The Indispensability of Apostleship

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“…the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things… gave apostles…” || Eph. 4.10b-11a

There is much confusion aswirl over the subject of apostleship, especially as it relates to the question of whether or not it should be seen as an ongoing ministry in our day. Many would say, “Apostles ceased to be when the last of the 12 died.” Others would say, “Apostles ceased to be when the canon of Scripture was closed. We don’t need apostles today because we don’t need more Scripture written.” Others, especially in Charismatic and semi-Charismatic “missional” circles might say, “Apostles exist today. They are the movers and shakers, the ones gifted to build ministries that have profound impact on the Great Commission and give aid to churches on various levels.” Still others would say, “Apostles exist today and have authority to govern regions and to oversee multiple churches and ministries.”

To be sure, confusions abound and opinions often escalate into fiery debates with regard to the issue of apostleship. My aims in this article are to survey two of the primary modern viewpoints (the first of which is not so modern, but is still prevalent today), to consider objections to modern apostleship and distortions to modern apostleship claims, and to offer what I believe to be a view of apostleship that is grounded in Scripture and is therefore indispensable to the life and mission of the Church today.

So, the cat’s out of the bag. I am convinced that apostleship is meant by the ascended Lord to be an ongoing ministry in our day— indeed, an ongoing ministry until the “Apostle and High Priest of our confession” returns. What this means may be surprising to some of you, but if you give thoughtful consideration to what I’m presenting here, you will find that none of the ideas I hold forth are either novel or extra-biblical. I am convinced that apostleship is indispensable chiefly because I hold to “Sola Scriptura”, not in spite of my reverence for and conviction in the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture.

This raises a host of questions from various angles, of course, and I haven’t the time here to raise and address all of them. Let me focus on what I believe to be the two primary errors when it comes to addressing the issue of apostleship.

The Cessationist View

The Cessationist view, specifically with regard to apostleship (usually including a view that prophets too have ceased to be), is the view that with the death of John the Apostle, or more commonly, with the closing of the Canon of Scripture, there was no longer a need for apostles, as their primary role was to unfold the mystery of the Gospel in an authoritative sense. In their view, the mystery had now been disclosed (which is true according to Rom. 16.25), the Scriptures had been written, and since this was the primary role of the apostles, none were any longer needed for the ongoing mission of the Church. I agree with the first part of that statement (that Scripture-writing apostles had an authority unique to themselves in relation to the first post-resurrection, post-Pentecost proclamation of the Gospel), but differ with the last part (that apostleship ceased altogether with the completion of the canon), as we will see.

I have some sympathies with those who hold to this view, though in the last analysis I find it to be unbiblical. My sympathies lie not in an agreement with the view itself, but with the fact that it is often held by brothers and sisters who are concerned to hold to the supremacy and uniqueness of Biblical revelation. Their fear of present-day apostles (and prophets) often issues from a high view of the Bible, coupled with the assumption is that the apostolic ministry is a foundational revelatory ministry. If claims of modern apostleship are made, so might there be claims of new revelations which are not in keeping with the testimony of Scripture. I understand that fear, and while I believe it is misguided for many reasons, I commend them for being jealous to guard the truth of the Word. This leads us to some of their objections to present-day apostleship. For brevity’s sake, I’ll give a few short thoughts in response to each one.

Primary Objections Made by Those Who Believe Apostles Have Ceased

I. “We don’t need apostles today because Scripture has already been written.”

I don’t believe the writing of Scripture was ever meant to be definitive of apostleship or exclusive to apostleship. There is much I could say on this point, but here are some reasons why this point is erroneous, if even well-intended.

a. Not all apostles wrote Scripture. In fact, most of the apostles named in the NT didn’t write Scripture. Only a few of the original 12 wrote Scripture, and of the other 10 names associated with apostleship in the NT, only a few were given that authoritative role.

b. Not all the authors of Scripture were apostles (nor were the remainder all prophets). This is glaringly obvious when we survey the whole of the Bible.

I needn’t belabor this point. There is no way to make a case from the Bible that biblical authorship was either definitive or exclusive to the role of apostleship. Simply put, some apostles were chosen and uniquely empowered by God to write some of the books in the Bible, but not all apostles were given this task, and the majority of the men chosen by God as instruments for the penning of Scripture were not themselves apostles. We conclude confidently that the authorship of Scripture was neither definitive nor exclusive to the role of apostleship.

II. “Jesus chose the twelve, and Paul was the only other apostle chosen, since he also had ‘seen the Lord.’ (1 Cor. 9.1) Any claim to apostleship otherwise is a presumptuous thing at best, and at worst, a destructive kind of deception.”

This point, which has cemented into a rather common tradition, is purely based on historical and biblical ignorance. Here are a few reasons it cannot be true:

a. Within the NT text itself, there are at least 10 men besides the 12 directly called ‘apostles’ or named amongst the company of apostles (c.f. Acts 1.26, 14.14; Gal. 1.19; 1 Cor. 4.6, 9; Rom. 16.7; 1 Thess. 1.1, 2.6; Phil. 2.25). Even if you seek to argue that some of these were comrades of the apostles but not really apostles, you cannot make that case for all of them, as many of them are explicitly called apostles in the texts provided. There is no sound hermeneutical approach, no commendable exegesis of these texts which would lead us to conclude that some, if not all of the names mentioned herein were not known as apostles in the early church.

b. Ephesians 4.11ff never specifies that the work of the apostles and prophets will only continue in the sense that their Biblical testimony is foundational for the Church. Is it foundational? Without question. Any deviation from the Biblical prophets and apostles should be feared and counted as error. But nowhere does the text teach or even imply in the slightest sense that the ongoing equipping and upbuilding of the church is the work of pastors, evangelists, and teachers only.

It is an acrobatic feat of interpretation (not without some sleight of hand) to pluck apostles and prophets out from this text, or to define them as first-century ministries, while the other ministries are to be ongoing.

I understand why many have concluded this, and I sympathize with the well-meaning intention to maintain a high-view of Scripture, but I think it eventuates in a diminishing of the Bible at the end of the day. It is a twisted exposition of Eph. 4.11 and other Biblical texts regarding apostleship. Often this is done unconsciously or because of theological traditions that go back many centuries. Nonetheless, a poor interpretation of Scripture and the elevation of opinions and extra-biblical traditions is the antithesis of a high-view of the Bible, not the reverse.

It should also be noted that none of the apostles, even the ones who wrote Scripture, were in and of themselves immune to error or short-sightedness. None of the them were Jesus. It is the Scriptures that are infallible, not the men who were used of God to write them. Even within the Scripture itself, we see occasional disagreements amongst the apostles. These do not prove the fallibility of the Bible, but rather the fallibility of all men. Our faith is in God and His Word, not in the apostles as men.

c. Paul speaks about false apostles in his epistles (1 and 2 Cor. especially), and Jesus commends the church in Ephesus for finding false apostles to be false. Why does this speak to ongoing apostleship? Because the ground of their falsehood was not as it is modernly claimed, that, “No other apostles besides the 12 and Paul were meant to be given to the Church.” Rather, the ground of their falsehood was their lack of Christ-likeness, their poor doctrine, their lack of true servanthood, their poor grasp of the Gospel, and on and on.

In other words, they were disqualified from being counted as apostles because they had not been shaped and sent by the Lord in a manner which pleased His heart and was in keeping with His word. The fact that there were false apostles meant that there ought to be true sent ones, and there is no biblical reason to assume that this ought not to be the case today. There are fakers today, and the need for true apostles is of paramount import still.

d. Gordon Fee gives another angle on this in his commentary on 1 Corinthians:

Along with 15:8 this question establishes two things: (a) Paul believed that his experience on the Damascus road was more than a mere vision. For him it was a resurrection appearance of a kind with all the others—to be sure, after the ascension and therefore out of due season (15:3–8). (b) But since others who saw the Risen Lord did not become apostles, what most likely legitimized his apostleship was the accompanying commissioning. Although he does not say so here, in Gal. 1:16 the revelation of the Son of God is accompanied by its purpose, “that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (cf. 15:8–11, where the resurrection appearance is followed by discussion of his apostleship).

Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 395). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

In other words, the qualification for apostleship came with the Christophany, it wasn’t the Christophany itself. It was rather, that when the Lord appeared to him He simultaneously commissioned him as an apostle. This is an important observation, and distinguishes Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord from the encounters of other believers who never entered the apostolate.

e. Lastly, in connection to the above point, let us think about 1 Cor. 9.1. It is often said that since Paul had “seen the Lord”, a Christophany was required for one to be called as an apostle. 1 Cor. 15.3-11 may seem to contain an even stronger argument for this idea. The 12 had seen the risen Lord, and Paul encountered Him on the road to Damascus, and later while praying in the temple. Many conclude from this that a visible/audible encounter with Jesus is a qualification for apostleship. Is that what Paul was saying? I don’t believe so.

