding up five loaves and two fish to Heaven and blessing them. Imagine a teenage boy trying to fight a seasoned warrior that twice his size – with nothing more than a slingshot. Imagine defeating death by surrendering to it.

The list is endless. Often our greatest hurdle to success is our own embarrassment at God’s wisdom. He just doesn’t do things the way we do. And so we are required to be strong and courageous; courageous not just in the face of the enemy, but also in the face of mockery from others, if God doesn’t come through. Humility is a great partner to faith. It helps us have a ‘could care less’ attitude. And this frees us from the fear of man that Proverbs tells us is a snare.

Joshua’s first act of obedience in Canaan would require him to circumcise an entire army, rendering them powerless to defend themselves. Couldn’t that have been done the other side of the Jordan? Why here? Why now? Why me? Have you ever asked those questions? God is intentionally making them vulnerable – and He does the same with us. Who do you think they were trusting? Who do you think they were relying on? In truth it was the enemies of Israel who were afraid. They had heard the testimonies of what God had done and how He had delivered them – and they were scarred.

4. You have to engage the enemy in a fight.
At some point we have to fight for what is ours. It belongs to us by right, by inheritance, by promise; but we must possess it. We must dare to take the next step. God won’t do it for us. This is not so difficult for new enthusiastic believers but for those who are a little longer in the tooth it can be a huge difficulty. Like I said at the beginning; we often settle for less than total victory. It just seems too much like hard work at times.

Think of Moses when petitioning Pharaoh to let the people go. Three compromises were offered to Moses. How tempting to say yes. It’s not everything he wanted, but almost. The first comes in Ex 8.25 when Pharaoh says in effect, “OK worship your God but do it here in Egypt”. Then in Ex 10.11 he says, “OK but just take the men and leave the women and children”. Finally in Ex 10.24 Pharaoh says, “Leave the flocks and herds and you can all leave”. It takes someone with great clarity of what the inheritance should look like to stand and say, “No – I want more, because has promised more”.

This level of conviction comes from a clear understanding of what God has said; what He has given. It is the promise of God that should determine our resolve to hold out for all that is ours.

5. Your confession must come out of a deep meditation of God’s word.
Joshua is told to do this day and night and not to deviate to the right or the left. His instructions are precise and emphatic. Notice how God focuses on the end product – that which comes out of Joshua’s mouth. This is a product of his understanding, which is a product of the meditation of his heart, which in turn is a product of his memorisation and this is a product of his reading.

What we say often betrays the condition of our heart. This business of possessing an inheritance is serious stuff. It will require real focus from Joshua and it seems to me that the power of the promise lies in our ability to speak it with heartfelt conviction. For our lives often follow our words. When I tell someone I will meet them at a certain place more often than not I do. My body, my life, my commitments all follow my words. So God tells Joshua the importance of having the right words – His words. It is something he must give himself to and then success will follow. It is promised.

As you ponder the different challenges God is leading you into, let me encourage you to take these five principles and work through them so that you too will be an overcomer; someone who truly possess their inheritance to the full. I dare you - take the next step.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

New Covenant Living

Jeremiah 31 is one of the most significant texts in the OT. It prophetically announces the New Covenant. And it does so in a way that shows off its distinctiveness in comparison to the Old. This was incredibly brave of Jeremiah given Israel’s commitment to the Law of Moses. It also shows the depth of revelation he moved in given that he, along with Ezekiel, was one of the few prophets to foretell this momentous change that was coming. It would literally rock the religious, political and social worlds of the time. And it is meant to do the same today!

It is the significance of this change from Old to New that I want to focus on. For I see many believers today living with an Old Covenant mentality in their approach to God and life. It’s not a bad approach, for Paul tells us that the law is good, Rom 7.12. It’s just that the New Covenant is better. This is the key word that appears over and over again in the book of Hebrews, twelve times to be exact. Hebrews covers the historical transition Jews had to make in their worship of God where temple, sacrifices and priesthood were all changed, radically. More of that later.

Let’s begin by establishing the four major differences between the two covenants highlighted by Jeremiah. Each has a profound impact on the way we relate to God and do life. Here is the text in question, which is repeated in full in Heb 8.8-13:

“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day [that] I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this [is] the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." Jer 31.31-34

Here is what I observe:

1. Outward to Inward
We move from outward approach to an inward approach in knowing truth. The Sinai covenant was written on tablets of stone and learned. But the new covenant offers a different way of knowing and understanding. Truth is now written on the heart. Paul challenged the Jews of his generation with this reality in the book of Romans.

“For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, [even] with [your] written [code] and circumcision, [are] a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who [is one] outwardly, nor [is] circumcision that which [is] outward in the flesh; but [he is] a Jew who [is one] inwardly; and circumcision [is that] of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise [is] not from men but from God”.

