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Be filled with the Spirit

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:15-21).

A biblical imperative

Being filled with the Holy Spirit is a Biblical injunction. It’s a New Covenant imperative. As such, every Christian should obey.

Notice that the verb in question is passive. Those being filled are having something done to them. We also know from the Scriptures that the One doing the filling is Jesus. He is the baptizer in the Holy Spirit, and we are grateful.

The verb being passive is not to imply that we should be at all passive about being filled with the Holy Spirit. Being so is not an optional extra, for it empowers us in our witness, enabling us in words, ways, works and wonders. Jesus is our example in this, as is the early church. In fact, Jesus made it clear that we should ask, seek, and knock in this regard (Luke 11:9-10). These injunctions are all in the present continuous, and best translated “ask and keep on asking”, “seek and keep on seeking”, and “knock and keep on knocking”. We could therefore say that every Christian should be filled with the Holy Spirit, and we should encourage each other to never settle for anything less!

A definitive experience

The terminology used in the book of Acts in describing infilling is instructive. The Holy Spirit is “poured out”, “comes upon” and “fills”. Those being filled “receive” and “drink”. The connection between the two is facilitated by the laying on of hands on occasion, but not always. But no matter the means, the outcome is always definitive. Being filled with the Spirit is a true baptism. An immersion. A dipping, dunking, soaking, steeping and saturating. The idea is one of a bottle thrown into the ocean. The bottle is in the water, and the water is in the bottle. Everyone who is filled with the Spirit knows it. Others present at the time know it too. The evidence is often audible, the most common by far being speaking in tongues, although numerous other signs are included in the Biblical and are still attested to today.

There is merit to the argument that the Scriptures refer to the believer’s first infilling of the Spirit as a baptism, and to subsequent comparable encounters as infillings. This subtle distinction proves important as we recognise that baptism in the Holy Spirit propels the believer into the realms of the Spirit in a definitive way. But there is equal merit in noting that everyone baptised was already in that which they were baptised into. In other words, baptism is a secondary action, but not something totally unfamiliar. Those who are baptised in water first go down into the water before being immersed in it. In the same way, anyone being immersed in the Spirit must already be in the Spirit for that baptism to be able to take place. Understanding this helps us grasp that all Christians are born of the Spirit, have the Spirit, and are in the Spirit, even if not baptised in the Spirit. The latter is distinct from the new birth, and not for salvation, but for empowerment in witness.

Not an ethereal Gnostic bunny-trail

Gnosticism is a category of heresy for any wayward belief which appeals to some form of special “gnosis” or knowledge.

Spiritual things are always vulnerable to Gnostic influences, because spiritual things are by definition revelatory in nature. Everyone alive to God is so thanks to Word and Spirit. That said, some have received much more than others. Maturity plays a part. Having being baptised in the Spirit does also. But then, so do gifts and callings. That’s what makes comparison impossible. How can we compare ears to eyes, as they have completely different functions. Yet in the church, comparisons are both odious and ubiquitous. And because they are objectively impossible, we accomplish the measurement of the immeasurable by imposing the criteria of our subculture.

We keep stumbling over this thing. Dismissing the reality of us having all received a faith of equal standing, and thereby affording one another equal value based on Christ’s assessment, we insist on classifying the citizens of the kingdom based upon our own set of arbitrary performance indicators. Then we’re mortified when the high-profile tele-ministry fails morally. In our convoluted thinking, gifts, callings and influence somehow amount to spirituality and/or maturity. Not so! The outcomes of our lives are by grace and through faith. Confusing performance with spirituality is only possible in the first place thanks to our underlying confusion regarding Law and Grace. It is in this kind of doctrinal detritus that Gnosticism thrives as self-righteousness proliferates.

Pentecostal and Charismatic churches are saturated with this folly. Being filled with the Spirit is right in the middle of the morass, along with anything else regarded as spiritual in that particular subculture. This could be prayer and fasting. It could be speaking tongues or prophesying. It could be miracles, signs and wonders. It could even be serving, or giving, or Bible knowledge. Or falling over and the like. Or a blend of these. Whatever the permutation, it all too seldom defines authentic spirituality by righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, and even less often by love.

I once heard the dynamics of this kind of Charismatic Gnosticism described in terms of drug dealership. The leaders deliver a dose of the fix on a regular basis, for which the church members slavishly pay their ten percent, and jump through the other hoops set before them. The whole setup is stick-and-carrot riddled, but inevitably over-promises and under-delivers, always reaching for an elusive more. Like the level of life in any church, things wax and wane over time, and the more of the treadmill is in reality nothing other than more of the same. Everyone is always getting filled, but few ever are filled in any definitive way.

The Galatian believers were case in point. Obedience to elements of the Law of Moses became their subculture’s criteria for spirituality. Paul regarded them as foolish, and as having been bewitched. They had started in grace, but were pursuing a spirituality of their own design, and doing so in their own strength. Carefully heeding their example will serve us well.

Rain clouds and rising fountains

The flood of Noah’s day provides us with valuable insight. As is often the case, spiritual things reflect in the natural world, casting shadows in the tangible which enable us to better grasp the workings of the invisible. In similar vein as water, the Scriptures also reveal the Spirit as oil, wind, fire and seal.

“In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights” (Genesis 7:11–12). The waters came down, but the waters also came up. In the same way, the Holy Spirit is “poured out” and “comes upon”, but also wells up from within. Jesus was emphatic that anyone who came to Him thirsty would be given this river of living water, and that it would well up from within them (John 7:37-39). I’m sure you can see it now. The bottle is in the ocean and the ocean is in the bottle. We are filled in encounter, where Holy Spirit comes upon us, and we receive. And we are filled as He wells up form within us, for all who are born again have the Holy Spirit in residence.

The conflict in notion resolves as we embrace the genius of the “and”. It is not one or the other, but the one and the other.

Our desire is to obey. Our desire is to be filled with the Spirit, just as the Scriptures instruct. But let’s forgo the nonsensical prescriptions of our subcultures. Let’s desire and pursue the fullness and freedom already given us in Christ. This is our privilege and our inheritance in Him. Let’s recognise that the Scriptures often encourage us to seek the Lord, but never do they tell us how. That’s because seeking the Lord is an “in the Spirit” and a “by the Spirit” thing. Thinking that we know how is the surest sign that we have no idea at all.

New wine

“Do not be drunk with wine … but be filled with the Spirit”.

Could any metaphor be more apt. Nine o clock one morning, in an upper room in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit fell upon the one hundred and twenty saints gathered there. In the aftermath of the initial torrent of tears and laughter, they found themselves on the streets of the city, bewildered. People thought they were drunk. Yet, Peter stood and preached the Gospel in clarity and power, and three thousand people were saved. He was so clear about a number of things that day, including the fact that what they had just received was for all who would believe. The drinks were free, and Heaven’s Bar was open!

This drunkenness so offends the religious mind. Bit it’s not the destructive drunkenness of wine, but the delightful inebriation of the New Covenant. Those imbibing on this new wine find their defences coming down, and their generosity going up. Their’s is not the belligerence or frivolity of the fermented grape, but the childlike embrace of the Lord and the moment. Joy unspeakable, and full of glory. Not to mention full of song.

For those who are duck to water with this kind of thing, great may be your joy. In this is great blessing, for the joy of the Lord is our strength. Live drunk, and join the soaking meeting circuit. Just don’t be prescriptive about it. Or judgmental of others. Respect, honour and encourage other believers who have never been to a soaking meeting, and who have no intention of ever attending one. Appreciate that they may be just as filled with the Spirit as what you are. For just as not everyone is at their happiest in the clubs over the weekend, several beers down, not all Christians are equally enthralled with hanging out in Heaven’s Bar. Those who love it love it, but those who don’t end up staying home. And to these, the Lord is as generous and loving, and His desire is that they be as filled as anyone else. And so He invites them into the water just as surely. To use Ezekiel’s analogy, in He calls them, ankle deep, knee, deep, waste deep, and beyond. Deep within them He arises, deep calling unto deep, no one knowing the heart of man better than his own spirit within him, born of God and one with Him. The testimonies are endless. The man who dreamt he was being filled with the Spirit, and saw himself speaking in tongues, only to find himself slowly waking, all the while his prayer language pouring from his lips. How gracious is our God.

Let’s also recognise that the Lord is able to turn our rooms into an upper room any time He chooses. What He did in Jerusalem He also did at Cornelius’ house in Caesarea also. And what He did then, He still does now. There is no need to manipulate or manufacture. Authenticity has great value, but imitation little.