I do see how this could be a point of confusion, but I believe Paul actually answers his questions within the texts themselves. The point of 1 Cor. 9.1 is to give defense of his character and role to the Corinthian church to undergird his exhortations regarding food sacrificed to idols (ch. 8), and the divine right of an apostle to receive financial support from the churches to which he was rightly related (ch. 9). Thus, he asks several questions. “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”

Paul’s point here is not to give a list of qualifications for apostleship, but to defend his apostleship for the sake of building up the Body of believers at Corinth. He is not saying, “All apostles must have visibly seen the risen Christ.” In any case, though the 12 all saw him, and some of the other apostles in the NT may have been present when the 500 witnessed the ascension, we have no record of them seeing Christ in this way for certain. Nor does the Book of Acts or the other Epistles mention a Christophany as a qualification for apostleship.

The primary point of 1 Cor. 15.3-11 is indeed the supremacy of the Gospel and the reality of Christ’s resurrection, for which reason I believe he’s mentioning all of those who saw the Lord in His resurrected state. One more reason I don’t think Paul was putting forth a Christophany as a qualification for apostleship is that Paul was not the last apostle called and sent in the NT, but he does say, “last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me.” Some of the apostles mentioned in the texts above were not only called after Paul, a few of them were even led to the Lord and discipled by Paul. Timothy and Titus being a few examples.

Not only that, but Paul mentions the 500 others who saw them, the vast majority of which probably never became apostles. At least we have no record of them all being sent in the apostolic sense. Was Paul’s main point that apostles must have a Christophany, or that Christ in fact had risen from the dead, and that there were many witnesses to the fact? I believe it is the latter, even though the second half of the text mentioned does touch on Paul’s apostleship.

There is, however, a qualification for true apostleship given in 1 Cor. 9, and it is not the requirement of a Christophany. It is found in vv. 1b-3:

“Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me.”

In other words, true apostles will preach the Gospel, make disciples, and plant and nurture churches. Their seal of approval is seen in the churches which grow out of their planting and watering. God gives the increase, and the fruit of the Spirit vindicates the authenticity of the apostle.

Many may claim to have Christophanic experiences, and they have throughout Church history. Some of them are true, I believe, but many (I would assume most) of them are false. But you cannot fake the establishment and growing in grace of a family of believers, who previously were bound in darkness, sin and idolatry, and who through the faithful preaching of the Gospel are now serving the living God, growing in holiness and humility, treasuring and obeying the Scriptures, and above all the Christ of Scripture.

Much more could be said of the Cessasionist view, but that will have to suffice for now. Let us look to another erroneous and rather widespread view regarding modern-day apostleship.

The “New Apostolic Reformation”/Charismatic “Third Wave” View

I have already written much more than intended, so I’ll be as terse as possible here. You can find out more about this online or through a number of publications, though I must say, these are rather shark-infested waters.

On the one hand, much of what you’ll see from the so-called “N.A.R.” (and spin-offs from it) will be troubling, and in my estimation, it should be troubling to us. On the other hand, many who seek to criticize modern-charismatic emphases on apostleship often do so in venomous, slanderous ways, usually smearing all charismatic believers into the mix with leaders and teachings that the whole lump of Pentecostal/Charismatic churches wouldn’t be in harmony with.

It is a task quite daunting to wrap your mind around this, and in some ways it is impossible to know the whole and unprofitable to spend too much time on it. There are so many variations and streams that fall in this category that we must be careful not to caricature or misrepresent true brothers and sisters in our pilgrimage for truth. This is crucial, for there are many faithful Pentecostal/Charismatic men and women of God all over the world, many of whom have suffered greatly for the faith, and have led many sons to glory. It is an error to lump the Pentecostal/Charismatic church in with the false apostleship we’re speaking of, even though most of those who claim apostleship are found within P/C churches and movements, generally speaking. There are likely a great host of servants in the nations who are continuationists, most of whom will never be known on the popular level, whose ministries are very much in keeping with true apostleship in terms of their character, their suffering, their doctrine, and their fruit. This must be acknowledged as we think about the aberrations.

That said, let me note just a few of the erroneous assumptions that have been espoused, especially over the last 20 years or so under the auspices of C. Peter Wagner and his colleagues. I name him here not to demean him, but to say that since his books and teachings were quite public and influential, the errors which sprung from them need to be addressed rather than ignored. It is an unfortunate thing that many Charismatic leaders have been unwilling to address these things, but I am convinced that many false claims to apostleship have been made as a result of these teachings, and the subject is too precious in Scripture for us to permit these distortions.

I. The Idea of Apostles as CEO’s or Regional Overseers

Within the N.A.R., apostles came to be defined as men (and women) with remarkable organizational gifting, often smacking of a Bill Gates type of leader- one with outstanding abilities to influence and build large ministries. It was even claimed from time to time that men like Steve Jobs had an apostolic calling, but failed to fulfill it because they did not follow the Lord. This is an unbiblical idea. Our giftings in the Church are Spiritual- and unregenerate men cannot have them.

Certain leaders were branded “apostolic overseers” of a whole cluster of churches or ministries, especially as they were gifted to execute things administratively. Portions of Paul’s epistles were cherry-picked to affirm this, often devoid of their real meaning and context, and these men were seen as problem-solvers, movers and shakers, and this came to define apostleship within the movement. The NT idea of a gospel-grounded, relationally-oriented, sacrificial servant-apostle was scarcely emphasized, and an unbiblical model emerged. I am sure that there were exceptions to this within the movement, but by and large this seemed to be the flavor of things.

One would be hard-pressed to assume that Paul the apostle, the prototypical “sent one” to the Gentiles, was anywhere nearly as impressive as these figures. 2 Cor. 10 bears this out in no uncertain terms. His strength was in the weakness of his features and skills, in many ways, God’s power being perfected and magnified through his weakness and his sufferings. The fragrance of worldly success is not the “fragrance of Christ,” which is marked by humility and holiness, godly sorrow and joy unspeakable.

II. The Idea of “Apostolic Alignment”

I find no pleasure in digging this one up, in fact it pains me, but I find it necessary to address. The stakes are too high to leave it ambiguous.

It became common within this movement to speak of “apostolic alignment”, the process by which Dr. Wagner and others of his company would “align” other ministries with themselves, appointing them as new apostles, prophets, or influencers of other kinds, through the laying on of hands. It is Biblical for men to be appointed to different roles of leadership by the Church through the laying on of hands, but within the N.A.R. this happened on rather unbiblical and unreal grounds.

One dramatic case of this was seen on the international stage when Todd Bentley of the “Lakeland Revival” was “apostolically aligned” in a ceremony in 2008. Dr. Wagner and many of his colleagues were present at this event and gave sanction to it. It would soon be exposed that Bentley was engaged in an immoral relationship, which itself disqualified him from being a leader in the Body of Christ, not to mention to more grandiose claims that were made in the ceremony about him being a prototype for all future evangelists and revivalists. Despite the claim of real apostolic activity in this “alignment”, there was evidently little to no real accountability or viable relationship involved in the process. There was no context by which his character and doctrine could be assessed. But Paul told Timothy not to lay hands on men too hastily, lest we “share in their sin.”

This display, on a wide public platform, could only be seen as destructive and false, and the usage of “apostolic” language only served to make it all the more tragic. This kind of “Apostolic alignment” is a “Saul before the David,” an Ishmael rather than an Isaac, and as much as the N.A.R. might have cried for it to live, it cannot live as something pleasing unto God. However much the language of “apostolic” is used, it is by its very nature the antitheses of New Testament Apostolicity, which is characterized by a radical jealousy for the Name of God, a deep-seated submission to the Scriptures, a profound love for the Body of Christ, and a fatherly/brotherly kind relatedness to all who are appointed to various roles of leadership within the Church.

Too much goes on without being “in the light” in these kinds of ceremonies. It might be said that it’s more akin to Bill Gates appointing a new regional director at Microsoft than it is to the healthy appointing of a leader in the church. In fact, it may be even less accountable and honest in certain ways. This should not lead us to demonize others, but rather to tremble at the manner in which we are relating to one another, and the way in which we are appointing leaders.

The aftermath of the Lakeland incident was tragic and multi-layered, but it is not uncommon (though often much less public) in such circles.

