Physical and spiritual blessings
The Bible begins and ends with blessings from God; Adam and Eve were blessed by God, as are those who live in view of Christ’s return (Gen. 1:28; Rev. 22:7). In this context, “blessing” means a favour, gift or benefit that brings great joy. I’ve heard it said that God blesses Christians with prosperity. Let’s see what the Bible says on this topic.
We begin by looking at God’s blessings in the Old Testament times, about 3,500 years ago. Before Abram travelled to Canaan, God told him: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:1-3NIV; Acts 7:2).
When Abraham was 99 years of age, God changed his name and told him: “I will bless her (Sarah) and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her” (Gen. 17:1,5,16).
After Abraham showed he was willing to sacrifice his son, God spoke to him again: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (Gen. 22:17-18).
God’s blessings involved Abraham being well known; wealthy; having a son under miraculous circumstances; having many descendants who would have victory over their enemies; and through his offspring all nations on earth will be blessed. These were mainly physical benefits and we know that Abraham was a prosperous man. After finding a wife for Isaac, Abraham’s servant said: “The LORD has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy. He has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, menservants and maidservants, and camels and donkeys” (Gen. 24:35). Abraham’s descendants also had victory over their enemies when they occupied the land of Canaan, which was a fulfilment of God’s promises to Abraham (Gen. 15:18-21; Josh. 21:43-45).
The Jew’s Blessings
In his final message to the children of Israel, Moses said that they would be blessed if they obeyed God’s laws and cursed if they disobeyed them (Dt. 27-28). “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out. The LORD will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven. The LORD will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The LORD your God will bless you in the land he is giving you” (Dt. 28:1-8).
The Jew’s blessings that would follow obeying the Old Testament laws involved them having large families; abundant crops, herds and flocks; and victory in battle. Like Abraham, they would be physically prosperous and wealthy (2 Sam. 7:28-29).
The Blessing Of Salvation
Now we will look at God’s blessings for Christians in the early church, which also apply to believers today. This is where we see the fulfilment of one of the promises made to Abraham.
After God used Peter to heal a crippled man, Peter told the Jews living almost 2,000 years ago that the coming of Jesus as the Messiah was predicted in the Old Testament. He said: “(God) said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed’.When God raised up His servant, He sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:25-26).
Here the blessing to all peoples on the earth is shown to have occurred through God’s servant, Jesus Christ, who was a descendant of Abraham (Mt. 1:1-2; Lk. 3:34). Jesus was sent to the Jewish nation and if they had received Him as their Messiah then they would have been blessed by God turning them away from their wicked ways. This blessing of a changed life and a changed future was available if they accepted that Jesus was who he said He was, the Son of God and their promised Messiah.
When Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia, he explained that this blessing extended to non-Jewish people as well: “Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’. Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:6-9). Also, “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal. 3:14).
Paul quotes from Gen. 15:6 that Abraham was saved because he believed God, not because he was circumcised (v.6). All believers are Abraham’s spiritual children because they believed God (“have faith”), not because they get circumcised (v.7). The fact that Gentiles would be saved from God’s judgement of their sinful ways was alluded to in the Old Testament (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). In fact, Abraham was promised “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:18; Acts 3:25). The blessing in this case was salvation that is now available to all nations because of Christ’s death and resurrection. As Abraham was saved by faith in God, today anyone can be saved by faith in Jesus, who is God’s provision for us all.
We see that one of God’s blessings for believers today is the gift of salvation. Christians share this blessing with Abraham as he also had faith in God.
Other blessings that believers receive from God are given in Ephesians 1, where Paul begins with a majestic summary statement: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). The core statement is that God has blessed us. So not only were Adam and Eve and the Old Testament Jews blessed, but each believer is blessed today. We are blessed with God’s favors, gifts and benefits; which have two main characteristics. Firstly they are “spiritual” and “in the heavenly realms” because they involve the invisible spiritual world (2 Cor. 4:18). Did you know that the most important things in our lives are invisible? Secondly they are “in Christ” because everything comes to us through the Lord’s finished work at Calvary. He is not only the source of our salvation, but the source of every spiritual blessing.
Then Paul gives some examples of the spiritual blessings that God has already given believers.
Chosen us: “For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight” (v.4). How? By God and in Christ. When? Before the creation of the world. Why? To be holy and blameless in His sight. What a privilege! Note, the Bible doesn’t say that God chooses some to be damned. Instead, the gospel goes to all and each person is responsible for their response. Once a person becomes a true believer then they can know that they have been especially chosen by God to live for Him.
Adopted us into His family: “In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will—to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves” (v.5-6). In those days the son obtained the family inheritance. This means that all true believers will share in the inheritance that God has prepared for us. This is a privilege and a responsibility, which deserves a response of praise. How? By God and through Jesus Christ.
Forgave our sins and removed our guilt: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us” (v.7). Just like a slave who has been set free, a believer has been liberated from the penalty of sin.
Revealed His grand plan to us: God “made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure, which He purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (v.8-10). Christ will reign and rule over all during the Millennium. We look forward to the kingdom of God; when Jesus’ prayer will be fulfilled, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10).
Chosen us to bring praise and glory to God: “In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ (Jews), might be for the praise of His glory” (v.11-12). Believers have been chosen so that the Lord will receive praise because of their changed lives and new destiny.
Given us the word of truth: “And you (Gentiles) also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (v.13a). Belief in the good news in the Bible of forgiveness of sins through Jesus is the means of salvation.
Given us the Holy Spirit: When you believed, “you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of His glory” (v.13b-14). As a seal is a mark of ownership, the Holy Spirit is a sign that we belong to God and that we will be kept safe until the rapture when our bodies are redeemed (Eph. 4:30).
