GREETINGS! FROM ‘THE CHURCH AT THE HOUSE OF MARTHINUS AND HEIDI’

‘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.

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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)

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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)

Some footnotes:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.”

CAN OLD DOGS LEARN NEW PRAYER ‘TRICKS’?

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Of course! Anything is possible with God.

As an older dog, from the days of my teen encounter with Christ, I had an immediate appetite for the trinity of ‘prayer, revival and missions’ (Andrew Murray). The first books I bought were Teach Yourself Preaching (which never worked) and The Man Who Believed God, the story of Hudson Taylor (which had a life-long impact). My experience of corporate prayer received a huge boost as the result of the visit to our city in the late 1980’s of an American missionary, David Bliss, who had been devouring the books of Andrew Murray and promoting David Bryant’s Concerts of Prayer based on Jonathan Edwards’ experience during the revival of the 1700’s in America. That corporate prayer awakening touched a core group in our city and led to missionaries being sent from our midst to the four corners of the earth. It also impacted my last congregation, leading to awakening and outreach locally, and to the Middle East, Europe, China and Peru. C.T Studd was right, ‘The light that shines farthest shines brightest at home.’ For years now, on my study wall there hangs the reminder of C.H Spurgeon, ‘Prayer itself is an art only the Holy Spirit can teach us. Pray for prayer. Pray until you can really pray.’

[I believe with Andrew Murray, that while we may not see many signs of true revival around us, we can, in and through Jesus, experience daily, personal revival. I also believe that ‘revival’ is being seen and experienced in new ways beyond the First World and outside of traditional church structures, e.g. in Chinese and Cuban house churches and Argentinian prisons]

‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old!’  (Jesus)

I humbly mention some new prayer ‘tricks’ God is patiently teaching me these days:

First, I have been helped by the re-reading of Ole Hallesby’s classic, simply entitled Prayer. I bought it as a young seminarian, started it, then put it down because it didn’t make much sense to me:  definitely not the author’s fault! I picked it up once or twice over the years, then some months ago, it really ‘kicked in.’ In chap. 1 Hallesby establishes as the basis of prayer the well-known but much misinterpreted and abused Rev. 3:20, where the exalted Christ addresses the living ecclesia in ancient Laodicea (Asia Minor), ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.’ [Would it be an exaggeration to say that Jesus stands shut out from many a contemporary congregation around the world, seeking admission? Perhaps even most?]

“To pray (my emphasis) is to let Jesus come into our hearts… Our prayers are always a result of Jesus’ knocking at our hearts’ door… The air which our body needs envelops us on every hand. The air which our souls need also envelops us at all times and on all sides. God is round about us in Christ on every hand, with His many-sided and all-sufficient grace. All we need do is open our hearts. Prayer is the breath of the soul, the organ by which we receive Christ into our parched and withered hearts… He calls it to ‘sup’ with us… He designed prayer in such a way that the most impotent can make use of it… it requires no strength; it is only a question of our wills. Will we give Jesus access to our needs?”

Second, a little while back a good friend blessed me with Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. It has hugely impacted many facets of my walk with God, as it has done in the lives of thousands around the globe. Concerning prayer, I have re-discovered the nearness of God. Especially when praying for revival and the nations, I tended to lapse into a spatial understanding of God’s presence, e.g. Isaiah’s prayer in ch. 64 asking God to ‘rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before him,’ when all the time God has come down in Immanuel, never to be away from us again! [we can be grateful for the recent re-emphasis on the indwelling Christ in the believer and his Church:  T. Austin Sparks, et al]. ‘Nearer is he than breathing, closer than hands and feet’ (Tennyson).

As Willard reminds us, we in fact ‘live in God’s house,’ i.e. the universe – which is not ’empty space’ but filled with his pervasive presence. Furthermore, ‘heaven’ is not some distant place beyond space:  heaven and God are always near us! [we catch ourselves praying loudly so that God may hear in his heaven above, lol]. In the incarnation he focused his reality in a special way in the body of Jesus, this so that we might be ‘enlightened by the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor. 4:6).

Practically speaking, I now love to sit at our lounge window, or out in the garden, consciously becoming aware of God’s nearness and indwelling. It is a consciousness, sometimes requiring words, but often just the quiet awareness of his ‘steadfast love that endures forever.’ The skin between the world I find myself in and heaven is tissue-paper-thin. I now love to kuier with God. Kuier is an Afrikaans word, very difficult to explain. It can be one-on-one, with little or nothing said. It can take place in a family-and- friends setting, perhaps around a braai (SA barbecue). It’s interesting:  when our son was invited to church-plant in Southern California, he soon learned that ‘to get a coffee’ is to grab a cup on your way out of the house – he was expecting to sit down in the lounge and enjoy a relaxed cup before leaving the house! In SA, we love to ‘kuier’ over coffee. So also we can kuier with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in quiet or audible prayer. There have been moments of ‘inexpressible and glorious joy!’ (1 Pet. 1:8)

Somebody else whose life and ministry was turned upside down (right side up) just 10 years ago by Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy is Brian Zahnd, American pentecostal/charismatic preacher who just yearned for something more. Read his story in his refreshing From Water to Wine. His understanding of prayer was revolutionised. Among other things he recommends praying the Lord’s Prayer morning, noon and night;  regularly praying the psalms (as Jesus did);  and so on. ‘The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do, but to be properly formed…  Prayer is not so much getting God to do something; prayer is more about learning how to be open and present to what God is doing.’

We try to apply some of these realities in our house church gatherings. Sometimes we will pray the Lord’s Prayer together, as well as other more formal prayers. On the other hand our prayers are also often spontaneous and, we trust, Spirit-directed.

Here’s a prayer we prayed recently, giving time for each phrase to sink in:

‘Gracious and holy Father, please give me:  intellect to understand you; reason to discern you; diligence to seek you; wisdom to find you; a spirit to know you; a heart to meditate on you; ears to hear you; eyes to see you; a tongue to proclaim you; a way of life pleasing to you; patience to wait for you; and perseverance to look for you. Grant me:  a perfect end, your holy presence, a blessed resurrection, and life everlasting.’  [Benedict, godly Italian monk, 480-547 AD]

Lord, teach us to pray – old dogs and young dogs!