Notice the force of Paul’s argument here. The real Jew (a play on the word Judah meaning praise – the true worshipper of God), is the one whose heart has been circumcised by the Spirit of God – an inward reality that allows him to fulfil the written law, for now it is written on his heart. The Jew who is one ethnically is incomplete without the New Covenant. It is like having all the sheet music to Handel’s Messiah but no ability to play. You know what it should sound like but all your attempts lead to too many wrong notes; frustrating for you and all those listening to you.

But the New Covenant deals with the human heart – the place where all the problems begin, Matt 15.18. The Old could not do this. And so verses like Prov 4.23 “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it [spring] the issues of life”, take on new force. The New Covenant shifts the focus – not to the point of commission when we sin but to the point of origin – the heart, where it is conceived, James 1.15. Take Jesus words about adultery in Matt 5. It’s not just about avoiding the act of sex; it’s about not looking and lusting so that you’ve already had sex in your mind and heart.

The Spirit of God is able to convict the heart. David was a prototype of this sensitivity. He felt guilty just for cutting off a piece of Saul’s garment. It was very much an inward experience. Further, this sensitivity goes way beyond what the law prescribes, speaking to issues of attitude and motivation. Paul prayed that the church at Ephesus would be “Strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man....” Eph 3.16. It is the inward man that is ‘renewed day by day’ even while ‘our outward man is perishing’, 2Cor 4.16.

And so as New Covenant believers we have to give primacy to the inward life of the heart. If we focus on rules and regulations we privilege the outward over the inward and are in danger of living in something less than the best. Further, we open our lives to the possibility of becoming legalistic like the Pharisee of Jesus day; clean on the outside but full of dead men’s bones. This of course tends towards hypocrisy and judgementalism where we put on masks to hide our real thoughts and hidden agendas and look down on others who sins are more obvious than our own.

I’ve noticed over the years that in the church we have a hard time dealing with those who go through divorce, often barring them from meaningful ministry, even after years of restoration. Yet we tolerate gossips and divisive people. We fear that by confronting them in an upfront way we will be perceived as ‘unloving’. But God looks on the heart. He sees the motivation. When Jesus calls us to judge righteous judgement this is what He was challenging us to do. And it is a challenge, for it requires discernment, which touches on my second point.

2. Instruction to Revelation
Jeremiah said that we won’t need anyone to tell us, ‘know the Lord’. All can know Him! So not only does the New Covenant move from outward to inward it moves from ‘being told’, instruction, to ‘just knowing’ through revelation. This ability of the human spirit to receive revelation is called intuition. Through intuition we are able to know things without being told. It is the place where we commune with God; where He speaks to our hearts and we can hear. But we must cultivate this hearing in the heart.

One of the few benefits of our postmodern age is the value it places on personal experience. The focus of the ‘Modern’ era was objectivity built on science, with the huge assumption that all things could be known and explained. Reason had replaced God. Man could now fulfil his dream of building his own utopia. But two World Wars later and in the midst of global ecological crises as well as financial crises, nobody believes this lie any longer. It just doesn’t hold water. People still feel empty and unfulfilled. Technology, with all the benefits it brings, is not enough. And so people are searching and opening their lives to spiritual journeys. Intuition is back in. How I feel about something now have value. What a perfect opportunity to use the gifts of the Spirit to speak to people’s inner needs – the needs of the heart.

For too long we have tried to disciple people by simply telling them what to do, operating primarily at the cognitive and rational level. It’s Old Covenant. Jesus was different. He pointed out when the disciples were operating out of a wrong spirit and challenged them. He discerned their motivation by operating at an intuitive level. When He encountered people, He seldom said the same thing twice. The way He spoke to Nicodemus in John 3.1-10 was different to the way He challenged the rich young ruler in Luke 18.18-23 and different again to the woman at the well in John 4. He could discern a genuine question, like that of the disciples of John in Matt 11.1-6, from the Pharisees who were out to trap Him in His words, Luke 20.20-26; Matt 11.27-33.

Jesus doesn’t speak to people in a formulaic way. All are at different places in their journey toward (or away from) God. This is because discipleship is not like a factory with set processes. It has to be nuanced for each person. It requires involvement and relationship; discernment and courage to speak what you see. These are the things that truly change people. And in the end they become disciples of Jesus – not us.

I have experienced people asking me to pray for them in a particular area and then immediately I sense the Holy Spirit pointing out another area of need to pray for. This ability to hear is part of the New Covenant. It is receiving revelation and it transforms ministry. It means we don’t just address the presentation problem but we tune in, through the Spirit, to the deeper needs of the heart. During such times people really feel like they have encountered God. But it often requires courage on our part to pray into an area not named.

Paul speaks of this in 1Cor 2.10-12. But God has revealed [them] to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.

God searches. God knows. And God the Holy Spirit reveals things to those who are spiritual, so that we can help others to see and experience the things He has freely given to them. This is an intuitive process. It is more caught than taught.

