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Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18

Month

November 2019

Thanksgiving Day – An Opportunity To Revolt

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him…

Romans 1:21 ESV

According to the Apostle Paul one of the core issues of our fallen condition is that we are unthankful. All the sin in the world, the idolatrous pursuit of created things for rest and joy, stems in part from our failure to give thanks to God.

This is an echo of what happened in the Garden of Eden at the beginning, when the first man and woman failed to give thanks. They had a home, they had a meaningful calling, they had an abundance of food, they had each other, they had the honor of being a special creation made in the image of God, but when tempted with the impossible possibility of more… they lost sight of those things which they had. They ceased to be thankful and this deficit of gratitude toward their Creator gave birth to a humanity which is constantly reaching for more and never able to come to a place of rest with what they graciously have.

The futility we experience now in a broken world stems from this unthankfulness. Our jealousy, anxiety, covetousness, lust, anger, can be traced to this fallen nature we share with our first parents. The system of this world is a system born, in half, by unthankfulness.

But every day that we wake up with breath is an opportunity to revolt against this system. And Thanksgiving Day, because of its emphasis on this issue of gratitude, is especially an opportunity to consciously rebel against this ungrateful nature that mars our humanity. It is an opportunity to pause and to recognize the good things we have which we have done nothing to merit – which is every good thing. The chance to put the brakes on the destructive cycle of ingratitude.

And if Thanksgiving Day is a great opportunity to revolt, the greatest resource for revolt is the message of the Cross of Christ. In the message of the cross we have the greatest instance of us getting goodness we do not deserve. We see not merely a kind gift, like friends or jobs or a good meal, but a gift that is the direct opposite of what we have invited by our unthankfulness.

It is in the good news of God’s love seen in Christ that we find how we can be thankful in every circumstance on any given day. Because it is in the cross that we find the gift of something good, the Greatest Good, which never fades, never goes away, that cannot be lost – even when the heart-monitor flatlines.

So today, on Thanksgiving Day, revolt by ceasing to look forward to all the things you are chasing for peace and rest. Revolt by taking stock of the goodness you have. And revolt by resting content in the finished work of Christ which has delivered to you – through faith – life and love which you do not deserve and which will never be lost.

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.                

1 Thessalonians 5:18 ESV

 

 

 

 

A Crucial Text For Testing Preaching

As the pastor of an international church in a region known for rapid transience, one of the greatest burdens that I developed for my congregation was that they would be able to discern what right, biblical teaching is. Wherever the turnstyle of life takes them they will doubtless not find a church that is a copy of mine, which is perfectly fine! But when they walk into a church in the next city of their sojourn, will they be able to see beyond the charisma or oratorical skill of the pastor – or lack thereof? Furthermore, will be equipped to tell if that sermon clip from YouTube is actually helpful? Will they be able to discern what is right, biblical teaching? How will they know if the preaching they are hearing is from the Spirit of Christ or the spirit of antichrist? 

Whatever preacher they encounter, that preacher will likely invoke the Spirit’s presence in their preaching, they will likely quote from the Scriptures. And so how will they know whether or not to trust their message? How will they know if it is truly from the Spirit and truly faithful to Scripture? 

In order to answer this question, there is a text of Scripture that I believe is crucial for testing the rightness of someone’s preaching. 

The text is John 15:26-27. And we find this passage in the middle of a precious passage where Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure, giving them a realistic view of days ahead, joined together with precious promises so that when hardship, and persecution, and confusion, and falsehood arises, they will not stumble (John 16:1). And if we think carefully about this text, it can help keep us from stumbling as well by providing at least two vital tests, each of which is indispensable, for whether preaching/teaching is right and biblical. 

“When the Counselor comes, the one I will send to you from the Father ​— ​the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father ​— ​he will testify about me. 27 You also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning. — John 15:26-27 (CSB)

The Counselor, which is the “Spirit of truth” who guides into all truth as it relates to Jesus Christ, has now come and in the purpose of his coming we see two crucial tests for whether or not teaching is from the Spirit, whether or not it is right and biblical. 

 

1) Is this about Jesus?

The defining mark of the sermons delivered in the days following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was that they were about Jesus and the unfolding of God’s promises and redemptive purposes in and through him. 

 

Notice in that crucial text in question, the Holy Spirit testifies about Jesus and the Jesus says “you also will testify”. Preaching that comes from the Spirit points Jesus, teaching that is right brings clarity to who Christ is and what he has done, is doing, and will do. The fundamental attribute of Spirit-filled preaching is that it magnifies Christ. It puts him on display to be seen and marvelled at. 

