Apologies to my blog friends and followers for my recent lack of comments, interest, etc. Unfortunately I have had some serious surgery and am very much still in recovery mode. God bless you all and the ministry you are performing. Hopefully things will improve health-wise. God is the faithful one. Luther once said, I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my guide!
Love and blessings,
I have enjoyed listening to RSG (Afrikaans) radio for many years, and got to appreciate the input of senior radio producer and journalist, Suna Venter, whose body was discovered in her flat in Fairland, Johannesburg, very recently. Just thirty two, she had been diagnosed with a cardiac condition known as Stress Cardio-Myography or ‘Broken Heart Syndrome,’ which causes rapid and severe heart muscle weakness. Her family and colleagues spoke of her trauma and prolonged periods of unnatural stress over the past year. She was part of eight SABC journalists who were fired (seven since reinstated) for objecting to former COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s dictatorial and lunatic policy of no longer airing live footage of violent township protests embarassing the ANC government. A parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee investigation later revealed huge irregularities at the corporation. Despite reinstatement she was the victim of continued political intimidation and death threats. This pretty girl was shot in the face with pellets while leaving a restaurant, requiring surgery to remove them. She received many death threats on her phone. Her flat was broken into numerous times, her car tyres slashed and brake cables cut. She was abducted and tied to a tree at Melville Koppies (hills) while the grass around her was set alight. The police failed to respond and she was rescued by a colleague.
She was involved with humanitarian organisations in various visits to Libya, Gaza, Egypt and Syria. She took unpaid leave to report from Syria. She was especially passionate about the welfare of children, having trained as a teacher. The country stopped to salute her for her sense of justice, compassion and above all courage. Her story touched my own heart in a profound way, and I simply had to blog her story. I have no idea as to any profession of faith on her part, simply that she was buried from a Dutch Reformed congregation.
What struck me and others was the report of a small tattoo on her arm, Were You Brave? Now that stirred something in me, as I took a quick review of my life…
- I recalled my primary school motto (from Shakespeare) To Thine Own Self Be True, my high school motto Vivite Fortes i.e. ‘Live courageously.’
- I recalled my ‘induction’ into my first pastorate. My College Principal preached on 2 Tim. 2:3, ‘Share in suffering like a good soldier of Jesus Christ.’ An unusual text!
- I recalled a fair share of personal and family suffering during thirty-eight years of denominational ministry, until the Lord’s release almost eleven years ago to engage in organic church expressions and ministry to the poor.
- I’m certainly not competing with Suna, simply asking, have I been a good soldier of Jesus Christ? Only the Lord knows the answer.
You see we live, as believers, in a time of unprecedented church compromise, materialism, consumerism, individualism, ego-centricity, hunger for power, identity preservation and many other diseases. Recently I found an article by Brian McLaren, whom years ago I was privileged to have preach from my pulpit. It’s about Millenials departing the ranks of the churched. A young pastor, Clarke, wrote to him recently: ‘The longer I work in the church the more I wonder if the church has any impact in our world. I often feel the church caters to the expectations and needs of insiders who have lost sight of our call to be radical change agents charged with advocating for and with people who have been pushed to the margins and to fight against the walls that keep them there. It seems all too often, the church has become a comfortable place where we learn about God but the not the place where we expect to actually wrestle with and be transformed by God.’ She goes on, ‘Worship is safe, service projects are safe, Bible study is safe, talking about bulletin size is safe. I don’t think passion is ever found in the safe and I don’t think change comes from there either and so we have become passionless and barren.’ She concludes, ‘As a church I believe we have an opportunity to be inventive and creative, curious, questioning and impactful… But we have to stop being afraid… insecure… and we have to stop being religious over being followers of Christ.’ Eish! (a South Africanism for ‘frustration’ or something like that) One organic church leader in the USA put it this way in his most recent newsletter: Jesus offers his would-be disciples a yoke, a cross and living water! Are we prepared to settle for that?
In a recent house church gathering one of our women mentioned re-reading The Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr, renowned Baptist pastor and social activist. In one section he focuses on Jesus’ command to his disciples in Mt. 10 to be ‘as wise as serpents and harmless as doves’ (v. 16). King challenges believers to combine the toughness of the serpent with the softness of the dove, i.e. we need tough minds and tender hearts.
- Tough minds (rooted in faith) are characterised by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal and decisive judgment. Believers generally don’t like to engage in hard and solid thinking (perhaps thinking it ‘unspiritual’ to do so), often being happy with easy answers and half-baked solutions. My own observation is that so many believers are amazingly gullible and even plainly superstitious, fearing Friday the 13th and black cats! Small wonder many mega-congregations swallow hook, line and sinker the pontifications of the popular gurus of our time. Tough minds also don’t fear change, they put their security not in the status quo but in Christ. They aren’t afraid of the findings of science, for they know that ultimately such findings will endorse God’s divine revelation. I was reminded of this anew when attending a recent apologetics conference in our city. Often honest Christian thinkers are more in touch with our world than many atheists and agnostics peddling outdated arguments and hopeless generalisations.
- King reminds us that the gospel also requires tender hearts. Hard-hearted people never truly love. They ‘use’ people. They don’t enjoy the beauty of close friendships, they are too cold to feel affection for one another and too self-centred to share in the joys and sorrows of others. They give with cold hearts, but not from their spirit. They are essentially pharisees at heart, and we know what Jesus thought of pharisaism!
Of course this bravery we are called to is not a humanistic ‘whistling in the dark’ or being ‘good to granny and kind to the cat.’ It is deeply rooted in Christ and his risen life. Driving back recently from Cape Town through the magnificent Boland with its mountains and valleys, we witnessed its renowned vineyards on either side of the winding road, being readied for next year’s harvest of fruit and wine. It reminded me of Jesus’ profound teaching on the Vine and the Branches (Jn.15): ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’ (v. 5). That’s the bedrock of all true discipleship! The apostle Paul had the same understanding: he spends more than half of his Ephesian Letter expounding what it is to be ‘in Christ’ by faith. Before exhorting his readers to put on the Armour of God (Eph. 6), he lays down the foundation: ‘Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power’ (v. 10). It’s the kind of thing that took Jesus through Gethsemane and on to the Cross, to die for us all.
Such bravery demands some hard choices: perhaps turning our back on a ‘church’ almost totally compromised with worldliness; perhaps choosing ‘a road less travelled’ with a few ragamuffin believers determined to be/serve Jesus in our world; perhaps speaking uncomfortable truth to power and society, e.g. exposing political corruption and fighting ‘abortion on demand;’ perhaps identifying some marginalised people, and being Christ in their midst; perhaps facing a dread disease with the fortitude and cheer of the Lord…
Ultimately it’s about bravely ‘filling the world with love,’ remembering that for believers its a tough and cross-shaped love. All glory to Jesus!
A few months ago some very good friends, career missionaries in Hong Kong, invited me to a local one-day ‘silent retreat’ on a section of the Song of Songs. Judy, a widely- researched and experienced spiritual director, uses the Song of Songs with insights from missionary pioneer to China, James Hudson Taylor, as penned in his Union and Communion.