A PSALM FOR TROUBLED TIMES: PS. 46

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Most of us are now aware, via the media, of the suicide bomber at Ataturk Airport, Istanbul, who last night left behind him 36 people killed and 147 wounded. On Monday I visited a dear Christian brother whose drug-addicted son raped his own grandmother. Scientists tell us that the Arctic ice cap is melting and will lead to future flooding of coastal cities. Journalist Justice Mahala in a recent newspaper article tells us ‘SA is sitting on a tinderbox’ due to the masses of unemployed youth – 2 years ago the SA Institute of Race Relations claimed that 70.4% of black youth between 15-24 were neither working nor in training. Yesterday I was chatting with a mature Christian friend who shared how, thinking about the Church at large, he just cannot get past the image of Rev. 3:20, the Exalted Christ knocking at the door of the Church and dying to be invited in. Maybe your personal world is in turmoil: perhaps through retrenchment, marital break-up, diagnosis of a dread disease, persecution. Returning to the Istanbul tragedy, Christian activist Shane Claiborne wrote last night, ‘Heartbroken for Istanbul. And for the victims of violence. Let us pray tonight that God would heal our hearts, our streets, our world… from the contagion of hatred and violence. And let us wake up tomorrow with a renewed commitment to become the change we want to see in the world!’

Having over the last months read a psalm a night, I was freshly impacted by the perhaps over-familiar Ps. 46, truly ‘A Psalm for Troubled Times!’ This Song of Korah seems to reflect that period of Israel’s history when Assyrian King Sennacherib’s tide of war against Judah, under the rule of Hezekiah, was divinely and wonderfully rolled back by God himself. Three things shouted for my attention as I read Ps. 46…

Firstly we (those trusting in the God of the Bible) have a  REFUGE:  v. 1ff (NRSV), ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present (well-proved) help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.’ Mountains have always symbolised all that is fixed and unchangeable – but here they shake in the heart of the ever-changing ocean. The image of a shelter and stronghold has always been significant to the Hebrews – think of the scorching sun (48 degrees in the shade at Tiberias when we visited Israel a while ago in autumn), the constant onslaught of invasions, war and destruction, etc. The song-writer revels in the fact that when troubles come, the LORD is the refuge and strength of his people. Of course Judah often looked for help and protection elsewhere, through political alliances with pagan powers, instead of trusting in God alone  (repeated 4 times in Ps. 62) – a perennial temptation for God’s people in every age, when we easily trust our bank account more than the one we owe our very life.

God no where guarantees that trouble will not come to those who trust in him, but he does guarantee that when trouble comes, he will be the rock that saves them and the fortress that frustrates their enemies! Oh, the confusion sown by a largely compromised Church today with her message of physical health and material prosperity for those who simply ‘claim’ it, that of a trouble-free life for his own despite Job’s story, the unbiblical ‘secret rapture’ when the going really gets tough, and so on. Then here in my country we have so many sycophantic clergy appearing on national television donned in Santa Claus-like garb, falling over one another to lay anointed hands on our ancestor-venerating leaders, promising for the umpteenth time ‘a better life for all.’ Swiss theologian Karl Barth once exclaimed: ‘At my lowest, GOD is my hope. At my darkest, GOD is my light. At my weakest, GOD is my strength. At my saddest, GOD is my comforter!’

Secondly, Ps. 46 declares we have A RIVER:  v. 4ff, ‘There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns…’ My wife and I recall walking knee-deep in the refreshingly cool water of Hezekiah’s tunnel under the city in Jerusalem, the tiny fish nibbling at our feet in the tranquil Jordan River where two confessed Christ in baptism, the beautiful desert spring of Eingedi near the cave hiding David from King Saul, determined to kill his successor. Long before, the prophet Ezekiel envisioned a river flowing from the temple in Jerusalem, becoming deeper and deeper, bringing life to the trees along its waters and abundant fish for the fishermen on its banks (Ezek. 47). Then Jesus comes as the fulfilment of that ancient promise, declaring in Jn. 7:37ff (on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, celebrating harvest), Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart (belly) shall flow rivers of living water…'” To quote Jurgen Moltmann, where Jesus is, there is life. There is abundant life. There is life-before-death. Moltmann is dismayed at our having become so accustomed to death, death of the soul, death on the street, death through violence, death-before-life when Jesus is life-before-death!

I tell you what, you can’t even find Jesus in much of the Church today. Thank God for the millions around the globe who are seeking and finding the biblical Jesus outside of institutional church walls (Jesus has always been an excellent wall-breaker) and then taking him into their community and across cultures! A good friend of mine used to say that the institutional church has taken the River of Life and turned it into swimming pools of different sizes and shapes – some with swimming lanes, all with costly maintenance, filled with dead water no one can drink and flowing nowhere! [in my writings over the years I have consistently argued from Scripture, like many others, that Jesus and his Church constitute the ‘true Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16). Jesus inhabits his people and they incarnate his presence in the world]

Third, Ps. 46 declares we have a REGENT:  v. 8ff, “Come, behold the works of the LORD… He makes wars cease to the end of the earth… ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth’…  the LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” God says to his people, ancient and modern, stop your frenzied activity, think, trust, worship and make your King known among the nations for he is exalted in the earth! Jesus Christ is not merely Lord of the Church but King of the world. There is a world King, whom an unbelieving world has never affirmed with certainty. God’s people Israel were blessed to be a blessing to the world (Gen. 12) and a light to all nations (Is. 42, etc). It is a charge Israel never delivered. Today believing Gentiles and Jews constitute one body called to ‘disciple the nations,’ so that all the earth may own Christ as King. You and I and our communities of faith have a responsibility to know Christ and to make him known to the ends of the earth, in the power of his risen presence.

