This is the eighth in a series of letters written to our local church. Enjoy!
The local church is heaven and earth in collaboration. The agenda is Heaven’s – His Kingdom come; His will be done. Our motivation is Jesus and His Gospel. Paul gave us a microcosmic glimpse of the dynamics when he tells the Corinthians that “I (Paul) planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (I Cor 3:6).
When we gather, it is on the one hand very natural – of pews and pulpits, songs and serving. On the other, it is profoundly spiritual. As we gather, diverse parts merge and a body manifests, and functions as such. Individual lights and lamps fuse into a city on a hill emitting glorious blaze. Individual living stones coalesce and a God-inhabited temple arises. Soldiers reporting for duty fall into battle formation and Christ’s victories are enforced and plunderers dispossessed. As we gather, it is God’s family that gathers, and the stranger, the alien, the wanderer, and the otherwise disenfranchised, all find welcome at Heaven’s table.
None of this is rocket science. Even little children can understand it. Holy Spirit’s wisdom and power meets our willingness and availability, and the diverse and disparate coheres into something far greater than the sum of its parts. This is church! The better we understand it all, and the more intentional we are about it all, the greater the heights we’ll ascend to together.
Think of each of these metaphors as a role the church plays, or as a mode in which she functions. Take my wife Estelle as an example: She is a daughter, a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, a branch manager (The Clothing Bank), a deaconess in the church, and a friend to many. One woman, but multiple roles and responsibilities. Many different hats to wear. Sometimes they overlap, but at other times she is focused on and totally absorbed by one or the other. There’s nothing confusing, duplicitous or pretentious about any of it. No matter the role or mode, she remains authentic Estelle. In the same way, as we gather, on one day the Spirit might take us into a place of militancy. The King’s army has gathered, and there is authority to be exercised and victories to be won. On another day, He might lead us into intimacy. The King is in His chambers, and He’s calling for His bride. One church, but distinctly different roles, with different tones, different vocabulary, different cadence and intensity, different emotions, different atmospheres, and different outcomes.
Of course there are many other frameworks within which we could consider the ministry of the church. Her purpose. Her reason d’etre as it were. A common approach is to think of the church in terms of her ministry upwards (to the Lord), inwards (to one another), and outwards (to the world). Others build their understanding around a proof texts like Acts 2:42-47 or Ephesians 4:11. The metaphors we’ve been using have the advantage of embracing wide diversity in a cohesive way, of keeping our thinking Biblical, and of underscoring the inseparable link between identity and purpose. That said, they are certainly not the only map with which to chart this territory.
Herewith, then, a first stab at a list of the ministries of the church, as opposed to ministries in the church (worship leading or preaching et al) or ministries to the church (apostles, prophets, etc.). These ministries are the things we the church have been tasked with in the Lord, and which should find expression in significant measure when we gather. This list is a draft, and drafts are never complete or tidy, but serve as useful points of departure. You’ll notice that I’ve listed nouns, and done so in random order. Our challenge is to enfold these things into our assembly as verbs, and work out how to do them together. In random order, we the local church, have a ministry of …
Hospitality – the stewardship of the Presence of God.
Adoration – worship, magnification, captivation.
Association – identification with the one, eternal, alternative society.
Edification – mutual encouragement and care.
Reconciliation – vertical and horizontal; ambassadorial.
Demonstration – of the Kingdom, in miracles, signs and wonders.
Facilitation – diverse gifts and contributions; all these must be done.
Inclusion – the foreigner and alien, widow and orphan; the pilgrim.
Embrace – love one another; our most important characteristic.
Discipleship – the nurture of maturity and equipping for good works.
Intercession – with Christ in His intercession; access to the throne.
Dominion – the exercise of authority; binding and loosing.
Occupation – the salt being salty; influence; permeation.
Proclamation – the Good News, the Gospel.
Declaration/Decree – release of the proceeding word.
Custodianship – keeping the faith; the stewardship of sound doctrine.
Administration – of life (hatch, match and dispatch), of life together (organization); the stewardship of our joint resources.
Mercy – compassion to the suffering and the care of the poor.
Testimony – witness; showcasing of His manifold wisdom.
Celebration – rejoicing in God and His works. Praise!
Multiple proof-texts could easily be listed alongside each bullet point, but we’re more concerned with developing the big picture here. The over-riding point is that we don’t gather to just sing a bit, serve a bit, and listen to the sermon. The bits and bobs that make up any given meeting are scaffolding to the main event, which stems from who we are in the Lord, and unfolds in collaboration with the Holy Spirit, in the spirit-realm first, and in the natural second.
Having belabored the underlying fundamentals in earlier letters – the necessity for gathering, and the leadership of the Spirit – herewith seven practical tips and hints to get us off to a good start on any given Sunday.
Let’s be intentional. Let’s embrace our calling, and respond accordingly. Let’s gather to contribute. Let’s take ownership.
