Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Missional Heart of Prophecy

Prophecy is incredibly powerful in building the church. This is Paul’s claim in 1Cor 14. Before unpacking this let’s take a quick look at the difference between prophecy in the OT and prophecy as it was practiced in the New Testament era. In the OT we see the prophetic ministry emerging with the appearance of Samuel; though he is not the first to be called a prophet. Abraham was given the label by God Himself, Gen 20.7 and Jude tells us that he was predated by Enoch who prophesied the Lord’s coming, Jude 14. The Jews anticipated the arrival of the Messiah as a ‘prophet like unto Moses’, Deut 18.15. But Samuel actually used his prophetic gift extensively to judge and rule Israel and appoint her Kings. From Dan to Beersheba, not one word he spoke ‘fell to the ground’. More importantly he seems to have begun a school of the prophets, 1Sam 19.20 that would be further developed by men like Elijah, 1Kings 20.35 and Elisha, 2Kings 6.1.

There were two tests brought to bear on those who prophesied. The first was simple: did what they said come to pass. If it didn’t the penalty was severe - death. This person had presumed to speak in the name of the Lord when God had not spoken. Secondly, even of their prophecy was accurate and they worked a sign or wonder, if they attempted to lead Israel astray to worship other God’s then again they were to be stoned, Deut 13.1-5; 18.20-22. Each of these tests focused on the gifting and character of the prophet respectively. In the life of the prophet the gifting had to be genuine and his character had to be mature with a life dedicated to God. He was there to direct others into keeping covenant with God.

But when it comes to the NT there is a change. We move from prophetic concentration to prophetic distribution – “I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh and your sons and your daughter will prophesy...” Joel 2.28-29. The OT was characterised by a concentration of revelation given to a gifted few. Only those anointed carried the presence of God’s Spirit – the prophet the Priest and the King. The people of God had to come to them to hear from God. But under the New Covenant all can receive the Spirit. Furthermore, the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy, Rev 19.10. To bear witness to Jesus is to move in the Spirit of prophecy. To move in the prophetic is ultimately to witness to Jesus. The two are axiomatic.

Notice four distinguishing features of the New Covenant outlined by Jeremiah 33.31-34. We move from an external law written on stone to an internal knowledge of the heart – I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts, from mediation through others to direct contact with God, No more shall every man teach his neighbour and every man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord’ for they shall all know Me. We move from a few experiencing the Spirit to all being touched, for they shall all know Me from the least to the greatest, from remembrance of sins every year through ritual sacrifice to a once and for all offering bringing total and complete forgiveness, For I will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more.

This radical change of necessity brings about a change in the way prophecy functions. One noticeable feature is the lack of the phrase, “Thus says the Lord” when prophecy is given in the NT. Jesus didn’t say it. John the Baptist didn’t use the phrase – despite being a prophet and acknowledged by Jesus as being the greatest born among woman, (yet the least in the Kingdom is great than John – more on that later); nor did any of the Apostles. The closest we get is one time in Acts 21.11 when an acknowledged prophet called Agabus says, “Thus says the Holy Spirit”, warning Paul if an impending arrest in Jerusalem. Interestingly Paul’s companions take this to mean he shouldn’t go, but Paul does the opposite.

The phrase “Thus says the Lord” is part of the protocol speech used by servants to introduce themselves to kings and other dignitaries. It was a way of saying whose name and therefore whose authority they spoke in. We see this when Moses stands before Pharaoh (a generic word for King in Egypt) in Ex 5.1. He brings God’s message to Pharaoh – who refuses to acknowledge God’s authority. “Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” Later in the book of Kings Ben-Hadad is about to attack Ahab and so he sends messengers saying, “Thus says Ben-Hadad...” 1Kings 20.2. The messengers speak on his behalf to the king. This is what the OT prophets did. They spoke on God’s behalf and so He put His words into their mouth.

But in the NT we have the indwelling spirit. We have the possibility to be ‘filled with the Spirit’, Eph 5.18 to, ‘walk in the Spirit’, Gal 5.16 and to be ‘led by the Spirit’, Rom 8.14. Yet for all that we can still chose to be carnal, as the gifted church in Corinth was, 1Cor 3.1-3. This means that prophecy operates through us in a way that requires it to be weighed, judged and tested by others, 1Cor 14.29; 1Thes 5.20. Prefacing our words with “Thus says the Lord” leaves very little room for testing. It puts unnecessary pressure on us to accept what is said as from the Lord, rather than taking time perhaps to weigh the message. Further, if what we say is not truly from God then we are in danger of blasphemy - taking the name of the Lord in vain.