Goethe described Song of Songs as a medley, on the one hand extolling the preciousness of human love, on the other suggesting that greater love between God and Israel, or between Christ and his Church. Traditionally the authorship is ascribed to Solomon, the reputed lover and poet. By the way, have you ever heard a sermon on the Song of Songs? I haven’t. And to my shame I’ve never preached one on it in over forty years!
I was a little on edge on the retreat day, not because I’m uncomfortable exploring silence on my own. The retreat was in a group setting with report-back times and that made me feel a tad vulnerable. In the end I was thrilled to have participated. At Judy’s suggestion we didn’t hectically scribble down notes as she introduced themes but rather wait to hear from God about the one or two things he would bring to our attention.
The portion for the day was entitled Contemplation: Let My Beloved Come Into His Garden, based on 4:9-16, ESV.
“You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice! Your lips drop nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed. Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits … a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.
Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.”
My first impression was that I was still very much tied to my South African macho man image. Judy at one point said to the men in the group, ‘You are beautiful!’ I succumbed to a nervous cackle… surely not me! And yet to God my Creator and Saviour? to others who may just see something of Jesus’ nature in me? My wife saw something in me, but that was long ago!
My second impression was that at least, for the last ten years since leaving the organised Church, I was in fact pursuing ‘being’ the Bride, in however small a measure. I had begun to take care of my own garden – through times of silence, meditation, reading and prayer. God knows, having ‘pastored’ traditional churches for decades, how busy I had been trying to take care of the thousands of members’ gardens under my care! When my wife and I commenced a ‘simple house church,’ we made it clear: everyone pushes his/her own wheelbarrow! We could/would no longer do that.
My third impression, by far the most powerful, was of the beauty of the Lord, i.e. the Heavenly Bridegroom, the ‘lover of my soul!’ There, I said it! As I sat in that beautiful, Summerstrand guest house garden, thinking about God and his wondrous love for sinners and for me, I was deeply impacted by Hudson Taylor’s comments given us by Judy [by the way, the first Christian book I ever read as a teen-convert was The Man Who Believed God, the story of Hudson Taylor – it shaped my life then, it still challenges me today]: “There is nothing sweeter to the Bridegroom or to the bride than this hallowed and unhindered communion…
Well it is when our eyes are filled with His beauty and our hearts are occupied with him. In the measure which this is true of us we shall recognize the correlative truth that His great heart is occupied with us… It is in His presence and through His grace that whatever fragrance or beauty may be found in us comes forth. Of Him is its source, through Him as its instrument, and to Him as its end, is all that is gracious and divine. But He Himself is better far than all that His grace works in us.
Herself His garden, she does not forget to tend it, nor keep the vineyards of others while her own is neglected… what she was (by grace) was more important than what she did, and that she did not work in order to earn favour, but being assured of favour, gave her love free scope to show itself in service. The bride knew her relationship to her Lord, and His love to her… Her vineyard was herself, and she desired for her Lord much fruit.” How deeply, deeply I was touched in the garden that Saturday: “His great heart is occupied with us… with me…” Unforgettable!
My fourth and final impression: Judy mentioned, in passing, the metaphor of Beauty and the Beast. She added that our vision needs to be illumined by divine beauty. We need to engage more with beauty than beastliness. For if we are blinded by the beast, we lose sight of the beautiful and all we see is ugly.
The unbelieving world, in the hands of the devil, is in many ways beastly – we see it daily in the media and all around us. I’m a news-junkie, and often that beastliness gets me down. Let me look far more at beauty – the beauty of creation, the beauty of God’s grace at work in humankind, the beauty of poetry, of great music, above all the beauty of God himself. The news-junkie must be transformed, through beauty, to a Jesus-junkie! Thank God for the ‘rediscovery of Jesus’ within and outside of traditional Church forms in these days! Long ago the Psalmist David confidently sang, amid wars and fears: “One thing I have asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4, NRSV). That song is even more beautiful when we grasp that ‘the temple of the LORD’ is not a building in Jerusalem but Christ himself, and that he makes us his temples in the world. The apostle Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthian church, points to the transforming effect of beholding Christ’s face: “But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil (under the old covenant) is taken away… all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image… For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 3:16-18, 4:6; NLT). Man alive!
I confess I always found American Charles Austin Miles’s hymn, In The Garden, too sentimental for my liking. But I tell you what, I can identify with the refrain even if its last line is somewhat presumptuous:
And He walks with me, and he talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
- Paul T. McCain (First Things), on a recent trip to Japan, learned how J.S. Bach’s music is powerfully influencing that most secularised of countries. Listening to Bach’s sublime music, some have been converted, others are thinking deeply about the roots of Christianity. This is true particularly among the Japanese elite and young people, disillusioned by materialism and activism. Apparently the Japanese don’t even have a good word for ‘hope.’ True beauty is powerful.
- I haven’t touched on the ‘beastliness’ of so much masquerading as ‘Christ’s Bride’ today. In 1970 already Francis Schaeffer wrote of her ‘ugliness,’ adultery and apostasy, lovelessness and division. All the more important that I learn to gaze far more often on Christ’s true, magnificent Bride as revealed in the Bible and glimpsed in some of the most unexpected places around the world today!
- Judy Lam is currently working toward her Ph.D with the University of the Free State in the area of Spirituality.
In the early 1970’s already the great Welsh preacher Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones, in an interview challenging the ‘rationality’ of the Church, declared that it was in fact ‘the world’ that had become ‘irrational’ and ‘gone completely mad.’ Over forty years later, would any serious disciple of Christ differ? Think of the present American and North Korean war-mongering, the Manchester terrorist bombing at a pop concert a few days ago, leaving scores seriously injured and twenty-two (mostly young people) dead, including an eight-year old girl. Think of our own country (South Africa) – many, even in our ruling party, now freely speak of ‘state capture,’ a ‘mafia state’ and a nation which has lost its moral compass. We bleed when we hear of yet another toddler raped, murdered and disposed of in a shallow grave. Violent protests over governmental non-service delivery as to basic housing, water, electricity, health-care and education have increased by 80% in the past year.
Also over forty years ago, renowned Christian apologist Dr. Francis Schaeffer of L’Abri fame published his thoughts on the rise and decline of Western thought and culture in a masterpiece, How Should We Then Live?’ That’s the question we posed recently at a Sunday morning house church gathering. Given a nation and world gone mad, a largely nominal Church paralysed by institutionalism, how should we then live?? We had great inter-action on the subject. We had also invited a good friend, Prof. Rob Snelgar, to introduce the topic, and with his blessing I share just a little of his input.
Rob took us to Psalm 11, written by David amid great national wickedness, aptly drawing our attention to v. 3-4, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD is on his heavenly throne.”
- We need to think biblically rather than ideologically (i.e. according to a system of thought that justifies certain group-interests over against others). The biblical idea of crisis is captured in the Greek word kairos, i.e. a merciful, God-given opportunity in the face of judgment and disaster. South Africans had a kairos moment in 1994, we have one once more. At such a time as this we must choose truth over corruption, good over evil, and action over passivity. We were reminded of Hos. 10:12ff, “Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love… break up your unploughed ground; for it is time to seek the LORD, until he comes and showers righteousness on you.”