Keeping the main thing the main thing

What is important here is that we are filled with the Spirit. The focus should surely not be on the process of infilling, but on the resultant fullness. Some subcultures revolve around the unhelpful notion that we somehow leak, and so require incessantly repeating infillings in order to be Spirit-filled. Other subcultures rightly recognise that no Christian can ever be devoid of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is God Himself, which makes commodity-speak about Him nonsensical. We either have Him or we don’t, because He is a person, who isn’t issued by weight or length or any other measure. Yet the infilling of the Spirit is experiential, and those who receive should surely have more tangible evidence on offer than sound doctrine.

The crux of the issue is clear. Fullness in the Lord. On the one hand, the experience of His habitation within us, and on the other His enabling. Some distinguish between these two by saying that the Spirit is within us for our sake, and upon us for others. This dichotomy helps our understanding, but does not quite hold up Biblically though, for those who drink receive a river in their bellies, and that river refreshes them as well as others. It is not a matter of either/or; remember the genius of the “and”.

By grace alone through faith alone

A life in the Spirit is by grace and through faith, which is in essence a matter of control.

Scripture cautions us regarding the Spirit. In our unbelief, we risk insulting Him, grieving Him, resisting Him and and quenching Him. The language is revealing. There is nothing we can do to help Him, but we are able to hinder Him. We are the ones to keep in step with Him, and not the other way around. And so it is that in concluding, we return once again to the Gospel. God is gracious. Ours is to believe, and in our believing, to yield.

Great obedience to God is not founded in our strength or our courage. It is rooted in trust. In letting go. In yielding to His thoughts, His ways, His pace, His path. This is the key to being filled with the Spirit. We do not fill ourselves. The Holy Spirit is the gift of the Father, and Jesus is the one who does the filling. To be filled with the Spirit is His doing. We believe, and believing, receive.

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Pray for South Africa

Our local church, so guided by the Holy Spirit, has embarked on a pilgrimage of intercession for our nation. “Pray for South Africa”. What that means in practice is that a significant portion of our Sunday morning services have been ceded to prayer. A few months in, and we’re learning to shun fear and stand in faith as we square up to the enormous challenges of the day. So far, so good!

The other Sunday morning I woke early with a single sentence running around on the inside: “Pray that the country doesn’t burn!” What a charge. And what to make of it? A threat of civil war? Anarchy? Perplexed, I made my way to the gathering.

Not many minutes in, Pat van der Zee took the congregational microphone and shared the following. Here is an edited version of her putting pen to paper …

“On Thursday evening we overnighted with our daughter and family. It was her birthday, and all four of our children with their families joined us for supper at a local restaurant. As we were leaving the restaurant we noticed a fire on the horizon in the direction of their homestead, and the journey home soon revealed that the farm was ablaze, with the homestead under threat.

Immediately, the decision to evacuate was taken. We tried to quickly pack a few things, but at times like that realise that the only thing of any importance is the saving of lives. As we left the homestead, we saw the lights of many vehicles driving up to the farm from the village to see if they could help. There was a great deal at stake, including a second homestead and several bed and breakfast rooms that are income-generating.

There seemed little hope, but then our prayers were answered, as the wind first changed direction, and then died down. The next morning we saw that the flames had stopped less than a hundred metres from the fence that surrounds the homestead. God is the God of the impossible, and this hopeless situation became a celebration of His love, faithfulness, grace and mercy.

We experienced such fear in the face of the fire, but the support of the community and the agreement in prayer by all concerned made such a difference. And over and above that, we call on a God who wills all to be saved, and who gave His Son for this purpose. It has made me realize so clearly the reality and urgency of the Gospel in our day.”

That testimony provided an extraordinary context of faith in which to “pray that the country doesn’t burn”. This we did, calling on the God of the impossible, who wills that none perish, but that all are saved.

Pray with us. Pray for South Africa. Pray for peace and prosperity. Pray for repentance and faith. Can a nation come to God, and substantially so? Of course it can! Can a nation escape from the threat of destruction and emerge humbled, believing, and pulsating with life in every sense? Of course it can. And our God wills it so!

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Thinking about Discipleship

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw Him they worshiped Him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).

The word disciple comes from the Latin discipulus, for pupil or learner. It corresponds with the Greek mathetes, from manthano – to learn. The corresponding Hebrew term, limmud, is somewhat rare in the OT, but common in the rabbinical writings. That said, the practice of discipleship is to be found throughout the Old Testament. In the Greek world, philosophers were likewise surrounded by their pupils. A disciple is thus in the most fundamental sense the pupil of a teacher. And since pupils often adopted the distinctive teaching of their masters, the word also came to signify adherence to a particular outlook in religion or philosophy.

The believers were first called Christians in Antioch, and were known as the Way in Ephesus. But the term disciple remained the most common term for them throughout the Gospels and the book of Acts. So saying reveals that Jesus both broadened and deepened the meaning of the word. He broadened its meaning by gathering around Himself concentric circles of disciples. The first circle comprised a tiny, intimate inner core. The largest a perimeter embracing thousands and reaching into nations. But all were His disciples. He also deepened its meaning. he extended a call to His disciples to deep personal allegiance and exclusive loyalty. This willingness to put Him above and before all else went well beyond the norm. For many, heeding His call has literally required the abandonment of home and family and business ties, and even meant relinquishing all possessions.

Conventional thought

With Jesus creating the initial impetus, the church has discipled people ever since. It has done so within three frameworks.

Firstly, and in the broadest sense, the local church is a discipling environment in and of itself. By definition, the church is a community submitted to God, His Word, and to one another. Vulnerability, malleability and accountability are inherent to the equation. This way of life is described in a rather fascinating way by doctor Luke in the book of Acts. In documenting the exponential increase in the number of believers, he reveals a culture of discipleship by describing it as the word having increased (Acts 4:31, 6:2, 6:7, 8:4, 8:14, 11:1, 12:24, 13:48-49, 19:10, 19:20). This warrants discussion later on.

Secondly, the church embodies choreographed order, exquisitely crafted by the Lord. The same thing is observable within the Trinity. Collaboration between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is carefully appointed. Nothing is at all haphazard. The same carefully appointed order permeates family and state also, when we allow it. This is so because Creator God is the founder of these institutions. What He creates is always consistent with His own nature. So it is that diverse gifts and callings collaborate seamlessly in their respective roles. Embedded within this dynamic flow of authority and responsibility is an element of discipleship. Teaching and training can occur along any appropriate interface. We all play a part, and build one another up in love.

And finally, the church disciples with in relationships especially constituted for this purpose. Jesus and the Twelve are the obvious role model. Barnabas and Paul are also an excellent example, as are Paul and Timothy. It’s this type of arrangement that most likely springs to mind at the mention of discipleship. The Scriptures reinforce the validity of the practise by encouraging imitation. First of Christ, but also imitation of the life of faith of the mature in Christ. Paul champions this thinking when instructing Timothy: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:1–2). Paul was raising a disciplers, who would in turn raise up other disciplers, and so forth. His aim was to establish a self-perpetuating cycle. Discipleship should multiply mature equippers ad infinitum.

Essential qualifiers

Our synopsis is thus far both satisfactory and Biblical, yet incomplete.

The inseparable relationship between authority and discipleship must be underscored. Whenever the Lord delegates responsibility, He also delegates the concomitant authority. Yet, in the final analysis, all authority remains with Jesus. All authority has been given to Him. He was Himself emphatic about this. For that reason discipleship can never be regarded as an exercise in authority. It is, and always will be, a function of servanthood. It undergirds. Church history records authority’s many abuses, and more than a few were in the name of discipleship. That fact alone adorns the subject in red flags.

The essential qualifier is that authority and submission always rests on the foundation of mutual submission. We submit one to another out of reverence for Christ. This is the great equaliser. Detach the flow of authority and submission from this essential foundation, and abuse must ensue. Leadership and governance devolves into a lording over. It is only because husband and wife are mutually submitted to one another out of reverence for Christ that the wife can safely submit to her husband’s headship in the marriage. The same applies, leader to follower to leader, in the context of church and state.

A further essential is emphasis on the “Go” of the Gospel. All discipleship must ultimately be about establishing the nations in Christ, and under His government. Thankfully this cry continues to ring out from pulpits across the globe. All nations need discipleship. And it is the will of God that we disciple them. He has given all of us the job. This “Go” is important for two reasons. Firstly, it ensures that we disciple away from ourselves and towards mission. And secondly, only the multiplication afforded by a “Go” paradigm will get the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

But don’t miss the revelatory gem in the offing. Discipleship must establish the nations in Christ before establishing them under His government. People are to be immersed into Christ before they are taught to obey anything. Read it carefully. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Many sermons could and should be preached at this juncture. Jesus was instilling in His apostolic band a theology that embraced the Trinity. The Eleven to whom the words were spoken were all Israelites. They had always been taught that the Lord their God was One (Deuteronomy 6:4, Mark 12:29, et al). But possibly even more important than that, He was emphasising the fact that all Christianity is identity-driven. Disciples “be” before they “do”. All training must therefore be on the foundation of grace through faith, for all authentic Christian behaviour stems from newness in Christ.