Lessons For Us
God’s blessings to Abraham and the Jews in Old Testament times mainly involved physical prosperity. Abraham was also promised that through his offspring all nations on earth will be blessed. The blessing in this case was salvation that has been available to all nations since Christ’s death and resurrection. Christians share this blessing with Abraham as he also had faith in God.
Those who have accepted God’s gift of salvation are not promised material wealth and prosperity, but they receive many spiritual blessings. These favors, gifts and benefits can be a great source of joy and security that overflows with praise and glory to God. They are eternal and not just restricted to our lifetime on earth.
Unfortunately some churches and preachers teach that Christians with enough faith and who donate generously will be blessed with material wealth and prosperity, which is not consistent with what the New Testament teaches on this topic. Do you think that God wants us to be prosperous? No, He wants us to be saved from the penalty of our sins and motivated by our spiritual blessings. Do you think that if we give money to God, God will bless us with more money? Beware of those that seek donations by promising that God will reward you materially. The reward for faithful tithing in the Old Testament was material wealth, whereas the reward for faithful service today is spiritual blessings (Dt. 8:17-20; Mal. 3:10-12). After all, Jesus said we cannot serve both God and money (Mt. 6:24).
Also, beware of those that use the Old Testament or Old Testament characters like Abraham to promote this belief. Instead look at the books of the Bible written to the church and characters like Paul, the godly apostle that God used to establish the church around the Mediterranean Sea, who was not wealthy or prosperous. Paul said that all believers who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted and can expect to suffer (Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Pt. 4:12-19). Let’s have discernment and not be deceived by false teachers “who think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Tim. 6:5-10). Instead let’s read Bible verses in their context.
Those who preach a prosperity gospel have the timing wrong. God’s blessings for us will all be fulfilled materially when Jesus Christ returns. That’s when we will prosper. That’s why it’s called a “blessed hope” (Ti. 2:13).
Written, September 2009
“Roll out of bed. Feed the baby. Change her nappy. Load the washing machine. Eat breakfast. Tidy up. Dress two children. Brush their teeth. Brush their hair. Have a shower. Get dressed. Wash the dishes. Hang out the laundry. Feed the baby. Walk to the shops with three kids in tow. Shop. Walk home and unpack the bags. Prepare lunch. Wash children’s faces. Wipe down the table. Read kids some stories. Put them in bed. Feed baby. Change her nappy. Settle baby.”
That’s one mother’s description of her morning – much of her time devoted to her children. With this as an introduction, let’s look at some principles for caring not only for our children, but also for each other, both within the family and within the local church.
Parental Family Care
God’s plan is that all children grow to maturity under the care of their parents. This truth was established in the Garden of Eden when God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and increase in number (Gen. 1:27-28). Genesis 2:23-25 tells us that these parents of the first family were married. As a husband is told to leave his parents and “be united” to his wife, God’s plan is that marriage is a lifetime commitment with a unity (Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:6). Healthy marriages are important for the development of children to maturity.
A baby is totally dependent on its mother; she is its life-support system. When Paul mentions a mother “caring for her little children,” he is referring to all a mother does for her baby (1 Th. 2:7). Then he says that this is because she loves and cares for her child to the point of being selfsacrificing by putting the interests of her child ahead of her own. She expends energy day and night for her child and is gentle and protective. Their relationship is very close. They spend lots of time together responding to each other.
Paul also says that a father should be “encouraging, comforting and urging” his children along the journey to maturity (1 Th. 2:11-12). A father is like a personal coach helping them face the challenges and disappointments of life, training them in the way they should go and bringing out the best in them. This is done according to the needs of each child. A father needs to know his children well, in order to know when and how to help each one develop.
Clearly, parents have the most influence on the physical, emotional and spiritual development of their children. On the other hand, the children’s responsibility is to obey their parents in the Lord and respect them: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ – which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’ Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:1-4 NIV).
Church Family Care
The Bible views the local church as an extended family. It says we are a family of believers and members of God’s household (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19; 1 Pet. 4:17). Our close relationship is indicated by referring to each other as brother and sister (1 Tim. 5:1-2). After all, God is our common Father and we are His spiritual children (Eph. 3:14-15; 1 Jn. 3:1-2). Let’s look at how we can be a healthy church family by caring for each other.
• Gentle Love
As mentioned before, Paul cared for fellow believers in Thessalonica like a mother cared for her children: “We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Th. 2:7-8). This kind of care was gentle, protective, loving, personal and self-sacrificing. It was based on an ongoing relationship as he shared his life with other Christian brothers and sisters. We need to spend a considerable amount of time with those in our church family in order to know them well and be able to respond appropriately according to their personalities and needs.
Paul also coached the believers in Thessalonica like a father coaches his children: “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory” (1 Th. 2:11- 12). As discussed above, this kind of care in the local church is needed if we are to encourage and urge each other to grow towards maturity. Personal coaches spend considerable amounts of time with their trainees in order to know them well and be able to motivate them.
God’s plan is for Christians to mature under the care of a local church. Our relationships in the church should be similar to those of a healthy family. When Paul wrote to Timothy, who was probably in his 30s, he said, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). These verses emphasize the importance of our attitude towards each other and the need to treat each other with respect. We should not speak forcefully to those who are older, but instead appeal to them as we would to our father. We should treat our brothers and sisters in the church as if we were in the same family.
Church Family Skills
We have seen that just as families raise children to maturity, churches are to raise believers to maturity. But there are differences between living in a family and living in a church.
Good connections with each other lead to caring relationships. This means making time and finding opportunities in our daily life and in our church life for spurring one another on to develop loving relationships, practice good deeds and encourage each other: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). Two ways in which this can be done are by joining small groups and by practicing hospitality.