My experience leads me to believe that in reality there is often a mixture. Even with Agabus’ prophecy the overall thrust was accurate, but some of the detail was not. For instance, it was the Romans who bound Paul, not the Jews as prophesied by Agabus. They did not hand him to the gentiles, rather the Roman soldiers rescued Paul from the Jews, (compare the prophecy of Acts 21.11, with Luke’s account of the incident in Acts 22.22-25). But despite these discrepancies the overall thrust was on target. We may begin with 'more of us' being in the prophecy than is appropriate. But over time we learn to be more disciplined - not to speak beyond what we have recieved, 1Cor 14.29-32.

This should make us cautious of claiming a higher revelation than we have truly received. There is a difference between believing that God is speaking to us through a scripture and getting an angelic visitation like Mary or Zachariah did. Both are revelation, but one is of a higher order and therefore carries more weight. Equally Peter was able, by revelation, to declare the true identity of Jesus and within a few verses be rebuked for being a mouthpiece for the devil, Matt 16.17,23. Being open to revelation means we must be guarded about the source we draw from. And so again we come back to the need for testing, weighing and discerning prophecy.

Jesus said the least in the Kingdom is great than John, Matt 11.11. This is a clear pointer to the move from prophetic concentration to prophetic distribution, the transition from old to new. John was the last of the old. The Kingdom would be inaugurated with the outpouring of the Spirit and now the least in the Kingdom is great than John – they have received more of the inheritance of the Father than he could lay claim to. His baptism was with water, but Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit – and it changes everything.

I have found that prophecy operates at three levels: simple prophecy that all can participate in. This is the gift of prophecy, available to all at any time. But as someone begins to do this with more and more regularity then they demonstrate prophetic ministry. Prophetic ministry is not just occasional prophecy it is regular prophecy, in many situations. Finally, there are those able to prophecy almost at will because revelation flows so freely through them. This is often an indication that someone carries a prophetic office.

But let’s return to 1 Corinthians. Paul’s desire to see the whole church move in the prophetic has a Missional dimension. He wants people saved. In 1Cor 14.23-25 he makes a contrast between the public use of tongues and that of prophecy, observed by unbelievers or uniformed (untaught in spiritual gifts) people. Tongues will produce a reaction – ‘you are all crazy’. But with prophecy he anticipates a different response. This is because of its power to reveal the ‘secrets of the heart’, things only known to that person.

The outcome is astonishing with two internal things happening manifested by two external things. The two internal things are that the person is convinced and convicted. The first has to do with being persuaded as to the reality of God’s presence the second has to do with experiencing that presence – first hand. This leads to the manifestation of two external things that can be seen by the church, worship and confession – “and so falling down on his face he will worship God and report that God is truly among you” 1Cor 14.25. How amazing is that. Seeing an unsaved person confess – God is truly among while they worship on their face, awed by the presence of God in the midst of His people.

It is this Missional dimension of prophecy that should excite us. Jesus shared a simple word of knowledge with the Samaritan woman and she perceived Him to be a prophet! (See John 4.18-19). A little revelation can have a big impact. Further, the entire town came to faith as we saw when we looked at the power of a personal testimony. But revelation played a key part in bringing conviction to her. Notice that Jesus did not use this information to judge or humiliate her. Rather it brought a sense that ‘God knows’ and He still cares. He is not put off but what He sees in our hearts. We too need to learn not to be shocked by what goes on in the heart of a person. Rather we are there to speak words of edification, exhortation and comfort.

My prayer for us as a church is that we don’t try to convince one other of the accuracy of our words, but we humbly speak from our spirit the revelation we have received and watch God touch lives. For conviction does not lie in my phrasing of prophecy, rather it lies with the Holy Spirit who uses my words. Let’s not try to do His job. As we honour God’s presence in our midst He will speak to us through words, pictures and impressions. We get the chance to express that in a way that can bring life to others. What a privilege. What an honour.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The Prophetic Zone

Prophecy in the church today reminds of a children’s nursery rhyme;

There was a little girl
And she had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead,
When she was good,
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

This has been my experience. When prophecy is good, it’s very, very good. But when it’s bad, it’s horrid. Sometimes prophecies are ‘horrid’ because of the content. They are full of condemnation and guilt inducing statements. I’ve heard plenty of those. Others are delivered in a style that is usually very discordant with the way we normally speak and make the speaker appear odd at best, or downright weird at worst. I want to try and give an explanation of what prophecy is and why it is so important. There is always a risk when we begin to move in the prophetic zone of getting weird, but this arena is so integral to who we are as the people of God we can't avoid it. We simply have to learn to get it right and do it better. (In the next article I will offer some guidelines about ‘how to prophecy’, so that our experience of this powerful gift is ‘very, very good’.)

Rev 19.10 says; “The testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of Prophecy”. We’ve looked at what it means to have a testimony, to hold a testimony and to share a testimony. But here John talks about the testimony of Jesus – it’s about our story as it relates to His story. The truth about what God has done in our lives – through Jesus; through His restoring love. John is clear about one thing; the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. One releases the other. They are axiomatic. To hold the testimony of Jesus releases the spirit of prophecy. To prophecy by the spirit is to testify to Jesus. This is helpful in witnessing.

