Monthly Archives: April 2018

Dealing with duality

Jesus is only twice recorded making mention of the church, and so illustrated its duality.

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Then He strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.”(Matthew 16:13–20)

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15–20)

The church is thus a two-sided coin. Heads is the glorious, universal, transcendent bride of Christ. Tails is the local church that meets on the corner of 7th and Main.

Duality a familiar notion

Believers are familiar with this duality in their own lives.

In the moment we come to faith we are swept into the once-for-all-ness of the New Covenant. Death gives way to Life as we were born from above by the Spirit. We are seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. We have moved beyond the three dimensions of the natural realm. Ours are now the innumerable dimensions of the heavenly realm. Little wonder that we can get a little confused about our true identity on occasion.

The Scriptures speak to our new identity most emphatically. Having believed, we are no longer in Adam, but in Christ. The old has gone; the new has come. There are any number of ways of expressing this, and the implications are immense. We are no longer unrighteous, but righteous. We are no longer sinners, but saints. We are no longer dead, but alive; no longer separated from God, but irrevocably united with Him. On and on we could go. We have been united with Christ in His crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection. We can never be the same again, for we are in essence new creations. We no longer have the sinful nature we were originally born with, for we have been born again by the Spirit of God. Just as Christ is, so are we in this world.

Being this clear on our identity is not a denial of our humanity. Our glorious, new, eternal life finds itself encased in an Adam-suit. An Adam-suit that still carries with it a good deal of the baggage of our pre-conversion lives. The Scriptures call this vestigial in-Adam-ness our flesh. Its dominion has been broken, and we no longer need to submit to it any more than we need to submit to sin and satan. But it having lost its dominion does not imply that it has ceased to exist or lost all of its influence. Just catch an inadvertent of glimpse your disheveled self in the mirror in the middle of the night. You could easily conclude that there is nothing glorious there at all. Nevertheless, the Scripture reassure us: Everything has changed. We are new creations. No matter how we appear, that is who we are. And the Spirit within bears witness.

Those familiar with these concepts often distinguish between the Christian’s position (who we are in Christ), and our condition (with Christ in us, but in our Adam-suits nonetheless). This is a helpful distinction: we have position and condition; status and state. There is who we are, and there is who we appear to be. At times, these stand in disturbing contradiction. The mystery of salvation, which is by grace alone and through faith alone, is that it defines us by the work of Christ alone. There is duality, but there is no place for duplicity. That can only result in religious schizophrenia. We are who Christ has made us to be. Our position, our status, our in-Christ-ness – that is the real us. That is who we are. We are new creations. Our condition, state, or vestigial in-Adam-ness is a secondary reality. This remaining oldness is best shed like an old skin, as the life within grows and matures.

Similar thinking is to be applied to, in and by local churches. Every local church is a significantly limited manifestation of an infinitely greater, glorious, spiritual, and eternal reality. All are limited by time and place, and by the inescapable humanity in the equation. But none are defined by their limitations or distinctives. All are defined by the work of Christ. Duality is a reality, but there is no room for duplicity. The Scriptures unequivocally reveal who the church is. She is the glorious bride of Christ; she in Him, and He in her. It is a perfect union and a perfect partnership. This is true, no matter how imperfect the local church may appear in the natural. Or even how much evidence can be presented to the contrary.

Up there, down here

This Bible puts this duality into an “up there, down here” framework. Up there is the glorious, eternal, transcendent and spiritual. Down here is the temporal, finite and tangible. We, who start out down here, are assured that, having believed into Jesus, are seated in heavenly places. We are therefore encouraged to fix our eyes on things above. We’re taught to pray that things down here might become just as they are in heaven. We could say that “up there” is our position; “down here” our condition.

The bride of Christ, i.e. the church universal, is “up there”. It is not of this world, and not of this age. Flesh and blood it is not. Glory and grace it is. The local church, on the other hand, is “down here”. It is in this world, but not of it. Flesh and blood it most certainly is. These are the opposite sides of the coin.