These observations impose significant caveats on our earlier observations. The machinery of discipleship is one thing; life and effectiveness in the process another. In practise, the leader of a congregation might well be the leader of the leadership team, a husband and father, and the convener of several discipleship forums. In an authoritarian culture, this would make him a very powerful individual indeed. He could exercise enormous control through simple approval or disapproval. Unless of course he is first submitted. To his fellow leaders, to his wife, to the congregation, and even to his kids as age-appropriate. And unless he is discipling away from himself, relinquishing power and authority wherever possible.

Biblical curriculae

As the Gospel first spread, doctor Luke documented it as the word increasing. This was more than a mere turn of phrase. It points to an important component of discipleship’s gambit of essentials. Discipleship requires curriculum. Any training exercise requires suitable training material. So, the word increased. Good. But what word was it?

We know that the Luke could not possibly have been referring to the written Word as we know it today. The New Testament had not yet been written. It could also not possibly have referred to the words of Moses. The Old Covenant had been set aside, replaced by a new and better covenant, founded on new and better promises.

Jesus’ words shed light – “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”. And while He taught many things, do the scholastic legwork and you’ll discover that He only issued two commands: Believe, and love. Love as you have been loved, that is. Which takes us right back to the Gospel!

Paul’s curriculum statement echoes the words of Jesus. “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men”. Paul’s discipleship curriculum was what he taught wherever he went. His “whole counsel of God” in Ephesus was his “knowing nothing amongst you except Christ Jesus and Him crucified” in Corinth, was his “word of Christ” through which faith comes about which he wrote to the church in Rome.

The word in question is the Gospel, of course. It is the power of God for salvation for all who believe. Discipleship is nothing other than the application of the perfect, finished work of Christ, and this to every area of life. A narrow curriculum, but one which impacts on everything else. It does so without condemnation. There is no guilt and manipulation; no stick and carrot. It leaves responsibility with the individual in unmitigated ways. But it offers love, acceptance, and the gift of righteousness in equally unmitigated ways.

A rather useful bottom line is simply this: When discipleship is undertaken off an unsuitable foundation, it centres around accountability. Behaviour is policed, and the exercise devolves into people pleasing. But when discipleship is appropriately embarked on, in the Gospel, everything revolves around encouragement. The perfect work of Jesus is what is kept central. This allows limitless opportunity for failure, and equally limitless opportunity for restoration. Love abounds and life flows. Even discipleship, in the final analysis, is all about Jesus.

Disciples of whom?

One final matter, and an important one at that. Christians are disciples, but disciples of whom?

In the broadest sense, all believers are disciples of Jesus. The Scriptures are unequivocal on this matter. Peter tells us that He left us an example to follow. John insists that, “Whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked” (I John 2:6). Differentiating, as some do, between believers (the saved) and disciples (the obedient saved), is judgmentalism. It introduces unhelpful class distinctions in the church. Far better to insist that every believer is in fact a disciple. That makes obedience the natural and anticipated outflow of faith.

Yet caution is necessary. Implying that discipleship is the conforming of believers to Christ is problematic. We carry such varied paradigms on the matter. White people tend to have a white Jesus, and black people a black Jesus. Reducing the Christian life to imitating “our” Jesus is thus folly. The outcome must be a form of legalism of our own crafting.

The Bible also encourages us to imitate the way of life of those beyond us in maturity in the Lord. We gladly do so. We learn from them, imitating their faith and faithfulness. But without becoming imitations of them. One of religion’s more abhorrent characteristics is that those trapped by it reproduce themselves. This is certainly not the discipler’s brief. Every believer is already a clone of Jesus. Born again of the Spirit, every believer has a new nature which is His identical twin. Discipleship should never work towards conformity. It works towards nurturing the new life already granted, in fullness and freedom.

Fortunately Jesus made matters plain, and emphatically so. Believers are His disciples in the broad sense, but followers of the Holy Spirit in the specifics. He is the Helper within, our teacher and guide. He is the One who will never leave us. He will lead us into all truth, making the things of Jesus and the Father known to us. It is He we are following, moment by moment, day by day. He is our teacher. As Jesus said to His own on the night of His betrayal, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for He will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that He will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:12–15).

Which is why Paul could state so unequivocally, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14).

It is true that disciples are made, not born. But they are made by the One of whom they are born. Discipleship is by grace, through faith, and always, always, in the power of the Spirit.

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Do Who You Are

The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

As good news goes, it’s simple and straightforward. Jesus lived the sinless life none of us could live. He then died the sinner’s death we all deserve. He did this all as our substitute, and His resurrection ratified His substitutionary sacrifice.

As good news goes, though, there is so much more going on with the Gospel than mere information. It is revelation. Word and Spirit. That’s what gives it power in and of itself. Wherever it goes it imparts faith. And anyone who believes receives. More than that, everyone who receives is received also. In that first moment of faith, Holy Spirit unites new believers with Christ. He literally immerses them into Christ’s crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection, even while recreating them in Christ’s image. From that moment on, they are in Christ, and He is in them.

The Gospel comes to us, enters into us, and draws us into itself. We Christians live because of the Gospel, by the Gospel, in the Gospel, through the Gospel, and for the Gospel. Prepositions abound as we attempt to give words to it all. Christ and His Gospel are inseparable; Christ and Christians are inseparable; Christians and the Gospel are inseparable. It is the power of God by which we are being saved. Paul put it this way to the Corinthians, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (I Corinthians 15:1-2). Its claims are all-or-nothing. Either it is fully saving for all who stand in it, or else it is sheer vanity, saving none at all.

We will always be grateful to the Reformers for restoring the Gospel to the church. They did what they could see. Yet they unfortunately stopped short of its full application. They restored it as the only means of salvation. They even sought to restore it as the only means of living the Christian life. But what they didn’t do was establish it as God’s exclusively ordained means of ministry. The New Covenant’s way. This limited follow-through saw the Reformers themselves remain identified with the ecclesiastical elite of the day, and deprived the rank and file of it’s freedom and fullness to the point of themselves becoming the New Covenant’s fully-fledged torchbearers.

This is not said in criticism of the Reformers. They walked by the light they had. But it is said to underscore the need for a further reformation in the church of our day. Jesus was clear that there is no room for an elitism in His church. His Gospel is His gift to His world, for the salvation of all who believe; there for the possessing by the whosoever will. Most Evangelicals and Charismatics are a far cry from this. In these circles the Gospel tends to be the domain of the evangelist, while the bulk of the church remains mired in a mixture of Law and Grace. Nowhere is this more prominent than in matters of leadership and governance.

It’s time for change!

Dismantle the heirarchy

In Luther’s day, the priesthood had positioned themselves between God and His people. In our day, the church has positioned herself between God and His world. Just a slightly different manifestation of the same misbelief.

In Christ, God came to His world. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:17–21).

God has reconciled the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them. This is the Good News of the Gospel. Grace and truth have come. All that remains is for men and women to believe and receive. Access has already been granted into the kingdom of heaven. All that men and women have to do is accept His invitation, and in so doing make the journey from where they are (in Adam) to where they belong (in Christ).

This proclamation is unfortunately seldom heard. That’s thanks to the convoluted belief system of most of His ambassadors. Most somehow believe that if they’re ambassadors for the kingdom, then their local churches are somehow its embassies. It then follows that these embassies must have been charged with issuing Heaven’s visas. This of course is definitely not so. God, in Christ, has already personally issued a visa to everyone on the planet. They just don’t know it yet, and our job as His ambassadors, is to tell them! Our ambassadorial role is nothing more than to herald that which has already been decreed. Far too many Christians are so far away from understanding this that they also see their church leaders as the visa issuers, which is not too different to the way things were in Luther’s day. Little wonder the church as a whole is insecure in her salvation and so fickle in her witness.

Discern accurately

The church is not between God and His world. Unbelief is.

Our priestly role celebrates His work, but does not mediate it. Our inclusion in the outworking of it all is by His condescension, and is our privilege. He does use us, but He does not need us. Any other view, even subconsciously, will inevitably subject those who hold it to unbridled pressure and debilitating condemnation. Even incarnate Jesus wasn’t perfect enough to impress His brothers. If He fell short, how can we even begin to believe that the salvation of those around us can possibly hinge on our performance.

That’s not to suggest that the obedience of faith is to be taken lightly. Even Paul, who was well aware that he could not save anyone, told the Ephesian elders that he was innocent of the blood of all, having declared to them the whole counsel of God. He also relayed to the Galatians that he regarded his own sufferings as a necessary extrapolation of the sufferings of Christ. I’ve encountered similar views amongst persecuted believers who suffer for their faith even today. Thought forms like these in no wise trivialise the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ, but honour it. The Gospel is a life and death matter, and eternally so. To treat it as anything less is to dishonour Christ’s work, His world, and His Gospel. We who have been redeemed by the blood of the Saviour would do well to consider ourselves as under orders, and do as we’re told. No other response could ever approximate appropriate.