Prophecy can be understood as doing two things; foretelling and forth telling. One is about predicting the future; declaring things that have not yet happened; speaking to future events like Peter’s denial of Jesus or the destruction of Jerusalem. But the second aspect, forth telling, was no less important. Here the OT prophets declared the word of God to a particular group of people, in a particular place, at a particular time. It was a declaration of His heart, mind and wisdom. Sometimes these contained warnings and rebukes but most times they were for encouragement.

Jeremiah 29 is a perfect example of a letter written to encourage the Jews of the captivity in how to face life in Babylon. “Where was God now?” would have been a burning question for them. Besides which there where prophets telling them that they would be back in Jerusalem with two years. Jeremiah has a different message. One that not only helps them deal with life but also helps them relate to their new environment with hope. He clearly implies that they are the hope for the city and should therefore pray for its peace, Jer 29.7. And all of this was a token of God’s design to preserve them and secure their future, Jer 29.11.

Like the prophets of old the Church is called to walk in the prophetic tradition. We see this when Jesus speaks the Sermon on the Mount. Listen to His words; “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets that were before you”, Matt 5.11-12. Jesus helps us deal with rejection, criticism and false accusation by telling us we are blessed. This is totally counter intuitive. We think we are blessed when prayer is answered – and so we are. We think we are blessed when we prosper – and so we are. We think we are blessed when people speak well of us – and so we are. Even the early church enjoyed favour with all the people, Acts 2.47. But by Acts 8.1 all that had changed. Now they were persecuted and scattered.

This is Jesus point. Popularity is not what we live for. Favour with the world is short lived. We live as Kingdom people and that means we are salt and light. We challenge the status quo of what goes on in our world. Eventually someone will get upset. Jesus said in effect, “Don’t worry – you are still blessed. You haven’t done anything wrong”. But He goes even further; rejoice and be exceeding glad. Live with a sense of celebration. The reaction is a vindication of the testimony. Be happy! We are walking in the tradition of the prophets who were treated in the same way. How did they survive? They considered themselves blessed and rejoiced. This is another-world way of living – a kingdom way of living and being.

In Numbers 11 we have the story of Moses appointing 70 leaders. Some of the spirit from Moses is placed on them with an interesting outcome – they all prophecy. Two of the leaders however are not with Moses and the others at the time; nevertheless, they too prophecy. A young man goes running to tell Moses what these two men are up to and Joshua, assistant to Moses, is quick to advice him how to deal with the situation – “Moses my Lord, forbid them!”, Num 11.28. Between the lines he appears to want to jealously guard a prerogative that has been exclusively Moses’ up to now. They shouldn’t be doing this outside of his presence. But Moses holds a different view. He makes one of those throw away comment that will be picked up later by Joel in his second chapter and fulfilled in Acts 2, “Oh that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that He would put His Spirit upon them”, Num 11.29.

Moses had a wish; that all God’s people could prophecy; that all could know Him in that way. This is the New Covenant. God has poured out His spirit on all flesh, men and women, old and young. The 'tongues' of Acts 2 were known languages. Some 15 different groups and languages are named. All heard ‘the wonderful works of God’ being declared in their own tongue. The early disciples were all prophesying in languages they had never learned. This was one of the distinguishing features of the New Covenant – the outpouring of the spirit of prophecy – it is the testimony of Jesus. Acts 1.8 says, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be witnesses, (the same word as testimony in the Greek remember), to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judah and Samaria and to the end of the earth”. The giving of the Spirit is connected with the mandate to witness - to all the world. One is the empowering of the other. Without the Spirit there can be no authentic witness (testimony). It is the validation of all true testimony.

In 1Cor 12-14 Paul deals with several abuses of spiritual gifts as they were practiced in the church at Corinth. He begins in chapter 12 by laying out a theology of the gifts. In chapter 13 he deals with the motivation that gives value to the gifts. Finally in chapter 14 he deals with the specific case of how tongues and prophecy were practiced in Corinth. The opening verse of chapter 14 is instructive, “Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy”. To pursue love is to pursue the right motivation for using the gifts of the Spirit. They are after all for the building up (edification) of the body. They are there primarily to benefit others. So we use them to bless others, not as a showcase to parade our own spirituality. All of this is rooted in our maturity and character. This takes years to shape and develop.

Gifts however are different. They are not given to the mature; they are given to the available, to the hungry, to those that are open to receive them. And new believers are often the most receptive and the hungriest. Paul exhorts the church to ‘desire’ spiritual gifts’. This is the same word translated as lust in other places. Lust is like an earnest desire for something legitimate but taken to an extreme. Wanting to eat is good and necessary for life and health, but lusting for food can lead to obesity. It can mask a much deeper need that food is now substituting for. But Paul says there is something we are allowed to lust for – the gifts of the Spirit. And in the context of a meeting of the church the chief gift to aim at, Paul says, is prophecy.