Therefore, it makes sense that Paul points out the simple purity of his ministry as deciding “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” — 1 Corinthians 2:2 (CSB) And “For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord.” — 2 Corinthians 4:5 (CSB) He believed his teaching ministry was summed up as “to proclaim… the incalculable riches of Christ” — Ephesians 3:8 (CSB)

Right biblical preaching, that comes from the Spirit will help you know and love Jesus better. Such that even the imperatives of the Christian life are all implications of knowing Christ (i.e. Eph. 5:2; Col 3:1; 1 Peter 2:21, etc). 

 

2) Is it faithful to the apostolic witness found in the New Testament?

 

Notice that Jesus says, “You also will testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” The ministry of the apostles was the result of the Spirit giving them understanding of their own eyewitness encounters with Jesus. It is to this which John himself appeals in his first epistle when he says, “That which was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life ​— ​2 that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us ​— ​3 what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may also have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. — 1 John 1:1-3 (CSB)

The apostolic witness was one of transmitting what they had seen and received to be held onto until the day when Jesus comes to be marvelled at by his church. Therefore, Paul instructs Timothy to guard the good deposit he had been entrusted with and he rebukes the Galatians, telling them that if even an angel delivers to them another message than what we (the apostles) have delivered to you that they should be regarded as accursed. 

Preaching that is new, that is innovative, that appeals to fresh revelation or a “coming of age” in Christian doctrine, is not in line with the apostolic witness in the New Testament. A witness which is guarded as we take what they proclaimed and we hold on to it, passing it on to faithful men who will teach it to others also. Preaching that is right and biblical, in other words, from the Spirit, will confirm, clarify, and apply the apostles’ witness contained in the Scriptures. 

Conclusion

According to Jesus, to have eternal life is to know God through him (John 17:3,26). The Spirit gives this life by showing us Christ through the Apostolic witness contained in the Scriptures and proclaimed by the Church. Therefore, right preaching is always going to have the aim of showing Christ in a manner faithful to the testimony of the Apostles. Even preaching and teaching from the Old Testament must be done through the lens of its relation to who Jesus is and what he has done.

Therefore, when you listen to preaching or pick up a book teaching about the Christian life, apply this test to see if it comes from the Spirit of God. Is it about the Jesus the Apostles bore witness to? Does it help you know him, and love him, and live in a way that flows from knowing him? Does it help you treasure him above everything else? 

These two questions that flow from this text in John are not fool-proof, but they are a good starting place for discerning the rightness of someone’s teaching – starting with the rightness of your own thoughts and convictions. 

If it is right, if it is biblical, if it is from the Holy Spirit, it will point to Jesus and it will agree with the witness of the Apostles. 

 

Church-Planting Teams or Teams That Are Church Plants?

Christian community is supposed to be one of the most compelling testaments to the truth and power of the gospel[1]. Jesus made this clear when he prayed for the loving unity of his people which would prove to the world that he was in fact from the Father. And Paul time and again points to the community of believers – the local church – as the place in which the truths of the gospel become tangible, where the hidden wisdom and power of the word of the cross are put on display, even to the degree that the traditional hostility between Jew and Gentile disappears as both become one body through the cross-work of Christ applied by the Spirit.

This should greatly impact how we view the local church and how we do ministry. But in my experience, often the very thing that is supposed to testify to the gospel’s truth and power – the local church – is often left out of the mission the church has been given in a very crucial way. Especially, in the context of pioneer missions.[2]

This is not to say that the church as a missional institution or that an emphasis on creating community is neglected in pioneer missions, on the contrary, in the realm of Great Commission strategy the aim usually is church planting[3]. But in this quest to create communities of disciples, I fear that the greatest tool in that quest is being underutilized – and that is communities of disciples as a whole. This tool is in fact the very mechanism by which God’s mission is accomplished – the local church[4]. This is ironic, that the very thing missionaries hope to create is left out of the process in a way which I think is crucial for being a faithful witness and planting healthy churches.

Let me try to explain…

Church-Planting Teams

Wisely, the bulk of organized missions endeavours take place in the context of teams. These teams, which often have a leader or leaders who answer to an organization or sending church, serve to provide encouragement, accountability, safety, and equipping for the team-members engaged in the work of making disciples.[5]This is a good thing, but a good thing that is wasted and falls short of its full usefulness because while doing many of the things a local church does, it does not view itself as being a church nor does it intend to become a church. And these teams while seeking to do the work of the church often operate outside of obvious biblical categories for the way in which Christians organize themselves.

Missions teams will often gather weekly for prayer, for study in the word, for worship, for fellowship and sometimes even for communion – all of which are clearly things a local church does. But often a few crucial elements are missing – preaching is absent, while there are leaders there are not pastors per se, and while being evangelistic, intent on making disciples, this outreach is done “out there” and not in order to gather in. People are not invited to come and see the most compelling witness to the truth and power of the gospel, people are not invited to sit under the preaching of the word, people are not invited to observe the fellowship of a beloved, eternal family. And this is a tragedy.

