Posts Tagged ‘church’

 

Shepherd

While preparing a workshop on leadership, I came across a paper I gave in 2010 at a NCTM Ministry School on pastoral ministry in the Church. I thought it was still worth a read…

The Gift of the Spirit and Pastors

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. 17And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone . . . ’

   24So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.

 26Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ 28And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them.’ 29But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ (Num. 11:16–17, 24–29).[1]

The Father’s goal from the beginning has been to create a community of Spirit-filled children, led by Spirit-filled men and women. In the above passage Moses catches a glimpse of this goal. The purpose of the Spirit’s work in this situation was that Moses’ burden of feeding and leading the people might be shared (see 11:9–15); it was the Lord’s answer to Moses’ complaints about the people’s complaints about the manna which in their eyes didn’t compare to the gourmet food of Egypt. In the Lord’s lavish grace, He is willing to provide meat for His people, even though the manna was adequate; and in His holy love He also sends disciplining judgement in conjunction with the gift, so that Israel may ultimately understand that their covenant relationship with Yahweh is not one where He simply panders to their every whim. The seventy elders are set apart and enabled by the Spirit for their role,[2] and unex­pectedly demonstrate their appointment by prophesying—which begs the question: why do you need to prophesy in order to give people meat?

As the story unfolds, we see that their role was not necessarily distribution of food, but to in some way stand with Moses ‘around the tent’ (v. 24) in the judgement that followed:

And the people rose all that day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail. Those who gathered least gathered ten homers. And they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. 33While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck down the people with a very great plague (Num. 11:32–33).

The empowerment of the Spirit was required for these men to minister to the whole nation of Israel in the midst of the Lord’s gracious action of judgement. Presumably they are the same body of men who accompanied Moses at the giving of the Law and the sprinkling of the blood of the covenant on the people (Exodus 24:1–12), who ‘beheld God, and ate and drank’ (v. 11), and thus were qualified not to guard the tent against the people, but to facilitate the people’s access to the forgiveness that would be provided through the numerous sacrifices that would be offered in the wake of the plague. The contaminated quail was in hindsight seen to be the gracious action for the Shepherd leading and disciplining His sheep in covenant faithfulness:

He spread a cloud for a covering, and fire to give light by night.

40They asked, and he brought quail, and gave them bread from heaven in abundance.

41He opened the rock, and water gushed out; it flowed through the desert like a river.

42For he remembered his holy promise, and Abraham, his servant (Ps. 105).

Moses’ response to Joshua’s objection to Eldad and Medad’s prophesying, ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ (v. 29) was an anticipation of Pentecost, and his sentiments are echoed in the words of the prophets, notably Joel’s famous prophecy:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,  your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:28).

This gift of the Spirit was not only that all may know the Lord (Jer. 31:34), but that Israel might fulfill their mandate as God’s chosen people, entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2), to be a blessing to all nations through proclaiming the excellencies of God to His glory (1 Pet. 2:9). The Spirit sanctified the seventy elders for their roles, foreshadowing the sanctification of the whole nation/people; sanctified not to form a holy club or esoteric society, but to participate in the action of the triune God in reconciling the world to Himself.

The outpouring of the Spirit in Acts is invariably linked with speaking the Word of God, be it in tongues, prophecy or proclamation. We see the church, as the true people of God—those who are truly Israel because they are so through faith not the flesh —fulfilling this mandate through the proclamation of the Gospel and the dynamic action of the Word of God in the community of the Father’s family; the former being the overflow of the latter. This was no doubt in Paul’s mind as he wrote his letter to the Ephesians. The church finds her completeness and full identity not in her structures, strategies or slogans, but in her unity in Christ her head and husband who fills all things and so gives wholeness and maturity to His bride. Every member (Eph. 4:7, ενι δε εκαστω ημων) is given this fullness, which enables them to operate as members of the Body; this leads one to see that the list of 4:11 need not apply to a distinct group of ‘staff’, but is in a sense descriptive of the ministry of the whole body:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until 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 . . . (Eph. 4:11–13).