This is because of the essential nature of prophecy. Unlike tongues, which is directed upward to God, prophecy is directed horizontally, to men. Without interpretation, tongues are a mystery – but prophecy isn’t. And therein lays its power. It can be understood and so has the potential to expose hearts and change minds, (we’ll see this later in the chapter). Paul is also clear that New Testament prophecy has three essential elements; building up (edification), encouragement (exhortation) and strengthening (comfort). Notice how this ‘simple’ use of prophecy does not contain corrective elements. They are reserved for those who carry the prophetic office. The focus is primarily one of helping the saints, not rebuking the saints. That is a governmental role reserved for those with leadership responsibility.

I find this distinction helpful. Too much prophecy in the Charismatic/Pentecostal churches of the past has been styled on an Old Testament model full of rebuke and chastisement. It misses the grace of God and doesn’t ultimately build the church. Even Jesus the Head of the church, who does bring a rebuke to five of the seven churches in Asia Minor, does so in the context of commending them for their strengths, see Rev 2-3. His words are full of what Paul calls, building up, encouragement and strengthening. This is where we need to begin. Even if we are addressing one person, the whole church can be built up as it witnesses to the truth of what is declared.

A good discipline is to ask yourself a few simple questions before you speak. Will what I say build up the church? Will this encourage people? Will it strengthen their faith? If not, then silence is the best option. This goes along with Paul’s advice to those who speak in tongues but have no interpretation, 1Cor 14.28. It may bless you, but not the church – so keep quite. Our words are there to release the Spirit. Remember, death and life is in the power of the tongue, according to Proverbs 18.21. Let’s purpose to let our words be full of life, salted so that they may minister grace to the hearers, Col 4.5. If this is true for life in general, it is even more so when it comes to prophecy in particular. I have heard frustrated preachers use prophecy as an opportunity to give their message to the church. They are not given the pulpit so they use prophecy as a means of meeting their need to speak. It’s inappropriate at best and dishonest at worst.

Prophecy for John was related to the testimony of Jesus. That’s why he was on Patmos, Rev 1.9. He was exiled there to silence his voice. But God gave him revelation and he wrote powerful letters to the seven churches. Letters designed to help the church ‘overcome’ so that it could walk into its true destiny. This is the purpose of prophecy. It is the now word of God that helps the church know how to live in that moment. Even Joshua experienced this. He is the first leader told to relate to the book, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous and then you will have good success”, Josh 1.8. Notice the emphasis on meditating and speaking the word and not just reading it. It mustn’t depart from his mouth. Equally he had to focus on doing, not just knowing, the word. But in chapter 5 Joshua is facing a situation the scripture he had does not address – how should he take Jericho, what is God’s strategy? In that situation he meets the Captain of the Lord’s Host and a specific word is given to him, a prophetic word.

Prophecy is not meant to replace the Bible. We are always meant to reference and test things by God’s unchanging word. But equally we need specific wisdom for specific situations in life. Even Paul and Barnabas where commissioned through a specific prophetic word that came to the church as they ministered to the Lord, Acts 13.1-3. Later in their missionary travels the Holy Spirit forbade them to preach the word in Asia and again when they tried to enter Bithynia, Acts 16.6-10. It is clear from Luke’s writings that this happened through prophetic utterance. Finally, at the coast with seemingly nowhere to go, Paul received a vision – a prophetic vision no less. This guided them over to Philippi and so the gospel came to Europe – all through prophetic leading. It is never a case of either/or when it comes to prophecy and the Bible. Rather it is and/both, knowing that scripture is the final arbiter.

My prayer for us as a church is that we value both; that we cultivate an earnest desire to see it released in a way that builds the church, qualitatively and quantitatively. Qualitative growth is when we are inspired to greater acts of obedience, faith and sacrifice in the name of Jesus. We go deeper in God. Quantitative growth is when we speak to hearts and help them people come to faith in Jesus. This is what He did with the woman at the well in John 4. He moved into the prophetic zone and revelaed the secrets of her heart and as we saw last time, an entire village came to faith through her testimony. More on that next time!

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Testimony - Truth At Its Most Personal

The Greek word Maturia is translated in the New Testament as either witness or testimony. These words play a key part in shaping our understanding of how we communicate with people the truth of God. To give testimony is to speak what we know through what we have seen, heard and experienced – first hand.