- We need to fix our eyes on Yahweh, the Creator-God of the nations, who is on his throne, still in charge of the universe. This means that we don’t panic, that we call out what is evil, face reality full-on (vs the modern Church’s gnostic, head-in-the-sand, ‘positive confession’ nonsense), and look up to see God on his throne and things from his perspective.
- We need to pray, not only re-actively for the downfall of evil but pro-actively in the pursuit of justice (v. 11). We must live our prayers daily, speaking up and standing up for the truth. As South Africans have been doing of late, we can pour into the streets and besiege parliament in the hundreds of thousands, NOT in the name of a political party but in the name of Christ and his justice and righteousness. The Koreans recently dethroned their corrupt president and so can we. To pray is to trust God and live in peace. If we pray for principled leadership and good government as commanded in 1 Tim. 2:1ff, God will give those to us.
- We need to re-discover God’s Word. Rob mentioned Josiah, King of Judah, who reigned from c. 639-609 BC. He became king at eight, sought God at fifteen and cleansed the temple in his twenties. In the process he found the dusty volume of the law of God, long missing and forgotten. Note the law was lost in ‘the house of God.’ When that happens today, there is no clear message nor divine authority. We have in fact lost God (Jesus) in the ‘temple!’ We have ‘domesticated God,’ diluted his Word and made him our servant and that of our culture. [Noting King Josiah’s actions, I couldn’t help thinking of William Wilberforce. At age fourteen he wrote to a York newspaper about the evils of slave trade. Encouraged by John Newton and others, he gave his life to lobbying the upper class and parliament until the slave trade was abolished. Among other things, he helped found the British & Foreign Bible Society and the CMS]
- The Church needs to obey God’s Word, bringing people together as a multi-cultural, multi-lingual group of people in order to reconcile and unite. [here Erroll notes Paul’s great reconciliation mandate in 2 Cor. 5:11ff, a reconciliation both vertical and horizontal through the cross of Christ]
We concluded the morning with a reference to the prophecy of Micah, 6:6-8, c. 700’s BC. Israel is the defendant, accused of exploiting the under-privileged and the poor, imagining that God would protect Jerusalem irrespective of her social conduct. God is the prosecutor and judge, judging his people in the light of their gracious redemption-history from the exodus to the present: “With what shall I come before the LORD & bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? … he has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly before your God.” He requires that his people walk in the ‘good way:’ by way of righteous actions, merciful treatment of others and a humble relationship with God. God calls not so much for ‘gifts’ as the giver, in the the totality of who we are. This involves three life-areas: (1) our standards of conduct [note the almost total disconnect today between believers’ profession and conduct]; (2) our personal relationships; (3) our innermost spiritual life. God requires these three things in balance. How do we, and our faith community, measure up to these requirements? Recently an estimated one million believers (!!) converged on a Free State farm to repent before God and pray for divine intervention in our nation. One has to commend such an action – however, unless professions made at that remarkable event are not translated into changed hearts and lives on a daily basis, our nation will continue as it is. I love the writings and ministries of Shane Claiborn who recently challenged American Christians, ‘Let’s get our hands dirty… doing something good together… something concrete to help somebody.’ When we get involved with the poor and the outcasts of society, abundant opportunities and blessings will open up for those who dare!
Last but not least, lest we default once again to eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (‘the gospel of trying harder’) rather than the Tree of Life, let’s look to Jesus alone. Let’s abide in Jesus as he abides in us. Let’s live in the power of the new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:7-13; Jn. 15:1-17) which changes us inwardly. We desperately need today, in the Church of Jesus Christ, a fundamental return to Jesus as revealed in the Bible.
So, as the old hymn, so beloved by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, puts it,
‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus!
Stand in his strength alone;
The arm of flesh will fail you
Ye dare not trust your own.
Put on the Gospel armour,
Each piece put on with prayer;
Where duty calls or danger,
Be never wanting there!’
(George Duffield, 1818-1888)
As a very young pastor in rural Eastern Cape (South Africa), I served on a missions board with a much older, very eccentric, autocratic and paternalistic ‘missionary superintendent’ who had the habit of visiting rural wood-and-iron church buildings and padlocking the doors if he felt the little congregation wasn’t up to scratch. Eish!
However, the God of Israel, through his servant Malachi (contemporary of Nehemiah, +- 450 BC), almost did that to the Jerusalem temple! “How I wish one of you would shut the Temple doors so that these worthless sacrifices could not be offered! ‘I am not pleased with you,’ says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies” (Mal. 1:10, NLT). The reason for his displeasure? His people were naively unaware of their cheap, routine worship offered to their eternal Lover, Father and Master (1:1, 6ff). They hypocritically ‘sacrificed’ defiled, crippled and diseased animals when he deserved only the best (1:6ff, 14). They pleaded injured innocence, ‘How have we ever shown contempt for your name?… how have we defiled the sacrifices?’ (1:6). They complained it was ‘too hard’ to serve God (1:13). They had forgotten God’s immense stature, even among pagan nations: “‘For I am a great king, says the LORD of Heaven’s armies,’ and my name is feared among the nations!'” (1:14). Never mind their marriage to idolaters, unfaithfulness to their spouses, sorcery, cheating of employees, oppression of widows and orphans and injustice toward foreigners (2:11ff, 3:5ff). In a panel discussion on Paradise & Evil, N.T. Wright pointed out the amazement of President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair at the 9/11 ‘evil,’ as if this was their first encounter with ‘evil’ in the world! (the panel was not minimising the pain of 9/11) Thereafter they were correcting ‘evil’ all over the world by bombing it! The fact is we live in a world that is irrational and has gone completely mad – Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that in the 1970’s already.
Even the clergy (I loath the term) were in trouble – their job was to ‘bring life and peace,’ but they had left God’s paths, watered down his instructions and caused many to stumble into sin (2:9). Pause: is our situation in the Church today any different? How many pulpits around the globe would dare carry a prophetic message like Malachi’s? Most of our modern ‘prophets’ declare ‘all is well’ with the Church and her future is ‘fantastic.’
At the outset of God’s quarrel with his people, he reminds them of his eternal, magnificent, tender love for them: “‘I have always loved you,’ says the LORD” (1:1), demonstrating this in the call of Jacob, whom God loved though he was so crooked he couldn’t hide behind a cork screw (1:2ff). Later he reiterates his long-suffering love, “‘I am the LORD, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed. Ever since the day of your ancestors, you have scorned my decrees and failed to obey them. Now return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies” (3:6ff). The NT confirms that our relationship with God always starts with his great love for us rather than the other way round: “This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10). Super-eloquent Brennan Manning, American Catholic priest-turned-gospel preacher, struggles to express that love, resorting to terms like ‘the furious longing of God,’ ‘the relentless tenderness of Jesus,’ ‘a life-shattering gift,’ etc. At the same time the Messiah is no namby-pamby pushover, no sentimental slushy Saviour: see what he did in the temple and to the temple when it fell into religiosity – he upset it and destroyed it (Jn. 2:12-22). He became the temple, and we in him (1 Cor. 3:10-17; 1 Pet. 2:4-10; etc).