Read Ps. 46 often – it certainly is a psalm for the troubled times in which we live!

‘God is the Ruler of His mighty creation. There is no reason to despair, because He holds in His hands the whole world, while His Spirit is able to fill the void in man’s heart.’ Billy Graham.

KUMBAYA MY LORD, KUMBAYA

For more than thirty years I have been a part of the Western Suburbs Ministers’ Fraternal in Nelson Mandela Bay. Over those years there has developed a mutual respect and loving fellowship second-to-none among the local ‘ministers’ (I use a small ‘m’ to reflect the function of ‘service’ rather than church office as commonly used). They have served the Lord and one another through thick and thin, pastoral heartbreak and joys. Though I broke from church institutionalism and denominationalism over nine years ago, I have still been the recipient of love and respect despite quite radical ecclesiological differences between me and them.

Just over a week ago we had our regular coffee and muffins gathering in a local church hall. For me at least, it was one of those occasions when Jesus seemed to draw especially close. There were several features to the gathering that morning (as seen through my eyes):

  • We hosted two young visitors from the OM ship Logos Hope, presently in our harbour. They told us their story of sharing the evangel and the discipleship mandate with all and sundry around the world. George and Kim, from England and South Korea respectively, shared stories of many lives touched by the ship’s visit around the globe, including when berthing in Muslim countries where hundreds queued to buy books and Bibles, seeing and hearing the Good News demonstrated in one form or another. Heart-warming stuff!
  • At our previous Fraternal we had neglected to appoint someone to bring a short ‘word,’ and so when no one was forthcoming, I found myself sharing something somewhat personal (I am essentially introvert!). I had just recently read an article on Daniel ch. 9 by a new-found friend, a professor from our local university. It was along the lines of recognising the current ‘kairos’ moment in our country and world, and being able like Daniel in his day, to fulfill the role of ‘post-modern mystics,’ reading and interpreting God’s unchanged purpose in and for our times. ‘We need those who through many years of study and fellowship with God have learned God’s wisdom through His Word, who have brought up children and grandchildren, who truly know the human soul, and have become reservoirs of God’s wisdom so that they can guide the community of faith.’ The intention is that the Church can once more begin to shine as a beacon of hope and give answers to the confusion and pain of our world. This demands we enter the world of interpreting the signs of the times, dreams, symbols, intuition, etc, that lead to authentic spirituality. Now as a Baptist pastor for thirty-eight years I have never been into ‘dreams’ and their interpretation much (lol), although perhaps I’m now a little more open because of my journey with God the last nine years! All my life my dreams have been generally nonsensical, and I have envied those mature believers who have experienced otherwise. Recently I have been dreaming a particular kind of ‘dream’ (I qualify as one of the ‘old men’ in terms of Joel 2:28ff and Acts 2:16ff), sharing a common thread:  I’m in a large church gathering of sorts made up predominantly of children, teens and young adults and a scattering of older saints fervently worshipping God and serving one another in witness, song, dance and acts of power reminiscent of Joel 2 and Acts 2. My ‘interpretation?’ that it may be a picture increasingly being realised in our time, viz that of young and old, male and female, visions and dreams, breaking through traditional church barriers to express Christ and his love in a new ‘kingdom way.’
  • The leaders present seemed to identify with the picture. A local city intercessor related how many hundreds of our township youth are gathering regularly for worship, fellowship, prayer and sharing Christ’s love tangibly in the community.
  • A local Methodist pastor shared how Lk. 7:11-17 had been burning in his heart and he hoped to preach on it that Sunday. It is the well-known story of Jesus raising a widow’s only son, at Nain. The pastor explained from v. 13 how when Jesus saw the widow’s heartbreak he ‘had compassion’ on her, told her to dry her tears, touched the bier, and raised the young man from the dead to the astonishment of all, the word spreading throughout Judea and the surrounding countryside. The original for ‘had compassion’ is ‘esplanchnisthe,’ the word for intestines, the bowels (African culture gels with this), the ‘heart.’ It wasn’t a head thing but a gut thing! The lesson? Those who follow in Jesus’ footsteps, as they act with gut-compassion in the face of need, will see divine life springing forth! Someone suggested that if this could happen across our metro, by the doing of the Lord’s hand, how blessed we would be as Church and community!
  • Again prompted by our Methodist friend, the group began to sing a capella Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya (loosely translated ‘come on by, my Lord’). Song gave way to fervent prayer:  for the Logos team, the local pastor, and one another. There was such a spirit of unity, love and grace among us! [more about Kumbaya below]

At our house church this past Lord’s day, I sensed that I should relate the above events. During the week we had decided to focus on the Joel and Acts passages, put them in historical context, and draw out their import for ourselves as a community. There was immediate resonance from the folk present, followed by participation around the reference to a ‘remnant,’ etc. After sharing the Luke 7 passage and the message emerging at the Fraternal, one of our women read some lines from Susan Lenzkes that she had meditated on that very morning:

‘Compassion invites the honesty that voices the unspeakable and brings healing!’

Wow! Is it possible to act again with this specific kind of compassion in the face of specific need? And why not? It will take a little courage and faith on our part, as a believer, as a community – the outcome is assured, for the living Christ is in us and among us and he has promised! Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya! Come on by, my Lord, come on by!!

A little about Kumbaya, and a prayer suggestion…

The song seems to have originated in the mid 1920’s as a traditional spiritual of the South Carolina area, possibly deriving from the creole spoken by the former slaves of South Carolina and Georgia. The revival group, the Folksmiths, thought it originated from Angola in Africa, and popularised the song during the early to mid-1960’s. It was also sung by Joan Baez in 1962 and became associated with the civil rights movement of that time. The lyrics differ, but here is one version you may want to pray/sing with us:

 

Someone’s singing, Lord, kum ba ya (x 3)… O Lord, kum ba ya.

Someone’s praying, Lord, kum ba ya (x 3)… O Lord, kum ba ya.

No more war, my Lord, kum ba ya (x3)… O Lord, kum ba ya.

