A study of comparisons between the life of the Spirit and the church's structures and traditions.
1. Moving on with God through the wilderness
a. Following after God
b. No longer in their midst
iv. Church Attendance
2. The organisation of the camp in the wilderness
a. When God stopped moving
b. The Israelites looked to God for direction
3. When the life comes
4. The life brings new ways of doing things
5. The sail before the wind
6. The wind is coming
Each one of us is a traveller through the wilderness of this life - our final destination being the promised land as we pass through death into the totality of what God has prepared for us (I Chr 29:15, Heb 11:13-16, Ps 39:12). As such, we echo the experience of the Israelites as they journey through the wilderness to finally reach the edge of what God had promised them they were to take possession of.
This appears to be the main thrust of the Scriptures even though, in modern times, the Church has considered itself being the conquering army invading the land of Canaan to take hold of its inheritance. Though it is quite true to say that the Church is to taste those things now that it will one day receive in their entirety in the future (Heb 6:4-5, Eph 1:13-14), the main concern of Scripture is to picture our earth walk as a journey through the wilderness.
We are still sojourners who receive our inheritance in the resurrection but, equally so, we are travellers who find ourselves achieving goals that have been set for us and are people who are laying hold of possessions and overcoming enemies to the will of God as we encounter them.
Primarily, the Israelites' journeying through the wilderness to enter the Promised land can teach us many principles that are useful in our walk with God. And then, additionally, we can look at the conquering of Canaan as being foretasted now.
The specific phenomenon that we need to deal with here, though, is the actual mechanism of how the children of Israel moved and how they encamped. These principles will teach us how the church needs both to push on to lay hold of more of our rightful inheritance and how to live when there seems to be a lull in the onward advance of the Kingdom of God.
1. Moving on with God through the wilderness
Numbers 9:15-23, 10:33-36, Exodus 40:36-37
NB - it is not always possible to differentiate between points that could fall equally under each of the two different headings of 'moving on’ and 'the organisation of the camp' (see part 2). For example, point 2b was originally two different points under separate headings. However, it's better to concentrate our thoughts once on the two aspects of the one concept rather than attempt to butcher the passage to try and make it fit twice.
a. Following after God.
Unless the Israelites were prepared to follow God wherever He moved, they would no longer have been a part of the Israelite nation and under the guardianship of God. Similarly, unless we follow the movings of God, we will not find ourselves in the place where God wants us to be.
We may enjoy the times of praise that are experienced within a church fellowship, take part in evangelistic enterprises and generally see God’s Kingdom being established in areas all around us but, if we fail to follow after God when we can clearly perceive His movings, then we will not be in the place that God wants us to be.
In Mark 1:32-39 we read that Jesus was not content with the crowds that clamoured after Him. Even though you and I may have seen in them a great hunger for the knowledge of God and marvelled at how God had prepared the way for us to effectively win many for Christ, Jesus doesn’t elevate the experience over and above the known will of the Father that is being revealed to Him. Having heard from the Father that He was to move on (v.35), He took steps to go where He was leading (v.38), forsaking the ‘revival’ that had, the previous evening, broken out.
John 5:19-20 represents an interesting and often misunderstood passage - the words ‘...whatever [the Father does], that the Son does likewise’ have been taken to mean that Jesus observed what the Father was doing around Him and then went out and did the very same things. But the works of Jesus were not mimicry (seeing and then copying) but actively participating in the purpose and will of the Father as Jesus perceived Him, wanting to move in each and every situation. When the Father desired to moved on (as in Mark 1:32-39), so did Jesus - it wasn’t that the Father had already left but that His desire was to leave and Jesus followed that will by, Himself, leaving.
In John 6:66-68 we witness the time when many of Jesus' followers found that the cost of following Him became too great. But Peter knew that the cost was worth paying for no one else spoke directly from the Father as He did. They had to follow if they wanted Life.