Small groups enable us to connect with others and develop closer relationships with them. It is not enough to just attend a service for a few hours on Sunday; we need to develop personal relationships. Hospitality is sharing a meal with others and getting to know them better. It involves opening our lives to others so they can open their lives to us. This enables others to learn more about us and in turn they will become more confident to share what life is like for them.
Connecting with others involves spending time together and conversing. James wrote that “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (Jas. 1:19). Who speaks the most during our conversations? If we do, then we are probably not listening enough. Let’s listen so we can reflect the person’s feelings and summarize what they are telling us. Then listen again to their response and see if we were right. Don’t assume we know what life is like for them. If we haven’t understood properly, they can correct us. Such active listening is a vital skill in caring for each other.
Don’t ask too many questions; a conversation should not be an interrogation. Don’t ask questions that can be answered with a yes or no, as they limit the conversation. Instead, use open-ended questions like, “What did you do next?” and “How did you feel when that happened?”
Of course, if a Christian brother or sister asks us about our personal life, we should be ready to tell the truth. If we want to care for each other, we should be ready to share with each other. For example, if there are no new prayer needs at a small group meeting, that does not necessarily mean that there are none. It may mean that no one is sharing.
If we connect with others and if we listen attentively when we are with them, then we will come to know what life is like for them. What do we do next? If they are not in a life-threatening situation, avoid the temptation to step in to solve their problems. It’s their life, not ours. It’s better if they learn the life skills needed to solve their own problems. Otherwise, they will always be dependent on others. This is where empathy comes in. Empathy has been likened to walking in someone else’s shoes and seeing life from their perspective: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (Rom. 12:15-16).
Empathy is seen in the lives of both Jesus and the apostle Paul. Both openly shared their lives with those to whom they were ministering. They didn’t want people to have to always rely on their assistance. In the church we need to help people to help themselves. We should act like a coach, not like a repair man. A coach trains and encourages others for the task before them, he doesn’t solve the problem for them. Listen to them, and help them see the steps needed to solve their problem.
And if others help us in this way, we need to be willing to accept their empathy and encouragement. Otherwise, they are denied the opportunity of caring for another believer.
Lessons For Us
Let’s thank God for mothers and their devoted care for their families. Let’s encourage fathers to take up their role of loving their wives and coaching their children towards maturity, and let’s teach the next generation of parents through our good example to develop strong lasting marriages. Do we have a lifetime commitment to our spouse, or is our marital relationship threatened when we have difficulties?
We have two families; our physical one and our spiritual one. Parental family care breaks down when the parents are selfcentered, as this leads to fractured families. Likewise, church family care breaks down when its members are self-centered as this leads to fractured churches. Let’s protect against this by following Paul’s advice and developing gentle love for each other like a mother, encouraging each other like a father and respecting each other as members of an extended family. We can do this by developing strategies and skills for connecting, listening and showing empathy to each other.
Published, June 2011
A praising, unified and serving church
The word “church” is the collective name for all true Christians and for those that meet together regularly. It is the theme of the letter of Ephesians. In this article we look at what Ephesians says about God’s plans for the church.
Plans For The Future Era
In Ephesians 1:3-14 Paul describes the spiritual blessings we have through God the Father, the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The phrase “In Christ Jesus” (or a similar one) occurs at least ten times in this passage. Clearly, Christ is the centre of all God’s plans for the church. “In Christ” refers to the spiritual union of Christ with believers, which is symbolised by the metaphor “body of Christ” (Eph. 1:23; 2:26; 4:4,12,16; 5:23, 30). It also describes the believer’s position, but not necessarily their practice.
As God plans to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ, the goal toward which all history is moving is to unite all things in the physical world and the spiritual world under Christ (Eph. 1:10). The Greek word used here means “to sum up”. In a world were things don’t always make sense we can look forward to a time when everything will be brought into a meaningful relationship under the leadership of Christ.
This will happen during the Millennium (“when the times will have reached their fulfilment”), which will be when God’s kingdom will come to earth and when His will “will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10). It will be a time of universal dominion: Christ will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. The one who is now despised by many will be the Lord of all, the object of universal worship; “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11NIV).
In this coming era, the church will reign with Christ over the whole universe (Eph. 1:18-23; 2:6-7). Although He is far above the rest of creation, because the church is closely related to Him, like the body is joined to the head, and it is seated with Him, it will share His rule over the universe. What a great prospect to look forward to! It’s part of our hope and inheritance.
Three times in this passage Paul praises God for His grand plan for the future (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). likewise, praise should also be our response to God’s great plan for the Lord and for His church
Plans For The Present Era
God’s plan is that people will hear the gospel and believe it to be sealed by the Holy Spirit as a deposit of the inheritance that awaits them (Eph. 1:11-14). Such people are part of His global church and should be a part of a local church. The church is God’s people of all nations (Rev. 5:9) who lived between the day of Pentecost in about 30 AD and the rapture, when all believers are resurrected and transformed to enter heaven. Unless we have accepted God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, we will not share in these plans for the church.
The church is God’s plan for the present era. It was a new category of people, a new humanity, that was made known to Paul by direct revelation from God (Eph. 2:15). God used the Holy Spirit to reveal this new truth about Christ and the church to the New Testament apostles and prophets, such as Paul (Col. 1:26).
The animosity between the Gentiles and the Jews was replaced with loving relationships when they became fellow members of the church with equal access to God (Eph. 2:11-22). This was because, “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). So, in the church, all believers share three things in common. First, they are heirs together (“joint-heirs” in Greek), sharing the same inheritance, being “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). Second, they are members together (“joint-body”), being fellow members of the same body, having equal positions before God in the church. Third, they are sharers together (“joint-sharers”), having the same promises that are the result of Christ’s work of salvation. For example, they share the Holy Spirit and all that is promised in the gospel message.