Someone’s laughing, Lord, kum ba ya (x3)… O Lord, kum ba ya.

Someone’s crying, Lord, kum ba ya (x 3)… O Lord, kum ba ya.

Oh I need you, Lord, kum ba ya (x 3)… O Lord, kum ba ya!’

[Now if you prayed/sang those words with us, perhaps let us know below (under ‘Leave a Reply’) in which country, and let the song go round the world!]

GONE MISSING! THE ASCENSION OF JESUS

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Whatever happened to the Ascension of Christ and its celebration in the Christian Church? Here in South Africa, since it fell away as a national holiday, its significance has largely gone missing!

And this when the Ascension trumpets the fact that ‘Jesus Is King!’ He is Lord of the universe, supreme above all powers, the one who ‘is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church…’ (Col. 1:15ff). As English theologian N.T. Wright reminded us recently, the ascension is virtually the only Christian festival that has no pagan analogue and has not been taken over by the pagan, materialistic forces that have wreaked havoc with Christmas and Easter. The shops don’t fill up with ascension gifts and cards saying, ‘Happy Ascension, Dear Granny!’ Wright suggests that perhaps we should be celebrating it more explicitly, although that might be risky in some instances.

Well, we did in a small way celebrate Jesus’ Ascension here in our city’s Western Suburbs, largely due to long-standing relationships between congregations and leaders. They even asked me to preach (for the second time in three years – they have short memories) despite my known stance on the institutional church!

For what it’s worth, let me leave with you some of the things I shared last Thursday from Acts 1:1-11 and more specifically John 14:15-21. Convinced that many believers in church pews around the globe are populated by spiritual orphans, I chose as theme ‘WE ARE NOT ORPHANS!Yes, millions are orphans because the church system has left them un-mentored and un-discipled. At the same time millions of believers have never clearly understood the message of the Ascension! They have been fed a terribly futuristic diet of ‘pie in the sky when you die;’ boarding ‘the gospel gravy train to heaven’ and nothing happens in between (no discipling, no character change); a dispensationalist ‘boxed-in-Jesus’ who is so firmly seated at the Father’s right hand that he cannot possibly be in two places at once; and an ethereal heaven ‘up there’ where we’ll be forever polishing door knobs and strumming harps! (the NT seems clear that in Christ’s kingdom heaven largely ‘comes down’ to earth:  Mt. 6:10, etc)

You see, in celebrating one who is absolute ‘King and Lord,’ we celebrate an eternal, relational, ever-present God. He relates within himself and to us as a trinitarian Being. Jesus himself declares ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; before long, the world will not see me any more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day (of Jesus’ resurrection) you will realise that I am in my Father and you are in me, and I am in you’ (Jn. 14:16-20/NIV). As the waterfall feeds the forest (see pic at top of blog), the Ascension feeds the Body of Jesus.

We are not orphans because we have a Father (v. 16a)… a Father better and unlike any human father at best. His fatherhood is individual and communal. The apostle Paul writes  in Rom. 8:15-17 (Life Through the Spirit) that by the ‘Spirit of sonship’ we cry “‘Abba, Father’ (a middle eastern term of intimacy and endearment akin to ‘Dad’or even ‘Daddy’). The Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children… heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings (note all ‘gravy train’ passengers), in order that we may also share in his glory!’ Believe it or not, as a Jesus follower for over fifty years, I still have to remind myself every morning ‘Erroll, your Father loves you & is very fond of you,’ to use the terminology of Brennan Manning in his Abba’s Child recently worked through. The proverbial cherry on the cake was the Friday evening after Ascension Day, when an orphaned, octogenarian, long-standing neighbour who in times past has mixed her denominationalism with a solid dose of ancestor worship (and maybe still does?), appeared at our front door to say ‘Thank you Erroll for the message last night… I always told my family I was an orphan, but you made me understand that I am not an orphan because I have a Father in heaven.’ How great is his grace.

We are not orphans because we have a Counsellor… v. 16-17. With people’s lives as dysfunctional and messed up as they are, few think of approaching a professional counsellor, never mind one who is divine, all-wise, and totally understands. The problem with most believers and church leaders is that we are never still enough for long enough to actually hear the Spirit’s whispers and feel his promptings. Got the t-shirt…

We are not orphans because we have a Saviour, crucified and risen, residing in us. Jesus made clear that his disciples, after his resurrection, would see and know that he was in the Father, his followers in him, and he in them (v. 18-20). William Temple, commenting on Jn. 14, reminds us that Jesus’ ‘going’ is also a ‘coming.’ The apostle Paul, writing to the Galatian Church (pressured by legalistic performers), declares ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I (the old, sinful Saul) no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). He reminds the Colossian congregations (threatened by ‘New Age’ teaching) that God had specifically chosen them to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory!’ (Col. 1:27) Brennan Manning has also helped me, in recent days, to live in ‘the present risenness of Jesus.’ Every morning I recall the words of George Muller, ‘there came a day when George Muller died, utterly died…’ And then I rejoice in the risen Jesus within me:  you may not believe it, but it’s months now since I last invoked God’s white-hot fury on the infamous taxi drivers of our nation who heed neither road law nor frailty of life (of course, my readers have probably never had such a temptation?)…  Many of us are glad that this astounding truth of the risen and indwelling Christ is receiving fresh impetus among his followers around the world!

We are not orphans because we have an Equipper, who gives us significance (v. 15, 20-21). We are equipped by Jesus and his constraining love to obey his commandments:  v. 21b, ‘He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show (lit. ‘manifest’) myself to him.’ Amazing, isn’t it!? After the resurrection Jesus greets his disciples with his missionary mandate: “‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.‘ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'” (Jn. 20:21-22). In Acts ch.1 Luke ties up Jesus’s Ascension with the Spirit’s empowering to be his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!’ (v. 8) In these days of cheap, three-step evangelism we need to be aware that our mandate is intensely incarnational (cf. Jn. 20:21). Disciple-making doesn’t take place in the church gathering place (ignore the ‘church growth’ experts) but in the market place. Ultimately our witness means nothing if not underwritten by who we are and what we do. And our calling is to all people, those we like and those we don’t!