Let’s be inclusive. Let’s consciously and actively include everyone. Invite others; greet others; be mindful of others; involve others; make place for others.
Let’s believe. Everything is by grace, and everything is through faith. As believers, let’s gather to believe together. Let’s stir up our faith.
Let’s love one another. This is not-negotiable. Christ’s essential nature must permeate everything, and He is love. When unsure, do the loving thing.
Let’s build agreement. Building in the Spirit is in agreement and by agreement. Agree with God, His Word, and one another. This is largely vocal, and takes active engagement and the expenditure of energy. Get spiritually fit. Engage each moment as the gathering moves along.
Let’s be authentic. No posturing or pretending. Be yourself. But bring yourself to the party. Ameliorate your idiosyncrasies. Be a team player.
Let’s use everything at our disposal. Let’s throw the kitchen sink at it. Every gift and every calling. Every means of grace. When it’s time to make a noise, if you can’t shout, whistle, and if you can’t whistle, pinch a baby!
And with that to make you smile, have a great week. See you Sunday!
This is the fifth in a series of letters to our local church. I’ve been mandated by the Lord to gather the congregation in a fresh way, and I write to provide the what and the why. The aim is to see many more of the saints present on Sunday mornings (and on time if possible, please), ready to be and to do in accordance with the Lord – His word, His will and His ways. This letter is effectively His invitation to you to join us on the journey!
Jesus, the Living Word, said that we, His church, are a city on a hill: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14).
Our Bibles, the written Word, provide us with a host of other metaphors that also describe His church. These are given us to enrich our understanding, even while revealing just how gloriously multi-faceted the church that Jesus is building is. Amongst other things, she is a family, a household, a body, and a fruitful vine. She is an olive tree. She is a temple and a tabernacle, a royal priesthood and a holy nation. She is a bride and a flock, she is a field, and she is an army.
What is so clear from Scripture is less evident on the ground. The statistics reflect that in the average local church, ten to twenty percent of the congregation are workers, and the other eighty to ninety percent attendees. In other words, a congregation of two hundred will have somewhere between twenty and forty people on staff and in volunteer teams, doing everything necessary to keep the wheels turning – music, sound, children’s ministry, small group leadership, and the like. Take the church up to two thousand, and the staff and volunteers complement will be up around the two hundred mark. Twenty thousand, and you’ll need two thousand.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. How many preachers can we have on a Sunday, or worship leaders, or ushers? The teams that enable the church to function when gathered are to be lauded and applauded. Their gifts and callings are a blessing, and we value their contributions greatly! But the question remains, what about the rest?
As an aside, the equation changes dramatically when the gathering is much smaller. Plant a church of twenty people and everyone is a contributor. A cell group or house church is the same. The caution in these environments is that with everyone indispensable, obligations easily undermine freedoms, to no good end. Also bear in mind that the first congregation in Jerusalem grew to many thousands very quickly, as did the churches in Antioch and Ephesus in the same era. Small is therefore not necessarily the goal when doing church.
But let’s stay with the eighty percent. The so-called “go to church” people. According to Jesus, they are the light of the world. Monday through Saturday, they are lamps on stands, but together they illuminate nations. Obviously we can’t shoe-horn everything that it means to be and do church into ninety minutes on a Sunday morning, but the point remains. From Jesus’ perspective, the eighty percent are bricks, soldiers, branches and body parts. We must therefore grapple with what that looks like when it’s working as He ordained it to.
As we gather, we should reflect what Jesus declared His church to be. For surely when the church gathers a city on a hill gathers, as does an army, a body, a building, a family and a fruitful vine? Surely this should be self-evident? Unable to conceptualize these things, we’ve traded true contribution for mere participation. Sing. Dance. Clap. Give. Do these, under-girded by supportive virtues like faithfulness, generosity and willing service, and you’re everything the average leadership could hope for. But where in that is the sense of being indispensable. Bricks hardly attend a building any more than arms and legs attend a body. Long may we continue to sing, dance, clap and give, but there has to be much more to it all than that!
Herewith a vital key: In our individual lives as Christians, we do who we are (identity fuels life). As we think in our hearts, so are we. We live right because He has made us righteous. We conduct ourselves as children of God because that is who we are. The same principle applies corporately: congregations will only be who they are in their understanding. Think of the people in the seats as extras on the set on Sunday mornings, and they will never step into their actual role so integral to the plot. People will only brick and branch to the degree to which they are bricks and branches in their own hearts and minds.
