“It takes many differing instruments to make up a symphony. We must let the Spirit pull out all the stops and play every key of our personalities. We must be utterly ourselves. We must be natural. But we must also remember that we need other Spirit-played instruments to complement and complete our partial tones. The one who most differs from us may have most to give us. The Spirit comes not to uniform us but to unify us.”
E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of Every Road
"For our example of the patient endurance of suffering we can take the prophets who have spoken in the Lord’s name. Remember that it is usually those who have patiently endured to whom we accord the word “blessed!” You have heard of Job’s patient endurance and how God dealt with him in the end, and therefore you have seen that the Lord is merciful and full of understanding pity for us men." James 5:10,11
That's probably the most casual reference to the sufferings of Job in all the scriptures: "You've heard about Job, right? See, that worked out..."
But, seriously, as we read through both these verses, as we consider the Greek subject-words in all three sentences - "suffering," "patience," "blessed," "endured," "endurance," "outcome," "full of tender mercy" and "compassionate" - we have to remember two important things:
1. The unbelievable, real-time pressure James' original readers were under because of Jesus, because of belief in Him
2. The fact that we are now pretty soft
For us - and let's be honest! - much of what we often call "suffering" is just things not going our way. (And, please, understand me: I'm well aware that many of us have dealt with tragedy before; that we've seen our share of true suffering.) But "things not going my way" was certainly not what James' readers were thinking when they read these words...
Many of those people would live the remainder of their lives, after meeting Jesus, with the strong possibility of death-for-Him hanging over every day of their daily experience. They woke like that; worked like that; raised children like that; had friendships like that; and, most importantly, worshipped like that. And so, in the midst of their sufferings, in the midst of our oftentimes pseudo-sufferings, what is James saying to keep our hearts and minds trained upon?
In the Greek, the "tender mercy" and "compassion" of his brother, Jesus.
We are to keep those attributes right in front of our face, like, "I know He's merciful; I know He's compassionate; so I know I can trust Him to the end."
Acts 4:13 with some notes in italics -
"When the Sanhedrin saw the complete assurance of Peter and John – the “παρρησίαν”: the outspokenness, the frankness, the freedom of speech, the freedom of action, the fearlessness, the liberality and lavishness – even though they were obviously uneducated and untrained men, they were staggered. They recognized them as men who had been with Jesus…"
And not in some sort of facial-recognition sort of “recognized them” - that would not have “staggered” the members of the Council. No, “they recognized them as men who had been with Jesus” – Jesus, the protagonist of that sentence, the antagonist of the Old Way, the One who somehow died, lived again, and now seemed to be standing here right before them – HE is the power that, through these two uneducated untrained men, “staggers” this whole group of educated, well-trained ones. Nothing is more frightening to their foundational historical religious-spirited suppositions than this earthquake of the eternal Kingdom of Heaven impossible: Jesus somehow lives on – in His followers. What the Council had attempted to murder cannot be killed!
And, since you know me well, you know where I’m going next: Have we been with Jesus in that same way? Have we accepted His call to “Follow Me” not as only a prayer of salvation, but as His actual invitation to be saved, to be changed, to be made fruitful; indeed to actually, everyday, learn to better follow Him? Have we grown hungrier and thirstier for understanding of the four Gospels, not just intellectually, but as the way His life still hungers and thirsts to break forth out of our hearts? Have we gone to the Cross and died with Him? Is it only His life that now raises us up, breathes in us, speaks through us, shows the world that He’s never ceased to live?
Friends, is there anything about our “Christianity” that staggers anyone? Oh, that it would be so! And ever more, everyday!
The ending of 1 Thessalonians 1 (vv. 6b-10), with some thoughts in italics -
You remember how, although accepting the message meant bitter persecution, yet you experienced the joy of the Holy Spirit. And, by the way, the Holy Spirit is joy. No circumstances, no human hardships, trump the Holy Spirit’s ability to invest our spirits with His wondrous and eternal joy! (Test that fact today – and everyday - and you'll see what I mean.)