Once more I’m attempting to expose what I have called the temple syndrome or temple talisman. For centuries we have equated ‘church’ (ekklesia) to ‘temple.’ It was really accelerated by Emperor Constantine in the 300’s AD, when he professionalised the clergy and ‘temple-lised’ the body, the clergy ruling and the body spectating. That way worship quickly reduces to tradition, ritual and religiosity. People simply go through the motions. This past week there was a facebook advert for a local mega-church, flavour of the season plus revolving doors. Someone posted, ‘Hi! I didn’t know you also (some friend) worship at XYZ Church? But then we attend morning services only.’ With respect, how on earth do you ‘fellowship’ in such a scenario? (Acts 2:42ff). Ultimately, it is not a matter of ‘temple’ or place, whether Jerusalem, Mt. Gerizim, or Church XYZ: “The time is coming – indeed it’s here now, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth… for God is Spirit” (Jesus to the Samaritan woman, Jn. 4).
Malachi gives the corrective for churchianity. “Look! I am sending my messenger… the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple… But who will be able to endure it when he appears? For he will be like a blazing fire that refines metal… he will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross. He will purify the Levites, refining them like gold and silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the LORD” (3:1ff). Just four hundred years later that prophecy was fulfilled in John the Baptiser and the Messiah Jesus. In short, the answer for a sick Church at all times is Jesus, simply Jesus! He’s still knocking on church doors, most of whom have gradually locked him out: “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends…” (first addressed to the luke-warm Laodicean assembly in Asia Minor, +- 90 AD). What about your assembly and mine? Is Jesus truly its glorious, functional Head?
The immediate danger is that we default to the false gospel of ‘trying harder.’ I myself have often done so. The antidote for that deadly venom is becoming deeply persuaded of God’s outrageous love for his Church and for us as individual believers. True ‘repentance’ (lit. ‘change of mind,’ re-calibration) flows from ‘a furious love affair’ between God and ourselves (G.K. Chesterton). It’s not a case of becoming ‘nice’ men and women, following some moral code. It’s living in and out of that ‘furnace of love’ which is Jesus. Manning suggests that in Pentecost the Church is filled with ‘new creations,’ ‘a community of prophets and professional lovers’ (maybe not so professional).
Malachi ends his prophecy with hope! For a returning and obedient people, the prophet spells out many blessings:
- They will be called ‘blessed’ by the nations (4:11-12).
- They enjoy amazing fellowship with God and among themselves.“Then those who feared the LORD spoke with each other, and the LORD listened to what they said. In his presence a scroll of remembrance was written to record the names of those who feared him and always thought about the honor of his name” (4:16). Brothers and sisters, once you’ve tasted the sweet wine of such koinonia, you’re wrecked for good!
- They are treasured by our heavenly Father. “They will be my people… On the day when I act in judgment, they will be my own special treasure. I will spare them as a father spares his obedient child” (3:17).
- They will be distinctive, their being and behaviour matching their profession. “Then you will again see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who don’t” (4:18).
- They will know exuberant healing, freedom, joy and victory! (4:2ff)
- Young and old will re-unite. God will “turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers” (4:6).
Some of this stuff may seem just too radical for some of my readers. I plead for an open mind. Just a few days ago South Africa laid to rest one of her great Apartheid struggle heroes, Ahmed Kathrada. He once said, ‘The hardest thing in the world is to open a closed mind.’ May we not be found wanting.
My wife and I hadn’t seen our son and two grandsons for a while, so we arranged to meet at a children’s playground traffic park over a picnic basket for some togetherness. In this way we’d get to inter-act with dad while the two boys learned the traffic rules and had fun on their bikes. At the centre of the little traffic park there was a concrete, hexagonal seat, which served as a little table for our picnic lunch. It worked while we were lunching together but not so well (my feeling) when we were watching the boys while trying to engage each other in meaningful conversation – I think the reason was that we adults weren’t facing each other, in fact we were facing away from each other.
The hexagonal table/seat experience illustrates what often happens not only in families but in church ‘families.’ There is extremely little face to face connection, which, if neglected, works against true fellowship. As a family we made up for it the following weekend when we chatted and played mini-cricket in our back-garden while preparing a lamb-and-veggie ‘potjie,’ a low-heat, slow-cook of many hours in a cast-iron pot over an open fire. ‘Face to face!’
FACE TO FACE FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD DOES HAPPEN, DOESN’T IT?
- Take the man and the woman in Eden and their face to face fellowship with the Creator and each other ‘when the cool evening breezes were blowing’ (Gen. 1ff). [Treat yourself to Cheryl McGrath’s latest blog, The Magnificent Pursuit, especially the two paragraphs commencing with words from Amos. cf. Bread for the Bride]
- Moses, a fragile saint in some ways, regularly engaged with God in the ‘Tent of Meeting.’ On other occasions he spoke with him ‘face to face, as a man speaks with a friend’ (Ex. 33:11, NLT).
- The apostle Paul has provided us with the basis for such face-to-face fellowship: “For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made us understand that this light is the brightness of the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ… this light and power that now shine within us – is held in perishable containers, that is, in our weak bodies. So everyone can see that our glorious power is from God and is not our own.'” (2 Cor. 4:6-7, NLT). Keeping our eyes on Jesus produces the purest faith and fellowship!
FACE TO FACE IN GOD’S COMMUNITY ON EARTH?
- Paul, in his unusually personal Second Letter to the Corinthians Paul, defends his apostleship in the face of some false apostles among them: “By the meekness and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you – I, Paul who am ‘timid’ when face to face with you, but ‘bold’ when away! I beg you that when I come I may have to be as bold as I expect to be towards some people who think that we live by the standards of this world…” (2 Cor. 10:1-2, NIV)
- The Apostle John, especially in his letters, loves to be face to face: “The elder, to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth… I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you soon and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 Jn. v. 1, 12). “The elder, to my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth… I have much to write to you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 Jn. v. 1, 14).
- Check out the face to face stuff in the early Church. The believers meet largely ‘from house to house’ around the meal table (Acts 2:42ff) – the destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD 70 re-inforced this intimacy. According to v. 42 the believers “committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, MSG). I love Peterson’s paraphrase of koinonia as ‘the life together,’ i.e. the very life of Jesus, indwelling his followers, producing a ‘common life’ of intimate sharing. ‘Sell your shirt’ and purchase Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little gem, ‘The Life Together,’ to get an insight into the fellowship of the true Church! I have a good friend in Hong Kong who travels once a month across the border on a Sunday to teach a group of about thirty plus believers in a house church, officially prohibited from accommodating more than six – those believers look for any excuse to fellowship the whole Sunday, every Sunday, around the Word, coming back for more the following week! Try that in the West…
IT’S A FACE TO FACE FELLOWSHIP WHICH LEADS SOMEWHERE!