Bricks and soldiers, arms and legs – all are indispensable. Simply “getting it” is what starts to change everything. Learning to brick and to soldier together is the easy part, because we can’t but figure that out once the penny has dropped. A renewal of our minds beckons and is pivotal to transformation. As we glimpse a better way, we start the change by first recognising that our thinking needs to shift. That recognition is the beginning of the seismic shift the Bible calls repentance. As the revelation intensifies, we receive the fresh truth, embracing it, taking it to ourselves, and making it our own. And as we do that, we begin to respond accordingly, appropriating and applying it to ourselves and to those around us. Almost before we know it, we find ourselves living in what we’ve seen, doing who we are.
Every gathered congregation is already a city on a hill, potentially ablaze. The other metaphors apply in the same way. Destiny calls. The longing for more is already a-stir in the hearts of the saints. Let that which is asleep awaken and that which is sedentary arise!
The fourth is a series of letters to a local church …
These letters are at heart an appeal to a congregation to gather. To get to the Sunday meetings more often than not. To get there on time, and with as open and as expectant a heart as possible. It’s time to build the house! Each letter will speak to why and how we should do so. Please read each one carefully and prayerfully.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14).
Someone described the typical local church as a rugby match – a crowd of people badly in need of exercise urging on a handful of exhausted folk desperately in need of a rest! The analogy always brings a smile as folk recognise the truth of it.
But what if the whole idea is a red herring? Truth is, there’s not much space on the playing field for the crowd. It’s all very well to challenge the folk in the seats to get some skin in the game, but what we’re often aiming for is more bums on more seats more often. And of course we need them to keep chipping in their gate money to fund the whole thing while they’re at it. Preach your heart out on subjects like commitment and involvement, and it might well end up in more people in prayer meetings, mens and womens events, small groups, Bible college, and conferences. But that doesn’t equate to a significant increase in the number of players on the field. The club may seem far more successful, even fielding a second or third team in the league. They might move up in the rankings and put some silverware on display. But when all is said and done, you still have a crowd needing exercise watching the few who could really use a rest, just on a grander scale.
Others shift the debate by viewing the church meetings as opportunities for the specialist few to equip the many in the business of Christian living. For them, the church gathered is somewhere between a hospital for the sick and a boot camp for training the army. To return to the analogy of the rugby game, the real stuff takes place out there in the real world during the week. Sunday is all-important locker-room time. The injured get their cuts and scrapes attended. Fresh kit is thrown onto tired bodies. Everyone gets something to eat and drink. The limited time available is put to good use by the experts giving the players a pep talk. Then it’s back out onto the pitch for real-life match-time once again.
This doesn’t align with what Jesus had to say either. Just as His city on a hill cannot possibly be a star-studded stage with an adoring crowd, neither can it be a behind-the-scenes ops center, working to ensure that individual lamps are kept shining brightly on their individual stands in homes during the week. A quantum leap in thinking is necessary.
Let’s stay with the rugby match analogy. Imagine the same stadium that we started with, match underway, with a significant crowd in attendance. But now, imagine that the really important stuff is emanating from the crowd. What they are doing is the main event, and everything going on down on the pitch is geared towards encouraging their contribution. The actual game is being played in the stands. Animate the bleachers in your mind’s eye. They’re pulsating with life. There’s nothing passive about these people. They’re doing the stuff. They’re not spectators, or fans, or consumers. They’re contributors. They are locked in, fully engaged. They know why they’ve gathered, and they know what they’re doing. On purpose, and in purpose. They know that the important stuff they’re doing is only possible en masse, and the more the merrier. Apart, they are individual lamps on stands. Together, they are a city on a hill, giving light to the nations.
I’d be interested to know what it was you visualised them doing? What is the “stuff”? No metaphor is complete in and of itself, and I’m not trying to stretch things to the point of incredulity, but please take my point. I’m also not minimizing the giving and serving that keeps the wheels turning on a Sunday morning, but these are things we all know intuitively if we’re honest. Something is not quite right with the way we’ve thought about church gatherings. Something is missing!
But what if any gathered congregation is potentially much, much more than we’ve thought? The Scriptures teach that, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). What if some of the most important good works are to be walked in together as a congregation when we gather? What if we’ve been walking right past significant breakthroughs, blinded by our preconditioning?
Ask yourself the question (in the context of the church gathered): What is it that anyone can contribute, and that everyone should contribute, in order for the church to be the city on a hill Jesus is raising up?
Our challenge is to answer that question well. To see, understand, enable and release what is already in the house every Sunday, sitting right there in the pews. If we can do that, then gathering will once again become one of the most important things that any Christian can do!
Every blessing as we discover more together.
See you Sunday!
This was the fourth in a series of letters to our local church. Here are the links to the first three …
Any authority we operate in is therefore delegated authority. Because it comes from God, it is inherently good, and those exercising it should do so for good. All God’s gifts are in accordance with His nature, and to be used as such. The Lord never uses His authority to control or manipulate.