A common mistake is to trade “up there, down here” thinking a “now and not yet” paradigm. This relegates the present to the imperfect, and reserves perfection for the future. Churches and the Christians who populate them are therefore works in progress. They may not be who they once were (in Adam), but they are also not who they one day shall be (in Christ). Rather, they are an amorphous blend of the two. A little bit of both, with the ratios in the cocktail varying from day to day. This is a serious misbelief. It compromises the fundamentals of the Gospel, which is a salvation by grace alone through faith alone. The mystery and beauty of our salvation is that it is identity-driven. Transformation comes to Christians and churches as they discover their their identity in Christ.

It is true that who we are has not yet fully been made manifest. In that sense we are not yet who we one day shall be. Work is being done in us and on us by Word and Spirit. Circumstances play their part. Consequently, we are changing. We are maturing. We are progressively entering into the fullness and freedom that has already been given us. But there’s the key: already given us. We should never imply that we have been made anything less than perfect, nor granted anything less than consummate freedom and fullness. We must never allow ourselves to be defined by who we appear to be, for we are those who are in Christ. We are who He has made us to be. We are who we are, once and for all, forevermore.

From atop the podium

The Christian life is not a journey towards destination, but a journey from destination. In Christ we find ourselves on the top of the podium, the gold medal already around our necks. Our race is not towards victory, but from it. It is an adventure in ever-increasing glory, fruitfulness and maturity. Of course it is necessary for the image of Christ to be worked out in our lives. But Christlikeness in essence is already ours. We get to work out what God has already worked in. we have been co-crucified with Christ, and co-raised in Him. We can never be more righteous than what we are right now. Nor more holy. All of us could most certainly live more righteously. We can walk in greater holiness. But these are secondary matters that flow from identity. Our behaviour does not define us; Christ’s behaviour does.

The structure of Paul’s letters to the churches illustrate this magnificently. They begin in the indicative: who we are because of what God has done. They end in the imperative: instruction on appropriate responses to the grace of God. The same can be noted in Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery. He ensured that she was free from all condemnation before encouraging her to leave her life of sin.

Peter of old learnt these truths in dramatic fashion. On the rooftop at lunchtime one day, peckish and in prayer, he fell into a trance. A tablecloth crammed with unclean creepy-crawlies descended, and the Lord instructed him to kill and eat. His religious sensibilities were deeply offended. The Lord’s lesson for the day: never regard as unclean that which the Lord has declared clean. The issue at hand back then was the Gospel going to the Gentiles. At stake was the transformational power of our justification. It amounts to instantaneous sanctification. In Christ equals made holy. Every sinner is unclean. Every Christian is clean. God says so. Even of the creepy-crawly looking ones.

A simple analogy

The point is to align the way local churches think about themselves with Scripture. The Gospel is good news, and that good news is that the beneficiaries of the New Covenant are new creations. Our minds must be renewed and our paradigms and perspectives changed. Christ is the lens through which we view all things, including His bride. Our point of departure must always be His perfect work.

Something as simple as the rain helps us understand. Heads is the overcast sky and the rain pouring down. The earth and all in it rejoice at the life-giving refreshing and renewal downpours bring. Tails are the raindrops, hurtling downwards, blown hither and thither by the wind. Some splash into puddle. Others crash into paving, roofing, or foliage.

Is a raindrop rain? Of course it is. But is each raindrop the rain? Not really. The rain is even more than the sum of all the raindrops together.

Churches, and even individual believers, can learn valuable lessons from reflecting on the rain. It serves our purposes here to address ourselves to the former. To those local churches who undervalue, or even denigrate themselves, we must say: “Little raindrop, we know that your building is dated and your music group off key. You appear to be such a ramshackle bunch. Few among you are of notable stature or exemplary spirituality. But guess what? You are rain. You are as much rain as any other raindrop. Don’t stumble over yourself. Rather fixate on your big-picture greatness. The more you do, the more the ‘up there’ will show up in your ‘down here’”.