Similarly, if you had been an Israelite travelling through the wilderness, setting up camp and moving on four times in as many days and nights might have provoked you into wanting to stay put - but, to have life, you would have had to have followed the cloud.
Jesus' call to the disciples was 'come and follow' (Mark 1:17, Matthew 9:9), not ‘come and serve’. Those who did so, found themselves in the centre of God’s will.
b. No longer in their midst
When God’s presence in the cloud went up from the Tabernacle in the wilderness, God was no longer in their midst but moving. The reality of God's presence was in front, leading the way and clearly visible to the children of Israel who followed on behind, but the ceremonial accessories were packed away behind Him. When the Life left, they followed Him and didn't rely on the ceremony. If all the congregation had stayed put when God moved on, even if they had continued to practice the sacrificial system (based upon the God-given ordinance), they would not have had the reality of God in their midst.
This, then, is tradition (in the negative sense of the word) - keeping an outward ceremony when God moves on into something different. There is no life in ceremony - only in reality. Ceremony may be perfectly scriptural but totally dead, fossilised to contain the bare bones of something that was once very much alive and kicking. When God moved on through the wilderness, the existing structure had to be dispensed with until He came to rest and structure was formed around Him.
When David was king, we see this dichotomy of life and structure very vividly portrayed in the existence of two ways of worshipping God. The tabernacle of the wilderness wanderings (without the Ark of God's presence) was situated at Gibeon - this was the ceremonial aspect devoid of the life of God's presence (I Chr 16:39-40). But the tent that housed the Ark of the covenant (the symbol of the presence of God) remained at Jerusalem with the king (I Chr 16:1,37-38). It appears that, at that time, David was torn between the two places (I Chr 16:37-42) - the one which exemplified the traditional sacrificial system, and the other that bore the life of God. This is so typical a picture of the way of the Church today that we would do well to consider very carefully where we find ourselves as individuals and assess the areas that we are involved in to see if we are still experiencing the life of God in them or whether we are simply going through the motions, looking very holy on the outside but actually quite dead.
Ceremonial religion is something that we are all in danger of participating in without thinking.
Set formats become so comfortable that we can forget that the Lord requires a life of obedience. Note that in both Isaiah 1:12-15 and Amos 5:21-23 where God condemns the practices then in existence, we are reading concerning what God had commanded, and not what His people had dreamed up for the sheer fun of it! God is saying in both these places that He was no longer in their participation of the legal requirements of the Law. Mere ceremony can never be pleasing to God because, in it, we serve the procedure rather than God Himself.
THE SCRIBES AND PHARISEES
When Jesus spoke to the scribes and Pharisees (Mtw 23:23-24), He condemned them for forgetting about the important matters of the law such as justice and mercy even though they had remembered to tithe even the increase of the smallest plants and herbs. In their case, selective obedience had taken them outside the will of God and caused them to stand as opposers of Jesus.
We can move with God for many years but at a certain time we become content with the stage we reach. The Spirit then moves on into new things, we adhere to the old format and another tradition comes into being - how often this has happened in the history of the Church! Worship becomes merely singing choruses with understanding and with the spirit, the Bible becomes dead letter and legalism bringing death and condemnation rather than life and liberty, prayer becomes mundane, routine, repetitive.
If there is no life in a structure, we should change the structure in order to try and recapture the life so long as we don’t have a specific word to stay the way we are and that we don’t change into something that is worldly and opposed to the character of God. When the lepers in II Kings 7:3-8 saw that they had no food, they didn’t wait for a word from God to change their position but they used their reasoning and moved.
Their exact methodology was:
i. They identified the problem (they were realists)
ii. They decided not to accept their situation (as being from God).
iii. They did something radical in order to change their situation.
When there is death in a situation (no life of God) then that’s a good indication that God wants you to do something different.