I’ve been reading the Letter to the Hebrews. The writer (?) calls his persecuted readers (Jewish Christian house churches in Rome?) to persevere in the faith: “Without wavering, let us hold tightly to the hope we say we have, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming (there are many days of reckoning, including Christ’s return) is drawing near” (10:23-25, NLT). This text is not a ‘freeby’ for preachers to beat over the heads those present in their Sunday ‘services!’ Rather it is an encouragement, arising out of our hope in Christ, to give expression to fellowship and service under the headship of Christ. In 1982 already Dr. Raymond Brown of Spurgeon’s College stated, “Since in the teaching of this letter Christians are brothers in the same family (3:1; 13:1,22), partners in the same enterprise (3:14) and members of the same household (3:6; 10:21), they have a responsibility not only to ‘hold fast’ themselves, but also to encourage their fellow believers to do the same… the exhortation is not simply to the exercise of fellowship, but also to the stimulation of compassionate activity in the work of Christ…’ He then asked, ‘is this an impossible ideal in the twentieth century? Aware 0f the selfish and materialistic pressures of contemporary society, and convinced of the needs of a more distinctively Christian lifestyle, some believers have turned from the institutional churches to communities…” He cites the ‘Jesus People’ of the late 1960’s, house churches around the world, etc. For what it’s worth, having ‘pastored’ traditional churches as well as a ‘a cell church’ for 38 years in all, I believe the Acts and Hebrews kind of body life is a virtually ‘impossible ideal,’ given all our institutional red tape, machinery, hierarchies, structures and programs. I mean, how do you ‘fellowship’ week after week while staring at the back of someone’s head, unless you deliberately want to hide and remain unchanged? Or following the senior pastor’s meticulously planned cell group agenda Wednesday by Wednesday? [On a lighter note… In my last denominational congregation we replaced our pews, cracked and broken, with chairs, in an effort to promote a little more face to face inter-action. I asked the stewards repeatedly to put out the chairs in a half-moon around the ground-level lectern – on each occasion it lasted about two weeks before they were back in perfectly straight lines, facing the ‘performers’ up front!]
FACE TO FACE FELLOWSHIP: WHERE DO I FIND IT??
- Many believers, especially in the West, with church buildings around every corner, long for this, look for this, without finding it.
- At the same time there are pockets of believers around the world, finding it and being ‘wrecked’ for good.
- For some in the First World the only way they can experience something of this ‘fellowship’ is on the internet, inter-acting with their unseen family across the globe who share the same heart.
- For some it may entail sharing a monthly coffee with a kindred mind just to chew the fat together.
- It may include just you and your family at this stage. That’s a highly biblical and good start! Prayerfully consider opening your home to others. Let it be a Spirit-led, bottom-up, serving one another thing. Often your best results will come through serving poor and broken communities, working with children and teens yearning for a spiritual father/mother, working with ‘fringe people’ just like Jesus did. Yes, it’s possible! ‘If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers in my name, I am there among them.’ (Mt. 18:19-20, NLT)
‘I believe we live in a waiting age when multitudes are convinced that something vastly deeper than they know in the present church is fundamentally needed. The land is full of seekers; the church is full of seekers… Over the horizon men dimly see something glorious, they know not what. But what they see is Christ walking again in lowly simple love, recapturing the church for Himself, rebuking the scribes and Pharisees, who sit in Moses’ seat, and tenderly leading men to share in His immediacy and enthrallment in God.’
(Thomas Kelley, 1893-1941)
Welcome dear reader to a challenging but exciting journey! It is one of discovering (or perhaps re-discovering) the new covenant of Jesus Christ together.
Very briefly, my own journey began just over ten years ago, after pastoring mainline churches for decades. At that time God in his sovereignty put my wife and myself on ‘a road less travelled,’ outside of denominational churches. Along the way, naturally and graciously, the Lord gave us a new understanding of many things, including Christ’s new covenant with his people. (I’ve discovered quite recently how this is happening in the lives of many believers all over the world, many testifying of a new freedom and glory in Christ)
The scriptural basis for this journey is broad, so I shall highlight only a few ‘peak passages’ lest I lose my readers along the road! Oh yes, before we set out, can we perhaps agree to humbly try and set aside any ‘theological systems’ we may have imposed on the Bible, probably inadvertently, and let the text speak for itself?
- Our first stop-over is with our spiritual forefather, Abram, in the ancient Middle Eastern city of Ur, recorded in Gen. 12:1ff (? BC). God calls Abram to leave kin and country with the covenant promise, ‘I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
- Our next stop is with the OT prophet Isaiah (701-681 BC?), who repeatedly reminds God’s covenant people of their call to ‘be a light to the Gentiles and the nations of the earth.’ They would ignore this command at their own peril.
- The next stop is with the OT prophet Jeremiah (626-586 BC, 586 being the year Israel went into Babylonian exile). “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke… this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more’ (31:31-34). [NB! unlike many today, the OT itself never divides up the law into categories, i.e. dietary law, ceremonial law and moral law. The law = the law]
- We stop over with the OT prophet Ezekiel (593-563 BC), who speaks about God’s covenant people being given ‘one heart, a heart of flesh, a new spirit within,’ so that they may truly obey God (11:19-20).
- Centuries later we meet up with the apostle Paul, who counters the threat of the Judaisers to the Galatian believers (48-53 AD?) by teaching extensively on the matter of ‘law and faith.’ “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian (Gr. paidagogos, i.e, a personal slave-attendant accompanying a freeborn boy, a kind of child minder-cum-informal teacher) until Christ came, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith… There is no longer Jew or Greek… for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise’ (3:23-29). We may also here recall Paul’s earlier rebuke of Peter, Barnabas and others: “But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'” (2:14) Why must I as an ‘adult’ Gentile follower of Jesus be pressurised by modern Gentile Judaisers, to live like a Jew? Why shouldn’t I enjoy my eggs with bacon?
- Next we stop over with Paul as he writes his second letter to the Corinthians (55 AD?) re ‘Ministers of the New Covenant,’ to counter the accusations of false apostles among them. ‘You are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…’ God ‘has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, chiselled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory … how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? … indeed, what once had glory has lots its glory because of the greater glory’ (3:1ff). Speaking about Israel, Paul indicates that whenever the old covenant was read, a ‘veil’ blinded God’s people. ‘When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’ (v. 6-18). [maybe you think at this point that I am headed toward libertinism, quite the contrary, as you can check out from my blog series Cheap Grace] Over the years I have painfully learned that the most powerful restraint from sin is not fear of the law but the sheer love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:14-15). Love will lead us where fear never will. ‘God may thunder his commands from Mount Sinai and men may fear, yet remain at heart exactly as they were before. But let a man once see his God down in the arena as a Man – suffering, tempted, sweating and agonized, finally dying a criminal’s death – and he is a hard man indeed who is untouched’ (Dr. J.B. Phillips, 1906-1982).
- We visit Paul writing to the Roman believers (57 AD?). He pens some interesting words concerning God’s ‘elect,’ ‘For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants… it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise…’ (9:6-8).