I’m simply astonished at the Ascension! I hope you are too. Our ascended King is coming soon in consummate fulness… in the mean time we are not orphans!

********************************************

[after the message at our Ascension gathering, we unitedly prayed an old hymn by Charles Wesley – maybe you would like to take a moment to do the same, right now, wherever you are in the world, and let us know (under Comments) which part of the world, should you feel free to do so!]

Jesus! the Name high over all,

In hell, or earth, or sky;

Angels and men before it fall,

And devils fear and fly.

Jesus! the Name to sinners dear,

The Name to sinners given;

It scatters all their guilty fear,

It turns their hell to heaven.

Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks,

And bruises Satan’s head;

Power into strengthless souls it speaks,

And life into the dead.

O that the world might taste and see

The riches of His grace;

The arms of love that compass me

Would all mankind embrace.

His only righteousness I show,

His saving grace proclaim;

‘Tis all my business here below

To cry: Behold the Lamb!

 

A REVELATION OF ROMANS: THE BIG PICTURE

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[Autumn Sunrise, Summerstrand, Port Elizabeth: Venue of Romans Weekend, Pic by Justin]

Brian Zahnd, a pentecostal preacher who doesn’t sound like a pentecostal when it comes to content, has a favourite phrase for Christian folk who really don’t get the gospel:  easy cheezy cotton candy Christianity!’

In stark contrast, let me share a little of our recent ‘Romans Weekend’ with an organic church brother from the Free State, Tobie van der Westhuizen. He and his lovely wife Revien taught so accurately, graphically and powerfully ‘the big picture’ view of Paul’s Letter to the Roman church. For a few years now I have appreciated Tobie’s blogs under naturalchurch. Then in August 2015 some of us were invited to a game farm retreat facilitated by our brother (see my blog, ‘A Baptism of Love’) which was a little taste of heaven. Indicating his willingness to share his ‘big picture’ take on Romans, we were privileged to host this seminar toward the end of March this year.

After the weekend I invited a few folk to reflect on it:

Siphokazi, heading up our little youth centre in Motherwell township, said Oh! Wow, what a superb weekend… my screws are tightened to God. I see no reason to turn back, dead the ‘me’ and living is ‘Christ in me.’ I really appreciated the weekend.”

My wife Melanie wrote, “The thought that struck me was this:  we are made for God, not God for us… God’s plan was always to have a people he could indwell, and thereby glorify his Son.

To know and love God should be our life’s desire:  our all-consuming desire. This is a daily and present experience. God has intended us to be one with him through Christ. We are indwelt by the same Spirit who indwells Christ, so we are able to have a daily, intimate relationship with the Lord of lords, calling him ‘Daddy.’ I love this about my Father!”

Monde, ex-Marxist turned radical for Christ, wrote “To me Romans chapter one has been broadened in the sense that, after the introduction of who God is, and what we are as his creation, I am first of all a ‘son,’ and therefore a representation of my Father here on earth. My Father is the source of the overflowing ‘life’ revealed in his Son, which is to be shared with others. This source of ‘life’ is so satisfying, that once having tasted it, you will lack no more and thirst no more. Three further things I learned from brother Tobie are:

  • ‘Desire,’ by its nature, seeks it own and always takes. On the other hand, ‘life’ from God our Father seeks the benefit of others and always gives!
  • The only image we should always grope for or look intently to, is Christ our Saviour. No other thing should take his place in our lives forever.
  • God’s wrath does not come from an angry God – it is from a decision we have taken against him, and as a result God has given us over to our own ‘desires.’

Fundile, who co-ordinates organic groups with social outreaches in the sprawling townships of Cape Town, attended with his wife Nozuko. Unfortunately they missed the last morning having to travel back to Cape Town, but expressed much gratitude for the weekend. Fundile appreciated Tobie’s thorough treatment of Romans 1 as an essential ‘foundation’ for understanding ‘the big picture.’

Justin, an educator, wrote ‘I was really blessed, inspired and encouraged by Tobie’s teaching. I love how honest he was, how he shared his own struggles and then how he shared his triumphs too. I could really connect with him.

His insights into the image of God and the false images we create, as well as his explanation of how ‘desire’ works in particular, were profound and life-changing!’

Speaking for myself, I knew I would learn much from the weekend – I didn’t realise just how much, having studied Romans for a life-time from the original and with the help of great biblical scholars. Herewith a brief survey of  truths I found ‘different,’ refreshing and revealing in new ways…

  • I appreciated the way Romans was put into the context of the whole Bible, e.g. starting with the ‘two trees of Genesis 1-2,’ i.e. the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. He pointed out that it is the latter that is the key to any true relationship with God. Ultimately Jesus is the fulfilment and expression of the very life of God. Paul thoroughly knew his OT Bible, which in turn influenced his understanding of God’s message of ‘life’ as sketched in Romans.
  • Romans 1 is ‘foundational’ – it addresses the core problem of man’s sin and self-centredness, his innate idolatry. Man focusses on self-effort in relating to God rather than trusting in Christ’s free gift of life (cf. Rom. 10 and the impossibility of mankind ‘ascending into heaven’). “Faith is simply total dependence on the ‘Tree of life.'”
  • Rom. 5 reveals the ‘perfection of Christ’s blood’ shed for sinners. It is by the cross that God delivers the sinner from himself – see Rom. 6.
  • Rom. 7 reflects the pre-conversion struggle of Paul the Pharisee. Cf. Phil. 3:7ff.
  • Romans and the NT letters highlight the core-problem of mankind, viz. that of ‘desire.’ Tobie really gave me new insight into this key-word in the OT and NT – e.g., now I fully understood Jesus’ dealings with the rich ruler in Lk. 18:18ff – he had kept all God’s commandments since boyhood except the 10th, which deals with (you’ve guessed it!) selfish ‘desire.’ Any law-keeping in order to reach God is torpedoed by our heart’s ‘desire’ or ‘covetousness.’
  • Rom. 8 conveys the magnificent message of freedom in Christ:  v. 2, ‘through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit set me free from the law of sin and death! (something the law of Moses was absolutely powerless to do) It is by this same Spirit that we are able to cry, ‘Abba, Father’ (v. 15). It’s about relationship!
  • The key to Rom. 9-11? ‘Jesus is Lord!’  Rom. 10:13, Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,’ i.e. Jew or Gentile. ‘All Israel’ = ‘the seed of Abraham’ by faith.
  • The cure for ‘desire’ is ‘love,’ i.e. the love of Christ, who is the fulfilment of the law:  see Rom. 12-16. These chapters are essentially about Christ-transformed relationships lived out in this world.
  • In summary, believers are to aspire to what they already are in Christ, i.e. to ‘be what we are!‘ Therefore we do not live in the past or in the future, which lead to a false self-image and idolatry. We live in Christ’s present! [Brennan Manning writes of living in the ‘present risenness of Christ’ –  my ref. This has helped me so much in recent days]