Mankind’s dominion is implicit in the creation story from the beginning. As He created it, everything was “good” in God’s assessment. Add mankind, and it all became “very good”. Adam was given charge of the garden, to work and to keep it. His tutelage included the privilege of naming all the animals. All of these suggest dominion. But once Eve was installed as Adam’s helpmeet, the mandate for dominion was made explicit. “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Genesis 1:27–28).
So it was that Adam and Eve were given the gift of self-government. Personal authority, responsibility and accountability. They enjoyed a great deal of freedom indeed, although not boundary-less freedom. But what they did have was unfettered volition. Total freedom of choice. Which they opted to use badly, unfortunately. Nevertheless, the first round of delegation saw Adam with a will to submit to (God), a woman to love (Eve) and a work to do (a garden to tend). Together, they had a will to submit to (God), a spouse to love (each other), and a work to do (the stewardship of the planet). In broader perspective, these mandates were reflections in the temporal of greater, eternal realities.
Incidentally, the reason why Genesis is so important for us is because it answers these questions, and a host of other first-order issues as well.
The second sphere of delegated authority is the family. Adam and Eve’s initial partnership tended towards the co-equal. Their dominion mandate demanded it. Yes, Adam had been created first, and yes, Eve was Adam’s helpmeet. But “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” requires joint effort, each partner playing to their respective strengths.
Interesting to note is that the dominion mandate was never revoked. It was reiterated to Adam and Eve after the fall. It was re-entrusted to Noah and his family after the flood. And it remains in place today. The stewardship of the planet is still ours. We still have God’s will to submit to. The institution of marriage should still shape our social structures. And each of us has a vocational contribution to make. All are thus still a vital part of the equation.
What clouds understanding somewhat is that the establishment of family structures straddled the fall. Before Adam and Eve’s rebellion, their partnership enjoyed an egalitarian-orientated foundation. The lines of authority discernible were reminiscent of those within the Trinity. After the fall, things were quite different. Their mandate had not changed, but their circumstances had. Mercifully, they had been restored to fellowship with God. They were clothed in the skins of the substitutionary sacrifice. They now faced a hostile creation. And the dynamics between them had shifted. Shifted away from equal partnership towards the complementarian and hierarchical. The Bible chapter documenting the fall is steeped in devastation. Perhaps none more so than God’s words to Eve. “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).
Dire abuse followed through the millennia. This redefining of the marriage relationship opened the door to aberrations like polygamy, and worse. The horrors to which women have been subjected through the ages stretches beyond reason. Thanks be to God that Jesus, last Adam, undid the cause of this devastation. Men and women are no longer naked and ashamed. They once again have full and equal access to the Tree of Life, who is Christ. Both, in Christ, have been once again established on equal footing before God. And before one another for that matter. Jesus’ counter-cultural treatment of women substantiates this magnificently. Just recall how honouring Her was of His mother, and how He engaged even Gentile ladies as peers.
Our challenge in the church is to migrate our paradigms on marriage and family pre-fall in Christ. The Trinity is the template for our understanding of community, and not the impositions of sin and death post the fall. Faith in Christ has uprooted us from the temporal and established us in the eternal. Our thinking and our patterns of life must follow. As the Scriptures teach us, our transformation lies in the renewal of our minds.
The third sphere of governance came in the wake of the flood. By that time self-government had all but collapsed. So had the institution of the family. Fallen mankind’s depravity had come to dominate. The future could simply not be allowed to be a repeat of the past.
Heaven introduced sweeping changes. Fauna joined flora as food for mankind. Humanity’s relationship with life and death was being redefined. Another covenant was introduced. The Noahic. A further unilateral covenant of grace. But with increased social structure and responsibility. Civil government was constituted. The dominion mandate was also re-conferred on Noah and family. But with it, new authority for the new responsibility. The governance of our fellow man was now our portfolio. God had personally dealt with murderer Cain, but no more so post-flood. Now the one who took a life would answer to a human tribunal.
“And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image. And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:1–7).
Mankind’s relationship with life and death had been redefined. Greater responsibility, and with it greater authority. Notice how each addition to delegated authority post-fall strengthened humanity in community. A compensation for floundering self-government. Cain had not been Abel’s keeper in any formal sense, but now every Cain became every Abel’s keeper. Men and women were mutually accountable one to another. A double-edged sword though. The greater the delegated authority, the greater the potential for corruption and abuse. Not too long and slavery was born. People objectifying others to the point of literal ownership.
It turns out that the stewardship of our human community is just as poor as our stewardship of our planet. The reason for this is that we’ve lost the capacity to steward ourselves.
Law is for the Lawless
Moses coming down the mountain stone tablets in hand was a progression in an unfolding story. The unfolding story of unredeemed mankind.
The Ten were not the first commandments Heaven had issued. They would also not be the last. But what they were was the core of a new, replacement covenant (which we know as the Old Covenant). A covenant of works. As such, they began formalising the institutions of family and state to a far greater degree. By the time they had been expanded into the full six hundred and thirteen statutes of the Old Covenant, all of life had been addressed.