To show the basis for these gifts, Paul quotes in verse 8 from Psalm 68, a song of Yahweh’s victory over His enemies, demonstrated in the deliverance of His people from Egypt, their establishment in the land of promise, and of the Temple in Jerusalem: ‘Because of your temple at Jerusalem kings shall bear gifts to you’

(v. 29). In the Psalm it is men who give gifts to the victorious, exalted King as he processes into the temple (v. 24); Paul has Christ the King giving gifts to men. Some have attempted to explain what at first appears to be a misquotation here in various ways, which impose modern grammar and punctuation on the text. Whatever may have been in Paul’s mind, it seems that he quotes the passage as prolepsis;[3] the kings of Psalm 68 give gifts in tribute to the One whom they recognise as being King of all kingdoms and Lord of all nations, and they do so in anticipation of the protection and wealth that will come to their kingdoms as a result of being embraced by their Sovereign and subsumed into His empire. The Lord is not made richer by the receiving of gifts from men, since all things already belong to Him; rather the acknowledgement of His sovereign rule over the world means riches for the nations whom He has promised to bless. In a sense the giving and receiving are of the same action; the action of the King.

Jesus, by virtue of His cross, resurrection and reign, has been given by the Father the kingdom of this world (Rev. 11:15), and will reign with the Father over the new Jerusalem into which ‘the kings of the earth will bring their glory’ (Rev. 21:24). This means that ‘receiving gifts among men’ in Psalm 68 necessarily implies the applica­tion of ‘he gave gifts to men’ in Ephesians 4:8 when we see that Psalm 68 has been fulfilled in Christ. This is more than trivial exegetical semantics. Knowing this must necessarily enlarge our understanding of the gifts of verse 11. His goal to ‘fill all things’ (v. 10) speaks not so much of his immanence or omnipresence (‘My God is so BIG!’), but of His sovereign rule as head of all things for the church. It is the reigning Christ, who from his throne at the right hand of the Father, far above all rule and authority, administers his church through the appointment of these offices, and as the Gospel goes out to the nations through the ministry of the Body of Christ.

The scope of this paper allows only a limited examination of each of the offices of verse 11; and our goal in this is to see specifically the place of the pastor/teacher[4] in relationship to apostle, prophet and evangelist.

The survey that follows is not comprehensive, and will focus chiefly on the Gospels and Acts.

Apostles

These men were separated from the wider circle of disciples and commissioned by Christ, therefore reflecting (duplicating?) his ministry. All four Gospels show the appointment of the Twelve, and the giving to them of apostolic authority, involving proclaiming the kingdom of God, and authority to go out in his name and exercising authority over unclean spirits and to heal. Yet this was not restricted to the Twelve, as we see Jesus in Luke 10:1–12 sending out another 72 with the same commission; quite possibly this is an indication that this was something he did more than twice. This appointment was not by their choice or will: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide’ (John 15:16).[5] The distinct impression one gets is that the apostolic ministry is not one that is limited to time or number; Jesus’ boundaries of definition were much wider than the ones we might want to set, as the Twelve had to learn when later they realised the necessity of including Paul (and with him Silas, Apollos, Timothy, et al.) in their number.

Prophets

In the Gospels the title of prophet is only used in reference to the Old Testament prophets, to John the Baptist who stands in their line, and Jesus himself when people surmise that he may be ‘The Prophet who is to come’ (John 6:14). In this we see Jesus himself as the ‘final word’—the Word made flesh, who in his arrival makes obsolete any notion of ‘ongoing revelation’. The role of the prophets in pointing God’s people forward to the Day of the Lord has given way to the declaration in the Gospel that this Day has arrived. Yet this declaration in itself is also prophetic: ‘the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy’ (Rev. 19:10). The Old Testament prophets, ‘searched and inquired carefully’ to see that which has ‘now been announced’ to—and subsequently by—us (1 Pet. 1:10–12). So we might dare to claim that proclamation of the Gospel is more fully true prophecy than anything spoken by the Old Testament prophets. In Acts ‘prophets’ are mentioned four times, at some strategic moments in the advance of this Gospel—predicting the coming famine (11:27–30), the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas (13:1–3), the Jerusalem letter to Gentiles (15:32), and the prediction of Paul’s arrest (21:10–11).

Evangelists

Phillip (one of the seven charged with the role of distributing food to widows) is the only person in the New Testament who is entitled ‘evangelist’ (Acts 21:8), and Timothy is urged to see that to fulfill his varied ministry at Ephesus was to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Tim. 4:5). Simply meaning ‘a proclaimer of the Gospel’, these two uses of euaggelistou (euaggelistou) would demonstrate that this procla­mation characterises and goes hand in hand with all ministry, no matter how ‘mundane’. Our brothers and sisters in the majority world have been more conscious of this role as an office in the church that deserves the training, commissioning and sending of dedicated men, however, as the West is becoming increasingly post-Christian, more Western churches and movements are seeing the urgent need for this gift to be recognised.