These examples ought to be enough to compel us to look for light from the Scriptures. Wagner was, after all, correct in concluding that there ought to be (and are) apostles in the Church and in missions today. In fact, he was right about many things. But the errors which came out of this movement are more grave than we can perceive, and a humble and prayerful return to Scripture is our only hope of recovery.

For the last section of this article, I would like to focus on the Meaning, Purpose, and Indispensability of Apostleship.

The Meaning of Apostleship

If we would rightly grasp the meaning apostleship according to the Scriptures, I suggest that our understanding of it must be both de-mystified and sanctified.

Apostleship De-mystified

This speaks primarily to the cessationist view of apostleship, and its ripple-effects throughout church history.

The apostles of the NT were not super-heroes, nor were they elite saints whose role it was to write the Holy Bible. As noted above, some of them did write some of Scripture, but this was not their role as a whole. We need to be freed from Romish influences which Popify Peter and posterize Paul. These issue from a low view of the Gospel.

These men are our brothers. They were redeemed sinners who were still being sanctified throughout the time that the Book of Acts events transpired on beyond that. The Lord laid His hand upon them, shaped and sent them, but they remained men— trophies of grace, not icons to memorialize. Peter and John as well as Paul and Barnabus charged their would-be worshippers not to exalt them, “for we are only men like you.” Of course, the original twelve had a unique kind of apostleship (Mt. 19 bears this out), and the authority to write Scripture does not continue today. Any claim to apostleship that includes new Scripture being written is patently false. But even among false apostles today, the claim to this authority is few and far between.

We would not claim to worship the apostles, but we have mystified their lives, as if they were saints of a higher class. In fact, they were not. They may have been more Christ-like than us, but the possibilities of grace were not confined to them. The same Gospel which saved them has saved us, and the same Spirit which sanctified them is yet sanctifying us. This is one of the main points of NT apostolic teaching. The apostles meant for us to follow in their train, not to exalt them as ends in themselves. We are to look upon them, and seeing through them, to behold the One who means to conform the whole of the Church to His image.

The Canon of Scripture is superior in perfection and authority to all else that is taught in Church history, but again, it’s authorship is not exclusive to the role of apostleship. The Biblical Gospel is the authoritative Gospel, whether it came through Paul the apostle or Isaiah the prophet, or Luke the Physician.

The apostles of Scripture were not to be seen as the source, but rather to be seen as those who were ever pointing to the Source, serving as an example to the saints in character and doctrine, and a specific example in role to apostolic servants/missionaries in every generation. We must de-mystify them in this sense. We cannot “follow Paul as he follows Christ” if we think that he was built of better dust than we.

No, Paul’s dust was the same as ours and his Christ is the same Christ as ours, so long as we are submitted to the Scriptures and drinking of the same Spirit. The “chief of sinners” was a precious servant of Christ, shaped by the grace of God, and held forth as a pattern for us, not as an ivory-tower monument, untouchable and unreachable. Let us not belittle the grace of God by mystifying who the apostles were.

Apostleship Sanctified

This speaks more to those who would claim that apostles are for today, but whose view of apostleship is not in keeping with the picture laid forth in the Scriptures. Of course, this applies to the cessationist view as well, as all of our false assumptions regarding apostleship need to be purged and brought back to the foundational ground of Scripture.

I address here the more charismatic views because I believe that the word “apostle” has been cheapened and made too common by their claims. While I’m eager not to explain apostleship as something that has ceased, or something that is so elevated that we could never think of its recovery in our day, I’m equally leery of the cheapening effect that false claims to apostleship have had on the church and its mission.

If one of the roles of true apostles is to appoint elders/pastors who qualify to serve in accordance with 1 Tim. 3, Titus 1, 1 Pet. 5 and Acts 20, then it goes without saying that apostles themselves should bear the same kind of character, doctrine, and spiritual wisdom which is required of elders/pastors on a local level. Elders/pastors are not merely men of elite intellect and morality, as if they’re qualities issue from themselves, but they are humble and godly men who have been shaped over time by the faithful hands of the Potter. Apostles must be the same. Thus Paul exclaimed, “You saw what manner of man I was in your midst.” “I am what I am by the grace of God.”

We must return to understanding apostleship in accordance with the example we see in the New Testament. Therefore, unless we are basically gripped with and grounded by a Biblical vision of apostleship (and we all “see in part” on this), our view must be “made holy” or sanctified, that we might rightly pray for and equip sent ones with the help of the Scriptures and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Purpose of Apostleship

Why did the Lord ascend on high and give the gift of apostles along with the other gifts mentioned in Ephesians 4.11? Let us look to the text itself for the answer:

“…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” || Eph. 4.12-16

Simply put, along with prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, apostles were given by Christ to equip the saints for the work of service, and to build up the Body of Jesus in the nations.

They are sent to proclaim the Gospel where it has been named and where it has not been named (Acts 2, Rom. 15), to make disciples (Mt. 28), to impart spiritual gifts (Rom. 1, 2 Tim. 1), to plant and nurture churches (Acts 20, 2 Cor. 11.28), to appoint elders (Acts 14.23), and to do this in an ongoing manner until the fullness of Christ characterizes the Church and every people group has been penetrated with the light of the Gospel (Mt. 24.14).

Apostleship is synonymous with true missionary work. Missions work that is devoid of the character, doctrine, and ways of NT apostleship is by definition non-missional. Claims to apostleship that are not in keeping with the missionary labors of the NT apostles are by definition sub-apostolic.

Apostles and Missionaries, from a biblical vantage point, are one and the same (a study of the Greek and Latin from which we derive “apostle” and “missionary” reveals this). Many have claimed apostleship cheaply, and others have claimed to be missionaries with little or no apostolic character. We cannot settle for this, saints. We must de-mystify and sanctify the meaning of apostleship/missions with the help of the Scriptures.

I could say much more along these lines, and I aim to do just that in my forthcoming book “Grace and Apostleship: Gleanings from Paul’s Missionary Vision”. But this will have to suffice for now.

The Indispensability of Apostleship

In light of these things it should be seen that apostleship is indispensable to the fulfillment of the Great Commission, which is the establishing and building up of local churches amongst every tribe and tongue.

Rather than spelling this out in great detail here as I aim to in my book, let me point you to the Scriptures for understanding and inspiration about the character of apostleship and its indispensability for the hallowing of God’s Name in the earth, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

We cannot be the church nor fulfill our mission without true apostles. Let us look to the “Apostle and High Priest of our confession”, the One who shed His blood to purchase men from every tribe. Let us “therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” 

Is apostolic ministry indispensable? Is it needed today?

“If we’re thinking of an ‘apostle’ in Biblical terms, that is, a ‘sent out one’, with a ministry that’s really establishing God’s work where God’s work is either absent or extremely weak (which is really what the apostles were doing in a general sense) then yes, we do need God to raise up such signal servants, who will draw the attention of both the churched and the unchurched people to the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ, sometimes at great sacrifice to themselves. Because they are so taken up with Christ… Christ is being preached. In that sense we need to pray, in our different towns, cities, countries… that God will raise up such clear voices— individuals whose ministry will be trail-blazing for others.” || Conrad Mbewe, Pretoria, South Africa, October 14th, 2010

Let us return to the Scriptures. Let us return to prayer. The Gospel is too precious a message, the destiny of men too ponderous, and the Name of Christ too holy for us to “sit at ease in Zion.”

The Only Foundation of True Ministry

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The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!’ And he said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. || Luke 10.17-20

In this remarkable passage we have one of the most Gospel-centric statements in the whole of the Gospels. It speaks to the bedrock issue of our identity in the Atonement. It behooves us to pay it mind, and to think about its implications in our day-to-day lives, and in the ministry to which we give ourselves.

The Lord of the harvest had sent out 72 of His disciples at the beginning of the chapter. He articulated the greatness of the need in Gospel missions, the ripeness of the harvest fields, and He bemoaned the fewness of the laborers, leaving us with the charge to pray for the raising up and sending forth of workers. Then He sent these disciples to proclaim the Gospel and to drive out demons in the towns to which they would go.

The 72 “returned with joy,” declaring that demons were subdued and driven out in the Name of Jesus. There was legitimate joy in their hearts, the joy of being vessels in the carrying out of the works of God’s Kingdom. Yet, the Lord of the harvest gives them a startling response, one which ought to be central to our consciousness as those laboring in Gospel mission, but one which, like these 72, is often lacking in the consciousness of who we are as His servants.

According to Jesus, they were not to rejoice mainly in the works that were wrought through them, but rather to rejoice in the glory of their adoption as sons— as those whose names had been written by God in heaven.

