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.