This is a radical idea. There is no basis for discrimination in the church. What a change from the Old Testament era when the Gentiles were pagans outside the promises that were made to the Jews. Now, all believers of all races and cultures and standings in life share equally in the privileges.
One of God’s purposes is to use the church to teach the angels about His manifold wisdom (Eph. 3:10-11). Although Adam and Eve sinned, God had a plan of salvation. He sent His Son to die, rise from the dead and ascend back to heaven so that sinners from all nations can confess their sin and trust in the saving work of Christ and become members of the church who will be honoured as the bride of Christ throughout eternity. Those who had been rebels were now part of God’s people. Those who were enemies were now partners. What an amazing drama!
Unity In The Church
Paul now shows how God made provisions for those in the church to live and work together in unity (Eph. 4:1-6). Christians are urged to live in accordance with their calling, which is as members of the body of Christ. In the rest of the letter Paul teaches that this means working for unity in the church, purity in our personal lives, harmony in our homes and vigilance against the powers of evil.
He lists four important attitudes and behaviors for the church (Eph. 4:2): be humble, not conceited or arrogant or dictatorial; be gentle, not judgemental or critical; be patient; don’t retaliate when provoked; and bear with one another in love, by accepting those with different convictions. These are Christlike and believers are to follow His example (1 Cor. 11:1).
Then he writes: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). When God created the church He destroyed the rift between the Jews and the Gentiles. All such distinctions were abolished in the church. All Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Nothing can destroy this fact. Nothing can destroy this unity that has been made by God. We can’t create this unity of the shared spiritual life, but we can disturb it. So, we are told to work to keep it by living at peace with one another. We all have different convictions over debatable matters, but these should be overlooked so we can work together in peace for our common good. Of course we should have unity on the essentials of our faith. For the non-essentials there is liberty and we should be able to agree to disagree in a humble, gentle, patient and loving way.
We are to concentrate on the basis of our Christian unity instead of being occupied by our differences (Eph. 4:4-6). Seven reasons are given for this: there is one body, which is comprised of all true believers from Pentecost to the rapture and as a physical body grows from a single cell and every cell shares that original life, every believer shares the spiritual life associated with the Holy Spirit and they share an eternal destiny; there is one Spirit, who indwells all true believers; there is one hope, which is to be with the Lord for eternity and to be like Him (1 Jn. 3:2); there is one Lord, who is the ultimate authority (Phil. 2:9-11); there is one faith to be believed, which is the body of truth in the New Testament (Jude 3); there is one baptism, which could be the baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13) or the water baptism by which believers express their allegiance to Christ; and there is one God, who is the supreme ruler of the universe.
The Lord’s prayer was that believers may be unified in showing the character of God and of Christ (Jn. 17:20-23). This unity is important for the salvation of sinners. Can they see Christ in believers as the Father was seen in Christ? When they see this unity, they have a reason to believe that Jesus was the Son of God and not just a gifted man. The unity of believers can convince unbelievers of the mission of Christ.
Maturity In The Church
Although there is a unity in the church as the body of Christ, there is also diversity. We are all different in some ways and have different gifts and roles to play, like the different parts in a body. The purpose of these gifts is (Eph. 4:12-13): to equip believers for works of service, which means that everyone in the congregation should be trained in some aspects of Christian service; then by serving one another, the church will be built up (spiritual gifts are for the “the common good” and are not to be exercised individualistically, 1 Cor. 12:7); to help maintain our unity; and to produce maturity as God wants us to be grown up, responsible and well-adjusted people. Our standard for maturity is, “How much am I like Jesus Christ?” (Eph. 4:13, 15).
This growth process is to continue until the rapture when (Eph. 4:13): we will reach unity in the faith and in our knowledge of the Lord (our unity is not based on attitudes or feelings but on the truths of scripture which involves the doctrines about Christ and a common understand about God’s Son); and we grow to maturity in our spiritual development (as the perfectly balanced character of Christ).
When these spiritual gifts are operating and the congregation are actively serving the Lord, three dangers are avoided (Eph. 4:14):
- Immaturity – as children need exercise to grow into maturity, believers need to be involved in active service to become mature. Otherwise, they will be as the writer to the Hebrews says, “by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Heb. 5:12). Such people don’t know what they believe and are reliant on others.
- Instability – immature believers tend to be spiritually fickle, they keep moving around to follow the latest novelties.
- Gullibility – immature believers can be deceived by false teachers who use religious words and appear zealous and sincere. Unfortunately they have not studied the Bible well enough to discern good from evil. As Hebrews says, “solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14).
If these characteristics are present, then we are still childish and immature.
Then Paul describes the proper process of growth in the congregation (Eph. 4:15-16). As right doctrine is essential (“speaking the truth”), we need to learn the fundamentals of the Christian faith. As the right attitude is also essential (“speaking the truth in love”), our conversation must always be accompanied with love. This is consistent with the requirement to bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2). In fact love is another important theme of Ephesians where it is mentioned 15 times; more than in any other of Paul’s letters.
As believers are equipped to use their gifts in active service they “will in all things grow up into Him who is the head, that is, Christ”. In every area of their life they will become more like Christ. They will more accurately represent Him before the watching world.
Next we are told that the body grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work (Eph. 4:16). The Lord is the source of this growth; it is “from Him”. After all He said to Peter, “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18) and Paul wrote that it’s only God who brings spiritual growth (1 Cor. 3:5-9). Then the body is said to be “joined and held together by every supporting ligament”. In our human bodies the bones are held together by joints and ligaments and the organs are also attached by ligaments. Each part of our bodies needs to play its particular role, otherwise we are sick or injured. Likewise for the spiritual body of the church. Each member has a particular function to carry out and the church body grows as they carry their role. Otherwise the church is not healthy. God puts believers together in the church so that their different spiritual gifts work together in harmony (1 Cor. 12:18-24). He creates unity from our diversity.