- Our final stop-over is with the author of the Hebrews letter (prior to 70 AD). Again the problem is Judaisers, pressurising Jewish believers to return to law-keeping. The writer presents them with Jesus, the mediator of a ‘better covenant,’ “which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need of a second one… ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors… for they did not continue in my covenant… This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days… (echoes of Jer. 31 follow) I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.’ In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” Would you prefer a Model-T Ford or a modern 4X4 SUV for travelling over land from ‘Cape to Cairo’?? I know what I would choose.
Before we take a coffee/tea break, let’s do a reality check: what do you and I know, cognitively and experientially, of this new freedom and glory through Christ alone? What about our faith community, whether traditional or non-traditional, large or small?
THE FREEDOM AND THE GLORY!
(DISCOVERING THE NEW COVENANT TOGETHER: PT. 2)
When making a journey it’s often exciting to look back and trace all the way you have come… why not quickly scan Pt. 1 above?
As we journey on, shall we now consult the trail-blazer himself, Jesus? As Canadian pastor and author Bruxy Cavey once put it, ‘If the Bible is God’s instruction manual on how to live life, Jesus is God’s instruction manual on how to read the Bible.’ Light shows us what shadow never will.
- Yes, Jesus did warn his followers against ‘abolishing’ the laws and the prophets. He stated in the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfill‘ (Mt. 5:17ff). Let’s not rush over those words. ‘Abolish’ means annul, destroy, do away with. ‘Fulfill’ means to finish, or complete. Benjamin Corey illustrates: If I were to say that my daughter’s softball game was cancelled (abolished), it would say two things: the game is over and it finished prior to its natural end. However, if I said that my daughter’s softball game has been completed (fulfilled) it would reveal that the game was in fact over and did not finish prior to the natural end.’ Seems logical to me. In any case, when the Pharisees try to trip up Jesus on the law, Christ presents to them, in a nutshell, the very essence of the commandments as meaning to ‘love God, and our neighbour as ourselves’ (Mt. 22:34-40). As simple as that! To summarise, ‘In the old covenant, man tried to do things for God; in the new covenant, God comes to work in the place of man. The difference is incalculable.’ (Rodrigo Abarca)
- Jesus reveals that what his people Israel were unable to be, he became and continues to do so. Isaiah’s sad ‘Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard’ reads: ‘My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a vine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes’ (5:1-5). Contrast John’s account of Jesus as ‘The True Vine’: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower… Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me… Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ (Jn. 15:1-17)
- Think of Jesus and the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus presents himself as ‘greater than’ Moses, the old covenant law, the prophets, David, Solomon, Jonah, and the temple. ‘I tell you (the disciples and the Pharisees), something greater than the temple is here’ (Mt. 12:6). Jesus was revealing himself as the new temple (Mt. 26:61), the new Israel! Irish OT scholar Christopher Wright writes, ‘The NT presents Jesus to us as the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. And the Messiah was Israel. That is, the Messiah was Israel, representatively and personified. The Messiah was the completion of all that Israel had been put into the world for – i.e, God’s self-revelation and his work of human redemption.’ Today many recognise Anglican Tom Wright as one of the experts on Jesus and the Gospels – he writes in his must-read The Challenge of Jesus: ‘Jesus came as the true Israel, the world’s true light, and as the true image of the invisible God. He was the true Jew, the true human.’ [Sadly, this has become a rather emotive matter, especially among some Western believers. They would label the above scholars and myself as promoting ‘replacement theology,’ i.e replacing Israel with Jesus and the Church. I prefer to call it ‘fulfilment theology.’ There is a subtle but critical difference. If you see things differently, I surely respect that. I simply ask for the same respect. I would love you to finish this journey with me!]
What are some of the practical benefits of discovering Christ’s new covenant? Let me mention four…
First, this journey expands our intimacy with God. Our walk with God becomes more relational. We relate to him not so much as holy Law-giver as Holy Lover. Old covenant people are often terrified that this new covenant understanding will undermine our fear (honouring) of God, when it in fact strengthens it – that is my personal and our family testimony. Our walk with God is no longer performance and guilt-based. I’ve been saying to my friends for years that most church-goers ‘live like old covenant people rather than new covenant people’ (Frank Viola, David Gay and others concur). My paternal forebears were raised in an austere Calvinistic, Reformed denomination where the ten commandments were read at every service (by the way, I called myself a ‘Reformed Baptist’ once. I still have good friends among my Reformed colleagues). Instead of pointing them to God’s grace in Christ, the law emphasis seemed to lead largely to fear, condemnation, guilt and even despair. Here’s another confession: for many years I was guilty, like so many preachers, of preaching a kind of ‘try harder gospel’: i.e. attend more, pray more, Bible study more, evangelise more, etc. In recent visits to churches I see many church members bowed down and disillusioned. They did ‘try harder,’ but somehow it didn’t work. However, when we begin to ‘abide in Christ’ as ‘he abides in us’ (Jn. 15), things change! It’s more spontaneous, it’s organic. Why? We know from Scripture how closely Abraham, Moses, and David related to God. Those under the new covenant have an even closer relationship with God through simple faith in Jesus: ‘all these (Abraham, Moses, David, etc), though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.’ (Heb. 11:39-40).
Second, this journey expands our understanding of church. ‘Church’ is no longer a temple, a special building where believers go to find God once or twice a week. Rather Immanuel is our temple, and those in his body his portable temples 24/7, reflecting his glory wherever they go. I have blogged much on this subject, so won’t labour the point. Over and above the passages mentioned in Part 1, you could look at 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 6:19-20; 1 Pet. 2:4-10; etc.
We’ve climbed a steep hill! Shall we take another breather on our journey, and then come back to complete the last lap?
THE FREEDOM AND THE GLORY!
(DISCOVERING THE NEW COVENANT OF CHRIST TOGETHER: PT. 3)
Some years ago, a new couple moved in across the road. She had grown up in rural Eastern Cape (South Africa), he in England. She loved farm life, he had spent his life on boats on the English coast. They got married, and she brought him to South Africa. They motored down from the High Veldt, through the Free State, and then entered the Cape Province. They stopped on the escarpment, looking down on the Great Karoo which stretched into the distance for ever. He burst into the tears. He had never seen anything so big, so expansive and spacious in his life! That happens when we take the New Covenant road…
Third, our journey expands our experience of God’s ultimate purpose in Christ, viz. to ‘gather up all things in him (Christ), things in heaven and on earth’ (Eph. 1:10). We who are ‘in Christ’ get to be full participants in this magnificent process, beginning in Gen. 1 and concluding in Rev. 22! God’s church is not a hiccup in his saving purpose, it is vital to transforming the whole earth. God influences the whole universe through his people: ‘so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now (!) be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Eph. 3:10-11). When we read in Jn. 14:15ff of Jesus’ promise to ‘come again’ to his people, it includes his coming in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Those first recipients turned their world upside down. Jesus dwells in the world in/through his people! We carry within us the divine life of Christ. My wife and I could give many examples of this happening in the marketplace, and we are just very ordinary, ragamuffin believers. Sadly the church at large has been so brain-washed with the idea that its all just about getting to ‘heaven,’ ‘just Jesus and me,’ that they have missed the big picture. They are just biding time until Jesus comes for us on the clouds – meanwhile Jesus is continuing his life on this planet through you and me right now. Jesus is no ‘absentee land-lord!’ (Jon Zens). This gives us purpose, without which we become depressed and die (cf. Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl). God’s kingdom has come in Christ, is coming in Christ, and will come in Christ. As Prof. Gary Burge of Wheaton College has said, it’s a tragedy when Western believers’ zeal for the end of the world outstrips their love for all the peoples of the world.