Pastor–Teachers

In the flow of this apostolic, prophetic and proclamatory ministry of God through His people, we come finally to the pastor–teachers (shepherd–teachers).[6] As with the first three, we should be careful about placing hard boundaries around the role, since it is defined by the sover­eign work of the Spirit who manifests himself (1 Cor. 12:7) in various ways in the church. Their place in the list could be seen as an indication of chronology; the pastor–teacher builds on the foundation laid by the ministry of the first three; the former may come and go, the latter remains more constant as the church continues her journey towards maturity in the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

Yet this constancy neither makes the office more superior to nor replaces apostles and prophets. Historically a lot of passionate rhetoric has surrounded debates and discussions on whether the offices of apostle and prophet have continued beyond the first century (i.e. the death of the original apostles and the completion of the New Testament canon). Both cessationist and continuist have been guilty of bad exegesis, arguments from silence, and ad hominem attacks. Both ironically have appealed to what seems to many to be the actual cessation of apostolic and prophetic activity and other miraculous gifts in the Western church; one saying that it is in the providence and plan of God, the other that it is cause for us to rediscover them.

Whether we are cessationist or continuist, we must nevertheless all agree on several things about all of the gifts:

Firstly: These people are appointed by Christ for his church (‘he gave’), not by the church for Christ. Possibly our problems begin when we want to define, restrict, quantify and professionalise the offices in our attempt to domesticate and rule over the church. From time to time para-church movements may arise that seek to ‘redress the imbalance’ of the perceived absence of one or more offices, and often consequently battle with defining their relationship to (or independence from) the local congregations in which the deficiency is perceived. We may also use them to set up a clergy–laity distinction, demanding that each office requires certain training and worldly qualifica­tions. As we have seen in the brief survey above, none of the offices appear to be mutually exclusive, and all elude a neat and tidy categorisation or ‘job description’; they are ultimately the manifestation of the Spirit himself who blows where he wills (John 3:8).

Secondly: Jesus is building his church, ‘on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone’ (Eph. 2:20), and so the church, as the household of God, is necessarily apostolic and prophetic; a calling known only as we operate corporately. This means that in the course of its apostolic and prophetic ministry there will be (and have been) persons who will be used in significant ways that we may call apostolic or prophetic, even if we are shy to directly label them apostles or prophets. At the same time, the ministry of individual persons loses validity as soon as they operate as individuals, independent of the Body; once they lose sight of the fact that their being gifted to the church is cause for great humility in which there is place neither for celebrity status nor personal empire building.[7]

A number of passages, notably in Paul’s letters, speak specifically of the apostolic ministry in a way that does not immediately allow a direct application of what is said to every Christian—for example, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:13, ‘We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things’, this is in the context of drawing a contrast between Paul (and his apostolic companions), and the believers in the churches to whom and for whom they laboured: ‘We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute’ (1 Cor. 4:10).[8] These things cannot be said to  be ipso facto the case for the ‘everyday’ Christian—unless we understand that this person is a member of the apostolic and prophetic community, and as such both suffers and rejoices with the Body. The rejection and hatred a Christian may face is not a personal thing; it is a rejection of Christ as he is embodied in his church. As a pastor–teacher, I must see myself as being in this flow of the apostolic and prophetic work of Christ in his church, and rest firmly on this as my foundation.

Thirdly: The goal of these gifts is the maturing of the church into ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’. This is not an end in itself, but is with a view to him filling all things; the church’s glory is the glory of the Father’s grace (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14), and the fullness of this will be seen in the Telos, not in the visible institutions we are wont to call ‘churches’. So while we serve the church, we ultimately serve Christ and through him the Father. This means we cannot see this passage as a strategy for church growth or management just waiting to be applied, nor is there any room for self-congratulation when we feel we have got our ministry structures ‘right’. Both pastoral care and teaching is therefore transformed from management and therapy into an exciting (even exhilarating) participation in the Father’s eschatological purpose. Our task is not to help people live happy, comfortable and prosperous lives in this world, but to call them to fix their eyes on Jesus, and forsake all this world has to offer in light of their treasure stored in Heaven.

Fourthly: The gifts are an expression not just of the ministry of Jesus in his church, but reveal something that is ontological about humanity. As the renewed, recreated humanity, constituted in Christ the second Adam, the church as a community should be expected to display the creational design; the various ministries and gifts within the church are not purely pragmatic means to get the church to function well or to achieve her KPI’s.[9] The gifts are representative of the Spirit-filled people of God, created and redeemed to be vessels of God’s glory; exercising authority over creation; hearing and speaking forth the Word of God; living in genuine, self-sacrificial love and care. They show a humanity that is functional and complementary; in short: it works, and in working, all glory goes to the Father who created all things to be very good and work together (Gen. 1:31). It is an interesting aside to note that some secular analysts who study the functioning of successful teams have identified five key roles that they say should exist in any organisation in order for it to operate smoothly and with growth. Each of these roles can be seen to correspond in some way to the five gifts of Ephesians 4:11, suggesting further their ontological nature.[10]

This means that pastoral–teaching ministry is also firmly grounded in the realities of the created world; it is not a call to escape the material and focus only on the ‘spiritual’. We teach people of the excellencies of the glory of Christ, including his faithfulness to redeem the whole of this groaning creation and the final liberation of the physical world into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:21).