The church grows as the congregation feed on the Bible, pray, worship, serve and witness for Christ. This is accompanied by a growth in love. As believers are equipped to use their gifts in active service and they serve and carry out their role in the church, they grow closer to one another in love and unity. In fact, maturity and unity in the church are impossible without love, which brackets these passages (Eph. 4:2, 16).
Lessons For Us
God has definite plans for His church, which we need to take into account when developing the vision and goals for our local church. Christ is the centre of these plans. With respect to the grand plan for the future to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ, we should be a praising church. With respect to His plan for the present, we should be a unified church. Are we working hard to maintain the unity of the Spirit by living in peace with each other, praying for one another, forgiving one another and not holding grudges?
Are we equipping believers for works of service? Are we in active service for the Lord? Are we becoming more like Christ? Are we doing our work in the local church? Are we helping the congregation grow and be built up towards maturity? Are we God’s co-workers; His agents, His subcontractors (1 Cor. 3:9)? Are we honest and loving? Let’s not hinder God’s plans, but work together with Him.
Remember God has put us in the body of Christ where He wants us to be, among the Christians He wants us to be with, because we need them and they need us. As each part of the body accepts this and serves one another, each part is doing what it was designed to do. We need to accept one another and let each carry out their function to ensure a healthy church.
Written, September 2008
Characteristics of a godly congregation
Children are born into families whose goal is to raise them to maturity. As Christians, God has placed believers in a spiritual family which will last forever. Let’s look at some key goals for our spiritual family, the local church.
The Greek word “ekklesia”, which means a “calling out”, is used in the Bible to describe a gathering, meeting or congregation. It has also been translated as a “church” or “assembly”. This word is used in the New Testament to describe Christians in either a global or a local sense. This article focuses on the local church, which is comprised of believers in a particular region who meet together regularly. For example, Paul begins his letters “To the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2 TNIV); “To the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th. 1:1); “To the churches in Galatia” (Gal. 1:2).
When He was here, the Lord promised “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). The church began on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s death, when the Holy Spirit indwelt the Lord’s followers (Acts 2). So, don’t look in the Old Testament to learn about the church, because it was unknown in those times.
The Church Revealed to Paul
God used Paul to bring us the most complete revelation about the church by revealing a new truth, which was unknown to previous generations (Eph. 3:2-12). The Greek word for mystery, “musterion” occurs three times in this passage (v.3, 5, 9) and means a secret, which in this case was made known by divine revelation at a time appointed by God. It has been referred to as, “The mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people” (Col. 1:26).
What was this new truth? “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). The church was to be comprised of Jews and Gentiles who followed the Lord. This truth was also revealed by the Holy Spirit to other New Testament apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:5). The gospel message that Christ as the Son of God offered up His life to enable a company of forgiven people to become members of the church was the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 3:11).
Before this time, the world was divided into two classes of people: Jew and Gentile. But Jesus introduced a third class: the Christian church (1 Cor. 10:32). All Christians are equal before God and have equal access to God because the distinctions between people under the Old Testament law have been abolished: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
One of God’s goals is to show the angels His manifold wisdom through the church (Eph. 3:10-11). They see how a loving God triumphed over sin by offering His Son so that sinners of all races and nations could have a heavenly inheritance of eternal life. They see the church as being part of God’s new creation.
Churches in the New Testament
Before He ascended back to heaven, Jesus told the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
On the day of Pentecost, the first church was formed at Jerusalem. Later when the church was persecuted, Christians were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1) and churches were established. Then they travelled to Phoenica, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19) and churches were established. Later Paul in a series of missionary journeys established churches in Galatia (now part of Turkey), Asia (now part of western Turkey; this is where the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 were located); Macedonia (now part of Greece), Achaia (now part of Greece), and a church was established in Rome before Paul was taken there. So, churches were established across the known world around the Mediterranean Sea.
Since that time missionaries have travelled across the earth and churches have been established in all countries.
The believers at Thessalonica became a model to all the believers in Greece (1 Th. 1:7). The reason given by Paul for this was, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Th. 1:6). In the context of seeking the good of others, Paul wrote “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Also, in the context of being kind, compassionate and forgiving, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2). Two characteristics are mentioned here: love and sacrifice. We will look at the topic of “love” shortly. Christ sacrificed His life for us; He gave up His life. That’s an example for the church to follow.
One of the metaphors of the church is a body, with Christ as the head. This illustrates the close connection between Christ and the church. As a head directs its body via the nervous system, the church should be directed by Christ. That’s why an essential goal of the local church is to imitate the Lord. After all, it’s His representative on earth. So, the local church is to be Christlike and godly.
“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). The word “Christian” means “follower of Christ”. Although probably originally used in a derogatory sense, it took over from the term “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22).
So the saying “What would Jesus do?” is a good one when looking at goals for the local church. The best way to find Christ’s example is to see how the apostles wrote about this between Acts and Revelation, because these letters were written to the church. We can also learn from the Gospels, but we need to realise that, although they were written after the day of Pentecost, they record what happened when Jesus came as Messiah to the Jews. They fill the gap between the Old Testament and the church, describing what happened while Christ was on earth before the church commenced.
Faith, Hope and Love
Paul commended the Thessalonians for “your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 1:3). Later he says, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Th. 5:8). They were motivated by faith, love and hope. These are the characteristics of a godly life: dependence on God, love for the Lord and for one another, and the hope of Christ’s return. They are often mentioned together in the New Testament and we will look briefly at each of these.
The Greek word for faith, “pistis”, means a spiritual conviction. It is used in the New Testament to describe: trust, trustworthiness and by metonymy (a figure of speech in which the name of one thing is used for another associated with it), what is trusted (“the faith”). Faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit that accompanies salvation (Gal. 5:22-23).