Robert Stein, in his commentary on Luke, speaks to the meaning of the Lord’s exhortation:

This picks up the “joy” of Luke 10:17 and points out that their true joy should arise not from missionary accomplishments but from their eternal salvation.
….

That your names are written in heaven. This metaphor for eternal salvation is found in the OT, the intertestamental literature, and the NT. “Are written” is a divine passive meaning God has written your names in heaven.

[Stein, R. H. (1992). Luke (Vol. 24, p. 310). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.]

I want to say that it is indeed “upon this rock” that the Lord means to “build His church,” and only upon this rock-solid foundation will the “gates of Hades” be incapable of “prevailing” against Her.

It should be obvious to the child of God that this present world system, with all its sinful allurements, should no longer be accepted as part of our identity. We are to “reckon” ourselves “dead to sin, and alive in Christ,” and no clearly-thinking Christian would claim that a life given over to sin befits the life of discipleship. We will be battling our own sin until the Day of the Lord comes, but we are battling it because it doesn’t define us any longer. We are disciples, learning to crucify the world in our hearts, and to walk in the way of the Master. This should be clear to us.

Less clear, often, is the fact that we ought to be battling against our tendency to interweave the good things (even things so good as driving out demons in Jesus’ Name, or being engaged in various forms of ministry) with our identity at the root-level. Bearing fruit in ministry is a great cause for rejoicing, but if it is the primary ground of rejoicing, something has been twisted in our understanding of the faith.

Jesus said not to give primacy to the works that are being wrought through us, but rather to rejoice at the deepest level in eternal salvation; that is to say, that we have become sons and daughters of God through the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Here is a simple way to think about it, one which is so simple that I’ve taught it to my children.

Our identity in the Gospel has vertical and horizontal implications.

Vertically, as we look unto Christ, our root-identity has become that of “sons” and “daughters” of God. Horizontally, our root-identity has become that of “brothers” and “sisters” in the family that we’ve been adopted into.

The Scriptures are so thickly threaded with this truth that I haven’t the time to recite all the verses that speak to us along these lines.

Suffice it to say, whatever I may be engaged in with regard to ministry, even God-given ministries that are biblical and line up with my own unique giftings, they will all become distortions if I am not living as a son in the vertical sense, and as a brother in the horizontal sense.

This puts the Gospel-premium on my relationship to the Father through Christ, and my relationship to the church through Christ.

Therefore, the evidence of my failure to “rejoice” that my name is “written in heaven” will show itself by prayerlessness, neglect of Bible-reading, a disregard for the many commands of Scripture pertaining to life and godliness, and the neglect of healthy relationship within a local Church. I cannot be truly rejoicing in the Gospel if these things are neglected, for they are evidence of the fact that I am no longer seeing myself as a son who walks circumspectly before the Father, and a brother who walks closely with the family of God. Without this reality, there is no stamp of God’s blessing upon my ministry, as a missionary, a pastor, a theologian, or any other role.

I cease to see God as my Source through the Gospel when I neglect communion with Him, and fellowship with His people. I begin to see my “calling” as a preacher, a writer, a church-planter, a worship-leader, a missionary, ministry director, or whatever it may be, as being superior to my grace-given calling as a son before God, and a brother to the saints.

Being a Gospel-grounded son infuses me with the grace of Christ, and being a brother in the context of the life of church keeps me footed on the self-same foundation, and guards me from deception. Yes, even from deceptive ways of doing all sorts of ministry.

Variegated kinds of destructive things have occurred in the name of ministry where these foundations are lacking. That’s because the Lord of the harvest never called his people to do things in the “name of ministry,” but rather in the “Name of Christ,” on the foundational truth that our names have been written in Heaven on the basis of the Atonement. Moral collapses, doctrinal deviations, and misrepresentations of church and mission have issued from the want of this reality.

We are simply not living as disciples of Jesus when our ministries take the preeminent place in our souls.

When there is a fracture in the vertical life-line of sonship, we can literally do nothing aright, for “apart from Me you can do nothing.”

When there is a fracture in the horizontal life-line of brotherhood, even the noblest of ministries become a distortion, for the Lord means to “build” His “church”, not merely to perform a litany of detached and multi-faceted works, however much we might seek to establish them in His Name. Nothing can be established in the Name of the Head in the neglect of His Body. Perhaps the most deceptive form of this neglect of the church is when we bear every kind of ecclesiological language (the priesthood of all believers, biblical eldership, Gospel-centric fellowship), but lack the corresponding reality which belongs to those precious truths. We may, even as the Pharisees of old, have an intensive focus on the truths of Scripture, while being devoid of the grace and life from which those truths ought to find their issuance. We may honor the Head with our lips while our hearts are far from Him, and this is something which we need to be on most diligent guard against.

The Head cannot be detached from the Body. If our works are not building His church, neither are they truly exalting the Head. If we are not experiencing life as members in His Body, neither are we experiencing life as it issues from the Head. When the vertical and horizontal fruits of our belonging to Christ are lacking or being circumvented, we are swimming in sub-apostolic  waters, and sharks abound therein.

So what can be said of your works, saints? Are you rejoicing that demons are subject to you; that your sermon was hailed as great; that the missions work is expanding and doing much good; that your writings are being heralded as ground-breaking; that your theology is ship-shape and confirmed as orthodox by men you esteem; the list goes on. Many of these things, if not all, could either be an expression of God truly bearing fruit in your life, or an expression of that you have become one who is operating in deception.

The question is, are you vitally related to God through your adoption as a son, and are you vitally related to the local church for the ongoing growth of a true rejoicing in the eternal salvation that has come to you in Christ?

Are you living, thinking, praying and laboring as a purchased son? Do the Christians around you truly know you as a brother— in accountability, vulnerability, and godly responsibility in their midst? Or are you more known by your particular gifting or position in the world or in ministry? If the latter, you are standing upon a faulty foundation, however fruitful your ministry may appear to be, with all of its calculated external characteristics. A ministry of that kind may be alive by way of reputation, but God will only reward finally what has been wrought by His Spirit and carried out in accordance with His Word. Jesus would have none of this for the 72, and He will have none of it for us. His love for us is too great and too true to permit it.

No wonder that the most fruitful of apostles in Church history “determined to know nothing among” the saints “except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” He wanted their identity to be founded upon and issuing from the only faithful and immutable foundation. He was eager to preach the Gospel to the sinners and saints, for only in the Atonement can the saints receive and enjoy the familial identity of sons and daughters before God, and brothers and sisters in His family.

Look at your life and ministry in light of the exhortation that Jesus gave the 72. Find and tear out the threads of inferior rejoicing that you’ve permitted to define your identity and drive your decisions and ambitions. Let the cross of Christ bring you to the place Paul boasted in, that cross “by which the world has been crucified to me, and I have been crucified to the world.”

Your joy will be fuller and fuller as you grow in an identity of sonship, and share intimately as brothers and sisters in the grace and truth of the Gospel with “the church, which is His Body.” On this foundation He means to build His church in the nations, and by His zeal He will accomplish this. May we be found in the company of souls who know the preciousness of this truth, carrying out His work upon the only true foundation of life and ministry.

But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His Name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. || John 1.12-13

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Let love of the brethren continue. || Heb. 13.1

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Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God.

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For,

“All people are like grass,

and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;

the grass withers and the flowers fall,

but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

And this is the word that was preached to you. || 1 Pet. 1.17-25

Humble Teachableness Beneath the Canopy of Holy Fear

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Teach me Your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in Your truth;
    unite my heart to fear Your Name. || Ps. 86.11

Humble teachableness befits the true child of God. The children of the world cannot know it, indeed they wish not to know it, for a true knowledge of God’s ways requires the upending “me-firstism”, a total transition and reconfiguration of the man-centered life, until it is suffused with Divine grace and wisdom. “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

The people of the world do not care for enlightenment; they feel no pressing need for it; in all probability they have an instinctive feeling that if enlightened they would know a little more than they wish to know, that their newly acquired knowledge would interfere with their old habits and ways, and this is one reason why all spiritual teaching which goes beneath the surface is distasteful to the majority of men. They cannot bear to be brought into contact with God, in anything but a general way; the particulars of his character may not agree over well with the particulars of their lives! It is the fashion in the present day to talk of man’s enlightenment, and to represent human nature as upheaving under its load, as straining towards a knowledge of truth; such is not in reality the case, and whenever there is an effort in the mind untaught of the Spirit, it is directed towards God as the great moral and not as the great spiritual Being. A man untaught of the Holy Ghost may long to know a moral, he can never desire to know a spiritual Being. || John Hyatt, 1767-1826

To be teachable before God means to make ourselves willing for death; the suffocation of our pipe-dreams and strong-headed aspirations. It does mean a transformation of our moral choices, but the moral change is not the center of the exchange. The center of our becoming teachable is God Himself. It means a radical exchange of our glory for His. Our morals change not because of human preference or opinions, but because we “see the Lord, high and lifted up,” and as Hyatt declared, we are “brought into contact with God,” desiring to “know a spiritual Being.” This brings about not merely a tweaking or improving of our morals, but an exchange of all that we deem moral with the very morality or holiness of God.