And to the big, successful raindrops, we must say: “We’re so glad you’re excelling in all you give yourself to. Yet we’re not particularly impressed by you, even if you make quite a very big splash in your little puddle. Truth is, no matter how big a splash you make, you’re still just a raindrop. The rain is much, much more. Just a raindrop like the rest of us, your bigger and better is rather inconsequential in the light of the rain. Your ‘down here’ will always be an insubstantial boast in the light of the glorious heavenly deluge”. A deluge that we’re all so privileged to be included in. Thanks to the rain, we’re all so much more than we could ever hope to be in our own right. But, also thanks to the rain, we’ll never amount to anything much in our own right.

It’s not about us, you see. It’s all about Him!

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Glimpsing the Bride

Imagine for a moment that the distant horizon is an enormous timeline.

Far left are the seven days of creation, beyond which things fade into eternity past. Far right is eternity future. Arranged between these extremes, left to right, is all of history. People, places and events are all there, chronologically and proportionally. Your imagination is the artist here. The detail is up to you.

Somewhere off to the right is today. Pencil that one in while you’re at it.

Now focus on the middle of the timeline. Straight ahead, centre stage, is the cross of Christ. It towers over the timeline as the centre-piece of history. It represents Jesus’ virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary death, and glorious resurrection. Right alongside it is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. These inseparable events together form the centre-piece of our theology: the New Covenant, blood and water, Word and Spirit.

Preeminent Jesus

Take a step back and survey the finished masterpiece. Take it all in. Notice how the cross is all-pervasive. Look left, and notice how it casts its shadow back across all that preceded it. See how its influence extends beyond the beginning of the timeline, right into eternity past, with the Scriptures revealing that the Lord had the cross in mind before the creation of the world. Its reflection is everywhere. In the tree of life, the centre-piece of Eden. Adam and Eve’s redemption after the fall reveal it again. They should have died, but didn’t. An animal died in their stead, yielding its skin to cover their nakedness. The more you look, the more you see. Timeline left, its reflection is in every feast and festival, sacrifice and offering. There it is in prophet, priest and king. In tabernacle and temple. In all God’s dealings with men. Timeline right, it shows up everywhere as well. History correctly understood is His story. Everything subsequent to the cross has unfolded in the light of its purpose and plan. Sometimes in acceptance. At other times in rejection. Either way, everything since has referenced the cross one way or another.

So say the Scriptures. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent. For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross” (Col 1:15–20).

Defining Jesus

The cutting of the New Covenant was all-defining. It is the Bible’s interpretive master-key. It is the eternal mechanism of our salvation and the unwavering foundation of our faith. And as definitive goes, it is applicable to the people of God also. For while God has always had a people, Christ only had a bride in waiting before the cross, for she was only fully formed in the deluge of blood and water, Word and Spirit, that was the New Covenant being established.

Like the cross, she too dates back into eternity past, and can be glimpsed prophetically in the communities of faith of old. The first tiny nuclear family around Adam and Eve eventually expanded into many much larger extended families. A few generations later and Abraham could raise a small army from within his family. As the multiplication snowballed, families became clans, and clans nations. And while the church is family, clan and nation, she is much more besides. She is of Christ and in Christ, and Christ is in her by His Spirit. It is from their eternal union, reflected back through time to the beginning, that Biblical parameters for marriage stem: one man, one woman, for life.

Timeline left, and there’s the shadow. The Lord put Adam into a deep sleep. From his side, He took a rib, and fashioned Eve. Bone of Adam’s bone and flesh of his flesh. A perfect mate for perfect union. And the two became one. Straight ahead on the timeline is the substance from which that shadow derived. The Lord put Last-Adam Jesus into a death sleep. His side was pierced as temple curtain tore and heavens rend asunder. In the torrent of blood and water, by Word and Spirit, Christ’s bride was now revealed. Spirit of His Spirit and essence of His essence. Corporate Eve. A perfect mate for perfect union; Jesus and His bride are one. One Lord, one wife, forever.