The Bible tells us in Rev 12.11, “They overcame him (the devil) by the blood of the lamb, the word of their testimony and they did not love their lives to the death”. The blood of the Lamb satisfies God’s law. It answers to His need to satisfy justice. Sin must be judged and in Christ, God has judged the sin of the world. Like the story of the Passover lamb in Exodus, “And when I see the blood I will pass over you” Ex 12.13. For believers the blood of Jesus Christ has completely repositioned us to receive God’s blessing – the blessing of sonship. We therefore come against the enemy knowing that we are subject to a new King. We are partakers and citizens of a new Kingdom, Col 1.13

To not love our life to the death relates to our attitude of heart. Something has been settled for us. We have been baptised into Christ, Rom 6.1-3; baptised into His death, burial and resurrection. His resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection. This means that we don’t view death in the same way as the world does. We have a different expectation. In fact the common NT way of describing the death of believers is ‘falling asleep’, John 11.11; 1Cor 11.30; 1Thess 4.13-15. The sting of death is sin according to 1Cor 15.56 and sin has been dealt with through the Cross. The sting has been removed and so death has lost its power to hold us captive.

In one sense we have already died, in Christ. So the death of a believer is a radically different experience to the death of an unbeliever. Paul goes so far as to say that to die as a believer is ‘gain’, Phil 1.21, because we immediately go to be with the Lord. Paul considers this departing to be with Christ, ‘far better’, Phil 1.23; 2Cor 5.8. When this understanding grips our hearts it removes the power of intimidation and threat of death. This is what Jesus destroyed at the cross, Heb 2.14-15. This is what liberates us to live radically obedient lives – “Nothing shall by any means hurt you”, Luke 10.19.

But sandwiched between what satisfies God and what releases our hearts to be bold for God is this beautiful phrase, “The word of their testimony”. Overcoming is not a question of theology alone. It is a question of speaking. Testimony is the story of how God has worked in our lives and the way we choose to tell it. Our story becomes integrated with His story. This is often what communicates reality to people. The great thing about being part of a community is that our testimonies all point to the same reality – Jesus. And in time we develop a corporate testimony – just like Israel. A testimony that can be rehearsed to a new generation to help them understand the God we love and serve, Ex 12.25-28.

We have five examples of how testimony points to Jesus in John’s gospel. This is one of John’s important themes; one that he will carry over into the book of Revelation, Rev 1.9; 6.9; 12.17; 19.10. In the first chapter of his gospel he relates the testimony of John the Baptist, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. This man came for a witness to the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light but was sent to bear witness of that Light”, John 1.6-8. I love the simplicity with which John the Baptist is introduced: ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John...’ The writer John highlights three things. He was a man! He is not introduced as a great prophet, even though from the mouth of Jesus, he is the greatest born of women, Matt 11.11. John is helping us realise the place we can have in testifying to Jesus, because like John, we too are ordinary people, men and women who love Jesus. This is what qualifies us.

Secondly he was sent. This is another important word for John. To be sent is to be commissioned; to go with authority to fulfil a call. For John the Baptist that meant he was to bear witness to the Light; to testify of Jesus. The notion of being sent and having authority are always axiomatically tied together in scripture. The last words of Jesus in Matt 28.18-19 show this; “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations....” (See also Luke 10-1, 9; Matt 10.1, 5). This sense of commissioning is repeated by Jesus in Acts 1.8, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth”. Our testimony carries authority because it is not just a story, it’s the truth.

Thirdly he is named. God knows us all by name. In knowing us, He knows how best we can serve His purpose in creating a testimony to Jesus. This sense of who John is becomes important later in the chapter. The Priests and Levites want to know, “Who are you?” John 1.19. Three options are presented, the Messiah, Elijah and the Prophet (See Deut 18.15, 18) but John says no to all these. Here is his estimation of his own ministry, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness....” John 1.23. When we know who we are, we know where we fit into the story and we know how our story fits. We are not here to hammer people with our version of the truth – we testify to the truth we have experienced. We leave the work of conviction to the one appointed to that task – the Holy Spirit, John 16.8. Thus our words may be soft but the conviction can be strong – it is internal, it is God’s work.

Stephen is an example of this. He testified to Jesus by reminding the people about their story; their journey. Where it all began with Abraham and how God redeemed them out of Egypt. The rejection of Moses by the people – “who made you a ruler and a judge over us” Acts 7.27, clearly pointing to Jesus and His rejection by the same nation. Finally he rehearses they unfaithfulness to God and charges them with being like their forefathers. After hearing all this they were, “cut to the heart” and became angry. But Stephen was at peace. He overcame by the word of his testimony. Nobody could deny the truth of what he spoke, so they removed him by stoning him. This is the only way to continue living in a lie. The truth must be silenced. And through this experience a seed would be planted in the heart of a young Pharisee that consented to all this – Saul of Tarsus. Something he would kick against until the day he would meet Jesus on the Damascus road.

In John 5.36 Jesus points to a greater witness than John’s... “For the works which the Father has given Me to finish – the very works that I do – bear witness of Me that the Father has sent Me”. The works of Jesus were a testimony to Him. He was sent from God and His works validated this. This is true for the church today. Jesus promised, “He who believes in Me, the works that I do he shall do also; and great works than these he will do, because I go to My Father, John 14.12. Notice how inclusive Jesus language is. This is not just a word for apostles and evangelists – it is for anyone ‘who believes’! Not only are we allowed to do the same thing as Jesus but we are promised ‘greater’ things. Given the context of the passage I believe Jesus is referring to works that are greater in extent rather than greater in quality. It’s hard to top raising the dead, walking on water and feeding five thousand with five loaves and two fish! But given that Jesus is now working through His Body there is a multiplication of people, all working the works of Jesus – and these point to Him.