Nevertheless, a careful distinction must be drawn between fruit and success. Or, perhaps better put, we ought to give careful thought to how we define success. A local church might exhibit every sign of being successful, yet be less fruitful than one might think. That’s because fruit stems from the members of the congregation walking in the good works the Lord has prepared in advance for them to do. No matter how grand the vision, or how vibrant the programs, unless these are works done in the obedience of faith, they are the dead works of human effort. For many of us, the thought that much of what happens in a local church could be wood, hay and stubble, is somewhat unpalatable. Yet when we take a step back, and we consider how far short we are of evangelising the planet, and that after two thousand years of concerted effort, we can begin to open ourselves up to the notion that perhaps an entirely different approach to being and doing church might be needed.

Truth is, in the Gospel we’ve already been given everything necessary for maximum fruitfulness. Everything within the New Covenant operates by grace and through faith. Fullness and freedom have already been granted in Christ Jesus. All God’s promises are yes and amen in Him. For that reason, all that is needed is a revelation of the Gospel, and the faith to follow through on what and where that takes us. Because the Gospel contains all, and is given to all, the great deliverance needed is not from our shortcomings and weaknesses, but from our unbelief.

As earlier observed, unbelief typically manifests in self-absorption. Self-awareness, and especially so in the context of our new nature in Christ, is a good thing. We only love others because we ourselves are loved. And we can only serve others well when we are conscious of our own impact upon them. Self-awareness is thus foundational to maturity. But self-centredness is something entirely different. It is of the flesh, and not of the Spirit. It considers self above all else and before all else. It is self-conscious, self-serving, self-preserving, self-promoting and self-indulgent. In a nutshell – selfish. And sinful. And as it is with the individual, so it is with the corporate. The mature local church, secure in the Gospel, is self-aware, but not self-absorbed. Her Christianity is all about Him. She does not see herself awkwardly poised between God and His world, but at one with Him, and serving His world in and for Him. It is not Him who is sought, for she is His and He is hers. It is His will that is sought. It is His will which is loved, longed for, embraced and done.

Respond appropriately

This makes leadership under the New Covenant a simple matter. This is because it asks nothing different of leaders than what it does of anyone else.

The underlying premise under the New Covenant is the same for everybody. All are in Christ, and indwelt by the Spirit. Fullness and freedom have already been granted. Design and destiny are hand and glove. All the necessary gifts and callings, graces and anointings are in place. Remember that everything the Lord ever asks for, He takes full responsibility for by providing first.

Now take a moment to factor in our supporting cast. It’s similar, no matter who we are. The fact that there even is a supporting cast is quite remarkable, given the fact that He alone is always more than enough. Yet the New Covenant is a covenant that just keeps on giving. The Lord places brothers and sisters beside us. His has given us His written Word, pulsating with revelation, to aid and abet us. The bread and the wine are constant reminders, and they assist us in the appropriation of all that He has promised. The impartation we receive when our brothers and sisters lay hands on us does the same. Unlimited, unhindered access to His throne of grace is ours also. And if that were not enough, the Lord Himself never slumbers or sleeps, but is behind the scenes, working for good in all things. Someone has said that He does far more behind our backs than we’ll ever know.

His grace abounds indeed. As we’ve seen, its means are many. And as it finds us, it’s first gift is always faith.

What then must we do? How are we to respond. There is no script to follow; no task to complete, standard to meet or goal to achieve. Any battle to be fought will be won by standing in His victory. The faith that is to be kept is kept in His strength, in His wisdom, and by His abundant grace. And the race which we are to run is entirely unique. It is ours. No one can run it for us, and no one can run it better than what we can. It is ours, and ours alone.

What then do we do? How do we respond? And this much applies to leader and follower alike also, for all that differs are the roles to be played.

We believe!

Live authentically

And in believing, we love. Loved ourselves, we extend to others that which has been freely given us. We are alive thanks to the Gospel, and we are alive in the Gospel. We therefore live for the Gospel, and we do so by allowing it to flow through and from us, in words, ways, works and wonders. In believing, we love, and in believing and loving we do, and as we do, we find ourselves walking in the obedience of faith.

Nothing could be simpler. Being who He has made us to be, we quite naturally then do what He has called us to do.

This is the only legitimate point of accountability for our lives. We are new creations in Christ. Are we living authentically?

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Reflections on Leadership

Leadership is a big subject. Church leadership is a small sub-category of this much larger whole.

The Bible places church leaders in one of three broad categories. These are not as precise nor as prescriptive as some would have us believe. Theology is a man-made discipline, in which gleaning is common practise. This leaves little room for dogmatism.

Three broad categories

Those leaders who oversee the affairs of the local church are the elders. Biblically, they always function in plurality. The Scriptures also refers to them interchangeably as bishops and shepherds. Each of the three terms carries helpful descriptive nuance. Eldership (presbyteros) derives from the familial and tribal roots of nations. It speaks clearly into the desirability of plurality in governance. Shepherding (poimen) derives from the agrarian society of the Bible days. Bishop (episcopos) derives from the foremen or overseers of construction sites. Acknowledging these nuances enriches the job description of the eldership as a group. It also grants insight into the possible strengths of respective individuals in that group. Important to note is that the church is God’s nation, flock and building. Bearing that in mind keeps human leadership in appropriate perspective.

The second category is the deacons. These were first appointed to manage the distribution of food to widows in the Jerusalem church. From there the role developed. It now describes leaders who facilitate the practicalities of the local church community. As the etymology suggests, deacons are servants. Literal ministers, in the original sense of that word. (The sensibilities of which seem to escape many modern-day politicians). Deacons are appointed to watch over their Master’s business. Important to note is that the elders are not their masters. Deacons are the servants of the Chief Servant, administrating His affairs. As such, they are servants to His church, and not the servants of His church. We are equally all servants of one another in Him.

Finally, there are the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. They are appointed by Christ for the sake of His bride. These are specialists in the maturing of the saints. As such these ministries tend towards trans-local influence. They can be cast in a role reminiscent of John the baptiser. The difference is that John was appointed an attendant of the betrothed. He was only needed until the coming of the Bridegroom. These ministries attend also, but the lady in question is no longer Christ’s betrothed, but His wife. Their role is not to prepare the bride for her Bridegroom, as was John’s. Theirs is to mature the bride in her Bridegroom. This distinction reaches far beyond mere semantics.

Suffice to say that contributions vary, even within categories, let alone across them. Paul the apostle lived celibate and traveled extensively. James the apostle, who presided over the Council of Jerusalem, did neither. In defining ministries and their respective contributions, little place for dogmatism remains.

Influence in diversity

The churches leaders serve are as varied as the leaders themselves.

Some are tiny third-world communities that gather under trees in the rural outback. Others are modern mega-churches in the hearts of the globe’s leading cities. Each is a limited manifestation in the here and now of Jesus’ glorious, transcendent, eternal bride. Even where their contexts are comparable, each church is still unique. Each has its own personality, character, culture and ethos. Each is a blend of nature and nurture. Longevity adds by contribution over time into the complex matrix of variables shaping any given situation.

With such diversity and variance, the common denominator, by way of definition, is influence. And amidst the many variables influencing the local church, leaderships influence is arguably the most impactful. Culture and context contribute much, but if the local church is to enjoy any conscious shaping that is counter-culture or counter-context, it will likely be through the leadership. Further reflection reveals leadership as influence as a crystalline gem, with rich interplay between its many facets. Wisdom, inspiration, vision, strategy, mobilisation, commitment, planning, fortitude, and many more besides. Books can be written, indeed have, on each. But we’re painting with a broad brush here, and so regarding leadership as influence in a generic way suits our purposes well. It’s not the only influence in the local church, but it will always be a major influence, by commission or omission, for good or for ill.

That said, every positive influence traces back to God. He is good, always and only does good, and is the originator of every good gift. And because He is so generous, there is always a great deal to thank Him for. Every corrupting influence, on the other hand, traces back to unbelief, which is the essence of sin. Within the confines of our humanity, sin inevitably involves self. Self-awareness may well be a mark of maturity, but self-centredness is not. Its nuances are numerous: self-reliance, self-indulgence, self-righteousness, self-promotion, and every other kind of selfishness. On point is that sin always leads to death. Fallen world and satan’s minions compound its destructiveness. They work together to ensure that the deeds of the flesh are as necrotic as possible.

This applies to leadership as much as to anything else.

Leaders should influence, not define

Jesus nurtures His church through others, and her leaders play a most significant role in this. Yet her leaders are within her. They are not first and foremost over her, or ahead of her, but within her. They are as much a part of the community of faith as anyone else. As integral. As mutually submitted.