Fourth, this journey enables us to live lightly. Again I will not go into detail, having blogged on this under the title, Learning to Live Lightly! You remember Jesus’ well-known invitation to the weary and heavy laden to come to him for rest? (Mt. 11:28-30) We’ve quoted it, preached it, read it in gospel tracts, etc. Unfortunately we have often overlooked the context. The background includes Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees who heaped heavy religious and law-keeping burdens on the shoulders of God’s people. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase puts Jesus’ invitation correctly and beautifully: ‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.’ Let’s just say that it actually works, particularly if you practise it every day.
As we wind up, a word of balance:
- New Covenant theology embraces a theology of suffering. Few know that Dr. J.B. Phillips, quoted earlier, had a near-death experience in his twenties, laboriously paraphrased the NT for his beloved young people while hiding in bomb-shelters during the London ‘blitz,’ etc. He suffered from chronic depression for most of his life. Yet he triumphed by the grace of God, as evident from his vibrant paraphrase! Many of us reading this blog have walked through the fires of suffering: it is the massive grace of God in Christ that has enabled us to overcome.
- As those privileged to share in God’s magnificent new covenant, we have the huge responsibility of living it out in our present world. It will affect everything: the way we conduct our family, do our work, relate to others, treat others, especially those who may be very different to us, etc. Let us shoulder this responsibility daily and gladly, for the sake of Christ and his love.
There is much more to be said. May what I have shared whet your appetite for more of Jesus, and may he bear witness in our hearts to the truth and reality of these things!
[Footnote: Walking this road may cost you, it cost Jesus, it has cost others, it has cost us. My family and I have gradually lost a number of wonderful, long-standing family friends on this issue, causing us much pain. My wife and I have good Jewish friends both locally, in the UK and in Israel. I have visited Israel for myself, and was profoundly impacted by the land and of course the Holocaust Museum. I have been privileged to study and read the OT in Hebrew. Yes, God in his sovereignty may yet have some special plan for the Jewish people, but as I read my Bible that doesn’t include ethnic and real estate guarantees: long ago God made it clear that he was the ultimate owner of the land, ‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants’ (Lev. 25:23). The land was conditionally promised to Israel, as long as they remained faithful to the LORD, which they weren’t, then nor presently (cf. Lev. 20:22). In any case, God ‘so loved the world!’ (Jn. 3:16). Jesus commissioned us all to make disciples of all nations (Gr. panta ta ethne) (Mt.28:16-20), so let’s get on with the job wherever the Lord has placed us!]
We were all encouraged, growing up, to develop a good posture, standing and sitting with a straight back, and so on. While reading through the psalms recently I came across Psalm 123, and it seemed to speak to me about a proper ‘posture’ toward God, a ‘prayer posture,’ a posture of attitude. The NRSV titles the psalm ‘Supplication for Mercy,’ ‘A Song of Ascents,’ no doubt prayed and sung as pilgrims went up to the Jerusalem temple mount for worship. Here’s how it opens, ‘To you I lift my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until he has mercy upon us’ (v. 1-2). It’s poetic imagery, essentially describing our attitude as creature to Creator, servant to Covenant God.
H.L. Ellison suggests that such pilgrims were often scorned for their faith and lifestyle (v. 3-4). The only way the psalmist knew to rise above such scorn was to fix his eyes on the living God.
The opening verses also express a deep sense of dependence on God in every way.
Shortly after reading this psalm, a family member who had been holding down a job in a rather toxic institution for years, was encouraged to apply for work more in line with his skill-set, potential and passion. In our country, a caucasian male in his late thirties struggles to find employment not only because of his age but because of work reservation for those previously disadvantaged by apartheid. The family was asked to pray with him concerning this opportunity. Somehow I was led to pray, in the spirit of Ps. 123, a single sentence ‘Lord, have mercy.’ That’s all. One particular day I was prompted to pray this prayer once every 20 minutes or so. By late afternoon I felt no more need to pray in that way, sensing God had answered my/our petitions. I think it was a day or two later that the family member called to say that, against all odds, and having competed with a number of other applicants, he had been successfully interviewed and appointed to the position. Our hearts rejoiced with him and his family! Now I am not hereby suggesting some prayer mechanism or formula whereby we can manipulate God in our petitions for selfish ends. I have learned over many years that God will not be manipulated by anyone. Although of course we are encouraged to persist in prayer concerning our needs – think of Jesus’ teachings in Mt. 7:7-11 and the story of the needy friend in Lk. 11:5-13.
Ps. 123 also suggests an unshakeable focus. It has been suggested that the author was possibly reflecting on an experience as guest in a very rich household. At the banquet, though the servants lined the walls and could hardly see what the guests required, they were always ready to serve food and drinks as they were needed. The mystery was solved when he noted that the servants were looking at the host, not the guests. He was watching his guests and with little hand signs was indicating what was needed. Perhaps his wife told him afterwards that the same had been the case in the women’s quarters (please remember the historical context!). The psalmist had learnt to look to God like this, with neither eye nor ear for those that mocked and laughed at God’s covenant people. Whatever our present circumstances, let us not lose focus because of the scornful attitudes and words of folk around us who question our ‘misplaced trust,’ or the whisperings of satan that prayer is just speaking into the air. My wife has regular contact with an elderly man who claims to be an atheist. He often mocks her faith but finds his conversations with her something to look forward to, because of her contagious joy. This gentleman’s wife secretly tells my wife that he actually looks forward to these conversations – apparently he’s a real old grump at home!
Some may be helped by physical prayer postures, such as kneeling or even prostration. I think the key here is our heart attitude in communing with God.
Ps. 123 is also a corrective to the extremely laid-back and casual attitude of so many post-modern believers toward God as evidenced by cheap talk of ‘the man upstairs’ and our western, individualistic, ego-centric kind of faith, where it’s all about me, finding my destiny, etc. God is at my beck and call rather than I at his. I ‘get’ the incarnationality of God, and the wonderful intimacy of an Abba Father relationship, reflecting his total love and loveability. He is a God of unspeakable kindness and benevolence. Our earthly parents may have some ‘darkness’ in them, but there is ‘no darkness at all’ in God our Father who is totally ‘light’ toward us (1 Jn. 1:5ff). At the same time a proper understanding of who God really is, holy and loving, ‘safeguards the essential distinction between Creator and creature, which sin is ever seeking to minimise or obliterate’ (R.V.G. Tasker, The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God). Sin is subtle, and easily erodes our thinking about God and ourselves, even as cleansed sinners.