You thus became examples to all who believe in Macedonia and Achaia. You have become a sort of sounding-board from which the Word of the Lord has rung out, not only in Macedonia and Achaia but everywhere where the story of your faith in God has become known. We find we don’t have to tell people about it. They tell us the story of our coming to you: how you turned from idols to serve the true living God, and how your whole lives now look forward to the coming of his Son from heaven…
Don’t you just love the sentiment of that section? How absolutely wonderful that these believers, simply by believing and loving and hoping in Jesus, have become a “sounding-board” for the whole Gospel to the whole world! Their story needs no telling because the fruit is so obvious. And what joy Paul felt at how his friends were making the name Jesus famous!
And where did the Thessalonian church source its spiritual power? … the Son Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, and who personally delivered us from the judgment which hung over our heads.
And right there is the source of the Early Church’s zeal and steadfastness: their foremost belief in Jesus’ present “aliveness.” Nothing could faze them in the face of a Living Christ. For them, the Resurrection perfectly proved the power of the atoning Cross forevermore and they’d learned to live in this “personally delivered” posture with wild and unflappable joy.
How about us today?
The eleven went to the hill-side in Galilee where Jesus had arranged to meet them, and when they had seen him they worshipped him, though some of them were doubtful. But Jesus came and spoke these words to them, "All power in Heaven and on earth has been given to me. You, then, are to go and make disciples of all the nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you and, remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the world." (Matthew 28:16-20)
* * * * *
On one occasion, while he was eating a meal with them, he emphasized that they were not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “You have already heard me speak about this,” he said, “for John used to baptize with water, but before many days are passed you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
This naturally brought them all together, and they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
To this he replied, “You cannot know times and dates which have been fixed by the Father’s sole authority. But you are to be given power when the Holy Spirit has come to you. You will be witnesses to me, not only in Jerusalem, not only throughout Judea, not only in Samaria, but to the very ends of the earth!”
When he had said these words he was lifted up before their eyes till a cloud hid him from their sight… (Acts 1:4-9)
* * * * *
“Great expectations are the proof of great love.”
- Honore de Balzac, The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of wisdom, of hope, of joy, of courage, of knowledge, of comfort, of counsel, and of power. No matter what our life (or this next New Year) throws at us, we mustn't fall back on our own thoughts or emotions; we must make use of, and become increasingly totally dependent upon, the Spirit of God as our best and only source for the wisdom, hope, joy, courage, knowledge, comfort, counsel and power of Heaven itself.
Let's live up to our privileges, my brothers and sisters, both today and over these holidays!
"Now what use is it, my brothers, for a man to say he 'has faith' if his actions do not correspond with it? Could that sort of faith save anyone’s soul?" (James 2:14)
And without reading any further into the famous "faith & works" section of James' letter, we have to stop right there, because THAT'S THE WHOLE QUESTION FOR US. The question of faith and works has everything to do with what we believe really happens because of "faith" at the level of the individual soul. Or let me put it to you this way: There was a real living person named Jesus, a man from Nazareth in Israel, who lived 2,000 years ago, in the midst of the Roman Empire.
Now what does that have to do with your soul?
(Insert you and I having coffee or talking on the phone this week, right here, because I'd really like to hear you answer that question.)
I think the reason we get into so many arguments and confusions about the "faith & works" question is because we don't really know what we actually believe about "faith." The true Christian faith - at least the one the first believers lived and died for - is that repentance and belief lead not only to salvation, but also to Jesus now living His life inside of you. And imagine questioning whether Jesus Himself would be able to show works and actions like... Himself! I truly dare us to have His presence inside us and to try and stop Him!
Really, the "faith & works" question should be a moot point for us, if we really believe the things we say we believe about Jesus, our soul, and the work of the Holy Spirit. (And I'd encourage you to read the rest of James 2 through the lens of His indwelling: it changes the whole scope of the argument entirely.)