Many would acknowledge this, yet still make the mistake of believing that leadership should be skeletal to the body. In other words, those who are in authority in the local church are her mainstays. Allow me to illustrate …

According to Scripture, the apostles and prophets are foundational to the church, with Jesus as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). Interpret this statement structurally, and local churches should be built upon men and ministries. Interpret it in the sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work (as context dictates), and we glimpse again His glorious, transcendent church. Jew and Gentile are included on equal footing. This latter interpretation is consistent with the City and Bride of the Revelation. Her gates carry the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (prophets). Her wall’s foundation stones the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Revelation 21:9-14). So it is that she is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets; not on apostle so-and-so or prophet-what’s-his-name.

A second example is the misbelief under which I labored for decades. To use Paul’s analogy, leaders are the bones of Christ’s body. The thinking is that just as in the human body, the nerves, arteries and veins are paired along the skeleton. There they enjoy the protection bones provide, and from there they are able to reach throughout the body, providing their essential services. Such a view aligns all the essential services of the body with leadership. Nerves and blood; connection with the Head; all dependent on leadership. Such a view relegates the bulk of a local church’s membership to simply fleshing out the skeleton. Show up, serve and give. Do as you’re told and go where you are sent. With apologies for mixed metaphors, leadership becomes the pergola on which the vines of church members grow. The result is that church members seldom become the oaks of righteousness as destined in Christ, but remain dependent on others in matters spiritual.

A third example is the degree to which churches are defined by structure. Episcopal, presbyterian or congregational. It would be far more helpful if context determined structure. A young church, or a church in trouble? Undergird it from outside of itself through a strong, wise, experienced episcopate. A strong, mature, healthy church? A plurality of elders would be best. And the more extensive the work, the more important a Spirit-filled, vibrant and able deaconate. All three have their place. All three should influence every local church to some degree. But none should supplant the governance of Christ or the leadership of His Spirit. These abide within the believers. Christ is her foundation, and He is her life-blood.

As an aside here. Most local churches require a constitution. Be this for land ownership, or even for something as simple as opening a bank account. This constitution will demand that the church be defined by its structures of leadership and governance. Someone, after all, has to take responsibility. May I suggest that every constitution should have the following three characteristics. Firstly, each local church must be autonomous. Our Heavenly Father has granted us volition by design, and our structures should do the same one for another. Secondly, the constitution should be minimalist and simple, providing maximum flexibility. Our God is invested in diversity, and it is therefore incumbent upon us to grant that gift to one another. And thirdly, those in authority should be accountable to the congregation as a whole. This ought be so as we’re all to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. This is the backdrop against which all other authority and submission is worked out (Ephesians 4:21). Heed these three navigation beacons, and constitutional responsibility will stop short of governmental rigidity.

Liberating fluidity

Such ecclesiastical fluidity opens the floodgates of liberating revelation.

It turns out that getting everything right and just-so is not such big a deal after all. Church is all about Jesus, and He is building His church. Jesus is conducting the orchestra, and Holy Spirit is the unction to every moving part. Secure in that, we can all relax into authenticity.

There is no recipe. There is no ideal organogram. Churches should not built according to pattern, model or blueprint.

At the end of the day it doesn’t even really matter all that much whether we can tell the difference between an apostle and a deacon. Love one another, and receive one another with open hearts, and we’ll get all that He gives through each anyway. What matters is our in-Him-ness. It’s the measles and mumps thing. Get around a fellow who has measles but says he has mumps, and you’ll catch what he’s got, no matter what he calls it. In the same way, the church may appear to be bumbling along at best. But as long as Jesus is the CEO and Holy Spirit the Director of Operations, we can be sure that business will be brisk. When our hearts are open to Him, we feast on all that matters, and gold, silver and precious stones abound.

The Gospel makes everything so simple, because God Himself nurtures. People, including leaders, are merely a means.

How then should leaders lead? If not primarily through the conventional tools of leadership and governance, then how? How do apostles apostle? How do prophets prophet, and evangelists evangelist? And what about elders and deacons? How should the elders eld and deacons deac? The answer could not be more simple. In Christ, by the Spirit, and through the Gospel!

In one sense there is no script at all. In another sense, there is only one script, written once-for-all. His script – the Gospel!

All of Christianity is identity driven. So beats the New Covenant metronome, which applies equally to leadership and ministry. Authentic function stems from who we are in Christ. Thorough exegesis might well be used to shape a well crafted job description for the various ministries, but that cannot make anyone performing the tasks into a purveyor of life. Authentic ministry arises from within, from gifts and callings, graces and anointing. The primary issue is one of fruit, and not performance. It’s what folk get from us that counts, remember. Measles or mumps. The good works prepared in advance for us to do are all things that the Lord Himself does through us, as opposed to things we’ve set our our own hearts and minds on doing. Acorns become oaks. Not so aspirant oaks unfortunately, no matter how hard they try. Such is the way of the Lord.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8–10).

This applies to leaders as much as to anyone else. Gone is the stress and strain of trying to be enough. Let’s all just be who we are, in Christ, by His Spirit, and allow His life to flow from that.

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Nature and Nurture

Herewith a quick over-the-shoulder recap of the last four posts …

  • The church is the product of the New Covenant. Her very existence is only possible thanks to the death and resurrection of Jesus. And because of its efficacy, she is spiritual, perfect and glorious. One with God, she transcends time and space.
  • Every local church is a limited temporal manifestation of a far greater eternal reality. Despite imperfections, local churches are always much more than they appear to be. They are defined by their source, not by their performance.
  • Conceived by Word and Spirit, local churches carry New Covenant DNA. They are genetically perfect and glorious. Lacking nothing, their essence cannot be improved upon.
  • Authentic Christian living is the fruit of Christ’s complete and perfect work. It is as much by Word and Spirit as the new birth itself. The Gospel is thus the essential forerunner to the local church. Believers who live true to their new natures congregate in local churches. These are contextually authentic, with a life-dynamic that is by grace and through faith.

These are all descriptions of the church’s essential nature. Clarity on this is all-important, for just as with the individual believer, her essence is what defines her, therefore defining each and every local church also. Yet there’s more to all of us than nature. We are also the product of nurture, by which we mean the sum total of the many influences that have formed and fashioned us, for good and for ill.

On a personal level many aspects of wholesome nurture are generic. They are the necessary components of maturity, irrespective of race, gender or context. “Mind your manners”. “Tidy your room”. But then there are those aspects of nurture that are tailored to situation and circumstance, gifts and callings. “It’s time for your piano lesson”. The greater the congruence between the latter and nature the better. We all have that friend, practical by orientation, who suffered through an education in academic mould. And what about the fellow stranded in the wrong job. Discrepancy between nature and nurture teaches us that design and destiny are hand to glove, and that the more time we spend doing what we’re created for, the better.

Similarly, every local church is a blend of nature and nurture. By nature, all local church are identical. All are of Christ, in Christ, for Christ, and by His Spirit. Their uniqueness stems not from nature, but from nurture. From the fashioning and forming, situation and circumstance. The most obvious variable in the mix is the people themselves. Each member is unique, and makes a unique contribution. Beyond this are innumerable further variables, each impacting on the congregation to greater or lesser degree. Alignment and association play their part, as do history and context. Even omission warrants inclusion in our thinking, because deprivation shapes things just as surely as what diligence and abundance does.

Many of the factors that shape and form a local church are beyond our control, but that should not lead us to conclude that the nurture of a local church is purely a random, haphazard affair. This is not so, for the New Covenant brings with it wisdom of grace. Jesus is building His church, in the universal and in the local sense. Understanding how He does this enables us to cooperate with Him.

Jesus is building His church

Jesus is building His church. In other words, God Himself is ultimately responsible for nature and nurture. He is the source of every good gift, no matter how convoluted its delivery system may seem. Only that which is of Christ and in Christ is eternal. Heaven’s union with earth may well be untidy in the moment, but this will not always be so. In the end, only that which is perfect will remain. Gold, silver and precious stones will endure. Wood, hay and stubble will perish. Humanity as we know it is transient. Humanity as in Christ Jesus is eternal.

Jesus builds by Word and Spirit. This is how Heaven comes to earth. Jesus embodied this, and the Gospel, which is the Good News about what Jesus accomplished, is Word and Spirit also. Blood and Water; Word and Spirit. By these we are born again, and by these we are nurtured. This is true of us as individual believers, and true of the local church. The implication is that nurture, like the new birth, is by grace alone and through faith alone. Believing is receiving, for it is Him at work, and not we ourselves.

Jesus builds bottom-up inside-out. Our transformation is by clear progression. The first thing Jesus changes is who we are. That happens when we believe and are born again. In that moment we are united with Him is His crucifixion, death and resurrection, and receive a new nature. Holy Spirit takes up residence within us. Next Jesus changes why we are. He gets to work in our hearts and minds, shaping our other innards into alignment with our new nature. The outworking of that is that He changes what we are. How we live. Our behaviour. Our thoughts, words and deeds.

