A NUMBER OR A MEMBER?

Over the past few weeks, in preparation for Easter, the house church in our home has been re-visiting the passion story as recorded in Lk. 22 & 23. Different members shared different aspects in a very enriching way. As I dipped into Lk. 22 (where the evangelist anticipates Jesus’ last Passover Meal with his disciples), I was immediately struck by the words of Lk. 22:3:  ‘That’s when Satan entered Judas, the one called Iscariot. He was one of the Twelve’ (MSG). Another translation puts it, ‘At this point the Adversary went into Y’huda from K’riot, who was one of the twelve’ (CJB). The immediate context for the enemy entering Judas fully and finally, was just after Jesus had been teaching at the temple to vast crowds of people (21:37ff) and retreating to the Mount of Olives each evening for personal renewal. While the ordinary people were ‘lapping up’ Jesus’ kingdom teaching, the high priests and religious scholars were looking for a way to get rid of him because of his expanding influence. Two things in particular struck me as I thought about v. 3:

  • The struggle between the ‘religion’ of the Jewish temple brigade and Jesus’ message of ‘life’ was coming to a head. Since looking at Luke 22, I have been reading Rom. 9-11 devotionally and was reminded of the insistence of God’s people on pursuing their own religious do-it-yourself terms rather than his terms of mercy and trust. From my own life and ministry over the  years I know that there is a constant, dark struggle going on between organised institutional religion (‘Christianity’) and the true body of Christ on earth. I am convinced that many today underestimate the danger of rigid church institutionalism and its controls when it comes to the Lord’s work in this world. Luther’s ‘Babylonian Captivity’ of the Church is very much with us. 
  • How easy it is to mistake being ‘numbered’ among the faithful for being a ‘member’ of Christ’s fellowship. When reading about Judas participating at the Passover Table, and Jesus’ clear statement (v. 21) that ‘the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table,’ we notice that Judas had so blended in with the other disciples that we read a little further on (v. 23) ‘They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.’ Judas clearly numbered among the Twelve but somehow never really belonged to the fellowship. I also got the distinct feeling, in reading the earlier verses of Lk. 22, that the final demise of Judas came not as a result of one major anti-God decision but many previous ‘smaller’ decisions in favour of himself, his own ends (we know of his weakness for material things:  Jn. 12:4-6, Lk. 22:5-6, Mt. 26:14-16), his personal political ambitions and misperceptions of Jesus’ messiahship and kingdom message. Life is very much about ‘little choices,’ either in favour of ourselves or in favour of the Lord. William Barclay comments that satan could not have entered into Judas unless Judas had opened the door. There is no handle on the outside of the door of the human heart. It must be opened from within. [Of course I am not forgetting God’s over-arching sovereign purpose in Christ wherein he is the potter and we are the clay which he may mould according to his will:  see Jn. 6:70-71 & 13:10-11; Rom. 9-11].

I love the insights of NT scholar Dr. E.M. Blaiklock on the opening verses of Lk. 22: 

  • To be numbered with a group can be of small significance. It is sympathy, love and fellowship which bind a man to his fellows. Judas had long been alien in heart. Betrayal opened a way for a successful attack from without. The Church can fall only by betrayal from within, the sabotage of standards, the decay of faith. Judas plays his part in all centuries.
  • At the news that Judas was willing to betray Jesus, the priests and temple officers ‘were delighted and agreed to give him money. He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand over Jesus to them when no crowd was present’ (v. 5-6). The formidable force of the religionists had only one deterrent, viz. fear. “Injustice, false witness, unutterable cruelty wreaked on the innocent and good, treachery – all these vicious and noxious things were taken in their stride by men who feared for their comfort and prestige (my emphasis). God was ‘sifting out the souls of men before His judgment seat,’ and these men were demonstrating the depth of their perdition.”

Judas is a warning to all ‘church goers’ and ‘officers’ – Judas was a very good church goer, he even rose to minister of finance in his local church – but sadly he never knew God intimately, and when he lost hope of a nationalistic Jewish kingdom he sold out the Messiah to what a ‘badly burnt’ believer once referred to as ‘God Pty Ltd.’  He was often at Jesus’ side, but never really on his side. Lest we discount ourselves on this one, let me remind us all of a few things…

  • Not so long ago George Barna and co came up with some stat’s showing that in the US, only about 3% of church goers really had a personal knowledge of Jesus, and were seriously surrendered to his Person and Commission. That’s 3 out of a hundred… What’s the stat in your community?
  • In many places the organised institutional ‘Church’ looks down on and even works against non-denominational organic forms of Church. It is so in my city.
  • Years ago, when pastoring a congregation on the East Rand, a very gracious soft-spoken man was appointed as church treasurer – he was after all a retired bank manager, and we were short on financial expertise. A year or two after I left the members discovered that over the years he had pocketed a substantial amount from the church coffers in order to sustain his secret gambling habit. He had to sell his upper-class family home in order to pay back the stolen amount to the church.
  • I am constantly encountering folk who are amazingly super-spiritual and super-fluent in ‘Christianese’ – in the mean time, in one particular case, there was ugly emotional and even physical abuse in the marriage, and since the divorce, shacking up with a new girl-friend. We are reaping the ‘reward’ of shallow sowing from many a pulpit over many years. Often, losing touch with Jesus is a very gradual process, as with Judas.
  • Quite a few of my fellow-bloggers are writing at this time about God’s ‘remnant,’ past, present and future. Watch that space…

Later in Lk. 23:50ff I came across a delightful and unlikely contrast to Judas and his religious cronies, viz. Joseph of Arimathea. Luke writes of him as ‘a member of the Jewish High Council, a man of good heart and good character. He had not gone along with the plans and actions of the council. His hometown was the Jewish village of Arimathea. He lived in alert expectation of the kingdom of God. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus…’ The kingdom has come in Jesus, it is within his own. Let us usher it in, by life and deed – in all its fulness and glory!