Again let’s be clear. The word ‘works’ used in John is very comprehensive. It doesn’t just refer to the miraculous. In John 6.29 the work of God includes believing in those whom God sends. It includes the ordinary stuff like washing feet or teaching with a humble attitude, John 13.14-17; 2Tim 2.14-16. All of this is covered by this simple word. All of it is used by the Holy Spirit to direct people to Jesus.

In John 5.39-40, 46 Jesus chides the Jews, “You search the scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.....For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me”. Imagine the impact those words would have had on His hearers. ‘The scriptures point to Me’, is His bold claim. God’s word testifies to the truth of His Son. If we read the Bible and miss Jesus, we are not reading it right. And the first century Jews give proof that it is possible to read in the wrong way. Life is in Jesus – not a book, even the most important book. Even today we can miss Jesus. He must be the interpretive key to understanding a text. Without Him we are left with the letter – and this has the power to kill. We must engage with where the text takes us and this will always relate to Jesus and the New Covenant.

In John 18.33-38 we have the account of Jesus before Pilate. Paul refers to this when encouraging Timothy in his ministry. He says that Jesus, “witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilot”, 1Tim 6.13. It is before Pilot that Jesus declared He has come to ‘bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice’, John 18.37. Everything that Jesus said and did was a witness to the truth. He validated that which was of the truth and challenged that which was of a lie. This is why He could challenge so many religious protocols that robbed people of life. He healed on the Sabbath, He didn’t perform ritual washings, He touched and talked to the social outcasts and received women as disciples. To witness to the truth is to expose the lie.

The challenge for the church today is to do the same; to expose social, political, commercial and religious injustice by modelling the truth in all these areas of life. After 9/11 George Bush in an address to a joint session of Congress on September 20 2001 said, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. This is a powerful statement. It has echoes of Jesus statement in Matt 12.30. The problem is that Bush is not Jesus. And America is not the Kingdom of God. It reminds me of Joshua the leader in Josh 5.13-15 when he met the Captain of the Lord’s Host. Joshua’s question has the same basic assumption that Bush’s statement has; there are only two sides – which are you on, ours or theirs? But the Lord didn’t buy this presentation of reality and says, ‘No’. He hadn’t come to take sides He had come to take over!

We live in world where reality is often framed as either/or dilemma’s; spanking/or not, capital punishment/lifers; social welfare/’on your bike’ etc, etc. Life and reality is often more complicated. As the church we must be free of any alliances that hinder us from testifying to the truth – wherever we find it. I am concerned with the modern notion that believes democracy is the most just form of government. It ignores the injustices within many democracies and justice that can be found in other forms of government. Even the church can be caught up with this way if thinking. We frame people as saved/lost; charismatic/evangelical; committed/unreliable and in so doing we go beyond the scriptural use of some of these distinctions.

Our commitment must be to testify to the truth, wherever we find it. Jesus found it in a man dying next to Him on the Cross – and He testified, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise”, Luke 13.43. I have been helped by Charismatic praxis when it comes to gifts, evangelical theology when it comes to orthodoxy and Catholic solitude when it comes to devotion. I affirm the truth I have encountered in all these traditions without endorsing some of the disturbing beliefs and practices each has given in to over the years. My point is simple. Jesus testified to the truth wherever He found it. He could align Himself with the teaching of Shammai on divorce but that didn’t mean He joined their school. He challenged the Sadducees for their error on the resurrection without throwing His lot in with the Pharisees. It just happened that on this issue they were right. He affirmed the faith of a Centurion without endorsing Rome or its Ceasar. Affirming the truth that we see in any person, organisation or institution does not necessarily commit us any political, economic, ecological, or social agenda. Silence in such circumstances kills the churches prophetic witness. More on that next time!

Finally John writes at the end of his gospel, “This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true”, John 21.24. What an amazing claim. We find the same kind of endorsement required on many documents today. Take a simple UK grant application form that most students will complete. Before any signature there is the statement, “I confirm that to the best of my knowledge and belief the information I have given on the form is true and complete....” The Government expects that the testimony of the person applying for a grant is reliable. They have to make an assessment as to their eligibility for money based on the information disclosed. In the same way the world needs to know that what we share is what we have experienced – not just head knowledge, not just inherited orthodoxy but flesh and blood reality – to us.

John carries this thought over into his first letter, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled, concerning the word of life – the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us – that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.” 1John 1.1-4. Notice how rooted in his experience these opening words are. He wants us to know his testimony, his experience, his story, so that we too can enter into fellowship with the Godhead. This is an inclusive story that invites people to experience it for themselves. And our story is the hook.