This word is used to describe living by faith; “… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:22-24). We trust in God because He gave Christ as our Saviour. He is “faithful”; He keeps His promises. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, their faith in God became known everywhere (1 Th. 1:8).
This word is also used to describe the truth we trust: “dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude 20-21). Here the faith is the truth of the gospel and the doctrine of the New Testament. The church is built up by studying and obeying the Bible. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, they shared the gospel with their neighbours and friends—“The Lord’s message rang out from you” (1 Th. 1:8).
The Greek word for hope, “elpis”, means favourable and confident expectation. It is something that is certain, not something that is doubtful.
In the context of waiting eagerly for the resurrection of our bodies, Paul wrote, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom. 8:24-25). Hope accompanies salvation. It involves the future, “what we do not yet have”.
The believers in Thessalonica had “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” and waited “for His Son from heaven” (1 Th. 1:3, 10). Despite severe suffering, they had an attitude of joy. They saw the big picture that God was in control of their circumstances and their eternal destiny was secure. (1 Th. 1:6)
We have the hope of eternal life in heaven. It’s a part of the gospel. This hope is a reason to be faithful and loving: “we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all His people—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard in the true word of the gospel that has come to you” (Col. 1:3-6).
Our hope comes from God: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). “Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pt. 1:21). Because He is the Son God who died for our sin, Christ is our only hope of getting to heaven: “Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1).
As a church we need to be optimistic, not pessimistic. We may experience disappointment and hardships, but God is working towards the time when we will be taken to be with Him in heaven where we will be like the Lord. This will be a great celebration, like a wedding feast where the Lord will be the groom and we will be the bride.
One of the Greek words for love, “agape”, means God’s deep and constant love of sinful humanity (seen in the gift of His Son) that fosters a reverential love in them towards God and a practical love towards others.
In all His actions, God is loving: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). His plan of salvation through Christ was an act of love that should cause us to love one another: “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:9-11).
Love accompanies salvation; it is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22). When we experience the Lord’s amazing love, it causes us to respond by loving Him and others. This love distinguishes Christians who comprise the church. Jesus told His disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35). Also, “He has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another” (1 Jn. 4:21).
In 1 Corinthians 13, “love” is mentioned 7 times in 13 verses and Paul emphasises that everything must be done in a spirit of love. This love is a selfless concern for the welfare of others. It concludes, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”. One of the reasons for this is that love is eternal.
With regard to the church Paul wrote “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:15-16). The truth must be taught in a loving manner if we are to become more Christ-like. Like a human body, the church should develop with time so that it matures and becomes more loving as it carries out its functions.
The Thessalonicans service for God was motivated by love to the Lord; in their “labour prompted by love”, they served “the living and true God” (1 Th. 1:3, 9).
Initially the church in Jerusalem and Judea was Jewish, but then God showed Peter (Acts 10:1-11:18), Paul and Barnabas (Acts 11:19-24) that Gentiles could now also be a part of God’s people. Combining such people with different cultures and traditions together in the church was one of the biggest issues in the early years of the church. Firstly, some Jewish believers went from Judea to Antioch teaching that the male Gentile believers needed to be circumcised as the Jews were in the Old Testament times (Acts 15). Some likeminded Christians in Jerusalem were teaching that the Gentiles were also required to keep the law of Moses. This matter was discussed and resolved amongst the church at Jerusalem who then informed those who had been affected by this controversy.
Paul also told those at Corinth to stop following different leaders because this was divisive, but to have unity instead (1 Cor 1:10-13; 3:1-9). In the letter to the churches at Galatia, he opposed legalism because it divided the church. In Romans he dealt with tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers over eating meat that had been offered to idols and over Jewish festivals (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8).
The church in Ephesus was told that the Jewish and Gentile believers were “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household” (Eph. 2:19). Consequently the hostility between them was to be replaced with peace (Eph. 2:14-18). They were to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6). While it takes an effort to promote unity, all these spiritual things we have in common are powerful unifying forces in the church.
Lessons for us
As a congregation are we imitating Christ? What are we willing to give up to follow the Lord’s example? The local church depends on people giving up their time, resources, abilities and energy. When we make corporate decisions we should include the question, “What Would Jesus Do”?
What about the core qualities of faith, hope and love? If our faithfulness is strong, we will witness for Christ. If our hope is strong, we will be encouraging and optimistic about what God is doing. If our love is strong, we will be humble and compassionate.
Are we faithful in studying and obeying the Bible as a congregation? Are we sharing our faith in the gospel message? Are we optimistically looking forward to being with the Lord? Are we joyful to be a part of His new creation? Are we known for our love for one another? Does an attitude of love permeate all we do in word and deed?
If we imitate Christ and strengthen our faith, hope and love, surely we will have unity. Nevertheless, we need to be reminded as a congregation of the many spiritual things which we have in common, and which are more important than our differences.
Let’s be more Christ-like, faithful, hopeful, loving and united and develop these goals to become the congregation that God wants us to be.
Written, November 2007
When the Israelites complained about the lack of food in the wilderness, God sent manna to eat and said that “Each one is to gather as much as they need” (Ex. 16:16 TNIV). The Manna looked like a white seed and tasted like honey wafers (Ex. 16:31). The daily quota was one omer per person, which was about 1.4 kilograms or three pounds. They were told not to keep any of it until the following morning, because by then it would be full of maggots and have an unpleasant odor (Ex. 16:19-20). So, except for the special provision for the Sabbath day, they were not to hoard the manna.
We live in a world where there is much inequality; some have plenty while others live in poverty. In the times of the early Church when there was poverty in Jerusalem, the churches in Greece sent money. When Paul encouraged the church at Corinth to give generously, he said: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little’” (2 Cor. 8:13-15).