THE BRONZE SERPENT
In Num 21:4-9, we find Moses being commanded to make a bronze serpent for the healing of the children of Israel after God had sent fiery serpents into their camp in judgment of them bemoaning the necessity of eating manna. This structure that God had used here to bring healing to His people became an object to be worshipped by II Kings 18:4 when Hezekiah set about it being destroyed, so removing the stumbling block from Israel. The structure that had been given to God’s people had become the object of their worship rather than the One who’d given it to them in the first place. In a similar way, the Church can find that the structure that ‘worked’ - even the one that worked last week - becomes the structure that is served rather than the One who worked through it to do things in their midst.
When God gave the children of Israel manna in the wilderness (Ex 16:16-21), it was only for a time - it could not be kept until a future date (except for the day before the sabbath). Similarly, God’s provision to us as His Church is also for ‘now’ - it can’t be held on to until a future date.
The provision of God upon His spoken Word is also only for a time - when we hear His voice, we need to obey or lose His timing. God will certainly be heard and those who desire to hear His voice shan’t miss it when He speaks - though, if we are unsure, He expects us to ask Him for confirmation.
(see also Malachi 1:11-13, Psalm 51:16-17 and especially Matthew 15:3 ['Why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?']).
Before we move on to section 2, we’ll consider some specific examples of the way we can sit in the wilderness when the presence of God moves on - and, hopefully, these may help us to focus on the issues at stake here:
We can preach that which is scriptural but which has no life (and not many people will probably know the difference - even worse, they’ll probably encourage the preacher with deceptive words that make him think that he should continue in similar vein!). We can have the letter of the law spoken to congregations yet not have the liberty of God's presence upon the Truth thus made known (II Cor 3:6).
It is the Spirit and the Word united that brings life - the word on its own brings death, the way of the spirit on its own brings excessive freedom and a license to do as we please. But when both are united, then the words we hear are both Life and life-changing. Here is a warning for every preacher and teacher who will ever take his stand to minister to the Lord’s congregation - it is not sufficient that your words are Scriptural but that, when you speak, the presence of God unites with them and brings life to all your hearers. That, of course, means that one must know what God wants to be said to His people and for this to be followed after rather than our own ideas. But such is the responsibility of all who want to speak on His behalf for the benefit of His people (I Peter 4:11).
We can sing choruses (or hymns - there’s little difference for the point we’re considering here) with our lips and not our hearts - when we sing for singing's sake rather than as a means to worship God. Instead of using the music and the lyrics as vehicles that convey our feelings, they can become melodic exercises with rhythmic words that ‘feel good’.
Have you noticed how 'chorus times' have become a normal Church service item? It's certainly great to bring praise to God but if He said 'do something different’ would we be prepared to 'break camp' and not do what we wanted to? That thought can often bring feelings of horror with our experience justified along the lines of ‘but it’s of God’. The stark reality of perhaps having to change doesn’t impart the security that a lot of us long for and which we crave. But if God wanted to move on into something new one meeting, are we really all that bothered when we can have our little sing and feel we’ve worshipped God at little or no personal cost?
Songs can sometimes be sung either because we like the song or because we like singing - not good reasons to praise God! You may think that God would never command us to stop something that is 'of Him' but consider Abraham. The child of promise, Isaac, whom God had given to him (Gen 15:4, 18:10), God required to be killed as a sacrificial offering (Gen 22:1-2).
Abraham would have had good cause to say that it couldn't have been God - but, instead, He obeyed the voice that he knew to be the Lord's. Though I doubt that God will ever again command such a thing from an individual (but I may here be wrong!), He does ask His people frequently to kill off those things in which they are trusting in order that they may become reliant upon Him and not upon the object.
We can read Scripture and it become a traditional and legalistic observance confined to a fifteen minute ritual every morning that we feel is a duty before we can get on with our own life.
Though it is true to say that, sometimes, trying to come to terms with reading the Biblical passages and getting something from them that we know God has said specifically to us is difficult - if not impossible - if our week in, week out experience is worse than death warmed up then something has to change. We can fall into a death-trap and think that we must force ourselves to perform our religious duty when the lack of anointing on a course of action may be to wake us up to the fact that change is necessary in the way we read, when we read or what passage we read.