 

Marthinus and Heidi who hosted Tobie and family had the benefit of long conversations about Jesus, even deep into the night. A little bird told me that at 10 on Wednesday morning, the day of their leaving, Marthinus and Tobie were still so busy chatting about these things that the latter was still in his pyjamas while Revien and Oliver patiently (?) waited in the packed car!

At the end of it all the focus fell not on a dear family from the Free State, but on the sheer magnificence of CHRIST himself, the very essence of the gospel of life! All praise be to his name!

[Some of the approx. 25 adults attending the weekend:  Pics by Marthinus & Heidi Hattingh]

PS. I’m hoping that Marthinus will give some of his impressions under comments!

A THEOLOGY OF TWO TREES

A subject that keeps coming up in meaningful conversations… Take a look.

Erroll Mulder's Blog

[For those put off by the word theology, may we remind ourselves at the outset that the word simply refers to ‘the knowledge of God.’ We are in fact all ‘theologians,’ some good, some mediocre, some bad. What can be more wonderful  than coming to a better mental and relational ‘knowledge of God,’ under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? (Rom. 12:1-2). Why did Jesus so regularly answer questions with another question if he didn’t want people to think, and why did he so often resort to puzzling parables? I still regularly bump into Christians who are adamant that to ‘think’ about your faith is ‘unspiritual’ and ‘carnal.’ Small wonder the Church is often so confused and impotent]  

 

It was Frank Viola, author and radical church restorationist, who first pointed me to an insight from one of my favourite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). It’s an insight that has transformed…

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GETTING A HANDLE ON OUR WORLD

war

[a beachhead/bridgehead into enemy territory]

It’s not just me. In conversations with people around me, both believing and non-believing, in the blogs I follow from around the world, I get the sense that like never before so many are asking ‘What’s going on in this world of ours?!’ I was chatting to a believer who is a kingdom activist for Jesus in her disadvantaged community, and she compared her efforts in resolving ward issues as trying to unravel a hopelessly entangled ball of string, exacerbated by corruption and power – I was reminded of that most quoted of Scottish poetic lines, ‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive!’ That image certainly applies to our nation, South Africa, at the moment – on a political, economic, social and educational level. Never mind the crazy shootings and bombings (Paris and Brussels) and upheavals on a global scale. So how do we ‘get a handle’ on all this??

As believers we surely have to turn to God’s self-revelation, not least in the advent of Christ. And yes, we have to look beyond the popular eschatology of ‘things will get worse in the end-times,’ especially when we realise that (biblically) the ‘end-times’ commenced with Jesus’ entry into this world 2000 years ago. In that period we have seen some terrible things: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the plagues, genocides, etc.

I have always enjoyed the insights of American OT scholar Dr. Walter Brueggemann. Recently a fellow-blogger (laceduplutheran) drew my attention to his mini-youTube presentation on American idolatry (it fits my country exactly). He sees in America a dominating narrative of consumerism, propelled by greed, anxiety and violence. He makes clear that this narrative is based on a lie and that it therefore cannot give life. My attention was arrested by his statement ‘We are thick into idolatry!’ gelling with my recent re-reading of Romans.

Think of America’s and my own country’s greed, consumerism and materialism. In the US the gospel is confused with ‘the American Dream.’ Just today I read an article in our local Mail & Guardian by Sipho Hlongwane, unmasking the ‘Heavenly #Blesser,’ the giver of all good things like Louis Vuitton handbags, Jimmy Choos, German sedans, etc. He concludes that the only countries with more shopping malls (‘cathedrals of worship’) than us are the United States, Japan, China, Canada and the UK. In April the Mall of Africa opens in Midrand – it will be one of the biggest in the world! All this while our poor riot on a daily basis for roads, water, electricity, food and education.

Brueggemann also refers to American ‘exceptionalism,’ the notion that the nation represents God’s chosen people on earth to dispense to others the concomitant blessings of such a position [how the Afrikaner boerevolk and Afrikaner nationalists bought into that lie; by the way, I carry 50% Afrikaner blood in my veins]. According to Brueggemann, such confusion of the Christian faith with nationalism produces the kind of ‘nuts’ we have in extreme Judaism and Islam. He warns that the USA is investing in American militarism and economic systems which are pen-ultimate, rather than ultimate realities.

Brueggeman’s solution is to invest in an alternate meta-narrative, based in God’s holiness and neighbourliness. I.o.w. we need to bring our social power and resources in line with the life of the ‘Gospel,’ and here may I add that by the ‘Gospel’ we should understand ‘the Good News of the Kingdom of God’ as revealed in Christ, and not the 3-step thing evangelicals still peddle daily.