“Teach me to know Your way.” The way matters because the “Your” precedes it. The majestic King is the One source and aim of sincere, humble teachableness. He is at once the Source:

Christ is our Way, Truth, and Life, because he is Man united to God, and is one substance with the Father. || Christopher Wordsworth.

There is no learning of His way or walking in His truth apart from the Gospel. Jesus justifies us in the immediate and sanctifies us over time. He “is Man united to God.”

The Psalmist did not merely want to agree theoretically with the truth of God, he wanted to “walk” in it, and this is crucial. His desire was that the very ways of God would permeate his very perspectives and actions. This was true orthodoxy wedded to orthopraxy, faith with works, worship with obedience, a heart “united to fear His Name” in all of life.

Do you possess this kind of humble teachableness, child of God? It is a most precious thing to live in this state of child-like circumspection before God. The same light that pierces and kills the pride of our own way is the light which warms our souls and brightens our vision of the narrow path of discipleship. It must be a daily cry for the pilgrim en route to eternal glories. The world, the flesh and the devil would have us to stand erectly in the deception of self-sufficiency and know-it-allness. The Spirit of truth leads us to humble teachableness, moment by moment, bowing again and again before the authority of His Word, panting and believing for the help of His power and grace.

Our aim then is not to walk in our own way, nor even merely to agree with His way as a category, but to “walk.” To “live, move, and have our being in Him.” 

A life lived outside of this kind of experience, despite even accurate credal affirmations, will be “distasteful to the majority of men,” for by nature we do not yearn for this kind of humble teachableness. We want to do it our way, as Frank Sinatra has so eloquently and devastatingly sung. But to cling to our way, even if we have a “reputation of being alive,” is to go from death to death, to be “double-minded and unstable in all our ways,” and the “end thereof is the way of destruction.” The Scriptures must be our guide along the way, and this applies not only to moral actions, but even to the manner of our ministry in the local church and in missions. Those who lack this kind of humble teachableness can only build works that will at the final Day be left in ashes.

Better to humble ourselves before the wise and gracious Judge, and to sink our souls into the prayer of the Psalmist. “Teach me Your way… that I may walk… Unite my heart to fear Your Name.”

Our hearts must be freed from the double-mindedness of seeking the variegated paths of the worldly. To live under the influence of the spirit of the age means to have a thousand paths before us, all of them wide and quite accessible, but leading ever and always to confusion, uncertainty, and godlessness. In fact, they lead to ill conditions precisely because they are godless, for the One True God is the ground of “righteousness, peace, and joy.” The one path of truth leads to holiness and assurance, and it cannot be traversed without the grace which teaches our hearts to fear God— “amazing grace”, as Newton put it.

Forsake your strong-headedness, your hardness of heart, your insistence to walk in your own way. By faith now look unto Christ, and pray that He would tie your heart in the firmly cinched knot of humble teachableness— that He would unite your heart to fear Him, to learn of His ways, and thereby to “walk in newness of life.”

In knots, to be loosed never,
Knit my heart to Thee forever,
That I to Thy Name may bear
Fearful love and loving fear.
—Francis Davison.

The Apostle’s Interior Life

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“Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…” -Rom. 1.1

We are inclined to read right over the richness of language that Paul uses in the introductions to his epistles. Modern man is unfortunately accustomed to casual greetings; formalities required to structure a letter rightly- verbiage given to make way for fleeting conversations. But Paul did nothing casually. Every thought and prayer was calculated through the wisdom of the cross and centered upon the eternal purpose of God. He was led by the Spirit for the penning out of the choicest statements, “like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Not a syllable was haphazardly given. Every thought was articulated with great care, “seasoned by grace.”

It is to our detriment that we glide indifferently over the surface of any Biblical text, rather than pausing before it with reverent expectation. The Word is “living and active,” and we need to wait upon it prayerfully, lest we miss out on the sustenance it provides.

In this opening verse of Romans Paul is giving to the saints a description of his position and office. It is not something to be relegated to either “title” or “function.” This is cosmic language. He is coming out of the gate as only apostles can, giving description of his consciousness as a “sent one.”

Paul had been fastened to a “heavenly vision”; bound to a living message; chained to the Lion of Judah, and he had no desire to be freed from that glorious imprisonment. This is precisely the reason why apostolic servants are foundational to the faith of the Church. They have been formed at the hand of the Potter and thrust into the nations as ambassadors of His own character and wisdom. But we need to be cognizant of the fact that the apostolic call was not given to make Paul into an aloof figure in an ivory tower. His foundational role was meant to bring all who are “saints by calling” into the same kind of communion and inward abandonment that was his own portion.

“‘Slave of Christ Jesus’ is patterned on the familiar OT phrase ‘slave,’ or ‘servant,’ of Yahweh. The phrase connotes total devotion, suggesting that the servant is completely at the disposal of his or her Lord.” -Douglas Moo (NICOT, Eerdmans)

Seeing through an apostolic lens, Paul envisaged himself as being in chains for the Gospel (Eph. 6.20), for the “hope of Israel” (Acts 28.20), for Jesus Christ Himself (2 Tim. 2.8-9).

To be so “enslaved” was to be “free indeed,” and this produced in Paul a life of communion and intercession which fitted him to serve as one “set apart for the gospel of God.” If we would cling to a lesser kind of abandonment, we may find ourselves engaged in a plethora of ministerial activities, but we will not share in the glory that belongs to the bond-servants of Jesus Christ. We may be taken up with many labors, but we will not enjoy the light of the apostolic faith. There is a “ministry of the interior” that binds us to the altar of God, welds our hearts to a radical jealousy for His glory, and conjoins our souls with His own. We are not bond-servants merely because we suffer externally. We are bond-servants in the Pauline sense when our interior life is like unto Jesus’ own experience as the pattern Son. “I only do what I see My Father doing…”

Secret communion becomes for us a “joy unspeakable,” and intercessory engagement becomes our most cherished labor when we are inwardly abandoned to Jesus Christ. Paul was intimately acquainted with this reality, and if a display of the “manifold wisdom of God” would come through the Church in these last days, so also must we be.

“Am I fulfilling this ministry of the interior? There is no snare, or any danger of infatuation or pride in intercession, it is a hidden ministry that brings forth fruit whereby the Father is glorified. Am I allowing my spiritual life to be frittered away, or am I bringing it all to one centre- the Atonement of my Lord? Is Jesus Christ more and more dominating every interest in my life? If the one central point, the great exerting influence in my life, is the Atonement of the Lord, then every phase of my life will bear fruit for Him.

….What is the greatest factor of power in my life? Is it work, service, sacrifice for others, or trying to work for God? The thing that ought to exert the greatest power in my life is the Atonement of the Lord….Am I abiding? Am I taking time to abide?” -Oswald Chambers (My Utmost for His Highest, June 7th)

We are not to gauge our spirituality through endless cycles of human assessment. The examination of our faith which Paul encourages has only to do with discerning whether or not we are “living, moving, and having our being” on the ground of the Atonement. That is to ask, “What is the character of my interior life?” Am I abiding in His life? Am I weighed down with the cares of this world, or am I living inwardly as a “bond-servant” of Jesus Christ? Am I itching to find approval from men, or is the Lord Himself the one “before Whom I stand”? Am I frivolous and distracted by the synthetic lights of this age, or am I walking tenderly as one pierced by the life which is “the Light of men”?

Until my earthbound perspectives are leveled by the Cross, I cannot live as His bond-servant. But if I abide in the One Who bears the scars of that great Atoning work, I share in the very life of the age which is to come. If I am “crucified with Christ,” it is His own resurrection life that works “in me.” Am I conscious of that reality, or is my interior life congested and blurred by the “form of this world”? We need to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”

The nations do not need a greater volume of sentimental religionists. The world is not perishing for want of novel methodologies. A million warm bodies with missiological opinions may fail entirely to set forth a true witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But a company of weak souls, gripped with a vision of the worth of Christ, living cruciformly, abiding in His Life- these will be His bond-servants, “set apart for the Gospel of God.” They shall fulfill “the ministry of the interior,” and by His “great grace,” a witness will be given, “even to the remotest part of the earth.”