Fifthly: Ultimately, we will all be cessasionist. All five titles of Ephesians 4:11 are attributed, finally, to Christ. He is the Apostle and high priest of our confession (Heb. 3:1); the Prophet like Moses raised up by God (John 7:40; Acts 3:22); the Evangelist who came ‘proclaiming the gospel of God (Mark 1:14–15); the Good Shepherd/Pastor who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11); and the Teacher who by his Spirit leads us into the truth of all that the Father has and is (John 16:12–15). When Jesus our Apostle/Prophet/Evangelist/Pastor/Teacher appears, then in a sense all of these titles—insofar as they are applied in this age—will become obsolete. They would have fulfilled their purpose in this age when the kingdom of God is advancing by force (Matt. 11:12) and when the doors of the kingdom remain open to those who will enter by faith through the Gospel proclaimed by the church apostolic. We can therefore say with Paul, ‘Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart’ (2 Cor. 4:1).


Footnotes

[1]  Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations in this study are from the English Standard Version.

[2]  We possibly see this echoed in the appointment of the seven Spirit-filled men to distribute food to the widows in Acts 6:1–6.

[3]  That is, in anticipation of its implications.

[4]  The debate may continue endlessly and uselessly about whether pastor and teacher are distinct offices or a single office of pastor–teacher; any pastor must also teach, and any teacher must be pastoral. See study 15 for more clarification on this question.

[5]  Which helps us see that this verse is not so much about assurance of salvation and election, but about our confidence in the ministry of the New Covenant.

[6]  Here in Ephesians is the sole place in the New Testament where the title ποιμην is applied to someone other than Jesus, except in the literal sense. The elders in Ephesus (Acts 20:28) and the Dispersion (1 Pet. 5:2–3) are charged with pastoral responsibility, and in both cases reminded that the flock/church is God’s (i.e. not theirs). Does this indicate that eldership and shepherding are synonymous, or that those with authority need to be always reminded that true authority is embodied in the self-sacrifice emulated by the Good Shepherd?

[7]  For this reason, it is good to be presenting this paper at ‘New Creation Teaching Ministry’, not ‘Geoffrey Bingham Ministries’.

[8]  Some commentators see Paul being sarcastic here—speaking not of realities but of the Corinthians’ self-perception. Rather, Paul is highlighting the fact that the Corinthians were being misled by the ‘Super Apostles’ who proclaimed worldly success and prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing and in this they were no longer one with Paul in the true ministry of the Gospel. His call in verse 16 to ‘be imitators of me’ is a call back to being the authentic Apostolic community.

[9]  Key Performance Indicators

[10] Observed by Alan Hirsch (Three Over-looked Leadership Roles):

  • The entrepreneur: Innovator and cultural architect who initiates a new product, or service, and develops the organization.
  • The questioner: Provocateur who probes awareness and fosters questioning of current programming leading to organizational learning.
  • The communicator: Recruiter to the organization who markets the idea or product and gains loyalty to a brand or cause.
  • The humaniser: People-oriented motivator who fosters a healthy relational environment through the management of meaning.
  • The philosopher: Systems-thinker who is able to clearly articulate the organizational ideology in a way as to advance corporate learning.

follyAt home I have on the wall a jigsaw puzzle I received when I was 15 – with 3000 pieces. Because it took me so long to complete, I glued it to a board and hung it on the wall. Each piece of this puzzle, on its own, is not much to look at. You would never be able to tell what the big picture is by looking at just one piece. However all together they form a beautiful picture worthy of hanging on our living room wall.

There is something wrong with this jigsaw puzzle though. In the process of several house moves, one piece on the bottom left hand corner has come off, and has been lost forever. (Bizarrely, it also happens to be the face of an unfortunate man being strangled by a grumpy, Monty Python-esque woman). Most people who see it don’t notice, but because I know it’s missing, and because I spend countless hours building the picture, I always feel slightly disappointed when I look at it, and I always notice the empty spot. Without this piece, the Jigsaw is incomplete.