In the past we have insisted that in order to belong we must believe. John holds out a different agenda. Start to belong and then you’ll believe! Let me give you my paraphrase on the above passage: “We’ve heard about it, we’ve followed it, we’ve seen it and we’ve even touched and handled it – first hand! Now we invite you to participate (the root of fellowship carries this idea) with us and experience it for yourself. As you do you’ll find it goes way beyond us. You’ll become a participator of God Himself and His son Jesus. It will radically change your world, filling you with unspeakable joy”.

I pray that we continue to have a growing confidence in the journey of life that Jesus has called us to. And that we boldly witness to the reality of Jesus in our own journey – making room for others to come alongside and experience it for themselves.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

What's your Story?

Have you ever wondered how people come to faith? In the ultimate sense we can say with Jonah, ‘Salvation is of the Lord’, Jonah 2.9. But God has called us into partnership with Him, 1Cor 3.9 – we are workers together with God. In that partnership there are things that He and only He, can do to save a person. We will look at what that is another time. For now I want to focus on what we can do. What role do we play in helping people come to faith? I am hesitating to use the word evangelism because for many this co notates images of hours and hours walking the streets handing out tracts to reluctant strangers. This is not what I mean.

I want to explore the different ways recorded in Scripture where God broke into people’s worlds. For me the first and most effective was through the power of personal testimony; the simple act of telling our story or sharing our journey with God. Already you may be thinking, ‘But who wants to hear my story?’ And this is my point. We often assume that our story has no value. Nicky Cruz has a great story, as does Joni Erickson and Cliff Richard. But who am I? And so we remain silent. Disqualified, not by the mockery of others but by the simple act of a comparison we have made in our own minds that left us feeling inadequate.

But when we come to the NT we see in the book of Acts a group of people empowered by the Spirit to speak, to tell their story, boldly, confidently and without fear. The church began its life having favour with all the people, Acts 2.47. But it wasn’t long before their way of living brought a reaction. Persecution began. In Acts 8.1 all the disciples, except the apostles, were scattered. The story is picked up by Luke in Acts 11.19 where he tells us that some of these disciples travelled as far as Antioch speaking about Jesus.

The Greek word used for preach here is interesting. It is ‘laleo’ meaning to tell, speak or say. Luke is emphasising that the Antioch church was not planted by special emissaries – apostles; but by ordinary believers on the run from persecution, telling their story of how Jesus impacted their lives. Notice that from a human perspective, life and events surrounding their personal circumstances appear out of control. They have to relocate, changing friends, jobs, accommodation; literally starting over again. Yet they use this as an opportunity to introduce themselves and speak of Jesus. It has a big impact.

Acts 11.21 says, ‘The hand of the Lord was with them and a great number believed and turned to the Lord’. Think of it. What did not happen in Jerusalem is now happening in Antioch – gentiles (non Jews) are getting saved. There is no great preacher like Philip as in Samaria, Acts 8.4-8; just ordinary believers telling their story, sharing their journey. Finally the apostles in Jerusalem here of these things and send Barnabas to investigate. He has the prophetic insight to see the grace of God in operation, Acts 11.23 and the foresight to know the right man to help give shape to this church – Saul of Tarsus. This is the place that history records believers of the Way were first called Christians! It will go on to become the greatest missionary sending church in the NT. And it all started from the ground up by a scattered group of believers who told their story. Amazing!

We see the power and impact of personal testimony many times in scripture. Right at the beginning of John’s gospel Andrew introduces Peter to Jesus, ‘We have found the Messiah... And he brought him to Jesus’, John 1.41-42. Clearly Peter is a type of the kind of person who is looking for something. When Andrew declares that he has found it Peter trust’s his brother. They have a relationship. It is his integrity that Peter is relying on to begin with until he personally meets Jesus for himself. In the same text Philip fetches Nathaniel, ‘Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”. Nathaniel responds with incredulity, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But Philip is not put off. Instead of entering into debate about the subject, he offers an invitation to Nathaniel, “Come and see”.

How simple. No complex theology to argue through; just a simple invitation to experience the man Jesus for himself. And herein lays a key for us. We don’t always have to enter into debate with people. Sometimes it’s about an invitation that gives them the freedom to make their own judgement. Once Nathaniel encountered Jesus everything changed. But he would have never got there if hadn’t been for Philip. His invitation came out of a personal conviction. This is what people often hear and it peaks their interest.

Later in John 4 we have the story of Jesus and His conversation with the Samaritan woman. She too returns to her village and invites people to, “Come see a man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” John 4.29. An invitation and a question are presented. No hard sell. No debate. No arguments. And they responded, John 4.30 ‘Then they went out of the city and came to Him’. But notice the climax of this account, John 4.39 ‘And many of the Samaritans of the City believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me all that I ever did”. We don’t have to say much to peak someone’s interest when God is on the move. Remember that text about the church in Antioch – ‘the hand of the Lord was with them’. Sharing our journey, our story, our experience with others is simply about giving them the opportunity to hear how God has worked in our life along with an invitation to experience it for themselves.