“…God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son…” (v. 9)

Setting aside my public persona and what others might think of me religiously speaking, what is the true character and content of my interior life? Is it a messy, narcissistic conglomeration, or a clear, well-grounded abiding in the Life of the Lamb that was slain? By the grace of God, Paul’s interior life was the latter, and such is the Lord’s desire for the whole of His house.

Wisely Entering the Sanctuary of God

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When I thought how to understand this,
    it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God… || Psalm 73.16-17a

In Psalm 73 the psalmist recounts how he had broken his brain over an inward conflict regarding the reason things seem to go so smoothly for others (in this case the wealthy), while his life seems to be marked by trial and heartache.

Whenever we get entangled in the cycle of examining things we cannot understand, our souls are subjected to all kinds of confusion and grief. This is especially true when we fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. It is a “wearisome task,” most often centered around things we cannot rectify on the basis of our own wisdom or within the sphere of our own authority to change them.

This “wearisome” cycle will continue for us, as it did for the psalmist, “until” we enter “the sanctuary of God.” That is to say, clarity and wisdom can only be found when we learn to turn to the Lord, and to find our refuge in the shadow of His providence and grace, the place where He dwells.

For the New Covenant child of God, this “sanctuary” is most often found to be in one of two places.

  1. The secret place-

    This is the place where we go to meet with Him— to give ourselves to prayer, worship, and a humble, hungry and hopeful reading of the Scriptures. If we neglect this place, we can be sure that “wearisome” musings will be our portion, for in that neglect we rob ourselves of the reward which the Father gives only in this place- the reward of knowing Him, hearing Him, seeing Him, and obtaining the grace to treasure and obey Him.

2. The place of fellowship with the saints-

This is the place wherein we meet Him in the faces of our brothers and sisters. Here we “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and are subsequently helped to think better about our plight— not in the “wearisome” cycle of self-absorbed reflection, but in the grace of fellowship, by which we’re pointed God-ward through the felt presence our brothers and sisters— reminded of truth, encouraged in faith, provoked to love and good deeds. Neglecting this place leaves us to ourselves, robs us of the warmth of familial reality and identity, and leaves us thinking myopically, as if the world revolves around us and all its maladies are to be experienced alone. The psalmist knew something of this congregational grace in the ancient tabernacle where he gathered with his brethren, and we may know it all the sweeter in New Covenant fellowship.

Both of these places— the secret place and life within the Gospel-congregation— lift us out of the wearisome morass of the self-life. Both of these places constitute for us “the sanctuary of God.”

In the the sanctuary of God we find true guidance and rest, even while the world— even much of the professing Christian world— goes on running amuck around us.

….You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will receive me to glory. || v. 24

In the secret place, and in real fellowship with the people of God, we find “counsel” and Gospel-hope. We are grounded upon the truth that He is with us in the present trial, that He is conforming us to the image of the Son, and that He will finish that good work when, at the end of the age, He receives us “to glory.” The secret-place-sanctuary, coupled with the congregational-sanctuary, is meant to lead us to the place wherein we cherish, love, and worship God supremely. Here we find solid ground beneath our feet again, when Christ is perceived afresh as our foundation for walking, and our fountain for drinking.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. || vv. 25-26

Having experienced the “until,” that point where we transition from our own soulish wanderings to the place of faith through prayer, the Scriptures, and Christian fellowship, the Lord Himself becomes our “portion.” Not possessions, not release from trial, not food, not hobbies, not entertainment, not even some idealized role in ministry. God Himself is seen again as “the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” 

…for me it is good to be near God;
    I have made the Lord God my refuge,
    that I may tell of all your works. || v. 28

Being made aware of His nearness again, we venture out into the harvest fields as those who have God Himself as our refuge, and we are equipped to go out to those who are perishing, bringing the “goodness”, trustworthiness, and truth of God to men. It is upon this foundation alone that we are equipped to “do the work of an evangelist”; to “tell of all” His “works.” 

You who would be freed from the suffocating cycle of self-consciousness and bewilderment; you who would be grounded upon the Rock of your salvation; you who would see your plight as God sees it, rather than as the world sees it; you who would be near to God and have Him as your portion; you who would bear witness to the Person and work of Jesus Christ, enter “the sanctuary of God.” Meet with Him in the secret place, and meet Him in and alongside His people. There is no other way.

“Here is wisdom.”

Gospel-Grounded Encouragement in the Church

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“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up….” || 1 Thess. 5.9-11

There is a remarkable “Therefore” in this text. It communicates to us the truth that all true fellowship within the context of the Church must be grounded upon “Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” that is, it must be based upon Gospel faith and hope. There is no other foundation for church or ministry, and in truth, one which seeks to build on any other foundation will be building in vain. However much he might be able to accomplish noble things of one kind or another, he will not be building the church nor carrying out the Great Commission. Let us look into this.

That “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us” is the great hallmark of the Church’s foundation. This is the Gospel, that we who were “dead” in sin have been justified by the Atoning work of the Mediator, through His death, burial, and resurrection. The wrath which is already upon the world, the wrath which is coming, that wrath which we ourselves deserved— it has all been lifted from us, and placed upon the shoulders of the Lamb of God, “who loved us.”

Therefore, our justification, sanctification, and glorification have been purchased by Him, for the glory of the Father and the good of those whom He has chosen. This establishes the promised reality, that we have been destined in Christ to “obtain salvation.” This is the glorious word of the Gospel. In Christ we have been saved from the wrath to come, saved from the stranglehold of Satan, saved from our iniquity and the deadness it constitutes. In Christ also we are being saved from ourselves and from the affects of the Fall, as He does the good work of conforming us to the image of His Son. And one day, we shall be saved utterly from the very presence of sin, from the Adamic residue which remains in us so long as we abide in these perishing tents of flesh.

Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another…”

We are “members” of that justified, yet being sanctified, and yet to be glorified family. See one another in that way, the apostle would say, and encourage one another because of it.

The capstone to the Gospel promise is that “whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him.” That is to say, whether we are alive in this age, “absent from the Body” and “present with the Lord,” or enjoying the fulfillment of the promise in new bodies at the end of the age, we now “live with Him” because of the fact that He has not destined us for wrath, but rather for salvation.

The goal of justification is not merely that we should be clean in His sight, and have the God-established right to stand before Him in His Son, though that alone is glorious beyond description and compare. The goal is that we “might live with Him,” which is to say, that we might “know Him in the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings,” and one day, “look full in His wonderful face” with “everlasting joy upon our heads.”

Put another way, the goal in Christ of our not being “destined for wrath” is that we would become the servants, friends, and children of God. We may live with the One who is faithful and true. We may have real knowledge of Him, real communion with Him, and real life with Him, from the moment of our new birth, all the way into eternity future. This is an ineffably wonderful truth, and it ought to change the way that we see and treat one another.

Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up…”

In light of this Gospel and all of its glorious implications, upon the one true foundation of Jesus Himself, the apostle charges us to engage in a vital kind of life together, by which we are literally and existentially to be encouraged and built up in Him. It is no mere hobby, no conveniently compartmentalized religion. It is a reality to be experienced and enjoyed increasingly, “all the more as we see the Day approaching.”

This means that the saints in our local assembly cannot grow up into Christ without us, and we cannot grow up into Christ without them. We need the life, wisdom, accountability, encouragement, and familial consistency which can only be provided in the life of the local church, when all the parts supply what they ought to supply.

Think not that you are dispensable- that the Church doesn’t need you. Think not that other saints are dispensable- that you don’t need them. Rather, “encourage one another and build one another up…” 

Simply put, our faith must be encouraged and built up by the saints with whom we’re in fellowship, and their faith must be encouraged and built up by us. Is your life resting firmly upon the one foundation of the Gospel? If so, how are you being encouraged along by your brothers and sisters? And to what degree are you encouraging and building them up yourself? This is at the heart of what it means to be the “church, which is His Body.”

Think upon these things, and pray for the grace and wisdom to obey the Scriptures by responding accordingly. This may require a fresh return to the ancient foundation of the faith, and it is likely to restructure your schedule, your priorities, and your affections. And it will be worth it in every regard.