"No one had anything to gain in those [early] days from being a Christian; indeed, there was a strong chance that the Christian would lose security and property, and even life itself. Yet, reflected in the pages of [the NT] Letters, both men and women are exhibiting superb courage and are growing, as naturally as fruit upon a tree, those qualities of the spirit of which the world is so lamentably short. To my mind we are forced to the conclusion that something is at work here far above and beyond normal human experience, which can only be explained if we accept what the New Testament itself claims; that is, that ordinary men and women had become, through the power of Christ, sons and daughters of God."
J.B. Phillips, New Testament Christianity
Then on the same day (Easter) we find two of them going off to Emmaus, a village about seven miles from Jerusalem. As they went they were deep in conversation about everything that had happened. While they were absorbed in their serious talk and discussion, Jesus himself approached and walked along with them, but something prevented them from recognizing him. Then he spoke to them, “What is all this discussion that you are having on your walk?” (Luke 24:13-17)
Before Jesus can take over our lives, it seems to me that we must let him overtake our lives. I pray that my and your "Today," every minute of this particular day, may be a personal experience of the road to Emmaus.
Let's keep an eye out, my friends! For here He comes - risen and alive!
“The true inwardness of the Church is reflected, not in the Temple, which Christ said could be destroyed without loss, and not in the synagogue, which He seems to have abandoned with deliberate decision, but in the sending out of the Seventy. The Church is intended as a concrete answer to the prayer that laborers be sent forth to the harvest. The Company of Jesus is not people streaming to a shrine; and it is not people making up an audience for a speaker; it is laborers engaged in the harvesting task of reaching their perplexed and seeking brethren with something so vital that, if it is received, it will change their lives.”
Elton Trueblood, The Company of the Committed
A simple reminder/prayer for today:
Holy Spirit, you are with Him right now and in me. Please tell me what He says for this moment.
"Do not be swept off your feet by various peculiar teachings. Spiritual stability depends on the grace of God, and not on rules of diet — which after all have not spiritually benefited those who have made a speciality of that kind of thing. We have an Altar from which those who still serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. When the blood of animals was presented as a sin-offering by the High Priest in the sanctuary, their bodies were burned outside the precincts of the camp. That is why Jesus, when he sanctified men by the shedding of his own blood, suffered and died outside the city gates. Let us go out to him, then, beyond the boundaries of the camp, proudly bearing his 'disgrace.'" Hebrews 13:9-13
Like so much of what we've seen throughout Hebrews, these few verses have hidden deep depths of goodness and richness for us to enjoy. There's also a kind of rhetorical elegance here. Have any of you ever heard the term "chiasmus" before? It's a figure of speech that turns in on itself in the arrangement A-B-B-A; the most famous example of which is probably JFK's, "Ask not what your country (A) can do for you (B), ask what you (B) can do for your country(A)." These kind of expressions stick with us because they tend to pull us in, and sort of enwrap us in their logic...
That's what happening here in Hebrews 13:9-13. As it now pertains to the priesthood of believers over against the old Hebraic systems of the priests:
"Grace is not to be found through our food and our location, it is by His food and His location that we are invited into His grace."
In the Old Covenant, the priests sought and maintained grace by the careful keeping of meal and meat offerings in the cloistered confines of holy sequestered spaces not open to the common man. In the New Covenant, by feasting upon Jesus, by going outside the religious camp, we encounter His grace, even while "sharing in his disgrace," and show His availability to everyone we meet.
That's why - all along - the writer of Hebrews has been saying, "Don't let the Way of Jesus get under its own systems" - because that had been Judaism and it was no longer the way. The engine of this thing is now the Holy Spirit and He is miles ahead of our best human-religious systems and plans. All this happens outside of safe churchly spaces and at the pace of the Spirit, not our pace. And may we never forget that!