Make no mistake, the Law was from God, and it was good. But it was also Heaven’s prescription for lawlessness. As such, its goal was preservation. Boundary-less people destroy themselves, and destroy others in the process. Law serves well in that context. It works to keep depravity in check. It limits sin’s destructive consequences by limiting sin’s wicked deeds. Which is why thinking Christians favour the rule of law in their nations. Some legal systems better than others, and we Christians advocate that Judeo-Christian law as the best of the best. Even so, it cannot save.
Law certainly preserves, protecting us from ourselves as it were. But when it comes to salvation, all it can do is expose inadequacy as it addresses concomitant transgressions. Our best efforts, we soon discover, are woeful in the light of the Perfections of God. Six hundred and thirteen rules. Six hundred opportunities to fall short of the glory of God. Thanks to the Law, Israel would be preserved. Nations would disintegrate around them, but theirs would remain intact. They were being preserved until the fullness of time came, when the Christ would be revealed. A preservation that would cost many a life. The three thousand who died right there at Sinai set the tone for things to come. For even as law preserves, so it kills, for its ministry is condemnation and death.
Legalism mummifies. The more comprehensive the rule book, the more effective the preservation of externals. And the more comprehensive the rule book, the less demand for self-government. Remember that life comes from within, starting as a seed. All that Law can do is conform, enforcing conformity to its mold. Which is why Law can never be a panacea. The Trinity is in harmonious community, and without Law. Heaven the same. Law’s governance cannot produce this harmony, as it comes with significant negatives. The Bible calls its dynamics the law of sin and death. Accusation is inescapable in this dynamic, but without a helping hand. Nothing is done to aid ineptness. Law does not transform. It enforces compliance through consequence, stick and carrot, reward or fear, pleasure or pain. And even when constraining bad behaviour, it exacerbates the rebellion within. It stirs up the sin lying dormant in the flesh. Invoke a command, and buried evils are unearthed. An example we can all identify with: none are as hungry as those on a diet!
Law is for the lawless. Simple as that. And let’s also not make the mistake of confining our thinking to civil society alone. Some families need an injection of law to preserve them. So do some churches. Urgent interventions. Emergency measures. Abusive husbands should not be permitted to misuse their wives, nor vice versa. Parents should never be permitted to abuse their children, nor vice versa. Clear thinking on this matter recognises the appropriateness of Law when there is a two year old in residence. Insufficiently self-governing, these little angels are carnal enough to throw a home into disarray. The answer is contextually appropriate law. No matter the situation, be it teen, employee or neighbor, this truth remains true. Law is for the lawless. It is the only way of creating appropriate boundaries when lawlessness is prevalent. But that law, however appropriate in it’s prescription, will never save. Only grace does that. And grace does so through faith, from the heart, inside out.
The New Covenant
Christians are not under Law.
It’s not that they’re lawless. They’re just not under the governance of Law. They are under the governance of the Spirit, who governs in grace. Christians well understand that all things are lawful for them. All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.
Under grace the dynamics are Spirit and life, not sin and death. A thorough study of the book of Romans reveals this in the way a flawless diamond reflects the light. Myriads of interrelated facets reveal its glittering beauty. A glimpse will suffice. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).
Christians walking in the Spirit are the most submissive people imaginable. Their submission is to God, and is empowered by Him, by the indwelling Spirit. Their submissive attitudes manifest in submission to legitimate authority at every turn. They submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. And because their hearts embrace Godly order, the lives reflect it. Their families embrace it, as do their churches. And their dealings reveal it in social, economic and political settings. But this is not so because of their obedience to Law per se, but because of their life in the Spirit.
And for precisely that reason, they can be the most disobedient people imaginable. That’s because their boundaries are set from within. Their hearts and minds are abuse-proof. Nothing can force them once they come to settled peace on a matter. The execution of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer illustrates the point magnificently. He is the author of the first book of common prayer, by the way. History tells us that Cranmer had succumbed to pressure and recanted his Protestant position. In deep contrition, and after renouncing his recantation, he presented himself at the stake on 21 March 1556. There he burnt off the hand that had signed the recantation before stepping bodily into the flames. Apparently his death was reminiscent of Stephen’s of old, for great grace was upon him throughout his ordeal.
Because Christians are not under Law, the only power over them is the power of the request. Should that request be legitimate, the response will often be the extra mile. Should it be illegitimate, the response will often be the turned cheek. Yet, secure in the New Covenant, they can prove immovable. In this the Gospel moves to being a true revolution, for it breeds true revolutionaries. They are those who are persuaded in their life and cause well beyond what most would consider reasonable.
Order in the Church
What then of the fourth and final sphere of delegated authority, the church.
The authority delegated by Heaven to church leaders should never be misconstrued as a continuation of the earlier progression. Leadership and governance in the church is exclusively in the context of the New Covenant.