The mission of the church gathered

God intended that we would not simply be individuals sent out from the church on mission but that we would be a church – a living institution that as one is engaged in the mission of Jesus. It is the church gathered, again, which displays the power of the incarnation, the wisdom of the gospel, it is a peopleand not merely persons who proclaim the praises of him who called us out of darkness and into his light. Certainly the church goes out on mission into the world when it scatters, but the church also plays out crucial aspects of its mission to the world as a body gathered. We gather not simply in order to be equipped and encouraged to go and do mission “out there” but we gather as a means of doing mission “out there”.

Teams that are church plants

Teams are a good idea, biblical even, but there needs to be a shift in how we view these teams. Not “church-planting teams”, that is teams that plant churches, but rather teams who are in fact church plants! [6]

Churches plant churches by sending people to proclaim the good news, to gather believers in that good news around that news and its signs[7], and to build them up in walking according to that good news until they receive the full benefits promised in that good news in the age to come. The example we see most clearly in Scripture, namely in the ministry of Paul, is when a missionary is sent to a new city, he gathers believers, lives as one of them – a part of the local church – where he shepherds them, trains leaders and then while maintaining a relationship with those churches for their building up and encouragement, he moves on[8].

At this point, I think it is important to talk in practical terms about what I have in mind.

What if six or eight people went to a place with no gospel witness and they began to live life and they covenanted to gather together around the gospel and its signs? What if they appointed leaders tasked with building up the body of Christ for the work of the ministry, and they invited the world to come and see? This is what I have in mind when I speak of teams as church plants. I mean simply teams being sent as the seed of the church – as church plants themselves, doing what the church does.

When teams are church plants a group of Christians is sent to a gospel-needy place where in that place they begin simply to do what a church does, with all the traditional marks of a local church – right preaching, right use of the sacraments, and church discipline (formative and corrective). And as through their collective witness, by the Spirit’s power, people are added to their number, they are brought in and raised up, faithful men are taught and trained and after time another team breaks off and starts a new church in a new area. It may take longer for the church to become purely indigenous[9], but over the decades the church will, by God’s grace, more and more take the shape of the community in which it exists.

I want to argue that viewing missions teams as church plants, and using them as such, is right on multiple levels. Christians are supposed to gather themselves in local churches where they live out their calling together in a way that is visible to the world around them. All Christians, even missionaries, need not only sending churches, they need the local church.[10]And the unreached need healthy churches among them. They need communities formed and shaped by the gospel among them to point them to who Jesus is and what he has done and is doing.

Local churches are really the fruit of the gospel, they are organic institutions that take the shape of what God is doing in history. Therefore, a missionary team, a gathering of believers living on mission together, should take the shape of a local church. This is what the gospel they proclaim creates!

If anyone reads this, there are a few things I would like to come out of it. I wish that churches would support church plants to the farthest reaches of the world. I wish that weekly meetings of cross-cultural workers in gospel-needy places would begin to think biblically about what they actually are – churches- and would aspire to be this faithfully and fully. I wish that more missionaries would invite people to church, to their local gathering where the gospel is proclaimed and displayed. And I hope that from these church plants would come many, many more church plants.

So missionary, perhaps have a conversation with your teammates about how you view your team.

Churches, have a talk with the teams or individual missionaries you support.

Are we sending church-planting teams or are we sending teams that are church plants? I believe the difference between those two things is crucial.

 

 

 

 

[1]John 17:21,26; Ephesians 3:10;1 John 3:14

[2]By this I mean the work of taking the gospel to gospel-needy or unreached places or peoples

[3]Another conversation is how a “church” is often defined in these contexts

[4]By “local church” I mean a gathering of baptized believers who have devoted themselves to one another around the gospel proclaimed in Word, displayed in the sacraments, and lived out in discipline both formative and corrective

[5]In many cases the leaders are appointed using the qualifications for an elder found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1

[6]Two possible reasons this has not been done, in our era at least, is because of the fear that it will stifle rapid multiplication and lead to a church that is too dependent on foreign leaders. However, we must not allow fear of what could be, cause us to stray from what is faithful.

[7]Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

[8]1 Thessalonians 2:8-11, Acts 14:21-28; Acts 18:1-11,18; Acts 20:18

[9]The quest for independent, purely indigenous churches, while a well-intentioned corrective to the paternalism often seen in missions history, has certainly extra-biblical and in some sense idolatrous. Language should really be the only homogenizing factor in the life of a church.

[10]I would argue that the old, all-too-common attitude among missionaries which says “I’m a member of my sending church” grossly misunderstands what a church is and what a church does

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