"So be sure you do not refuse to hear the voice of God!" Hebrews 12:25a
A statement that implies its own other-side-of-the-coin statement: "So be sure you do choose to hear the voice of God!" And, really, either statement assumes that human beings just like you and me are in a position of the will, as it pertains to the almighty voice of God, that we can either choose or refuse to open up our ears and hearts, listen for Him, and actually hear Him.
I don't know if we all believe that. Our general outlook, even our day-to-day demeanor, says many of us don't. But what if the eternal God of Heaven is constantly speaking, sending out His thoughts and His will like a radiowave through our daily reality, and the only thing necessary to know His daily thoughts and will is to personally attune; simply, to listen?
Wouldn't that make human existence a little more interesting?
In the Early Church, “…an immediate revelation of the mind of the Master was the one pressing religious need for which all craved.”
Thomas M. Lindsay
The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries
"Let us think of one another and how we can encourage each other to love and do good deeds. And let us not hold aloof from our church meetings, as some do. Let us do all we can to help one another’s faith, and this the more earnestly as we see the final day drawing ever nearer." Hebrews 10:24,25
These two verses are an often-used series of admonitions to keep us serious about our church-attendance, but I wonder if we've ever really realized what kind of "church" is being described here. In the original Greek, let's look at the verbs and nouns used to describe how we're meant to be approaching our shared experience of the Body:
But here's the secret: Millennials aren't losing interest in church because it asks or shows or costs too much; they are losing interest because it asks and shows and costs too little. My observation is that the Christian Millennials we know want it to cost more, to cost them everything. They want to "observe" and study each other, to "provoke" each other's belief, to "gather together" to feast upon Jesus, to call each other as expert "witnesses" of the real thing, "so much very, exceedingly."
Are you and I ready to be equal to that sort of Church for them?
"For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares 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. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:33,34
All of you reading this certainly know my passion for the Early Church, for learning the ins and outs of what made their experience of Jesus so explosive and so world-changing. And I think what keeps me up at night about it is that nothing - not Jesus' life, not His death, not His resurrection, not His ascension, not the work of the Holy Spirit - none of it has changed from back then and yet, on our end, we so often think, "Hmmm, doesn't it all seem really different back then?"
No! Again, nothing has changed! "Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever." If we want to see the Book of Acts alive in our day, this prophetic passage from Jeremiah 31 is like a checklist for the fullness of the experience:
Is that the sense of the Kingdom of Heaven as it pours through us? Through you?
"The form of Jesus Christ takes form in man. Man does not take on an independent form of his own, but what gives him form and what maintains him in the new form is always solely the form of Jesus Christ Himself. It is therefore not a vain imitation or repetition of Christ’s form but Christ’s form itself which takes form in man... So the Church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ but is Christ Himself, who has taken form among men..."
"What matters in the Church is not religion but the form of Christ, and its taking form amidst a band of men. If we allow ourselves to lose sight of this, even for an instant, we inevitably relapse into that program-planning for the ethical or religious shaping of the world, which was where we set out from."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
"Out of that Upper Room which had been the place of fears [the disciples] burst with the glad Good News. They smiled at poverty, rejoiced under stripes, were elated at their humiliations, sang in midnight prisons, courted death and shared with every man, everywhere, their own abundant life. God had matched them against that need and they were spiritually adequate. I see nothing, absolutely nothing, that will get the church of today out from behind closed doors except it be this one thing – Pentecost. Increase the ornateness of its ritual as you will, improve the quality and quantity of its religious education as you may, raise the standards of qualifications of the ministry as high as you can, pour money without stint into the coffers of the church – give it everything – everything except this one thing that Pentecost gave, and you are merely ornamenting the dead. Until this sacred Fact takes place, preaching is only lecturing, praying is only repeating formulas, services cease to be service – it all remains earth-bound, circumscribed, inadequate, dead.”