And it is the Gospel that is the antidote to humanity’s fallenness. Law has it’s place, but it is the transformation of grace and faith that restores the self-governance of the Garden. In abiding and enabling union with God, personal volition is liberated to realign with true worship. Holy Spirit is within the people of God. They are in Christ, and Christ is in them. Together with Christ, they are hidden in God, enveloped, enfolded and engulfed in Him. For them there is no Law, but a new birth, a new nature, and a new life. Old things, including the Law and their sin, have passed away. The new has come.
Leadership and governance in the church is an administration of this New Covenant. Men and women are given the freedom to choose. Grace enables them to choose wisely. Faith causes them to then do so. Church leaders lead new creations. They lead people under grace. People with new, sincere and submissive hearts. They lead them to follow the Spirit, to revel in grace, and to stand in faith. Theirs is the fullness and freedom of the New Covenant. On their own cognisance. Surrounded by their brother and sisters. And undergirded by their leaders, who urge them on. Further, deeper, and higher. Hands and hearts ever open. For they are His, and He is theirs.
Only on the rarest of occasions is Law invoked in these environments. It is exclusively the preserve of the lawless. It is only invoked when lawlessness threatens to damage and destroy, and appropriate boundaries must be instituted. Even so, this can be done graciously, providing every opportunity for redemption. It is, after all, God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.
Two passages of Scripture, by leaders, addressing leaders, spring to mind. Both are useful for reflection and prayer, underscoring New Covenant perspectives.
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (I Peter 5:1–11).
“Now from Miletus he (Paul) sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”’ ” (Acts 20:17–35).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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)
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.
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)
It’s easy to be disparaging about new year’s resolutions. So much talk; so little traction; such a poor track record.
Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to new year’s resolutions. To be reflective as the calendar rolls around is to be human, and to resolve for the good expresses hope and self-awareness, fertile ground both for increased fruitfulness.
So … what are your goals for 2018? Do you have any resolutions, overt or covert? What would you like to see, and where would you like to be, as the sun sets on 2018. I’m not just talking about pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but steak-on-the-plate reality. What is in your mind for 2018 spiritually, socially and economically? Are there adjustments to be made in favour of your health? Dietary changes? Exercise? Sleep? Are there disciplines to be embraced? Is there study to be embarked on, or at the very least books to be read? Or written?
These are good questions all, and I write to encourage you to ask them. Challenge yourself as necessary. It’s 2018, and opportunity is pounding on the door. God is good! He has revealed His will for us in Christ Jesus, and it is to save and to bless. Embrace Him, and it, and make as many necessary adjustments as is practicable to make the most of the blessing on offer.
As was said in the days of our forefathers: “The year of our Lord, 2018.”
Herewith an introduction to two new e-books, and links to both. Each are for download at no charge.
This book resolves the crisis of the HOW in Christian living. Many Christians live frustrated lives because they have tried ‘doing’ it for so long and nothing seems to change. They have prayed countless hours, they have fasted plenty meals and they have cried buckets of tears and yet, they can’t seem to live in the good of the abundant life Jesus promised. How do I do this? This book shows you.
I don’t know where to start cause there’s so much that’s happened during my journey and in reality, I don’t actually want to talk about myself, I’d rather talk about elephants and addicts, so I guess its sufficient to say: I was born some time ago, a cute blue eyed bouncing baby with rosy cheeks and curly blonde hair. Hard to believe it but, I’ve got a photo to prove it, of course its yellow from age
My parents called me GERT PIETER. Can u imagine that? This cute little baby. I once asked my mother, “HOW COULD YOU DO IT?” I learnt that it was a family name; my Oupa had it, and his dad had it. Tradition? Don’t rock the boat. That’s how it always has been, no need to change it. It’s safe to stick to what you’ve done in the past.
That’s enough about me, OK! Now about elephants and addicts …
When I wore the clothes of a younger man I worked in the Wankie National Game Park (Zimbabwe), and saw animals do amazing and strange things. One of those incidents reminds me of how ‘once free’ creatures can be held prisoner in captivity, even by imaginary chains. One day we heard a call on our walkie talkie (a two way radio – there were no mobile phones in those days – can you imagine that?) that a rogue elephant had to be culled because he had gone on a rampage and destroyed a number of huts in the area, but fortunately no one was injured. Of course this was something exciting to see so we packed up our tools and took off in the Land Rover to witness the event. We arrive at the camp where the damage had been done and saw, to our amazement, a huge tree that the elephant had partially uprooted and pulled across the railway line, so we proceeded to help the game ranger to pull the tree off with the Land Rover, but without success. We radioed to the station to send an engine to do the job and some hours later the tree was removed. We proceeded to track the elephant, at a respectable distance behind the game ranger, and saw the bull elephant that only had one tusk and was well known to the locals as a mean old guy. The game ranger went down on one knee, took aim at the charging elephant, let off a shot and dropped the animal a few metres in front of him. The hole where his tusk once was burst open expelling a pile of maggots and the game ranger explained that the elephant went rogue because of the excruciating pain. We were amazed at the incredible power of the “old” elephant that pulled down a tree which we couldn’t move with a Land Rover and gained a new respect for free animals in the wild.