The wonderful thing about all of this is that Heaven’s perfections are not compromised in any way by amalgamation with fallen humanity. This is one of the great distinctives of the New Covenant. Perfection Himself submitted to the virgin’s womb in humble condescension. Doing so did not render Him any the lesser. Our new natures are incorruptible. It is mortality which yields to immortality under the New Covenant, and not the other way around, for Christ conquered the grave. In Him we touch lepers, and in Him we embrace corpses with impunity. In Him, mercy has triumphed over judgement, making love the most powerful force in the universe.

All of that to give insight into how it is that Perfect Jesus is able to use imperfect people. Imperfect people just like us. Incorruptible new natures and a triumphant salvation make this possible. He remains the source of every good gift, even if the delivery system is convoluted. And so, while He remains the Somebody responsible for nurture, He has delegated the task to Everybody. Our life in Him includes all things pertaining to life and godliness. We access this sufficiency through faith. Not a passive faith, but an active faith, that has concomitant obedience. The New Covenant ecosystem thrives as our faith produces good works, many of which unfold within the communion of the saints. The diversity of our gifts and callings enrich in broad sweep as Christ takes on flesh once again, living through His body, by His Spirit. There He expresses Himself through words, ways, works and wonders. We all benefit, the Gospel is propagated, and His kingdom advances. Nothing could be simpler, sweeter, or more God glorifying.

Paradigm shift

It’s against this backdrop of an abundance of good fruit that the Lord Jesus appoints some to leadership and governance in the church. These men and women carry the authority, anointing and grace needed to exercise their gifts and fulfil their callings. To each is apportioned a sphere of influence, but their primary purpose remains the same – the nurture of a bride who is born of God, and who is perfect of nature.

The conventional view of church leadership and governance differs from this considerably. Rather than positioning leaders to undergird and facilitate, the conventional view positions leaders on top and out front. The result is top-down outside-in, rather than the bottom-up, inside-out of the kingdom.

This is the very thing that Jesus warned us about when correcting the ambitious sons of Zebedee in this regard. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42–45).

Reject His inputs, and the sins pile up quickly.

Inherent in us doing things our own way is the denial of the efficacy of His work. This denial comes by way of regarding His bride as less than perfect. Which amounts to unbelief in its rawest form.

Deny the efficacy of His work, and the church presents as sub-standard. Instead of perfect, she is seen as in need of improvement and repair. Inculcating any such culture of shortcoming and lack is the antithesis of the New Covenant’s presumption of fullness and freedom. From here, an orphan spirit quickly develops, as opposed to the delights of the Spirit of sonship which the Gospel so generously bestows.

Set about to improve and repair, and Grace defaults to Law. The tools of this trade are stick and carrot, and all too soon the way the believers behave is managed by approval and disapproval. Instead of the beauty of self-governance in and by the Spirit, which is the New Covenant way, manipulation and control wait in the wings. So accustomed are we to leaders stick-and-carroting that most of us don’t even register a problem. We expect them to bring us under Law, and think it’s their job to manipulate and control as they tell us what to do. Could it be that we’ve completely lost sight of the fact that the ministry of the Law is one of death? This remains so no matter how well-meaning the people are administering it. Abuse can be ever so politely perpetrated, with teary-eyed sincerity, admirable passion, and more than a little self-sacrifice.

Adding insult to injury, it’s not possible to have top-down outside-in leadership without it giving rise to an ecclesiastical aristocracy. A few folk end up being much more important than everyone else. We even quite happily grant them special dress, title and privilege, all the while underscoring their being a cut above the rest, unhelpfully reinforcing the cycle.

Not too long and gone is any thought of the fullness and freedom of the New Covenant. Guilt and condemnation, manipulation and control proliferate. Personal responsibility and self-governance are supplanted by conformity. The leading of the Holy Spirit is replaced by flesh-and-blood leadership. Everyone is shortchanged at best, not least the leaders themselves.

Such are the dynamics of imprisonment by religion in the name of “Biblical order”, “responsible leadership” and “good governance”. Law by every other name!

Redress

The unifying factor of redemption history is Christ and His perfect work. This is the doctrinal monocle (perhaps telescope, or microscope, or both) through which all of Scripture should be understood, and all of history viewed.

So saying flies in the face of the popular notion that the kingdom of God is redemption’s unifying theme. We must be emphatic about this, for the kingdom issues from the King, and serves the purposes of the King, but it is He who is preeminent. Getting this wrong leads to an emphasis on the ways of God, rather than on His glorious salvific work. Christianity then devolves into living by kingdom principles, rather than by the leadership of the Spirit. These two always agree, but the latter is exclusively by grace through faith. Live by kingdom principles, and self effort beckons into recipes and formulae, steps and rules.

Thanks to Jesus’ perfect work, the church is not substandard at all. We Christians are New Covenant people. We are not under Law. The Law was fulfilled by Christ, and rendered obsolete by Him. We are under Grace. Fullness and freedom have been given us in Christ. Nothing lacking; nothing broken. The Holy Spirit is within us. He is our leader. Love, forgiveness and acceptance have replaced the stones Law insisted we throw. Condemnation and retribution are not in the equation. Our behaviour is shaped by our identity, and not managed by approval and disapproval. Gone is the stick and the carrot. We have embraced Christ. He received our punishment in full, and He is our reward. The kingdom of God is within us. Our new natures urge submission to God, as is befitting new creations. In His Name we must therefore demand that there be congruence between nature and nurture, design and destiny.

There is much more yet to be said about leadership and governance under the New Covenant. What concerns us at this point is not the nuts and bolts of it all, but the quantum leap in perspective necessary. Leadership is about nurture, nurture, nurture, nurture and nurture. Nurture congruent with essential nature. Nurture congruent with gift and callings. Nurture in agreement with the work of Christ. Authority used to undergird, not to dominate.

Jesus commanded it, modelled it and enabled it. Ours is to practice it.

He was once quizzed on matters of taxation. The motives behind the question were malicious, an attempt to set Him up against Rome. Jesus asked for a coin, and then asked whose image was on the coin. Caesar was the answer, and, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” His iconic answer. Herein lies a profound summation of the point we’re making. An emperor or monarch has their image imprinted on a coin through moulding or minting. Outside-in and top-down. In contrast, we are God’s by creation and Christ’s through redemption. He has worked to make us in His image, but by Word and Spirit, bottom-up and inside-out. Our leaders should be like Him, and not like Caesar. They should nurture by Word and Spirit, and not by moulding and minting. Mould and mint, and they’ll likely leave their own imprint on us, rather than the image of Christ.

Order without Law

The Bible teaches us that Law is the rightful response to lawlessness. Disciplinary actions still have a place. But this is not so in the cut and thrust of daily life, where the watchword is self-government, from within, and undergirded by the community of faith.

All the inspiration we need is to be found in the very first community of faith, the Trinity, in whose fellowship we have been included in Christ.

Perfect order prevails amongst them. Son submits to Father, and Spirit to Father and Son. Yet there is no Law here. No authoritarianism. In this first community of faith love and honour prevail, and mutual submission each to the others overshadows authority and submission as demonstrated by them fulfilling their respective roles.

Paul appealed to the church to live the same way. He stressed that mutual submission across the love-community is the essential precursor to order. Leaders in the church must submit to their followers before insisting that their followers submit to them. Husbands must submit to their wives in the Lord before insisting that their wives submit to them as a point of order in the marriage. He even extrapolated the principle into the wider context of civil society. The only exception, in all situations, is where lawlessness is prevalent. There, mutual submission in love yields to the rule of law for the preservation of good. But where love rules, no law is necessary.

Today we’re quick to applaud leaders who produce the desired outcomes. We don’t seem to mind if they do it in ways that decimate faith, love and self-governance. We’ve lost sight of the fact that the Law is not of faith. It never has been, and it never will be. It can only produce dead works, and these at best. It’s ministry is death, and it will always create environments conducive to manipulation, control and abuse.

It’s time for a revolution in leadership, producing the kind of leadership that can lead the necessary revolution. A revolution that is at once revival and reformation. The best is yet ahead.

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New Covenant church life

Water stewarded by the river’s banks brings life wherever it goes. But note that it’s the water itself determining the course of the river, carving its banks as it flows. This synergy provides us with perfect parable, for this is how God works.

We can get uncomfortable with the fluidity of His approach. Our fear is that any river left to chart its own course could create a swamp. Our comfort zone is greater control. Sterile canals are the result, and often dry canals at that. We then invest inordinate time and energy into praying for rain as our hearts yearn for life amidst the sterility of our own manufacture. Unfortunately, this is man’s way. There is nothing new about it. The prophet Jeremiah addressed it when he penned, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.“ (Jeremiah 2:13).