 

¹²For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. ¹³ For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

Paul is starting a discussion about roles and gifts in the church. He introduces the metaphor of a body, which has many members, but is one body. We might expect him to say, ‘so it is with the church’, but instead he says, ‘so it is with Christ.’

What point is he making?

When we see Jesus referred to as ‘Christ’ (or ‘Christ Jesus’) the emphasis is not so much on the person, as on the office he fulfilled – the Christ, or Messiah. He is speaking here not about my personal relationship with the Father through Jesus, but my participation in the revolutionary change that Jesus has made by coming as the Messiah – the promised king who would be the fulfilment of all of God’s promises, beginning with Abraham, to bring blessing to every nation on earth. We are part of something much bigger than our local church or neighbourhood – this is something with global implications!

In the Old Testament the promise of the Messiah focuses less on personal individual salvation, and more on the restoration and regathering of God’s people from all the corners of the earth. For example, in Daniel:

¹³“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.

14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. “ (Daniel 7:13-14)

This, ‘son of man’ is this promised one – both human and divine – who will establish God’s Kingdom. God’s people in exile in Babylon were to look forward in faith to this saving king, but they were also to understand the implications for them:

15 “As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. 16 I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of the things. 17 ‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.(Daniel 7:15-18)

What good is a king unless He has citizens in His kingdom over whom He rules? The arrival of the King means peace, security and prosperity for those living under His rule. Jesus came not only to assert God’s rule over the universe, but to restore human beings to the position we were given in creation –  rulers over all that God has made. In the book of Revelation, almost every time Jesus appears in the visions, he stands side-by-side with those whom he has redeemed by his blood.

And so to talk about Jesus as the Christ/Messiah means understanding that He is the king over His people, who are the ‘Messianic Community’.

This is why Paul says here that the unity and diversity in the human body is a picture of ‘Christ’. Jesus has redeemed people from every tribe and tongue and nation, from every strata of society and walk of life. His gathering us together is about much more than creating a community in which we feel comfortable and supported; this is His plan to establish the Kingdom of God in every corner of creation and to bring every creature in heaven and earth to a place where they bow the knee and declare Jesus is Lord to the glory of the Father.

The way in which the Messiah was promised to restore God’s people to live under God’s rule was to pour out the Holy Spirit, not just upon leaders, but upon every person. The fulfilment of this promise began on the day of Pentecost. Jesus’ death and resurrection was not an end in itself – it was with this aim. By paying for our sin and redeeming us from the judgement of death He has now made us into a suitable dwelling place for His Spirit. He died for you so that He may fill you with His Spirit.

That is why Paul goes on in verse 13 to talk about the work of the ‘One Spirit’. In the first half we are in the Spirit – ‘In one Spirit we were all baptised,’ and in the second half the Spirit is in us – ‘all were made to drink of one Spirit.’ We are a ‘Spirit saturated’ people, and He brings a profound unity that cuts across race and social status – probably the two biggest things that have divided – and continue to divide – human beings throughout our history.

The cross has broken down the dividing walls of hostility that human beings build between ourselves, by destroying the wall of hostility that was there between us and God. This is a radical thing, and is contrary to the way the world sees reconciliation. The root cause of human division is the fact that we are in rebellion against God – we want to take His place; to become God, ourselves. And when two or more people, each of whom wants to be God, meet each other, there is going to be conflict. So the solution to human hostility is not to try to work it out between each other, but for each to be first reconciled to God. Only then will we be able to come in humility, together before the cross, and be unified.

We live in a country – a world – that is always threatening to fall apart through division and hostility, as each person and each group tries to assert their rights over and against others. The work of Christ is the only way in which people who hate one another can be brought to truly love – because they know that God first loved them. And the Church is designed to be a showcase of this blood-bought unity.

As the church we may at times fees small, insignificant and ineffective. We may hear the world tell us that we are out-of-date, irrelevant and obsolete, and that we have nothing to say to them. We may hear them accuse us of being divided and hypocritical. However Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – a tiny, seemingly insignificant seed which, when planted, grows and exceeds all expectations by becoming a large tree that overshadows the entire garden (the mustard plant is normally a shrub, not a tree!) (Matthew 13:31-32). As we gather each Sunday, and as participate in the life of our church week by week, we are participating in something that has universe-changing implications.

Romans 8:19-21 tells us:

“…the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21)

We cannot and should not ever understate the privilege it is to be a part of what God is doing through Jesus the Messiah. If you ever wake up on Sunday morning, or come home from work before your evening home group, feeling discouraged or without motivation, wondering if church is worth the effort, simply remind yourself that you are part of God’s total universe restoration project; the freedom of all creation will be accomplished by God through your freedom in Christ.