E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of Every Road
The importance of Jesus' dwelling both inside us and at the right hand of the Father is that He is constantly at work to make both sanctuaries the same. He is always working to bring the heavenly to life in your daily life. The ultimate stage for His "On earth as it is in heaven" experiment is your human heart.
"There is a great deal that we should like to say about this high priesthood [of Jesus], but it is not easy to explain to you since you seem so slow to grasp spiritual truth. At a time when you should be teaching others, you need teachers yourselves to repeat to you the ABC of God’s revelation to men. You have become people who need a milk diet and cannot face solid food! For anyone who continues to live on 'milk' is obviously immature — he simply has not grown up. 'Solid food' is only for the adult, that is, for the man who has developed by experience his power to discriminate between what is good and bad for him." Hebrews 5:11-14
Along these lines, can we ponder for a moment - have a candid little talk about - the nature of the Church, as we know it? In reality, most people identify "church" entirely with Sunday morning, with "services," with brick-and-mortar edifices down the street from their house. Perhaps, if they've lifted their gaze a little higher, they can move past those conceptions and talk about the worldwide Church, the unseen spiritual fellowship of all believers. Yet the word that Jesus used for "church" - I'm sure we've most of us heard it before - was ἐκκλησία, "ecclesia." And I want you to read what that word would've actually meant in the ears of the 1st Century Jews and Gentiles; this is from a book called The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries:
“To the Jew, the Ecclesia had been the assembly of the congregation of Israel, summoned to meet at the door of the Tabernacle of Jehovah by men blowing silver trumpets. To the Greek the Ecclesia was the sovereign assembly of the free Greek city-state, summoned by the herald blowing his horn through the streets of the town. To the followers of Jesus it was to be the congregation of the redeemed and therefore of the free, summoned by His heralds to continually appear in the presence of their Lord, who was always to be in the midst of them.”
And that's where I want to tie in to Hebrews 5:11-14. For Jesus to be present with us in a higher "We are the Body of Christ" sort of way, how many people do we think are truly necessary? 5,000? 1,000? 50? 12? Well, what did Jesus Himself say?
“For wherever two or three people come together in my name, I am there, right among you!” (Matthew 18:20)
Two or three! So anytime two or three of us - or more - are together, should not our quickest activity be a joint-realization of His present aliveness and activity in our midst? If even just two together can represent and embody the Body, we nearly never are not in the ἐκκλησία, are we?
So at what point do you and I suddenly think we need a teacher or pastor in this numbers' game; how quickly do we relegate "solid food" work to professionals, and to ourselves "milk"? Is it with congregations of 10, 20, 100, 500 - what is our own personal threshold? At what point do we think we know "enough" and, from there, allow another person to go "further" on our behalf?
Random question for you: Have you ever read any of Blaise Pascal's Pensees? Well, whether or not you have, consider this one - No. 149 - it's got some dark humor and zing on its meaning:
“We do not care about our reputation in towns where we are only passing through. But when we have to stay some time we do care. How much time does it take? A time proportionate to our vain and paltry existence.”
Do you see the point he's trying to make about our self-importance and self-perception? Well, in our present consideration, I'd rewrite his words like this:
"We do not need another teacher in situations where one, two, or a few, are gathered together. But when we meet at 'Church,' or in greater numbers, we suddenly do. How many people in a room does it take? A number inversely proportionate to our belief in the alive presence of Jesus."
Friends, in 1 John 2, John, the best friend and closest confidant of Jesus, writes to us:
“Yet I know that the touch of his Spirit never leaves you, and you don’t really need a human teacher. You know that his Spirit teaches you about all things, always telling you the truth and never telling you a lie. So, as he has taught you, live continually in him.” (1 John 2:27)
If your favorite Christian writer stopped writing, if your pastor walked off the stage and called you up in his stead, what would you have to share for the good of the Body? My friends, because Jesus is alive and because He delights to reveal Himself to His followers, we should never not have anything to speak of Jesus. Truly, He gives Himself as "solid food" to all who ask. Are you asking? Do you want the more He's offering?