I think Jesus puts it all together so beautifully in the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ in Mt. 6:9ff. Jesus has already exposed the Pharisees’ showmanship and hypocrisy in prayer and the Gentiles’ empty and endless babbling in prayer. ‘Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread…’ (v. 9-11). ‘Hallowed be your name’ is an interesting phrase. One little boy got it wrong at school when he asked his teacher, “Miss, why do we call God ‘Harold’?” As a teen at a youth camp I heard a godly Bible teacher put it this way, ‘It means to be in sympathy with God’s holiness.’ We know that ‘holiness’ betokens God’s otherness, majesty, purity, awesomeness, loveliness.
Let me wrap up with Dallas Willard’s paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, which I think of as a kind of Prayer for All Seasons (he reminds us that ‘heaven’ should be translated ‘heavens’: meaning God as far ‘out’ imaginable to right down to the atmosphere around our heads, which is the first of the ‘heavens’):
‘Dear Father always near us,
may your name be treasured and loved,
may your rule be completed in us –
may your will be done here on earth
in just the way it is done in heaven.
Give us today the things we need today,
and forgive us our sins and impositions on you
as we are forgiving all who in any way offend us.
Please don’t put us through trials,
but deliver us from everything bad.
Because you are the one in charge,
and you have all the power,
and the glory too is all yours – forever –
which is just the way we want it!’
(or, ‘Amen!’ or occasionally (?) ‘Who0pee!’) (And if you’re South African, ‘Hooray!’)
A few weeks ago I received an A.W. Tozer quote from my good friend, Rod Lam, serving Jesus in Hong Kong (A.W. Tozer, 1897-1963, American pastor and author, is truly prophetic to our time). I had come across it before, but it was a timeous reminder of a truth which we would see demonstrated, once more, before our very eyes at our second ‘organic church’ retreat in the Southern Free State, South Africa (if interested in our first encounter, see my archives for A Baptism of Love, written a year ago, Nov. 17 2015). Here is the quote:
“Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become ‘unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.”
Now let my brother in the Lord, Tobie, give his account of the weekend. You will find it right here on Tobie’s blog …
‘They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people’ (Acts 2:46b-47a)
‘Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ… Also the church that meets at their house’ (Rom. 16:3a, 5)
‘Greetings to the Church, local and global! From the church that meets at the house of Marthinus and Heidi in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.’ (see pics below)
A few weekends ago, on a sunny Spring Sunday morning, some believers in our city met in the large and hospitable Hattingh’s home in Summerstrand for worship and fellowship. It turned out to be inspiring beyond our expectation.
Some of our folk are better-off, many are poor, and so the shared eats and drinks around the large table, with lots of chatter and banter, set the tone for the morning. Someone had provided two huge platters of attractively laid out savouries – together with sandwiches and biscuits brought by others, I thought there would be some waste. I need not have worried!
A few of us had sensed, because we were due to baptise one of our group, we should use Acts 2 as our general theme. Young and old, from diverse culture groups, focussed on the person central to the passage, viz. Jesus Christ. Grasping something of Luke’s intention in his gospel and his story of the early church recorded in Acts, we began to worship Christ in song and prayer. What made it special was that it commenced with a Xhosa song about the the love of Christ, powerfully sung by our youth worker from Motherwell township. She had just been released from hospital after being diagnosed with acute high blood pressure and low blood iron requiring 4 units of blood. During hospitalisation she suffered a minor stroke leaving her with a weak arm and leg. Providentially, because she has almost no means herself, we managed to get her to a private doctor who was beyond kind to her, getting her into one of the better state hospitals and following her up by phone on a daily basis (rare in our country). In fact I only learned yesterday that the hospital doctor had declared her ‘walking dead’ on admission!
During the song God’s Spirit seemed to saturate the lounge, leading to spontaneous prayers of worship and ‘laying on of hands’ for Siphokazi’s full recovery. Most in the group went on to participate with insightful comments on Acts 2, getting to grips with some aspects of ‘the apostles’ teaching’ (v.42) regarding Christ’s person and work. The call to ‘repentance’ (lit. ‘mind change’) and confession of Christ featured prominently, particularly the believers’ exchanging the enforced ‘Caesar is Lord’ for a treasonous ‘Jesus is Lord!’
Because baptism features so strongly in the NT (Mt. 3:13ff; Mt. 28:16ff; Acts 2 and 8:26ff; Rom. 6; etc), it is something often talked about in our house gatherings. It was therefore no surprise when Pam from Zimbabwe (originally Malawi) asked to be baptised [a humble reminder to some of my Western readers: Africa is not a single country but consists of some 54 nations, of which the Republic of South Africa is one]. Marthinus and I had instructed her as to what baptism entailed, viz. our union with Christ in his death and resurrection through faith, and the consequences for our daily discipleship, i.e. death to the old and risen-ness to the new.
After another quick coffee and snack, we made our way to the nearby Summerstrand beachfront to proceed with the baptism. We found a suitable little tidal pool at Pollock Beach and Marthinus and I, in quickly-borrowed shorts, had the privilege of immersing Pam in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Pam came out un-drowned and full of joy, her face glowing from ear to ear, being welcomed by her brothers and sisters at the water’s edge.
Now how about this? On the opposite side of the pool some folk were watching the proceedings. They included an interested young mom, her dad, and her 2-year-old daughter. When Pam came out of the water, the little toddler came running toward her as fast as her little legs could carry her. From a distance she held out her arms for Pam to pick her up, avoiding all the other on-lookers. The mother came across and related how she just couldn’t stop her little girl from running to Pam, and that they too were believers. We had a great time chatting to mom and grandpa while the toddler clung tenaciously to Pam. My wife Melanie and another in our group immediately had the same impression: just as the Father witnessed with pleasure to his Son’s baptism by sending the Spirit in the form of a dove (Mt. 3), it seemed God had sealed Pam’s baptism through a little girl’s attraction and warm embrace. ‘A little child will lead them.’ (Is. 11:6)
The morning concluded with warm goodbyes and a sense of having encountered ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Mt. 16:16). On this Rock Christ ‘will build his church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it!’ (Mt. 16:18)
- I have good friends who stand in the Protestant paedo-baptist (infant baptism) tradition. It’s interesting that probably the greatest Reformed theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, argued in favour of a more NT position (see his revolutionary lecture delivered to Swiss theological students in 1943, entitled ‘The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism‘). So does the contemporary Anglican NT scholar, N.T. Wright.
- One of the best sermons I have read on the significance of baptism (as a Baptist pastor of 38 years and a non-denominationalist follower of Jesus of 10 years) I recently re-discovered in Watchman Nee’s little volume, ‘Love not the World.’ The sermon is entitled ‘A World Under Water.’ If you can find it somewhere, it’s well worth a read.
- According to Wayne Jacobsen and others, 32 million Americans currently follow Jesus outside of formal, traditional congregations. Of 110 million Christians in America, 33 million have left the church and become ‘atheists.’ 45 million still ‘go to church.’ I am sure that, proportionally speaking, the situation in my own country is not any better!
- Anthony de Mello (1931-1987), Indian priest and psychotherapist specialising in spirituality, wrote: “Happiness is the natural state of little children, to whom the kingdom belongs until they have been polluted and contaminated by the stupidity and culture of society. Why don’t we experience it? Because we have to drop something.”