This is not just interesting, abstract theology for us to sit and ponder. Paul is unpacking these things in the context of talking about how we live and relate to one another in the church. See verse 27:

‘You (plural) are the body of Christ’ – the big picture.

‘Individually members of it’ – the phrase in Greek means ‘you have a share as members’ – something like shareholders in a company are all joint owners of the company – not a customer, but an owner. Without each shareholder, the company is not complete.

And notice that he does not go on to say, ‘There are now some optional things that you could be involved in, if you want to.’ Rather, he says, ‘God has appointed…’ or ‘set in place’. (28) all the different people with their roles and gifts within the body. He knows how build His church, and He puts each piece in place – in its right place. So our question of ourselves should not be, ‘Am I going to be involved in the life of the church?’ but, ‘How does God want me to be involved? Which piece of the big picture am I – and am I willing to walk in joyful obedience to God and take up that role?’

God says that each of us is just as important as everyone else in completing the big picture of what He is doing in this world through Jesus his Messiah. He is sovereign over all things, and so our failures will not ultimately ruin his plans – however, why would we not want to be a part of this exciting work that He is doing, into which he invites us to be a part – to be shareholders?

Following this passage is the famous chapter on love – 1 Corinthians 13. Most often we may hear it quoted in the context of a wedding, however it is really about us loving and serving one another in the church. And it is is the key to all of this. You may not yet have a clear answer to the question, ‘What role am I to play in the life of the church?’ but you can be sure of one thing: God is calling you to this: to love one another. This is to be our main focus, over and above the specifics of tasks and jobs. If we focus on loving one another as Christ loved us – by laying down His own life for us – then we will find ourselves beginning to fit into the place Jesus has for us in His church.

Ephesians 5:21-33

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband
(Ephesians 5:21-33 NIV)

Rosie and Jethro have chosen a passage of scripture today that is considered by some to be controversial. Many people have been shocked by a recent national survey that revealed 28% of Australians believe ‘women prefer a man to be in charge of the relationship’, and 19% believe ‘Men should take control in relationships and be the head of the household.’ Each of these figures has risen over the last 4 years – even if only by 1% each.

I don’t know a lot about analysing statistics, but that to me sounds like a minority – that more Aussies than not would disagree with the idea of male leadership, especially in a marriage relationship.

So many – maybe including you here today – may not sit comfortably with this Bible reading that speaks of a wife submitting to her husband. And it is no small submitting. It is ‘as you do to the Lord’ – in other words, in the same way in which she would submit to Jesus Christ. The writer, St. Paul, fleshes this out by saying that a husband is the head of his wife in a similar way in which Christ is head of the church.

We do not have much – if any – wiggle room here. We do not really have any other choice but to say either, ‘This is true, and a husband is the head of the relationship,’ or, ‘This is false, and we must discount everything else that this passage says.’

Our problem though, is that we do not really understand what ‘headship’ means, and what it looks like in practice. Because our experience in this world, sadly, of those in authority, is of failure, abuse of power, corruption and violence, we immediately are suspicious of any suggestion that authority is good – not just a necessary inconvenience. And we may especially feel uncomfortable with the idea that authority can be worked out based on gender. How dare someone stereotype men as ‘leaders’ and women as ‘submitters’?

However, if we look more closely at this passage, and seek to understand what is being said here, what we see is actually something rather beautiful.

Firstly, we should note that the passage begins with a call to ,’Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.’ This call is given to every person who considers themselves a follower of Jesus, and comes from an attitude of thanksgiving – just before he says this, Paul encourages his readers to be, ‘…always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Ephesians 5:20)

An attitude that sees every good thing I have as a generous, no-strings-attached gift from God will result in thankfulness; and an attitude of thankfulness will overflow into an attitude of generosity and humbleness towards others. So, it is a natural thing to expect that someone who has received from God, will likewise seek to give to, not take from, others.

So, both husbands and wives are called to submit to one another. It’s simply that their submitting looks a bit different.

Jesus once said to his Disciples, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ A Christian’s obedience to Jesus does not flow out of a fear of punishment, a threat of violence, or a slavish following of the rules, but out of Love. The relationship comes first, and is followed by the actions. No real relationship can be built just on doing good things. If we love a person, and desire the best for them, and want them to be honoured, then we will be willing – and joyfully so – to follow their desires, and do what they ask, and submit to their leading.

The Church – the collection of those who follow Jesus and know Him as their saviour – knows of the extreme love that Jesus has shown by going to the cross, taking their sin, and reconciling them to God the Father. And their response is a to love him in return, with a joyful, glad and willing submission, because they know that in doing so they find their true freedom and identity. This passage is simply calling wives to seek the same in their relationship with their husbands: a response of love that says, ‘I am willing to put my ambition second to yours.’