Description is not prescription

The Bible introduces us to a number of local churches. Paul’s letters contribute substantially. So do the opening chapters of the Revelation. Yet it is a cursory perusal of Acts that best serves our purposes here. There the unfolding story of the church unfolds around the founding of three significant congregations – Jerusalem, Antioch and Ephesus. We’ll take a peak at each, and in doing so underscore two crucial insights.

Firstly, our fears are unfounded. The Gospel river of Word and Spirit is well able to fashion its own boundaries. Wise leadership is always an asset, but to turn to another metaphor for a moment, we can have full confidence in the seed. There is no need for us to control matters. New Covenant DNA cannot be improved upon. What grows from the Gospel will always be better than what our best efforts can engineer.

Secondly, and the primary point of this post, is that the church in the New Testament emerged directly from the Gospel. The good things that marked church life were the Gospel’s fruit. Just as Jesus had promised – good fruit; abundant fruit; lasting fruit; God-glorifying fruit. Law’s fruit, on the other hand, is deadly. Condemnation, judgement, accusation, disqualification, striving, sin-consciousness, and every other kind of unbelief. But the Gospel produces the good fruit of the kingdom of heaven: righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. These are the makings of healthy local church, whatever the context.

Let’s use an example from Jerusalem in illustration. These generous and caring saints initiated a common purse. As a result, there were no needy among them. The Gospel’s love and generosity reproduced itself in the believers, and the common purse was a manifestation of the work of the Spirit in their hearts. It did not result from any strategic leadership other than that provided by the Holy Spirit from within the heart of the believing community. This distinction is all-important. New Testament descriptions of church life are just that – descriptions. Descriptions of what the Gospel’s fruit may well look like. These descriptive passages should never be brought to bear in prescriptive ways. Do that, and the spiritual barometer immediately swings from Grace to Law. The annals of church history are littered with attempts to engineer similar outcomes by similar means. But man’s way is top-down, outside-in, and the array of abuses attendant manipulation and control easily ensue.

We should expect good fruit in our local churches. Not because we envision and strategise for it, but because we preach the same Gospel the early apostolic band preached. The Biblical descriptions give us snapshots of what that good fruit could look like. But we must resist the tendency to scout out patterns or principles that become our formulae for success. Let’s rejoice in the fruit of the Gospel, whether we see it on the pages of our Bibles or in the other churches in our cities. And then, let’s trust God for good fruit in our own context, as we declare an uncompromised Gospel in the fullness of grace.

Jerusalem

The church in Jerusalem was born in the deluge of Life in the wake of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As kick-starts go, this one was exceptional. Membership increased to well over five thousand on day one. Further advantages in their context included a wealth of leadership (a room full of apostles), and a developed mono-culture (everyone thought the same way). These are helpful facilitators of community. The latter proved a huge hindrance to mission though, and it was only as persecution intensified that the Gospel spread. This teaches us that our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses.

The iconic description of life in the Jerusalem church reads, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42–47)

They devoted themselves to four things. Each was a direct response to the Gospel.

The first was to the apostles’ teaching. Not the teachings of Moses. Not even the teachings of Jesus. They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, which was the Good News, the Gospel. It’s essence was that Jesus had lived the sinless life no sinner could live. He had then died the death every sinner deserved. Then He had risen from the dead. This was the apostles’ message, and this is the New Covenant. It is emphatically post-cross, post-resurrection and post-outpouring-of-the-Spirit. Paul’s ministry was marked by the same message, as should any other be ministry today.

They devoted themselves to the fellowship. The Greek word used here has nuance. Dependant on context, it can be equally well translated as community or partnership. The Jerusalem church embraced it as community. The Gospel had produced a whole new segment in society – the called out ones. Those who had believed into Christ Jesus. They were His community. A grace community; a faith community; a Holy Spirit community. They constituted a definite and distinctive component of the city. Judaism was structured around the Law of Moses. The church coagulated around the command of Jesus: “love one another”. Love one another as Jesus had loved them, that is. Sacrificially, unconditionally and practically.

They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. Jesus gave His church this beautiful means of grace. Communion is ongoing participation in the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. The bread and the wine, received in faith, appropriates the benefits of the New Covenant tangibly and personally. The believers in Jerusalem broke bread often. Most often, is seems, while sharing a meal. Where the meals stopped and the communion started is not all that clear form the account, for as they gathered with family and friends for the sustenance of their bodies, they turned also to the bread and the wine for the nurture of their souls. This reminded them that they were first and foremost spiritual beings. God’s children. Brothers and sisters in Christ. Their context facilitated it all. Jesus had been crucified in Jerusalem, and the likes of continued Roman rule and Golgotha served as continual reminders. Their culture was already an hospitable one, with extended families already a part of daily life. The patterns that emerged did so quite naturally, then, and were a perfect fit for first-century Jerusalem.

Finally, they devoted themselves to prayer. This was a marked response to the New Covenant fitting in any historically religious context. These were people who were accustomed to mediation. Under Moses, only priests went to God. The people went to the priests. Now that these ordinary men and women had access to God, they made full use of the privilege. Simply imagine yourself into their shoes. You’ll quickly appreciate the vibrancy of prayer in the New Testament church. People who had not had anywhere to turn could now turn to God, and that for themselves. They had been made righteous by grace through faith. They were most welcome at His throne of grace. Mercy was freely and directly available. All they needed to do was ask. So they asked! May I suggest that prayer will also flourish in our churches when we rediscover the privilege of access to God.

Antioch

Church life in Antioch reflected its New Covenant DNA just as well. The context was different, and so the fruit showed itself a little differently also. Here multi-culturalism was the order of the day. Jew and Gentile fellowshipped together. Their sharing of daily routines seem less marked than Jerusalem, but partnership in the Gospel more so. This was a church where anyone was welcome, including Christian-killing ex-Pharisee Paul. Anyone was welcome, because of the Gospel, in the Gospel, and for the Gospel. Antioch was missional church at its best.

“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:1–3)

The believers were first called Christians in Antioch, revealing that they were also a distinct group, even if quite different to the community of faith in Jerusalem. Prayer was important to them also, as was the apostles’ teaching. Barnabas was a bulwark contributor in this regard, and the New Covenant the metronome to their thinking. Their most prominently featured means of grace seems to have been the laying on of hands. In the context of New Covenant, touch conveys acceptance, imparts spiritual life and gifts, or bestows authority. This is especially significant as we note that it was Jew and Gentile extending this touch one to the other.

Incidentally, the same generosity that marked the Jerusalem church marked the Antioch church also. Yet their giving was more missionally inclined, rather than slanted towards community-building. “So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 11:29–30)

Ephesus

The church in Ephesus is yet another wonderful study of the Gospel at work. This was Paul’s way. He was no church planter; He was an apostolic Gospel-preacher. Where the Gospel is preached, it produces a people, and these people often become a local church. In Ephesus, these people were called the Way.

“And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptised?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptised with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all. And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” (Acts 19:1–12)

Paul preached the Gospel boldly. He preached it in the power of the Spirit. This is what he had been anointed and appointed to do. The result was salvation in all of its richness. Salvation of spirit, soul and body. Salvation gloriously made manifest in a pagan city. The account reveals the world-transforming power of the Gospel ever so clearly. Through the Gospel, Heaven colonises earth one life at a time. From there, upward and outward, it impacts cities and nations. Daily preaching and teaching in a single venue resulted in the entire Roman province of Asia hearing the word of the Lord.

Tremendous authority has been granted the people of God in Christ. Notice how demons fled, and how principalities and powers lost their grip. The church in Ephesus exercised tremendous territorial authority. (Reference the way in which the Philistines were held at bay outside of Israel’s borders throughout Samuel’s lifetime for more insight into these matters. Cf Samuel 7:13). Yet, notice also how little time was devoted to demon-chasing and other forms of spiritual warfare. These things happen as and when the Gospel is preached; no specialised ministry necessary.

Sadly, in later years the Ephesian church relinquished its high ground. They abandoned their first love. Instead of devotion to Christ, they came to rely on their own efforts (Cf Revelation 2:1-7). The result was the loss of their lampstand (authority; not salvation). The lesson is simple. Everything that any church has is by grace and through faith. It is not of ourselves.

Flow, river, flow

All of the churches of the New Testament are fountains of revelation regarding the Gospel and it’s fruit. The Galatians teach us that to return to Law is a fall from grace. This very lesson would’ve increased the longevity of the harvest in Ephesus, for it is into this trap which they fell. The Corinthians teach us that lawlessness is no more helpful than legalism. Both of these belief systems are defined by Law, the one for, the other against. The Gospel is something entirely different.