Transcendent, Glorious Beauty

Now gaze timeline right, deep into promise territory. There she is, revealed in full glory!

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement. The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev 21:9–22:5).

A New Covenant Girl to her core

Quite a bride Jesus has there!

First manifest in Jerusalem when the Spirit was poured out, her essence transcends time and space. Even if but a small group gathered in a school hall on a Sunday morning, that small group is much more than meets the eye, for they are His, and in Him. They are transcendent in splendour. His splendour. They are His, perfect in the fullness and freedom of the unmitigated glories of the New Covenant. They are His, the perfect mate, in perfect union with Him.

Some have distinguished between church (the local church) and Church (the church universal). Jesus Himself used the word in these contexts, sans capital letters. Yet here we must be careful, for while church is Church, Church is not church. The local church is a limited manifestation in time and space of the glorious, eternal, transcendent Church of our Lord. The universal church is thus at best poorly represented by even the best of local churches in their finest of hour. Yet no matter how unimpressive a local church may seem at any given time, we must remain emphatic about the her belonging to Christ and being part of His bride.

The implications are enormous. No local church is ordinary. No local church is less than a full beneficiary of the New Covenant. Every principle of leadership and governance instituted needs be thus derived from the New Covenant; never the Old.

Consider for a moment just how often we derive our approach to doing church from pre-cross shadows. How often we suggest to the local church tht she is less than righteous; less that qualified; less than made perfect forever in Him.

Recognising her exclusive New-Covenant-ness must also cast aspersions over Jethro-pyramid oversight structures, Elijah-Elisha succession plans, and David-esque leadership models. With reference to the latter, the New Covenant purports that we already have our Braveheart. His name is Jesus. We don’t need pastor or apostle trying their best to be another one. A final observation suffice to the moment is that the four Gospels are substantially pre-cross also. What if Jesus discipled the Twelve in the way in which He did because the Spirit had not yet been given. Could it be that we have no right cultivating devotees in the name of discipleship for fashioning in our own image? These, and many provocative questions besides, need be asked.

Makes one think, doesn’t it!

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Dusting off the blog

Dusting off a blog is a challenging endeavour.

Just facing up to the technical bits ‘n bobs is an obstacle. That’s because logging in to the back-end of a website for the first time in months is likely to unleash a deluge of notifications and warnings, amidst which the jetsam and flotsam of add-on updates and widget upgrades swirl and jostle, bobbing in a sea of spam. Only the most resolute of minds actual logs in.

And that’s the easy part. Thing is, whilst blog posts are written one at a time, effective blogging is about the cultivation of an audience. Sporadic fits and starts simply don’t cut the mustard. Just don’t do it if you don’t have something to say, they say, by which they mean something sustained and meaningful to say. And, of course, the time and energy to say it.

In this my heart and mind are sorely exercised.  It’s time! The Gospel, in a general sense, provides a limitless fount of meaningful things to say. But much more to the point, the Gospel, in a specific sense, is a limitless fount of meaningfulness to us today, in our situation. We live in urgent times. Defining times. Critical times. Difficult times. Everybody knows that something must be done. Many even know what others should do. Yet the question that cuts to the heart of the matter as does scalpel in surgeon’s hand is, “what should I/we do?” My thesis is that the Gospel, through the Scriptures, answers that question emphatically.

Such a claim is either delusion and/or arrogance, or revelation. If it’s revelation, it’s voice will echo and be echoed. The choir will grow, each contribution unique, but on key and in tune. Watch this space, and you decide. All I ask is that if you find your faith stirred, yield and obey. As the Psalmist has said in 110:3a (ESV), “Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power”. If this be that day, may we be those people!

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