But notice that is is essentially the same as what husbands are called to do. In verse 25 husbands are to submit to their wives in a way that reflects what Jesus did for those He came to save.  Jesus – God in the flesh – did not aggrandise himself or seek to control, manipulate or dominate. Instead he lived in humility, loving and serving those around Him, and eventually making the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus put our own needs before His own, by going to the cross and taking upon Himself not only the punishment we deserve, but knowing in his very being all of the pain and isolation and anguish that we know because of our sin. Why did he do this? Well it says here in verse 26: to make us holy – that is, set apart especially for God, with a special purpose for existing; to cleanse us – that is, to remove all our guilt and shame and all that makes us ‘dirty’; and to present us to himself – that is, with the ultimate goal of a perfect, unbreakable relationship with Himself.

So the standard to which husbands are called is just as great, and often just as difficult, as that to which wives are called. And together, a husband and a wife are called to something much greater and nobler than simply having a partnership or raising a family: they are to be a reflection, an audio-visual display of the relationship between Jesus Christ and all who know and trust Him.

Jethro and Rosie stand before us today, and in doing so are giving us permission to watch them closely – not just today, but for the rest of their life together – and to see in their love and commitment, in their promises of faithfulness and cherishing, in their willing sharing of themselves with one another, a picture of the relationship with God that has been made possible by Jesus.

Paul makes a very profound observation towards the end of this passage. He reflects on the union of a husband and wife and says, ‘This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.’ (Ephesians 5:32). He is saying that human marriage – the beginning of which we are witnessing today – is meant to be simply a reflection of the true marriage – that between Jesus and the church.

God has written into the fabric of our humanity a parable that tells us of a much greater story than the story of a man and woman committing to be faithful for life. This story is of God Himself making a commitment – a promise to be faithful – to this human race whom He has created. This is a commitment that has been sealed in blood, and is the most reliable, trustworthy, securing commitment we will ever experience.

In this world, human marriages can and do fail. Husbands and wives will fail to love as they should, and will regularly break one or more of the promises they make at their wedding. But the promise of commitment that God makes to us in Jesus Christ is one that will never fail, because He will never fail.

So we are called by God – and Rosie and Jethro have agreed by inviting us here – to see in this wedding and the marriage to follow something far beyond just a new family being formed. We are called to see the story behind the story, and to answer God’s call to come, be loved by Christ, be washed and made holy, and to know and love Him as He has loved us.

Jethro and Rosie, this will happen in two ways as we, your family and friends observe your marriage.

Firstly, in the good times. When you find that your partnership flows easily, and submitting to and loving one another is natural; when you display to us, and to the children that God may bless you with, a faithfulness, devotion and commitment that says, ‘I made a promise, I will stand by that promise no matter what.’ In doing so, you will remind us that God is faithful, and worthy of our love, trust and obedience.

Secondly, when the tough times come. And they will come. Because one thing is for sure, you stand before one another today as sinners, saved by grace. And that means there will be times when the partnership is difficult, when you do not see eye to eye, when people may say, ‘I felt a bit of tension between Rosie and Jethro tonight.’ There will be times when you realise that you, or they, have let each other down, and may even be tempted to think, ‘They promised something at our wedding, but I don’t see them keeping to that promise.’

It is in those times that you can still communicate something to us and your family about God: that He is the God of all grace. That when we lose faith, he remains faithful. When we fail to keep our promises, he remains firm on His. That no matter how far or how badly we fall, there is never any second guessing abut whether He will forgive, heal, and restore.

You have been saved by grace, but you also live by grace. This wedding day is a gift of God’s grace to you, and your marriage will be by grace. As you live in that grace, forgiving, persevering, restoring one another, and giving glory to God in that, you will faithfully be presenting Jesus to us all. We all look forward to taking this journey with you.

The world tells us that a successful program is big and bright and noisy. We buy into it, and think that God’s not working unless our meetings are big, the singing is loud, and people leave talking about the ‘experience’. That’s called a ‘Theology of glory’. It’s what Paul was fighting against in the churches that had been taken over by the ‘Super Apostles’.

However, a ‘Theology of the Cross’ says that we know God is at work when people begin to reflect the character of Christ. Humilty, patience, gentleness, self sacrifice, ‘He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street…’ (Is. 42:2).