Paul linked the principle of Israelites who collected more manna than they needed themselves shared it with those who didn’t have enough, and everyone finished up with enough. The reason that some Christians have more resources in life than others is so that these may be shared with those lacking and all may have their physical, spiritual and emotional needs satisfied.
In order to encourage the Corinthians to give generously, Paul reminded them of the following five truths:
1. Jesus was generous (2 Cor. 8:9; 9:15). The Lord gave up His position of power and honor so that believers could share in His inheritance: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). He’s the one we should imitate (1 Cor. 11:1).
2. Willingness to give is more important than what’s given (2 Cor. 8:12). They had been waiting until they could give more, but Paul said to give now in accordance with what they could afford. Giving should be spontaneous, not pressured or under compulsion, not reluctantly or grudgingly (2 Cor. 8:3-4; 9:5, 7).
3. Give according to your means (2 Cor. 8:11). Giving will not be a burden because God will supply all that you need and ensure that you can give again in the future (2 Cor. 9:8,10). The churches in Macedonia were generous even though they were poor and persecuted (2 Cor. 8:2).
4. Giving will result in spiritual reaping (2 Cor. 9:6-11). Like farmers, if we plant sparingly we will harvest little; if we plant generously, we will harvest generously. And do not forget: God loves a cheerful giver.
5. Giving leads to thanking God (2 Cor. 9:11-12). Giving generously is evidence of our sincere love, and it leads us to thanking God the Father as the source of this love (2 Cor. 9:15). People will praise God for such generosity and they will pray for you (2 Cor. 9:13-14).
What can we share? Not only our money and our things, but also our time and our spiritual gifts. Let’s imitate God the Father and Jesus Christ, and be generous givers to those less fortunate; this is part of the divine nature. Selfishness, on the other hand, is part of the sinful nature (Gal. 5:19-13; 2 Pet. 1:4).
Published October 2010
The need to be culturally relevant
How can the local church, which originated almost 2,000 years ago, survive in a world of diverse languages, customs and ways of life? In particular, how does the church balance a changeless message in an ever changing culture?
The Church is Multicultural
History shows that Christianity and the church have been multicultural across both time and space. They have survived from the first century to the twenty first century. During this period, Christianity was practised in the Roman Empire, in the feudal hierarchical system of the Middle Ages, in the Reformation of the 1500s, in the revivals of the 1700s and 1800s and in the modern world. These were all radically different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across history.
Through missionaries, Christianity and the church has spread geographically across the world, first across the Middle East and then around the Mediterranean Sea and across Europe, and finally to colonies across the world as they were visited by European nations. Today, there are churches in virtually every country, although in some places they meet in secret because of persecution. In all these countries there are different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across the world. Today, it is multicultural.
It was God’s intention that the church be multicultural. On the day the church began, God did a linguistic miracle, so those present could all hear the wonders of God in their native language (Acts 2:1-13) . Christianity was to go to all language groups. As this was a new thing, when Peter was about to visit a Gentile, he was given a vision that taught him that God accepts believers from all nations (Acts 10:35). Peter needed to be retrained to know that God doesn’t have any favourites in the church. So, Christianity was to go to all nations, to all cultures. That’s why before He ascended, the Lord told His followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8TNIV). They took Christianity to the ends of their known world and today it has spread across the globe.
Finally, in heaven Jesus will be praised because He “purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). So, Christianity will go to all tribes, to all language groups, to all nations, to all cultures across the world.
Now we will look at how the church survives in these different cultures. The Bible records the history of the Jewish nation over a period of about 2,000 years. The coming of their Messiah had such an impact that Scripture is divided into two parts: the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament describes what life was like before Christ and the New Testament what it was like after Christ. Let’s see what the Lord said about this change.
The Importance of Wineskins
In Luke 5:33-35 the religious leaders criticized Jesus because His disciples did not fast (go without eating) as was their custom. Jesus gave a reason for not following all the religious customs of that time and He explained it further with a parable: “People do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (Lk. 5:37-38).
In ancient times goatskins were used to hold wine (1 Sam.1:24). After the animal was skinned, the skin was tanned, the openings were sewn shut, the neck of the goat was used for the spout, and unfermented grape juice was poured in. Afterwards the neck was sewn shut and the fermentation process began. As the fresh grape juice fermented it gave off carbon dioxide which stretched the new leather wineskin (Job 32:18-19). Only a new wineskin would have the capacity to stretch and not break during the process of fermentation. A used wineskin would break because it was already stretched and hardened and was no longer elastic or flexible. It had lost its power to stretch any more and so was no longer an effective container for the wine. Jesus’ hearers knew not to use old skins with new wine.
The wineskin contained the wine and protected it from the outside environment. This is shown schematically in the diagram as three components: the wineskin (represented by a circle); the wine inside the skin and the environment outside the skin.
This parable, which is reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke, illustrated a truth that Jesus was teaching. From the diagram it can be seen that the wineskin is the point of contact between the wine and the world (or the surrounding environment). Old “wine” represented the OT law and old “wineskins” represented the Jewish practices of carrying out the law, both of which are described in the Old Testament. Jesus introduced the “new wine” of the gospel of God’s salvation through the death of Christ as a substitute for us all (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor.3:6). The lesson was that the Jewish practices were too old, weak and rigid for the gospel. They needed to be replaced. The gospel would be destroyed if they tried to express it through the Jewish practices. Because there was a new wine, there needed to be a new wineskin. So, because the gospel was new and different to the Old Testament law, it could not be expressed by the Jewish customs and practices that were related to the law. This problem was faced by the early church in Galatia and other places.
Instead, new Christian practices were required to express Christ’s teachings: “Pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17). The new covenant which Jesus was instituting must bring with it new structures, new forms, new practices; which are those for the church. The application of this illustration to the church era is shown schematically as three components: Christian practices (represented by the circle), Christian principles inside the circle and circumstances outside the circle.