Personally, I found that I gained nothing from an organised Bible reading (Every Day With Jesus) so I had to re-structure my reading of Scripture the way He wanted me too. I remember that I used to think 'Now I've got EDWJ out the way, I can start really learning from God!'
For me, the dead format was restricting my relationship with God even though it worked for other people.
iv. Church Attendance
Fellowship can also become a religious observance. We can go to meetings 'because I've always attended church'. God did not desire men and women to sit unmoved in a church meeting and to remain consistently unmoved, thinking that by paying their religious 'dues' they had somehow pleased the heart of God. He desires that we participate actively in what He's doing and not be bystanders.
If our walk with the Lord is defined as notching up good deed points on the register in heaven (10 points per meeting and 50 if we get personally immersed in water) then we’ve missed the mark with regards following after God and experiencing His life.
The following Michael Card song expounds these themes well:
Echo of history
A light so many strain to see
The One we talk so much about
But rarely ever live it out
Could you tell me 'why?'
Was it for this You came and died?
A once a week observance
When we coldly mouth Your words
Lord I long to see
Your presence in reality
But I don't know how
To know You in the now
We should confess
We lose You in our busy-ness
We've made You in our image
So our faith's idolatry
Lord, deliver me
Break my heart so I can see
All the ways You dwell in us
That You're alive in me
Finally, a child cannot refuse to change as it grows up to maturity. It has to develop - and that means change (I Cor 13:11). In Heb 5:11-14 (one of the rare instances in the NT where the use of ‘word’ naturally refers to what is written) the writer was concerned that, although the recipient's of the letter had received good, solid teaching, they had not developed in their walk with the Lord - they were still babes in Christ. Becoming a christian is not the final destination - it's a beginning, a new birth. There must be a progression in a person's life (though we all grow at different rates) in order for us to continually become more like Christ.
2. The organisation of the camp in the wilderness
Numbers 1:53-2:34, 3:38-39
The cloud was the symbol of God's presence with them. When the Israelites formed camp, the cloud was directly over the Tabernacle. Indeed, the reason for the putting up of the tabernacle was because that was where the presence of God had come to rest.
When the cloud went up, they moved on - but, when it stopped, they organised themselves around God.
a. When God stopped moving
The Israelites stopped moving on in their journey towards the promised land only when God stopped. At that time, they set up camp around Him. The camp was a place to stay and to find rest and provision from God until God moved on again.
According to the 'living' word from God, we also need to structure and order ourselves around God. He moves us onwards, ever nearer to the promised land (to be more like Jesus) but, in-between, He allows stragglers to catch up, structures to be formed. Each stop is a transitional place until God moves on to another area, it is not the final destination. It is important that we do not vehemently adhere to our present position.
In Exodus 16:13-16 we see that the food provision had to do with the location of camp and not with the discovery of food in the journey. The food was provided for His people when they’d come to rest and had ceased travelling. In like manner, teachers within the Church are there for the time when the Church is stable and static, when foundations have to be made - evangelists and prophets are designed for the ‘move’ when structures fall by the wayside until the next stop on the way to the Promised Inheritance.
There is nothing wrong with Church structure if God is at the centre of it. Where it becomes a problem is when God moves on into something new but we cling on to the methods of the past (see also 1b). Structure should be an expression of the life of God, not a stricture upon it.
Structure without God’s presence is deceptive as we tend to think that we’ve got something that we haven’t, clinging on to that structure rather than to the One who gave it.
b. The Israelites looked to God for direction
(Num 9:15-23 esp v.18,23 and Numbers 2:2)
The Israelites were encamped with their faces towards the presence of God, waiting for the next move when they would have to gather their possessions together quickly and follow after Him.
Similarly, we need to be always looking to God for direction and guidance (that is, the next move). This should be our continual attitude - always looking to God to see where He wants us to move next, but always rejoicing in the place that we find ourselves in.