I also re-learnt a lesson while recently reading Dallas Willard’s ‘Renovation of the Heart.’ I plead guilty to the fact that in my days of pastoring denominational churches, especially in later years, I like many of my colleagues tried to ‘soften’ the blow around sin, speaking of man’s lostness and brokenness (all realities of course) – somehow this didn’t sound as bad as ‘sin’ [let’s face it, I was also reacting to my early days of hearing nothing but ‘SIN’ from our evangelical pulpits – there wasn’t much said about the glorious ‘Good News’ of the kingdom]. Willard mentions a core scripture, so beloved by Billy Graham, Jer. 17:9 (KJV), ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?’ I recall a detailed exegesis of Romans 1-3 in the formative years of my theological training, where Paul deals with the doctrines of sin and justification [for grasping the doctrine of sin, my seminary principal insisted we read William Shirer’s classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich]. Imho Willard is ‘spot on’ as to the absolute necessity of beginning with the problem of the human ‘heart,’ followed by its re-creation and renovation (2 Cor. 5:17ff).

  • Our natural tendency is to make ourselves God (cf. 2009 Chicago University study). Sadly, we then fall into denial, accounting for our perpetual blindness to the obvious. Paul reminds us in Rom. 3:18 concerning a lost humanity, ‘There is no fear of God in their eyes,’ an OT quotation from Ps. 36:1. The modern/post-modern mind is uprooted from reality and committed to a lie, viz. that it is in charge of the world. [a re-reading of Rom. 1:18ff and 3:9-20 will show the foundation for this argument]. Paul’s examples of God-lessness in 2 Tim. 3 read like a summary from BBC news or TIME.
  • To be lost means to be ‘out of place.’ Think of what it means when your house-keys are lost. The moral? We are our own god and as such we can’t help ourselves out of the mess we have created.
  • The solution? True Christian discipleship after the manner of Mk. 8:34ff [here I heartily  recommend Watchman Nee’s classic little gem, The Normal Christian Life] and Mt. 28:16-20, ‘discipleship’ meaning a life-time of transformation in and through Christ, to the glory of God. To that end Willard recommends the heartfelt pursuit of the traditional Christian ‘disciplines’ such as prayer, Bible reading, meditation, simplicity, silence, etc. Every ‘disciple’ (an ‘apprentice’ to Jesus) is to develop, here on earth, the life of God himself – Jn. 20:31, ‘that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ The reason why we are called to be Jesus’ ‘apprentices’ is that by grace we increasingly ‘become what we are’ (my words), ‘beachheads of his person, word and power in the midst of a failing humanity.’ Our mission is to usher the kingdom into every corner of human life by simply living in the kingdom with the King!

Hopefully the above helps, in a tiny way, toward ‘getting a handle on’ our present world and our life as believers within it. We in our local organic house church network are taking practical, baby-steps to implement the suggested solutions above, through the Christ-life within. It’s a drop in the ocean, but many drops make a river. Won’t you join increasing numbers of Jesus-followers around the world in apprenticing to him and living out his kingdom life in this crazy, mixed-up, yet wonderful world of ours?!

 

I HAVE A ROOM

 [Organic house group, our son teaching on Christ dealing with our shame; two of our six grandsons at Christmas time, quite a few years ago!]

Quite often, for personal stimulation, I dip into my ancient John Baillie’s A Diary of Readings. Last night and this morning I was touched by a poem, ‘I Have a Room,’ written by Sir Matthew Hale, influential Lord Chief Justice of England over four hundred years ago. I must confess it would be difficult to imagine someone in his position today, anywhere in the world, writing the same kind of thing – how much the world’s values have changed! But here it is for your and my enjoyment. [By the way, the word ‘cratch,’ according to my Oxford Dictionary, means a ‘rack for feeding beasts out of doors.’ ‘Bay’ in this context refers to a perfume distilled from bayberry leaves]

But art Thou come, dear Saviour? Hath Thy love

Thus made Thee stoop, and leave Thy throne above

The lofty heavens, and thus Thyself to dress

In dust to visit mortals? Could no less

A condescension serve? And after all,

The mean reception of a cratch and stall?

Dear Lord, I’ll fetch Thee hence; I have a room.

‘Tis poor, but ’tis my best, if Thou wilt come

Within so small a cell, where I would fain

Mine and the world’s Redeemer entertain.

I mean my heart; ’tis sluttish, I confess,

And will not mend Thy lodging, Lord, unless

Thou send first before Thy harbinger, I mean

Thy pure and purging grace, to make it clean

And sweep its nasty corners; then I’ll try

To wash it also with a weeping eye;

And when ’tis swept and washed, I then will go

And, with Thy leave, I’ll fetch some flowers that grow

In Thine own garden, faith and love to Thee;

With those I’ll dress it up; and these shall be

My rosemary and bays; yet when my best

Is done, the room’s not fit for such a guest,

But here’s the cure; Thy presence, Lord, alone

Will make a stall a court, a cratch a throne.

I have a room!

2016 AND THE WAY FORWARD

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(Lazy summer holidays, Cape St. Francis – pic by Justin Mulder)

 As we contemplate 2016 as disciples of Jesus, what do we see in terms of our own lives, our nation and indeed the nations of the world? [disciples?? Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  if we are not disciples of Christ we are in fact not Christians] [Leonard Sweet:  in the NT ‘disciple’ occurs 269 times, ‘Christian’ 3 times and ‘leader’ once – Sweet suggests that the biggest problem in the Church today is that it’s filled with ‘Christians’ and ‘leaders’ rather than ‘disciples’]

As I thought about THE WAY FORWARD as a South African believer, I had to do some soul-searching. Many of my fellow-citizens, no matter race or culture, would agree that we currently are saddled with a national leader reckoned as by far the weakest in recent history, besieged by a Stalingrad of corruption charges, etc. So what is my response to ‘Church and Power’ at this time? A reading of Romans chs. 8-16, including the well-known passage in 13:1-7, has provided some answers but the outworking remains challenging.