So I think that what Tim Keller says here is very true, and if we took note of it we might recognise the revivals taking place in our small, humble, quiet churches where people come week-in week-out to hear the proclaimed word, be an encouragement to each other as they wait for the Day of the Lord, and go out humbly to love, serve and share Christ with their neighbours.

A recent heartwarming but apocryphal story was recently circulated via social media: the story of Pastor Jeremiah Steepek and his first day in a new, 10 000 member church disguised as a homeless man. The story can be read here, on a website by someone who possibly doesn’t realise it’s a fake. The short version is that Jeremiah tuns up for his first day as new pastor dressed as a homeless man, and is largely ignored by most of the congregation.  Early in the service his appointment was announced, and he came to the platform, revealed his identity, read from Matthew 25:31-46 (the ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats), berated the congregation and then closed the service.

On my first reading of this story there were a few things that didn’t have the ring of truth – why did the Elders announce him if they didn’t even know if he has shown up? Why would he think it appropriate to close the service only minutes after it had started? And what church is this? If the story reveals the pastor’s name, why not the name of the church, and why when googling his name do only hoax-busting websites come up?

Some were quick to respond to the expose by saying, ‘Well, who cares if it’s true or not, it’s still a great, challenging story!’ Other have also pointed to a true account of Willie Lyle who lived for 5 days on the streets among the homeless before starting in his new church, and posed as a homeless man on the church lawn on his first Sunday. Quite possibly the story of Steepek is an altered version of this.

I admire Lyle for his willingness to obey what he believed to be a dream from God, and for his compassion towards the homeless. I agree also that much of our western, middle class prosperous church needs to be called out of the idolatry of our worship of mammon. However these stories raise some other important questions, firstly about the core mission of the church, and secondly about responsible use and interpretation of Scripture.

What is the mission of the church?

Both stories seem to convey the idea that unless Christians are out helping the poor and needy, they are not truly living the Gospel. Willie Lyle essentially set this agenda for the future of his church in his inaugural sermon. “Our goal should be to improve and change the lives of people as we live like Jesus.” he says. This is a common mantra among both liberal and some ‘evangelical’ churches today – as if our mission is to make this world a better place to live. Ironically, this sentiment is akin to prosperity teaching, as it sees people’s most important needs as physical and financial.

Social Justice and caring for those less fortunate should be a fruit of a life transformed by the Gospel, but it is not the core mission of the church. The Gospel is the announcement of the crucified, risen and reigning Jesus, and is coupled with the call to repent; it’s not a way of living, a challenge to serve, or advice on how to improve ours and others’ lives. The core mission of the church is to proclaim the glory of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God established in Him. And you know, what will happen as a result of that is not just people entering the kingdom, but God’s people expressing their love for God by loving their neighbour, without their church even telling them they have to or needing to put guilt trips on them!

What is Matthew 25:31-46 saying?

This passage is often quoted in the context of motivating Christians to make a difference in the world by helping the poor, sick and imprisoned. But is this actually the point of Jesus’ words?

This quite a judgemental passage. Jesus curses people people and casts them out into “the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” And who are those who are cast out? Those who haven’t been involved in helping the needy. Now think for a moment. If Jesus is directing this to Christians, his Church, what is he saying? That despite the atonement and the promise of free grace and forgiveness, Christians will ultimately only be saved if they do good deeds? That a Christian will still end up in Hell if they don’t feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners? What happened to salvation by grace through faith?

It’s not actually Christians that Jesus is speaking of here. In this account (which isn’t really a parable) the Christians are actually those who are sick, naked, hungry and imprisoned. How do I know that? Because Jesus calls them ‘my brothers’ (vs. 40). Jesus only uses this term for those who are his disciples, those who have believed in him. “Who are my mother and my brothers? …whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 4:33). In the first century (and still today) Christians were persecuted, ostracised and disadvantaged at the hand of both Jews and Romans. God repeatedly (especially in the book of Revelation) promises justice for His people when they are persecuted for righteousness sake and for the Gospel. That is what this is: God’s judgement on those who have shown disdain for Him by mistreating His people. Significantly chapter 25 comes immediately after chapter 24 in which Jesus promises his disciples that they will face fierce opposition in the time leading up to the destruction of the Temple and beyond, even up to the time of His second coming. This passage then gives assurance that justice will be done, and that evil men will not be overlooked in the judgement.

So rather than a challenge for Christians to make helping the needy their core mission, it is both a comfort for persecuted Christians, and a call to the world to repent and be reconciled to this Son of Man before whom they will one day stand.

Cred to Willie Lyle. But please Willie, make Jesus the centre of your sermons, not our good deeds. That is really the only way your church will be built up and make a difference in your town with anything of eternal value.