Suppose, early one morning, you'd decided to have a lie in and, when you’d got up and exited from your tent, you’d found that yours was the only one in an endless desert? So we are commanded to be sober and watchful (I Peter 5:8) so that satan does not have opportunity to destroy us - the Amalekites (a type of satan in Scripture) attacked those who lagged behind in the rear of the advance of the nation of Israel (Deut 25:17-18). Those with a pastoral ministry are the ones who get alongside those who lag behind to protect and encourage them, and bring them back in to the main body of believers who are advancing into the inheritance.
When they were on the move, if they hadn't looked to God, then they would have strayed from the path in which God was leading them. The same is true today - at all times we need to watch the way God is moving, listen to the words that He is speaking and follow Him.
II CHR 20
II Chr 20 gives us a good insight into what it means to look to God for direction ‘in crisis’:
Jehoshaphat was a good king who feared the Lord and was one of the truly righteous kings that rose up in the southern kingdom of Judah after the division of the tribes under Rehoboam.
However, he was also naive and some of the things he did resulted in the near annihilation of the royal line after his death (see II Kings 3, II Chr 18 - verse 1 relates to II Chr 21:5-6 and II Chr 22).
He had fortified Judah to withstand an enemy attack (II Chr 17:2) and there was a garrison of the army located in Jerusalem (II Chr 17:13). But, when ‘nations’ came against him (II Chr 20:1-2) who had got ‘behind’ his military fortifications, he realised that the men he had stationed in Jerusalem would be insufficient to repel the attack.
The structures Jehoshaphat had in place were insufficient to achieve victory.
So, what did he do?
i. He looked to the Lord (II Chr 20:4,12), just like the Israelites did in the wilderness and as David continually did (Ps 25:15).
ii. When He heard the word of God, he obeyed it (II Chr 20:15-17,20ff).
iii. He changed the structure of the army’s advance (II Chr 20:21). Instead of war songs, they sang praise.
Looking to God is not a passive attitude. When Jehoshaphat heard the Word, he obeyed and followed God’s leading by changing the normal structure of the march in to battle. God’s word to a people means a change in the way it normally does things. Notice in this passage of II Chr 20, the unusual ‘structures’ that Jehoshaphat employed:
i. He went to bed. There are ‘nations’ coming against him but, instead of sending the troops out of Jerusalem to at least shield the capital, he stays overnight within the city to get some sleep - even the anxiety of what could possibly happen to his kingdom doesn’t appear to be weighing very heavily on his mind.
ii. He put the singers in front of the army. Either he was trusting in God to deliver them should they encounter the hostile army or else he was so fed up with the way they sang (perhaps they were tone deaf?) that he wanted to get them killed off first and do everyone a favour (I don’t think it was the latter of the two explanations!).
iii. The singers sing praise songs not war songs.
iv. The entire structure of the army is of a body that is not expecting to fight - indeed, it’s the structure of an army that thinks it’s already fought, has won and is now enjoying the victory march.
Certainly, this is no way to wage war - but looking to God, hearing Him and obeying Him will mean that we use unusual structures.
To use two Scriptural examples, Ezekiel was commanded to lie on his side for a total of 430 days, God commanding him to prepare his food by cooking it on human dung - though the Lord relented when Ezekiel prayed and allowed him to use cow dung instead (Ezekiel 4).
Isaiah was commanded to walk ‘naked and barefoot’ for three years amongst the people of Israel - the Scripture makes mention of him having ‘buttocks uncovered’ (Isaiah 20). If we are going to follow God and allow Him to lead us, then we must be prepared for the possibility that it may be necessary to do ‘strange things’.
Even looking back at Church history bears witness to the fact of unusual occurrences that God used to bring about His purpose. One example which springs to mind is the modern day Argentinean revival which began when one lady banged her fist on a table in obedience to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Not particularly Scriptural that method, now was it?