Three things stimulated me in this soul search…

  • 1st, the recollection of a sermon I heard many years ago by well-loved Kalk Bay Bible Institute Principal, Murdo Gordon (I loved his broad Scottish accent). His text was Zech. 8:23/KJV, “Thus saith the LORD of hosts;  In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We shall go with you:  for we have heard that God is with you.”  He had done his homework  and applied his text not to modern Israel in the way so loved by dispensationalists and their ilk today, but far more broadly to post-exilic Israel under Zechariah, and finally to the Messiah and his new Israel.
  • 2nd, a sermon on Afrikaans radio by Prof. Malan Nel of Pretoria University on the last Sunday morning of 2015. He spoke with great passion, a careful grasp of Rom. chs. 8 and 12, and with a  prophetic edge:  in essence he gave a clarion call to true discipleship. Talking with church leaders all over the world, they all expressed serious concern about the mediocrity of discipleship in the Church. Prof. Nel expressed the  need for a new, radical discipleship, lived out in society.
  • 3rd, in preparation for a spirituality forum in our city, I was asked to read a chapter of Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines. I was greatly helped by his final chapter, ‘The Disciplines and Power Structures.’ Some of his insights reflect below…

So what did and what does Zech. 8:23 say to God’s people?

The immediate context [we can’t skip the interim centuries to our own context as if God’s word was only written for Westerners today]. Zech. 8:23/NIV reads, “This is what the LORD Almighty says:  ‘In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the edge of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.'” The young prophet-priest Zechariah, born in Babylon, begins his  ministry with a call to repentance. All Israel’s troubles related to their fathers’ persistent rejection of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. What Judah needed now was not simply a new temple:  she had to re-build the foundations of a new society, based on repentance toward God and his ancient moral values. Zechariah re-inforces his message by means of apocalyptic ‘night visions’ (ch. 1-6), the symbolic crowning of Joshua as high priest (6:9-15), a promise regarding Judah’s future (chs. 7-8), and a glimpse of a glorious messianic age yet to dawn (ch. 9-14). In our text specifically, the young prophet speaks about the ten-fold expansion of the Jewish faith, as every Jew brings with him ten Gentiles who are anxious to accept his way of life. The phrase ‘God is with you’ was a familiar one:  long before Isaiah had used it in his Immanuel prophecy (Is. 7:14; 45:14), looking forward to a day when a Jew would draw all men (Jew and Gentile) to himself.

Now our context. [I’ve always understood the ‘prophetic’ and ‘realisation’ in terms of a pebble skipping across the surface of a pond a number of times before disappearing]

  • Jesus, that ‘one Jew,’ comes as the Messiah of people from every language and nation who take firm hold of his robe. Jesus understands his kingdom-mission in terms of the OT. Unlike the expectations of 1st-century Judaism, he does not come with a political kingdom protecting the interests of Jews only, nor does he resort to military overthrow of the oppressing Roman regime. Rather he comes humbly in the spirit of Zech. 9:9-10 to establish a reign of forgiveness, new life, righteousness and peace. Later he outlines this in his Sermon on the Mount (Mt. ch.’s 5-7) [Dallas Willard states that a radical disease (sin and idolatry) calls for a radical cure, viz. living the Beatitudes via the pursuit of the traditional spiritual disciplines]. Jesus follows this up with a commission to ‘disciple all nations’ in the power of his love (Mt. 28:16-20), beginning with ‘our neighbour’ (Mt. 22:34-40; Lk. 10:25-37).
  • The key then to personal/ecclesiastical/national/global change is Jesus, the true Jew, and his ecclesia, the new Israel. No one can argue against the fact that God’s clear and repeated call for his covenant people Israel to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’ (Is. 42:6, 49:6; etc) was consistently resisted by a rebellious and inward-turned people since the beginning of time. To this end Jesus dealt decisively with the temple in Jerusalem (cf. Olivet discourse in Mk. 13:1ff; Mt. 24:1ff), whose destruction by Roman Emperor Titus in 70 AD was complete [the temple stones (some, according to Josephus, 37 ft long, 12 ft high and 18ft wide) were prized apart to get to the molten gold leaf from the temple roof]. It was hence the task of ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16), i.e. his ‘new covenant’ and Spirit-indwelt people (Jer. 31), his ‘new Jerusalem’ comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles to be ‘the light of the world – like a city on a mountain, glowing in the night for all to see’ (Mt. 5:14/NLT). After all, we are all children of Abraham by faith! (Is.63:16; Jer. 31:33-34; Jn. 8:39; Rom. 2:28-29; Heb. 8:10-12; 1 Pet. 2:9-12; Rev. 21:22-27).
  • We do not fulfil Zech. 8:23 as mere individuals but as a corporate people of God, incarnating Jesus’ life in small communities of good news, faith, justice and peace. It was so in the early Church which turned the world upside down (Acts ch.’s 2,5,8,13, etc), it will be so today and the days to come. Dallas Willard concludes his book on the disciplines on an optimistic note, As the church of the Lord Jesus Christ turns in its full energies to perfecting those in its fellowship where they reign by and with Christ as in Rom. 5:17, the power structures of this present world, which permit, even encourage the crushing waves of evil to roll over humanity, will be dissolved. They will be replaced by other structures anchored in the redeemed personalities distributed throughout society, stabilizing whatever evil may remain in the human heart so that it cannot build to the mass the phenomena now seen… The quality of our social life then – though no doubt to be very different in many details and particular arrangements – is accurately captured in these words of Athanasius, characterizing the Egyptian communities under the influence of St. Antony:  ‘Their solitary cells in the hills were like tents filled with divine choirs – singing psalms, studying, fasting, praying, rejoicing in the hope of the life to come, and laboring in order to give alms and preserving love and harmony among themselves. And truly it was like seeing a land apart, a land of piety and justice. For there was neither wrongdoer nor sufferer of wrong, nor was there reproof of the tax-collector [the most despised of people]; but a multitude of ascetics, all with one purpose – virtue.'”

As at the year-end I reviewed my own life and ministry in the light of the above, I concluded that perhaps God’s plan for my family is at least somewhat aligned with his purpose for all ages [see ABOUT at the head of my blog].

Let us all by grace once more take hold of the robe of that one Jew, and God will be glorified!