In contrast: Elephant trainers in a circus attach a chain which is a few metres long to one leg of a young elephant and peg the other end into the ground, and in time the animal realises that it can’t wander too far from the peg in the ground. When the elephant is older, the chain is removed but the peg is still driven into the ground so it won’t go further from the peg than the length of the ‘imaginary chain’. Like the elephant, we are inclined to follow the same patterns: it’s safe in the comfort zone, even if it holds you back; it’s safe to stick to what you’ve done in the past. The unknown is scary and threatening. It’s dangerous to challenge authority, our culture and programming. At every town where the circus performs, the trainer drives a stake into the ground and the elephant is controlled and stays in that space. The elephant has to be rehabilitated before he can really break free from that bondage, and that can take a life time, patience and care (unless a miracle happens).
Even when the prison gates are opened and we are set free, the invisible chains of religion and legalism won’t let us go beyond a certain comfortable or even painful point. It’s safe to stick to what you’ve done in the past.
When I first met Jesus, it was a gentle deep encounter and my introduction was beautiful. I joined a congregation and did all the churchy things. It was good and I learnt commitment, obedience and servanthood. That was all part of my journey. For many years we were flowing in the river of life and it was wonderful, and we were contented, and safe. But then one day, and suddenly, a side stream flowed into the river from behind us and it became a powerful force to the extent that we felt threatened and had to decide to either allow the rising water to take us out of our comfort zone and engulf us, or get out up on to the river bank where it’s safe, to avoid the flood. This was the beginning of the end; the end of life as I knew it; the end of yesterday; the death of my past.
This was the grace message. Was I ready for it? Did it make sense? Could I understand it? Could I get my head around it? Was my heart able to receive it? No, no, no, no and no. Up until this time, the message of the cross had always been the ‘Show Stopper’; the core of my belief. Nothing has changed since the flood but I have had a paradigm shift in my spirit, and sometimes my head and heart have to catch up. Life is a journey, which is inevitable, and the only sure thing that is constant is change, and it’s the thing we often resist the most for whatever reason. We fear the unknown. We feel safe in our comfort zone, even if it’s not that comfortable. And the big one, the fear of man’s opinion, and rejection if we admit that we were wrong. Especially so if it’s been like that for a lifetime, and for most of us these fears are giants in our lives. Now, since the flood, many of these fears have become secondary considerations for me, although sometimes they still raise their ugly heads.
There’s always been head knowledge, and even a heart acknowledgement, of what Jesus did on the cross at Calvary to save the world. He died for me; that’s true. Suffered and took the punishment for me. Looking back now, I realise that deep down inside my spirit, I actually felt guilty and even responsible for His death 2000 years ago, and felt that I had to do stuff to make up for it. It was the same feeling that we got when our parents said things like, “Is that the thanks I get after all I’ve done for you”.
So what has changed?
Pre-flood I knew that Jesus suffered and died a horrific death to set me free, but the reason why he was prepared to do that has deeply impacted my spirit since the flood. It’s moved from head and heart to spirit. He died for me because He loves me, and I don’t even have to say the word unconditionally, because that’s what real love is. I know I’ve heard this 1000 times before, but since the flood, my spirit leaps up every time I say or think it as if it’s the first time I’ve heard it. I can’t explain it.
Grace has enabled me to be at peace with myself and others (most of the time). The chains have been broken and I am free, although some stakes in the ground still exist, and like the elephant, I’m on the journey of rehabilitation. The end of yesterday has begun.
Then there’s the addict …
In the churchy world of rules and religion, it’s OK if an alcoholic belongs to another church, or if he or she is the unconverted spouse of a member of the congregation. We will pray for deliverance; doesn’t he know that his body is a temple? It’s a sin, and somewhere it is written that thou shalt not, etc. But if it’s a church member who has an addiction of any sort, the guilt and shame associated with not being perfect and having feet of clay is overwhelming and so it’s kept under wraps, behind closed doors. The fear of exposure and condemnation from fellow Christians is sometimes too much to bear, so the sinner leaves the church and no one knows why and he is labelled a back slider. He goes to AA for help, knowing full well that only 14% of addicts who try to quit actually make it, and he introduces himself to the group nervous and embarrassed. He stands up and says, “Hello, my name is Joe, and I’m an alcoholic”, and then slinks back to his seat and sits down.