The power and unity of the whole worldwide Body of Christ begins with my own - and your own - accession to, and appropriation of, all the glorious things we're offered in personal Union with the living Jesus. Your inner life is the landscape of, the building-block toward, the showroom for, making the Church what it was intended to become.
"[The new believers of Pentecost, along with the original group of believers] continued steadily learning the teaching of the apostles, and joined in their fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer. Everyone felt a deep sense of awe, while many miracles and signs took place through the apostles. All the believers shared everything in common; they sold their possessions and goods and divided the proceeds among the fellowship according to individual need. Day after day they met by common consent in the Temple; they broke bread together in their homes, sharing meals with simple joy. They praised God continually and all the people respected them. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were finding salvation." Acts 2:42-47
These six verses, arguably the best-known in all the New Testament for describing the lifestyle of the Early Church, strike me as a beautiful picture of the three-part blend that our own lives should always be: an ecstatic reaction to the new life we've been given; a direct continuation of the life of Jesus through ours; a holy practicality that lives out the present temporal circumstances in light of the eternal. Consider these verses again through the lens of that heavenly blend:
They continued steadily learning the teaching of the apostles – thrilled, no doubt, by the depths and heights of all that Jesus offered; receiving, through the apostles, the direct words of Jesus; needing to know, to understand, more of what they’d just said 'yes' to – and joined in their fellowship – because, my goodness! what power, what joy, what love was offered up there; the actual power and joy and love of Jesus as directed now through His Body; a power and joy and love they needed to come under in order to be filled by – in the breaking of bread – because there’s nothing better than a meal with your newfound brothers and sisters; meals were a significant place where Jesus shared His life with His brothers and sisters; and because, well, they needed to eat somewhere! – and in prayer – because this Savior was ALIVE, He could be talked to anytime, anywhere; He loved to show Himself and delighted to talk to His friends and followers; because the apostles and new believers had very little idea what to do next.
Everyone felt a deep sense of awe – because they were surrounded by the glory of Jesus; because Jesus was consistently manifesting His life through lives; because we cannot help being awestruck by things heavenly and awesome – while many miracles and signs took place through the apostles – after all, they were “filled with the Holy Spirit”; Jesus just wanted to keep doing His thing; miracles and signs were simply a practical outflowing of heaven that bore present fruit in lives. All the believers shared everything in common – Who needs this stuff when you’ve got a whole Kingdom?; Jesus lived out His humility through living commonly with commoners; the new believers were from all over the Roman Empire and hadn’t brought enough clothes and food and money to last for, well, who knows how long! – they sold their possessions and goods and divided the proceeds among the fellowship according to individual need – Jesus and His Kingdom are all that matters, not this stuff I used to be so busy accumulating; the spirit of Jesus was rich with selflessness and humble, kindhearted burden-sharing; if we’re all part of the same Kingdom-family, why not internally take care of each other, since we’re now brothers and sisters!
Day after day they met by common consent in the Temple – they couldn’t get enough of Jesus, His Word, His life-in-them, and each other; Jesus had walked His day-to-day with the disciples and still desired the same; why let the fire of the Holy Spirit smolder when He is always ready to self-stoke? – they broke bread together in their homes, sharing meals with simple joy – the joy of new life was always bursting forth, even as they ate; Jesus, again, loved to pass His meals with all sorts of people; again, we all need to eat: Why not with each other, since we’re all now One? They praised God continually – How could they not! so rich was their newly found inheritance; Jesus always praised His Father; practically speaking, we cannot help continually doing what consumes our hearts – and all the people respected them – these were people alight with joy, kindness and love; Jesus was living His perfect life through them; the world, for all its arguments, cannot argue with the unvarnished Way of Jesus. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were finding salvation – because the new believers lived up to their heavenly privileges; Jesus never stops seeking the lost; and “the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out” (John 1:5).
May that "blend" be as richly evidenced in my life, in your life, today!