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‘THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’

So sang the celebrated musician Bob Dylan in 1964. Dylan was one of the prophetic voices during the American Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. Born Jewish, he professed to be ‘born again’ at one stage of his career but then seemed to go back on that profession in 1984. In May 2012 President Obama honoured the singer with a Medal of Freedom. Dylan wrote unwittingly and prophetically, I believe, for a future group of people around the globe burned out on ‘churchianity’ but inflamed by its founder…

Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen

And keep your eyes wide

The chance won’t come again

And don’t speak too soon

For the wheel’s still in spin

And there’s no tellin’ who

That it’s namin’

For the loser now

Will be later to win

For the times they are a-changin’.

 

Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway

Don’t block up the hall

For he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

There’s a battle outside

And it is ragin’

It’ll soon shake your windows

And rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin’.

 

The line it is drawn

The curse it is cast

The slow one now

Will later be fast

As the present now

Will later be past

The order is

Rapidly fadin’

And the first one now

Will later be last

For the times they are a changin’.

 

In previous blogs I have written about the sunami-like changes facing our world and the Church of Christ as we have known her. Analysts like George Barna and others have written much on the melt-down of the traditional Church in the USA. Institutionalism and traditionalism are giving way to simplicity and grassroots Christ-headed movements, and this all over the world. My Master’s dissertation of four years ago substantiated these things but is already in need of an update, so much has happened since then. In many ways Dylan’s song is hugely prophetic to the Church worldwide at this time…

Here’s an example very close to home for some of my readers. A good friend recently passed on this article to me, printed in Prophecy News Watch of September 2012:  Florida Family Targeted by Community Over Home Bible Study. It details how another US community is fining a family for the ‘crime’ of conducting a home Bible study without getting the ‘proper permits.’ The Roessiger family face a fine of $250 a day from Venice, Florida, after officials determined that the couple were conducting an unauthorised ‘house of worship’ at their residence because of the Bible Study that brings six to ten individuals there every Friday night. The couple run a small Christian outreach ministry, and the mistake they made was to get their mail at home rather than a post office box (this has since been rectified). The family, in addition to prayer and Bible study, has food outreaches in the community and engages in foreign missions work. The latter includes ministering to people living in garbage dumps through providing meals and religious services. PJI’s President Brad Dacus told Fox News that such a heavy-handed reaction was completely out of line:  ‘It’s the same kind of Bible study that occurs in households across America.’ In the most recent development, city officials issued the Roesiggers another citation – this time for having a small sign in their yard that reads, ‘Need Prayer?’ and lists their ministry phone number. The fine for this ‘illegal’ sign is $250 a day. Apparently this is not an isolated case, as a family in San Capistrano, California, was fined $300 the previous year for holding Bible studies and Christian get-togethers in their home. [Will my wife and I also be fined one day for operating organic house churches in our city?]

Of course this was every-day stuff for those earliest followers of Jesus in the first three centuries AD. For three hundred years Christian families and friends met in homes and under trees and by river-sides for worship and prayer, despite persecution by legalists and imperialists. And it’s every-day stuff for the estimated 100 million Chinese believers meeting in underground venues and homes as I write… Was it not Jesus himself, when talking about discipleship and stewardship, who came up with the maxim of reversal, ‘Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first’? (Mt. 19:30, 20:16). In my own city there are many very affluent traditional churches and ‘apostle-led’ mega-churches who could not possibly imagine that the Lord, in expanding his kingdom on earth here in our neck of the woods, might just by-pass them and their programs and use those rather non-descript groups meeting in Jesus’ name in the poorer parts of our Metro where they have to trust God every day of their life for a slice of ‘daily bread.’ We can never put the King of the kingdom in an ecclesiastical box!

It’s going to take a special brand of follower, all over the globe, to usher in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. During the days of Conmmunist oppression in Romania they were nick-named the repenters. They belong to (as I was reminded recently by a fellow-blogger) what Bonhoeffer called ‘the fellowship of the crucified.’ They will need to be adaptable:  to the gospel of the kingdom once entrusted to the saints (Jude v. 3) and to a current global situation in constant flux. Let me illustrate… Scientists have recently been overjoyed to find that a beautiful bright yellow and black butterfly, the Quino checkerspot butterfly found in Mexico and California and considered on the brink of extinction, has saved itself by shifting to a higher altitude and picking a new species of plant for food and laying eggs. Six years ago, Prof. Camille Parmesan of Plymouth University, suggested the endangered Quino species could be a prime candidate for ‘assisted colonisation’ to be moved to cooler, unspoilt habitats north of Los Angeles. To her and her fellows’ amazement the butterfly did not need human help but miraculously re-appeared on higher ground to the east, where its caterpillars are feeding on a flowering plant it has never eaten before! A parable for the church in our day, don’t you think? The Lord has a faithful remnant, and He will do it!

Will you and your faith group be a part of this magnificent, supernatural and gracious Jesus revolt?