Action is essential for putting the principles into practice. Our practices are important because they are the visible aspect of our faith. For example, Jesus said that people will recognize His disciples if they love one another (Jn. 13:35). Furthermore, James wrote, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” and John wrote “let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (Jas. 2:15-17; 1 Jn. 3:17-18). So genuine faith and love will produce action. The practices are the action part of our faith, when the principles are expressed in an active way in our world.
Next we will look at the wineskins and then the environment outside the skins.
There is an important difference between the “wineskins” of the Old Testament and those of the New Testament. This is a difference between Jewish practices and Christian practices.
The Old Testament has many detailed laws about how the Jews were to behave including: social life; the tent and temple where sacrifices were made to God; the sacrifices; the priests; health regulations; and religious festivals; even down to circumcising male babies. These characterised the Jewish way of life.
But Christ freed us from slavishly following the Old Testament law and its regulations (Gal. 5:1; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:10). So detailed regulations are absent from the New Testament, where the emphasis is on principles that can be expressed and practiced in many ways in different cultures. For example, Jesus summarised the law as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-39).
We need to distinguish between the principles and the practices. Scriptural principles are fixed by Scripture. However, we need to interpret these and sometimes there is more than one interpretation. On the other hand, Christian practices are expressions of divine principles in a particular human situation. They can change according to local circumstances. They are multicultural. They enable the changeless principles to be applied to any culture. This is one of the liberties of the Christian faith.
Having the practices between the principles and the circumstances also reflects our dual citizenship. We live under human government and we serve the Lord of heaven: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21). Our values are heavenly and our impact and service is earthly.
Responding to Circumstances
We now look at how this applied to the early church. In the above parable, Jesus taught that if the principles (wine) changed, then the practices (wineskins) should change. What if there are changes to the circumstances we live in, which are represented by the outside environment in the illustration? Biological organisms respond to changes in their environment, otherwise there is no evidence of life. Likewise, the early church was urged to address the circumstances it faced.
In the first century, local churches in different places faced different circumstances. This is reflected in the topics of the letters that were written to these churches. For example, some of the issues they faced were:
- Corinth: factions, immorality, litigation, disorder, false teaching
- Galatia: legalism
- Ephesus: false teachers, lacked love
- Thessalonica: persecution, misunderstandings about death and the second coming, idleness
- Smyrna: persecution, poverty,
- Thytaria: immorality and idolatry
- Sardis: lacked spiritual life
- Loadicea: material wealth, stagnant.
In all these situations the writer was inspired by God to tell the church how to respond to their particular circumstances. In particular, the elders at Ephesus were told to be alert for false teachers: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). They are told to “keep watch” over themselves and the congregation, to “Be shepherds of the church of God” and to be on their guard for threats to the congregation (Acts 20:28, 31). This means being vigilant and aware of the circumstances that are faced from both within and outside the local church. They were to protect the congregation like a shepherd protected their sheep from predators. So church elders are to be active and responsive to the circumstances being faced, not passive and unresponsive.
Past, Present and Future
Human behavior is influenced by past experiences, present circumstances and goals for the future. This means that the circumstances faced in the local church can relate to the past, the present or the future.
Influences from the past may be traditions handed down from previous times. These are practices that were followed beforehand. Jesus called the religious leaders hypocrites for placing more importance on their traditions than on God’s commands (Mk. 7:1-9; Lk. 6:1-11). They imposed many laws on the common people and treated their traditions as though they were scriptural truths.
Jesus also said, “And none of you, after drinking old wine wants the new, for you say, ‘The old is better’” (Lk. 5:39). This indicates people’s reluctance to replace the old for the new. In context, it meant that the Jews of the first century would find it hard to make the change to accept Christianity. They would be reluctant to give up their traditional Jewish ways and try the gospel. It was probably directed at the Pharisees who questioned Jesus. Given this trait of human nature, today some will be reluctant to accept new practices. There is a tendency to perpetuate long-established practices, but our security should be in the principles, not in the practices.
Influences from the present are current circumstances that demand a response. For example, language, way of life and geographic spread of the congregation. These circumstances change with time because life is dynamic.
Influences from the future may be goals that the local church has agreed to move towards.
The balance between these influences will control the practices within a local church at a given point in time. This is shown schematically in the diagram, where the changeless is shown in blue and the variable is shown in black.
Lessons for us
God has established the local church so that it can function in all cultures across the world. The truths of the gospel and the church should be expressed by the practices of the local church in a manner that takes account of changes in culture, technology, language, way of life and customs. That’s how the church is multicultural.
We need to distinguish between Scriptural principles and Christian practices: principles are fixed, whereas the practices can change and should change when there are significant changes in circumstances. We should know the purpose behind our practices, and periodically consider whether other methods would be more appropriate. A practice shouldn’t be viewed as better only because it is old, or better simply because it is new.
Local churches all face different circumstances. Today we need to be aware of the circumstances we face, including the changing culture of our world. If the local church is to be sustainable, we need to know our circumstances and decide how they affect our expression of the principles. If its practices don’t change, the local church becomes a stagnant and unresponsive subculture that will die out. There is no future for churches that are content with the old and caught up in the traditions and the forms of 50 or 100 years ago. Let’s face it, the world we live in has changed drastically over the last 40 years.
This is a challenge that is faced by all local churches, particularly in times of rapid cultural changes. It’s not enough to be a church that is based on Scripture; there is also a need to be culturally relevant. Our vision should include these two components: Scriptural principles that reflect our Lord and our heavenly citizenship and practices that relate to the physical world we live in. Let’s be a Biblical church that is culturally relevant.
Written, November 2007
See earlier article on scriptural principles and practices:
– Practicing scriptural principles