“A tree which stands by itself, is most exposed and liable to the strongest blasts.” || George Whitefield

On the other hand:

Everyone then who hears these words of Mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. || Matthew 7.24-25

Widen Your Hearts Also

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We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open.  You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections.  In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also. || 2 Cor. 6.11-13

In Paul’s pleading with the Corinthian saints in this passage, we are supplied with a glimpse into the very heart of Jesus Christ for the Church with regard to Gospel-grounded fellowship. He pleads with them as a father would to stiff-arming children, yet the gravity of the wall which separated them from him is of even greater seriousness than the earthly example.

As true apostles, not as professional ministers, Paul and his co-laborers could describe their relationship to the Corinthian saints with these remarkable terms: “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open.” 

This is no glib description, no cheap or meaningless display of argumentation or self-defense. Paul had spoken “freely” to these saints over the course of his initial 1.5 year stay in their midst, and yet further on his subsequent visits. That is to say, his life was an open-book before them. He was not putting on airs, seeking to please men, nor preaching himself. He was a man who knew what it meant to “speak the truth in love,” to preach Christ with boldness and clarity, to confess his own faults, and to walk in the light with the brethren. He could speak so freely because he was “free indeed,” and thus he had written to them, “By the grace of God I am what I am….” 

When a man is not grounded upon the foundation of “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified,” when the Gospel is not at the heart of his view of himself, when he finds identity in his ministry (“that demons are subject to you in My Name”) rather than in the sonship which issues from the Atonement (“that your names are written in heaven”), he cannot know this kind of “free speaking.” All his speaking, even in a Christian setting, will be fatally mingled with selfish-ambition, self-exaltation, self-consciousness; he will be aiming, in one way or another, to “save his life,” rather than being free to “lose his life” for Jesus’s sake, and for the “sake of the elect.” A man in that condition may be a child of God, but he should not be appointed a pastor, nor a pioneer missionary.

He will invariably draw men after himself. His speech will be laced with leaven, whether it be the fear of man type of leaven, or the superiority-complex kind, which looks condescendingly upon God’s people. Not so with Paul and his apostolic companions. They had been brought by God into an honest, sincere, selfless, no non-sense kind of speech which was infused by the Light of Jesus Christ. They were not aloof professionals. They spoke as fathers, and this is the kind of heart and speech which must be recovered in local churches and missionary endeavors in our day. They were not perfect men, they were men who knew what it meant to truly depend upon Christ. They were what they were by the grace of God. Thus they could say, “We have spoken freely to you….”

This kind of speech was possible because their hearts were “wide open” to the saints. They had nothing to prove, nothing to manipulate, nothing to prop up in hopes of maintaining the appearance of a reputation which didn’t match their true character. They had died to the ambition of establishing anything on the basis of human agenda. They saw themselves as servants who were called to “plant” and “water” in the fields of harvest, that God Himself might give the increase as it pleased His heart.

Paul was jealous to convey to the saints that he was not putting up any walls between his own heart and theirs. He had spoken freely with an open and vulnerable heart, and what they saw in him, if they were seeing rightly, was what he truly was in Christ. He was the genuine article, a man walking circumspectly before God, pouring out his life as a drink offering for the glory of the Lamb and upbuilding of His people. Therefore, his heart was wide open to the saints.

His grief in this passage is that the Corinthian saints were “restricted” from the same kind of liberty that he was enjoying and seeking to nurture in them. Their relationships one to another were strained, their view of Christ was warped, their doctrine was decaying, and this was evidenced by many maladies, not the least of which was their inability to see him by the Spirit. They were relating to him on the basis of flesh, and the blessing that they should be receiving from Christ through his apostolic labors was being hindered.

They were not restricted by him or his co-laborers, but rather in their “own affections.” A hardening had taken place in their view of the Body of Christ, a calcification of fellowship, and the warmth of simplicity and purity in relationship to one another had cooled. They were “restricted” in their affections for the apostle, and this meant that their love for Christ too was being suffocated.

Paul was not concerned about this restriction out of embarrassment for a potential failing ministry, but as a spiritual father for his children in the faith. His desire was for their liberty in Christ; that they should not be enchained by the wisdom of the world which restricts the fluidity of “wide open” fellowship with the Lord and with His people. He knew that if walls were being erected between the apostle and the saints, so were they being erected between the saints and their God.

So he pleaded with them as a father with his children, “widen your hearts also.” 

He was not a distant religionist, but a servant of Christ for their sakes, so he refused to make peace with the presence of a closed-hearted brand of fellowship. That kind of restricted fellowship was distinctly un-Christian, for it lacked the vibrancy and character which Gospel-light provides. It left the Corinthian saints to a jagged kind of relating to him and to one another, a worldly kind of relationship, one by which every man looks to his own preferences and wants, rather than to the glory of God and the eternal good of the brethren.

What shall we gather from this for our own lives and ministries? Can it be said that we know what it is to “speak freely” and to relate to one another with widened hearts? Are we growing in the grace of this kind of fellowship, or are we living as strangers, passing one another week by week, cordially “exchanging glances”, but incapable of speaking freely one with another? Are our fellowships and ministries marked mainly by cultural conversation, casual and cost-less commitment to one another, secret suspicions and jealousies, leaving us in a state of being by which we are leery of widening our hearts for fear of rejection?

Do we know what it means to “walk in the Light” with the brethren, or are we propping up doctored images of ourselves? As teams of elders or as pioneering leaders in a missionary work, are our hearts “wide open” to one another in the Gospel, such that we’re able to “speak freely” in the way of Paul and his companions? Or have we settled for something much more convenient that falls “short of the glory of God?”

What is the temperature and quality of our fellowship? Is it warm, full of light, “wide open” in Christ, or is it clinical and culturally tempered— more catered to self-preservation and driven by a man-pleasing spirit?

Just before the passage in view, Paul had declared to the Corinthians,

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.” || 2 Cor. 5.16a

But that is precisely what the Corinthians were doing, and the open-hearted, free-speaking apostle was jealous with a fatherly affection that they should be liberated. They had been “restricted” in their own “affections,” and the teeming, life-giving fellowship which is ours in Christ, along with the witness that should have been going forth from them, was coagulating. Paul sought to break up the fallowed ground of that ever-increasing “restriction” through his prayers for the saints, his ongoing teaching and preaching, his own faithful example, and his pleading with them as a father, “widen your hearts also.”

May we receive from the Lord the same kind of passion for His house, and respond accordingly.

Lord, free us from cultural Christianity, which may look proper and even seemingly Biblical on the surface, but is marked by a regarding of one another according to the flesh, a speech that is devoid of Gospel-freedom, and a kind of faulty fellowship which is experienced in a drab way, without widened hearts. Teach us to walk circumspectly before You, to draw wisdom and life from the Scriptures, to be filled with and to “keep in step with the Spirit,” and to “widen our hearts” one to another for the glory of Your Name and the building up of your Body.  Surely the world is languishing in the wilderness of closed-heartedness, restricted from seeing the glory of God in the face of Christ. As we are the only witness-People bearing the Good News by which their hearts may be quickened and widened, bring us to repentance and set us upon the sure foundation of Your Son, that they may “see” our “good works,” and “praise” our “Father in heaven.” None has been more unrestricted in love, more open-hearted and free-speaking than You. Be merciful to us then, O God, and cause us to bear Your image in the nations. Amen.

The Fragrance of God-Riveted Servanthood

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…thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. || 2 Cor. 2.14-17

True apostles are men “commissioned by God” Himself, and their witness to Christ constitutes His very “aroma” among men. Upon the basis of flesh, none can be “sufficient” for the realities of apostolic faith, but as men who have by the grace of sanctification been shaped to bear the very aroma of God, the very “sincerity” of Christ, apostles speak “in the sight of God.” The “grace and apostleship” which has been given to them produces a quality of character which Paul describes as a “triumphal procession”— that is, a joy-filled perseverance in the presence of great resistance and suffering, and a manner of living and serving which “spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere.” 

The ministry of reconciliation is no light thing. It is a precious privilege, one which requires painstaking attention both to orthodoxy and to orthopraxy. Where ministry is approached in a professional way, where it is perceived and performed according to the wisdom of men, abuses and distortions will abound.

Evidently, in Paul’s day there were “so many” who functioned as mere “peddlers of God’s word.” The number of that “so many” is likely greater in our day, and it behooves us to pray that we would not be found in such a warped condition of heart when the Chief Shepherd appears. Therefore, “Watch closely your life and doctrine.”

It is within the possibilities of grace to serve with the same kind of power and wisdom that the early apostles possessed. Regarding those who were mishandling God’s word and ministering according to the flesh, “we are not like” them.

For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. || 2 Cor. 4.5

The fragrance of God is the fragrance of God-riveted servanthood, the kind of life which is poured out as a drink offering for the sake of His Name, and for the sake of others. There is little room left for self-seeking in the life of a man who has been brought to this glorious place.