Those who are in Christ are not under law, but they are under Grace. And grace is many things, including a government. It is the government of God; the rule of His Christ. Changed lives come as the work of Christ is appropriated by the Holy Spirit. This happens through faith, and occurs bottom-up, inside-out. Living the Christian life is nothing other than the outworking of New Covenant DNA implanted by new birth. Church life is from the same source and works in the same way. This Spirit-indwelt Christ-life, the newness of those born again, manifests Heaven here on earth. It does so in time and space. As it grows and develops it establishes itself, transforming lives, families, cities and nations.

May our local churches be as much the fruit of the New Covenant as any glimpsed on the pages of our New Testament. Flow, river, flow! It is crucial that they be the works of God, not the strivings of men.

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New Covenant DNA

When men build, it usually happens top-down, outside-in.

In come the diggers and graders. When the dust settles the site has been cleared as man imposes his will on his environment. Once the clearing is done, the meticulous process of construction begins. Everything is by design, and the sequencing is precise. Careful coordination ensures that the trades make their contribution at just the right time. Hardhats huddle and machinery stands. Progress bows to head scratching and problem-solving as unanticipated challenges present themselves. Ingenuity and engineering spar with budgets and other constraints. By torturous toil, something rises out of nothing, or at least appears to do so. Elsewhere, quarries scar the landscape, having offered up their treasures to those who hold the purse strings.

The Lord goes about things a little differently. He works bottom-up and inside-out.

The entire oak is in the acorn. It germinates in soil enriched by the falling leaves of innumerable autumns. Not much to look at, that acorn. Or any other seed, for that matter. But the marvels of DNA ensure that what is embedded in the essential nature of the seed will manifest. What emerges is show-stopping jaw-dropping splendour, should the environment approximate the conducive.

Some would argue that to contrast things thus is to oversimplify. Perhaps. But even in His workings in and through our humanity, these principles can be observed. Remember Abraham and Sarah. The best they could do in their own strength was an Ishmael. God’s purposes unfolded through Isaac. A seed implanted in a barren womb, through whom all the nations of the earth were blessed. And remember when the Israelites left Egypt. Isn’t it amazing that a bunch of ex-slaves could build something as stunning as the tabernacle in that desolate wilderness? No hardware store to visit. No subcontractor to quote on the job. The tabernacle and all its trappings were in the nation’s DNA. All the necessary craftsmanship, as well as more than a little Egyptian loot. With the people living in tents, when God ordered His own, the oak was already nestled in the acorn.

The unfolding story of the church in Acts follows a similar sub-plot. Embedded in the apostolic DNA of the Twelve was all that was needed. The acorn in the upper room to become the oak of the church throughout the Roman Empire. A few chapters in and we have deacons in Jerusalem. A few chapters more and the prophets and teachers show themselves in Antioch. By the time we get to the end of the book the elders, shepherds and evangelists have shown themselves. Amidst a spectacular array of other gifts at that. Everything was in the seed, and Word and Spirit was at work to nurture and develop the unfolding growth. How genius is our God!

Raindrop to rain and acorn to oak is the local church to the bride of Christ. Believer and local church alike are in Christ, and Christ by His Spirit is in them. They are manifestations in the temporal of the glorious, spiritual eternal. This is how the kingdom of heaven colonises earth. New birth. New creations. New nature. New Covenant DNA. With the new then refreshing, renewing, reclaiming and restoring the face of the planet. Death yield to resurrection before this Life-flow.

Let carnal wisdom loose on the building site, and in comes the earth moving equipment. Seeds, saplings and trees alike are swept aside. Scripts are meticulously followed. Hardhats caucus and budgets determine the constraints. With all said and done, dust settled and backs slapped, our achievements can impress. Which is why it’s so ironic that as we stand on the deck drinking champagne, we’re admiring the majestic old oak on the vacant lot next door.

The single greatest problem with the church of our day is control. The unsatisfying result is a work of man, his will imposed. The single greatest facilitator of this control is confusion about the DNA of the New Covenant. Mix law and grace, and the social currencies traded are guilt and condemnation, manipulation, control and abuse. Stay in grace, and the community of faith is nurtured in a milieu of love, acceptance, freedom, encouragement and forgiveness. New Covenant DNA is sufficient to the extraordinary. It invites God’s will, and yields to Him in the outworking. All we need to do is serve it. Instead of lording it over the work of the Lord, perhaps the primary role of leadership is to applaud it. To recognise, celebrate, encourage, facilitate and release what He is doing. And everything that He does is always on the foundation of what He has already done. New Covenant living is never about who we are under, or even who we are with, but about who we are building on. And Jesus is the only foundation worth a mention.

The key ingredients of New Covenant DNA

Making these key components explicit is helpful. So doing underscores how scarce they’ve become in so much of the modern day church. These truths must become our defaults. They are Heaven’s defaults, and the brides defaults. They should therefore be our touchstones in all things at all times.

The New Covenant anchors in Good News about Good God. God is good, and His intentions towards His world are good. He is not looking to judge, but to save. The wages of our sin were visited upon Jesus. Because of this, the Lord can treat us with unmitigated loving-kindness and mercy. Rather than treat us as our sins deserve, He treats us as the father treated the prodigal. Love, acceptance, forgiveness and restoration are ours.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:16–17)

The New Covenant is by grace alone through faith alone. We could do nothing to save ourselves. That is why Jesus, another Adam, lived the sinless life we could not live. He then died the death all sinners deserve. His resurrection proved His sacrificial death effective. He is risen, and lives evermore, our Mediator and our Intercessor. God, in Christ, has reconciled us to Himself. The first gift this amazing grace gives us is faith. As grace is revealed to us, so faith rises in us, and we believe. Believing, we receive, and in receiving, we in turn are reconciled to Him and are saved.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)

The New Covenant was cut between Father and Son. Our sin separated them for a moment; His obedience reunited them for eternity. When we believe, we are included in this union. We literally believe into Christ when we believe in Him. His story becomes our story. In a moment we are united with Jesus is his crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection. The Holy Spirit does this for us. He baptises (immerses) us into Christ. We thereby transition through His death and resurrection into irrevocable union with God.

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3–4)

The New Covenant imparts the gift of righteousness to all who believe. The self-righteousness of the inherently sinful can never produce right standing with God. It’s the righteousness of the Righteous One, Christ Jesus, that is imputed to us. Christians are in right standing before God with the actual right standing of Jesus. The moment of faith effects this great exchange. In that moment, all our sin is removed from us, and all Christ’s righteousness given us. Thus made righteous, no Christian can ever be unrighteous or unholy ever again.

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21–26)

“For by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14)

The New Covenant places us in Christ. The New Covenant also places Christ in us, by His Spirit. This is an action of re-creation. We are literally born again. The old has gone. The new has come. Christians no longer have the sinful nature they were originally born with. We have a new nature, born of the Spirit, and just like Jesus. It is much more than the Lord merely regarding us as righteous, or treating us as through we were in Christ. He has literally made us righteous, and placed us in Christ. The same is true of our re-creation. This is not just some sort of second chance or new beginning. It is a literal action of creation. In our essence – our spirit – we are made new.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Corinthians 5:16–21)

“By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in Him, and He in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in Him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgement, because as He is so also are we in this world.” (I John 4:13–17)

Everything in the New Covenant is by the Spirit. We are with the Father. This is through and in Jesus. And it is all by the Spirit. It is the Spirit who grants us revelation of Christ and imparts to us the faith to believe. It is the Spirit who immerses us into Christ when we believe. It is the Spirit who recreates us anew. It is the Spirit who then indwells us, perfecting our union. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us. All this is the Spirit’s doing. From then on, it is the Spirit who enlightens, leads, encourages and empowers. Access into life in Christ is by the Spirit, as is life in Christ from then on. This is definitive.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14)

An impressive supporting cast

The glorious New Covenant is set amidst a most impressive supporting cast. The written Word helps us. We help one another. God Himself harnesses every situation and circumstance for our good. Many things have their origins in sin and satan. The fallen-ness of our planet reflects this. Yet, no matter the author of the crisis or calamity, God uses it for good. Devil bad; God good. Very good, in fact!

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” (Romans 8:28–30)

Written on another day, this post might well have expressed the key components of New Covenant DNA differently. Other texts may have been used to substantiate the various aspects. Other attempts may have have listed six key components; others eight or more. No matter. The Scriptures are bursting with revelation and are rich in metaphor. What has been said could have been said in innumerable ways. Such is the length, depth, breadth and height of our glorious God and of His Christ. In whom the Spirit shares, and to which the Spirit bears witness through the Word.

Much more important than the packaging is the revelation itself. The New Covenant is altogether other, once-for-all. In the next chapter we’ll observe how every aspect of New Testament church life was a response to the New Covenant. The church made manifest her New Covenant DNA as she grew and developed. The Gospel was the seed planted; the church and all her good fruit the result.

This should come as no surprise, for, “We love because He first loved us.” (I John 4:19)

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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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