Then there’s the addict that has had a paradigm shift in his spirit and no longer fears man’s opinions, because the grace of God and the amazing unconditional love of the king has set him free. He doesn’t feel unclean and condemned anymore. He has received in his spirit the fact that his worth is not determined by the value that others place on him or his past, but by the king’s value of him. He goes to AA and stands up to introduce himself, and says, “Hello, my name is Joe, I am an amazing artist and I can’t keep up with the demand for my work. I have two beautiful children and a wonderful wife who I care for and who love me intensely. I am always busy with DIY around the house, I love gardening, and I’m an alcoholic”, and then he crosses the room and shakes hands with everyone in the group. So what’s the difference. He still has an addiction but the chains of condemnation and the fear of man have been broken, and he knows that he is loved and forgiven, because Jesus says so.
In a word, it’s Grace, Grace, Amazing Grace! The idea that grace allows you to do anything is an attempt by the enemy to deceive us again. Don’t fall for it. Pre-grace, what happened in public was important, and what took place behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors. Since Grace, what happens when no one is watching does count, and that’s freedom.
So what have I been set free from? Here are a few things. For me, this is freedom. People who used to bug me appear different and I find myself wanting to hug them (crazy), so if I hug you then you know. Car guards used to bug me. No, I don’t hug them, but now I give silver, not brass . That’s freedom. Waiters tip? They need it more than me now. That’s freedom. ESKOM? Remembering that others have no electricity; that’s freedom. Apologise when wrong; keep quiet when right. That’s freedom. Surrender the TV remote. Now that’s freedom!
Some time after the flood, I wrote this note: “Free at Last, thank God, I’m free at last”. Way back in the day, I recall that one of the songs we sang in was, “My soul escaped, like a bird, out of the snare of the fowler”. At the time, to me it meant that I had escaped from the power and influence of sin and temptation in my life, and indeed this was true to a point. However, it wasn’t complete freedom because unbeknownst to me, although the snare had been broken, I was unable to escape and run free. There were still chains that prevented me from moving too far from that which had kept me bound, not unlike house arrest. My journey as a Christian had begun, I was told, and I was now able to “earn” my crown in heaven, and everything would be fine. I just had to follow the rules that God had made, and if I failed I could repent and go on. If I tithed 10%, He would multiply it, and if I attended church and looked holy, this was all to my benefit. My status in heaven would be enhanced. Terms like “bless you brother”, “hallelujah” and “praise the Lord” were special holy code words to gain acceptance from fellow Christians. The leaders of the church were my heroes, and I followed them faithfully, and defended them when non-members challenged their teachings.
I recall those 3 and 4 hour sessions on Sundays where we sat glued to our chairs learning under our guru. Then there were the 4.30 am prayer meetings for the men and the 30 day fasts, and I genuinely believed that these rituals were requirements to really be accepted by God. If one couldn’t reach those heights, you needed to work harder, and the guilt would creep in if you didn’t. My conscience was driven by performance and reward for achievement. In hindsight, this was all good character building and I learnt commitment, servanthood, obedience and faithfulness. These leaders were pivotal in my growth and they set the foundations on which to build, and I am forever grateful for them and their input. But something has happened. Because of grace my spirit has had a revelation, which, quite honestly, my head doesn’t always grasp. The most effective enemy is the one you can’t see, or the one you think doesn’t exist. That’s why we use camouflage in war. The enemy has deceived the church through religion and legalism for centuries, and at last the snare is indeed broken and I am truly escaped. Now, because of grace, I can recognise these in my life.
There is absolutely nothing I can do to earn my way in to heaven. I would love to be able to obey all the Ten Commandments all the time if that’s what’s required to get me there, but temptation will always be around. I know, you know, and He knows, that its impossible for me, and that’s why the only way is by His grace. Because of grace, my conscience has been reborn, so to speak, and I have become so sensitive to the truth of His unconditional love. This has me in a place where I don’t want to offend Him, and even ‘small sins’ like road rage raise a check in me immediately. I end up apologizing in the middle of the rage.
In the same vein, those dedicated men and woman who gave their all in establishing and laying down solid foundations in my life, I love and honour you. Thank God that you were obedient and willing to impart that which He had given you, which was right for that season. Now, please don’t take offence, but since the flood, He has reminded me that He is a jealous God, and that He is the only hero in my life. I’m sorry guys, you have been relieved of the title of hero, because I only have one hero to worship: King Jesus. and no other.
As for the 10% tithe, there was always the inner debate as to whether it’s before tax or not. Oh, what religious garbage that was. You can’t out give God so let’s stop the non-sense. Of course there always had to be the multiplication sermon on tithe day, just to rub in the law a little bit more. Well, now I find that giving has become a joy, and I find myself just increasing the ‘legal’ amount, just because.
HE BREAKS EVERY CHAIN! Fear, anger, unforgiveness, prejudices, negativity, addictions, religion, legalism.