Mark 5.1-20 gives us the account of how Jesus delivers the Gadarene demoniac. The outcome is so astonishing that the people beg Jesus to leave. After all 2000 pigs run off the end of a cliff. They have never witnessed such power, such authority. Amazingly He obliges. This individual is so appreciative that he wants to follow Jesus. He wants to be a disciple. So as Jesus is climbing into the boat to leave he ‘begged Him that he might be with Him’, Mark 5.18. Imagine that. He pleads with Jesus to let him come along. He wants more. But Jesus said no, for one reason. If this man goes then this region will have no testimony of what God has done. So instead, Jesus commissions him, “Go home to your friends and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you and how He has had compassion on you”. He has had no formal training, but he has had an encounter. He has had an experience that was life changing. All could see it. This was enough. Mark 5.20, ‘And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marvelled’.

He simply told his story. Enough people were around to know how he had been living the past number of years. They knew the change was radical. Here he is, now in his right mind. Astonishing! Who could have effected such a change? Well this man was there to tell them who. This man was a Gadarene. It was one of the ten cities making up what became known as Decapolis (literally ten cities). He told his testimony and travelled through all the cities. Later Jesus would return to the region, Mark 7.31-37 where they will ask Him to heal the sick. His testimony has had an impact. There is a different response to Jesus; one of expectation rather than fear. And this was His objective.

In John 9 we have the story of the man born blind being healed and the impact this has on him, his parents and the religious leaders. The leaders want to know how this has happened and who did it. The man born blind tells his account, but they don’t believe him. They try to engage him in a condemnation of Jesus, but he is clear, ‘Whether He is a sinner or not I do not know. One thing I know; that though I was blind, now I see’, John 9.25. My spiritual mentor once told me, the man with an experience is never at the mercy of the man with an argument. He’s right. This blind man had an experience. His testimony is simple but powerful and a threat to the understanding of the religious leaders. Consequently they do to him what all oppressive systems do – they cast him out. Notice that at this point of the story the man has not yet put faith in Jesus personally. But he does know God was working through Jesus. He is on a journey. Once Jesus heard that he had been cast out He searches him out. It is during this encounter that he comes to personal faith after a direct challenge by Jesus. But now he has the capacity to accept the challenge. He knows God wants to do good things for him. He knows God is out to bless him not blame him – which is how the story begins. Who can we blame for this man’s condition? John 9.1-4. And in seeking to find fault the disciples missed the opportunity to work a work of God that would set a captive free. Now this haled man had a complete story to tell.

In the Old Testament we have the account of Naaman being healed of leprosy, 2Kings 5.1-19. For me this is one of the most fascinating accounts in the Bible. This man stood out as different. He was a man of honour; so much so that the Lord actually granted victory to Syria when Naaman led them into battle – even against Israel. God used this to reach out to Naaman. For in one of the raids they captured a young Israelite girl and she was given as a handmaid to his wife. Listen to the simple testimony that this girl speaks to her mistress, “If only my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! For he would heal him of his leprosy”, 2Kings 5.3. She talks about Elisha. She is just a young girl – a teenager. But she has heard many stories of this great prophet and so she boldly tells Naaman’s wife where her husband can find healing. Without her there would be no encounter with Elisha and no healing.

Further this man shows signs of faith. In 2Kings 5.17-19 He declares he will no longer offer sacrifices to any other god except the Lord. But he lives in a foreign country that doesn’t worship Yahweh. He serves a king who worships in the temple of Rimon. He knows he will have to honour his master and enter the temple and bow before this false god. So he asks Elisha to pardon him for this. And Elisha responds – “Go in peace”. This is amazing and shows the grace of God. Now there are two people in Syria who know of the power of God. Imagine the impact this man’s testimony would have on his return. On his wife, his household, his army, his King! Story is one of God’s most effective tools to touch people. It’s why we love to read novels and see movies. A good story captures our imagination and helps us believe things can be different. And a story rooted in truth – the truth of God touching real people in real situations, is compelling.

Every one of us who are born again has a story. God has taken each of us on a journey. It is unique to us. Yet there are people in the world who will relate to our story. It has value. It is important. Don’t despise it. Rather use the natural opportunities that God gives you to speak, to tell of the great things God has done for you and how He has had compassion on you. As you do this, don’t be surprised if people ask you what the next step is. There is a deep hunger in the human heart for reconnection with our creator. In Jesus this has been made possible. Every barrier has been removed. God’s love and forgiveness is being extended. Share how this has touched you and leave the rest to Him. He knows how to unsettle the heart. Even Paul found it hard to ‘kick against the goads’. But that is His job, not ours. Ours is to tell what we know. Could it be simpler?