3. Selective to Inclusive
Unlike the Old Covenant, which was limited to a select group of priests, all male between the age of twenty and fifty and all fit and healthy without any kind of defects; the New is universal; “They shall all know Me... (emphasis mine)”; men and women, old and young, sick and healthy, rich and poor, Jew and non-Jew – all. Everyone can come into relationship with God through His son Jesus. None are excluded; no one is second class; no one is second best. Ethnic, religious, social or cultural distinctions are no longer important criteria in deciding who has value. All have sinned. All need saving. All need grace. And the New Covenant makes it available to all.

Paul was passionate about this. Given his background he had much to boast in at the human level. He was born a free Roman and was Jewish. He belonged to the tribe where the first King of Israel was chosen from, that remained loyal to David when the Kingdom divided. He was educated at the feet of the greatest Rabbi of his time, Gamaliel and he was a Pharisee – considered the most devout and elite of all the religious groups of his day. His zeal for the law meant he would brook no time with ‘followers of the Way’ and so he persecuted them at every opportunity.

Then he met Jesus. Years later he would reflect on all the above and make this comment, “But what things were gain to me these I have counted loss for Christ....and count them as rubbish”, Phil 3.7-8. The Greek is much stronger but so as not to offend let’s stay with rubbish. Compared to Christ, compared to knowing Him, compared to what He gives us, what we offer and have achieved, either through birth or personal effort, is rubbish.

The Cross is the great leveller. All must come. All must confess. All must receive. And all can have equal value and status before God. It is what we do with the least in the Kingdom that shows where we really stand on this issue. Do we try to position ourselves to be alongside those we consider can advance us or do we minister to those around us who can do nothing to add to our status? Do we see that we have value because of who we are in Christ or we still insecure, trying to impress others with our performance? Are we jealous of the ministry of others or can we genuinely rejoice in their ministry because in Christ we too have a ministry no less needed in the Body of Christ?

By birth I may be illegitimate. In the New Covenant I am chosen – a son of God, Gal 4.6-7. By birth I may be poor. In the New Covenant I am rich in faith and can see my world transformed, James 2.5. By birth I may be despised for my race or colour or gender. In the New Covenant I am of equal value to any King because I too am in Christ and an heir of God, Gal 3.28.

4. Partial to Total
Finally we move from partial forgiveness to total forgiveness. “Their sins and iniquities I will remember no more”. Under the Old sin was dealt with, but partially and temporarily. Every year they had to repeat the process of Passover and the Day of Atonement. Every sin required a new sacrifice – more blood. But this was a shadow of something better; a sacrifice that would be so complete, so perfect, so satisfying to the heart of God that no longer would any more of His creatures need to die. Man’s sin and rebellion had exacted a heavy toll. But the blood of Jesus has achieved what no other sacrifice was able to do.

The writer to the Hebrews declared that the blood of Jesus speaks better things than the blood of Able, Heb 12.24. Able’s blood cried out from the ground to God, Gen 4.10. It cried out for justice. He had been cut down in the prime of life, robbed of his future. But the blood of Jesus calls out for mercy. From the Cross He forgives. We receive what we cannot earn, grace and get what we do not deserve, mercy. Total and complete. Under the New Covenant there is no sin that is bigger than the cross. “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin”, (emphasis mine), 1John 1.7.

We must learn to live in this amazing truth. For too often I meet believers who still live with guilt from past failure. My old pastor once defined maturity in this way; “Maturity is measured by the time it takes for you to respond to conviction with repentance and receive forgiveness, after you fail”. Think about that. The gap between failure and repentance is a reflection of our maturity. The shorter the gap, the more mature we are. I like that. To live with guilt when you can bring failure to the cross is to live like an Old Testament (which actually is a different way of saying Old Covenant) saint. All that is required in the New is confession. That is what qualifies us to be forgiven. How utterly devoid of human works grace is. It’s scandalous. And that is the glory of the New Covenant. God chooses not to remember your sin – ever.

But there is an equal challenge here. Not only must we be prepared to ask for forgiveness we must be prepared to give it too; in the same unconditional manner God does. All He requires is confession. Peter struggled with this idea. There must be limits. “Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Even that seems too much to many. But notice Jesus’ response: “Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven”. And just to drive the point home Jesus told the story of the unforgiving servant.

Forgiveness is one of those things that is best given once it is received. But to receive and then not forgive is counter to what makes the New Covenant distinctive. We don’t need to judge and condemn, as they did under the Old covenant. We leave judgement to God and choose to forgive. And this is what guarantees our own spiritual health and freedom. Without forgiveness towards others we remain locked up and bound. It can rob us of joy, purpose and ultimately our health. So counter to the Spirit of the New Covenant is unforgiveness that God refuses to forgive us if we don’t forgive others, Matt 6.14-15; 18.32-35.

My prayer for you is that you will live in the full benefits of what Jesus has secured for us through the New Covenant. Let’s go from the living in the good to living in the better.