We are in profound need of servant-leaders in the Church who have been so wrung out, so emptied, and so filled with the wisdom and power of Christ, that this would be the fragrance of our lives and ministries.

May the Lord have for Himself a company of such servants, in both domestic and pioneer fields, that “this gospel of the kingdom” would “be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”

Thoughts Upon Broken Ministry Relationships

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If an enemy were insulting me,

I could endure it;

…But it is you, a man like myself,

my companion, my close friend,

with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship

at the house of God,

as we walked about

among the worshipers. || Psalm 55.12-14

It is not the wounds of an enemy that bruise deepest and burn the longest, but rather the wounds that come from those who had been “companions”, “close friends”, and with whom we “once enjoyed sweet fellowship.”

The Psalmist here gives vent to this most trying fact of life, and as it will be the experience of every believer at some point in their lives, it is fitting for us to reflect upon it.

There are seasons of the pilgrimage for every child of God when those with whom we once walked closely are turned against us, and these seasons are filled with perplexities and vexations of soul which have the propensity to dislodge our bearings in the profoundest of ways.

This may occur within the family context, within the context of fellowship, and even within the context of ministry, with those that you’ve sought to build the house of God with. All of these are painful, but the latter can be particularly vexing, as fractured relationships and razed vision give way to unwise, damaging, even sinful ways of handling the aftermath of such collapses.

The Psalmist feels as if he cannot “endure it”, and this may be the case in like experiences through which we are required to pass.

Broken ministry relationships can have stinging reverberations which come back in waves for many years. When we are required by God to hold the line on an issue of Biblical conviction, one which leads to a fallout with another leader who sees things differently, or is perhaps even compromising clear Biblical truth, even the fact that we’ve clung to Godly convictions does not immediately give solace or dissolve the pain of that fractured friendship.

It can be baffling to see how leaders- even Godly men, on many accounts- handle the aftermath of a moral collapse, or how they seek to keep the ministry-house standing, though its foundations be filled with cracks. The accuser of the brethren is always speaking, distance with former companions gives way to suspicions and unfounded assumptions, and confusion, depression, and disillusionment can ebb and flow unexpectedly at any given time, often inexplicably.

Add to that the perpetual question of your own sins and shortcomings, the question of how you may have fallen short in the process, and you have a recipe for the kinds of fatalistic emotions the Psalmist was dealing with at the front-end of this Psalm. A man in this kind of whirlwind is often brought to the same thought, “I cannot endure it.”

Then there is the one who had previously been counted a “close friend.” There is no guarantee that he or she will be brought to repentance and a reconciliation effected. There may be a messy conglomeration of lies, misunderstandings, manipulation, and harsh words included in the package, and the mess of it may not be so clear to others. You may be required to bear knowledge of things about this friend without giving vent to that which you feel would justify your name in the situation.

We must find rest in the Sovereignty of God, knowing that all these things are working for our humbling and sanctification, and that if indeed our former companion belongs to Him, He will see to the discipline and restoration of those that He loves.

In these kinds of situations, the cycle of temptation will be one of self-righteousness, defensiveness, anger, defensiveness, gossip, and unforgiveness. This may be inflamed further when you see the way in which your former companion goes on with his or her life, continuing to function upon the very faulty foundation with which you had such serious concerns from the beginning.


…His talk is smooth as butter,

yet war is in his heart;

his words are more soothing than oil,

yet they are drawn swords.

Cast your cares on the Lord

and he will sustain you;

he will never let

the righteous be shaken. || Psalm 55.21-22

The manipulative man may have speech which is “smooth as butter,” but “war is in his heart.” He may have “soothing” speech to those who do not know his true condition, but his words are “drawn swords” that stab and slice those who stand in the way of his self-driven vision. One of the most tragic things about his deception is that even for him, the destructive dagger may be cloaked in noble aspirations. This makes our fractured relationships to be filled with subtleties, and thus more prone to confusion.

We should not be surprised by this, though we often are. The human heart is deceitful, and we cannot know the depth of our own sinfulness. Our self-life is a jagged thing, and all of its doings leave abrasions and lacerations on the souls of others, and indeed, on our own souls also.

The “war” in a man’s heart is not always so obvious to him. It may not be externally vindictive, his persona may be “smooth as butter”, but don’t be mistaken, there is a war on. He has no hope— we have no hope— except in “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”

We ought to have mercy upon the one with whom we’ve had a fallout, for in a very poignant sense we are all at war inwardly. The war in the former-companion’s soul is not explained by the Hollywood scenario of “good guy” verses “bad guy.” It is more complex, for the war has to do with sin. Men draw swords to protect their petty kingdoms in ministry because they are not operating upon the sure foundation that only the Father of Lights, the Prince of Peace, and the Spirit of Truth can establish within us.

Wars rage in men’s hearts because they are not living on the basis of Gospel-sonship— they are not free to submit to the Word and to a local body of believers because they are not free indeed. They have something in keeping with their own name yet to prove. Thus they go about responding to the itch for significance, and however soothing their persona might be, they are likely to butcher the clear requirements of Scripture and to sink their swords into anyone who would love them enough to raise a question about the fragmented foundation they’re seeking to build upon.

They may never come to a willingness to hear true correction from loving brethren, and you cannot cater to that unwillingness or give false affirmation to their ministry, or else you cease to love truth and cease to love them. You cannot compromise the Scriptures, you must hold the line, and this includes both holding fast to Biblical convictions, and doing all that you do “in love,” with a heart of mercy. This is a supernatural task.

We are a broken people, indeed. In every kind of ministry expression- foreign missions, local churches, para-church works- there are men and women operating in unqualified ways. They may give heed to certain Scriptures which feed their ministry visions and identities, but they do not give ample heed to Scriptures which pertain to Gospel foundations, nor to the nature of what God requires of His workers.

We are all subject to deception in these ways, and it is only through much prayer, painstaking attention to the Scriptures, keeping in step with the Holy Spirit, and vulnerable, accountable fellowship with the saints that we find clarity and help to build the house of God aright. The neglect of these ancient paths has produced many a bruised reed and many an aborted ministry (even if the shell of that ministry endures), in the pursuit even of noble endeavors.

We are not qualified for ministry by any talent or attribute of the flesh, we are qualified only by God, in accordance with the faith which has been articulated in the Divinely-breathed wisdom of Holy Scripture.

The ramifications of fractured relationships are grave unless grace intervenes. There is only one remedy here for the Psalmist, and for us.

Cast your cares on the LORD and He will sustain you; He will never let the righteous be shaken.

Taking up our cross means daily relinquishing our rights for a turbulence-free life; daily relinquishing any ties we would maintain for revenge, and instead offering up perpetual forgiveness; daily offering up secret intercessions for those who may have wronged us; daily relinquishing any thought that were we in the shoes of our offender, we would have been any wiser or acted any better, apart from the grace of God.

Casting our cares upon the LORD means entrusting our past, present, and future to the hands of the Potter, and leaving our former companions to His dealings, the One who is faithful and true, and who is coming soon to give reward and recompense, according to what each of us has done. There is a Day coming when all of our thoughts, words, and ministry endeavors will be tried by the fire of God. He will reward His people for all that has been given of Him, built in accordance with His way. All else will be reduced to ashes.

It behooves us to examine ourselves, to see to it that we be found in faith, and that we ourselves are building the church in the manner and spirit that God would have us to, knowing that “we shall all stand before the Judgment seat of Christ.” This truth provides hope for our pilgrimage, and that amazing grace which teaches our hearts to fear rightly.

We can be sure that as we are made righteous through the Gospel, as we seek rest only in Christ, He will sustain us. The righteous are not righteous of their own accord. They are those who have been justified by Christ and who are thus continuing in faith and repentance. They are those who are continually being reformed by the Scriptures and refined by the Spirit. They will never be shaken.

It is in that one hope that the war in our hearts may be silenced. It is in that one hope that the war in the hearts of our former friends may be brought into the self-same peace- a happy surrender to the King and His Kingdom. Let us pray for that sweet reality to be brought to bear in our own lives, in the lives of our enemies, and in the lives of our former companions.

May it be so for the sake of Your Name, You Who are both Faithful and True, the One who has purposed to “reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.” Be so merciful to us, that we would be found in that privileged company of friends, that we would grow up into Christ and be made whole together in Him, even with former-companions restored to us as brethren, tasting together the goodness of God, entering together into the joy of His everlasting Kingdom. We ask these things in good faith that it would be pleasing to Your heart, O God. Amen.