One final word on Jehoshaphat and II Chr 20. It has often been asserted that the praise that took place on the day when the armies were routed, was the action that won the victory. But, if we read the passage carefully, we see that praise did not win the victory though it did bring the time of the victory forward. The victory was won when they heard the word of God and believed it - their praise was only a response to their belief.
In Phil 3:13-16 Paul envisages his christian experience as a journey through which he travels to reach a final destination (v.13-14). But Paul also speaks of holding '...true to what we have attained' (v.16), language that speaks of motionlessness in that journey. Sometimes, then, we will be stationery in our walk with the Lord but we will be living with the expectancy of a move.
We should live continually as people who are waiting to follow God wherever He may next lead us but living in the reality of all that He has done in us.
To Paul, the christian life is both encampment and march, both being stationary and moving at the same time. Paul is both ‘pressing on’ and ‘holding true to’. Similarly, even when we ‘move on’ with God and He’s leading us into new areas of our walk with Him, we must still remember to be true to all that He has already done in us. That doesn’t mean that we hold on to our old structures, but that we remain faithful to all that we have already experienced of Jesus and all that we have applied to our lives.
3. When the life comes
When the life of God comes to a fellowship (or, perhaps more accurately, we should say 'when the life of God begins to move in a new way in a fellowship'), we mustn’t restrict it by our structure (either corporately or in individual areas of our lives). There are very few methods that are laid down for us to unswervingly observe in the NT - but there are many principles that will inspire methods.
In John 11:38-44, we see Jesus bringing new life into a situation. The life of God desires to come into new areas of our christian experience (both individually and corporately), but it is the old grave clothes of our tradition and religious experience that restrict the new life. The Messiah brings life to our deadness but it is up to us to loose the restrictions that are placed upon it. Jesus is quite willing to be the Bringer of life into our situation - the problem is that we are not always willing to allow the life free expression.
When Jesus walked this earth, the Pharisees could not fit Him or His ways into their form of religion. He didn't uphold their expounding of the Scriptures (Mk 7:3, Mtw 15:2-3) or agree with what they did (Mtw 23:2-7). Indeed, He categorically opposed them on many occasions and reserved His most cutting denunciations for them - they who were the established Church's leaders of their day (Mtw 23 [!], 22:15-22 [esp v.18]). Therefore, though He desired to bring them life, they rejected the purpose of God for themselves because of their hardness of heart (Lk 7:30). Jesus had come in to the world to save it (John 3:17) but those who rejected the purposes of God found themselves standing before God condemned.
In Mtw 9:14-17 we read Jesus’ answer to the disciples of John who came to Him with a question concerning the unusual way of living that Jesus had when compared to their religious ways. They had devoted themselves to fasting, thinking that this procedure was laid upon all believers who were zealous for God and, consequently, they were not able to unreservedly accept what Christ was doing as being ‘God’s best’.
But Jesus answered them with a simple parable from natural life. When new life comes, the old cannot simply be patched up (v.16). Neither can it be contained by old structures (v.17a - known commonly as a ‘church split’!). But it takes up residence in new ways of doing things (v.17b). Though they had tried to understand this move of God on the basis of their own religious experience, they were never going to be able to do so because it was different to whatever they’d experienced, so that its outworkings were also radically different.
When God brings new life to us, much of the old is going to have to change or disappear (Is 43:18-19).
Many years ago, when I was working around England for a particular denomination, a group of gypsies descended upon my old church fellowship where I’d been before my time away. The fellowship had become rather staid in its format of service, settling into a ‘religious’ way of behaviour that was often devoid of any real movement of the Lord, so the gypsies’ attendance was like a breath of fresh air, not only because they were hungry to know the things of God but because their culture began to destroy the deadness that was part and parcel of what it meant to attend.
Kids ran round the building with little or nothing on and their parents (or keepers) came in and out of the building as they felt they wanted to. On one particular occasion, a woman who was being prayed for and counselled was breast-feeding her youngest!
When you went back to their caravans to give them private counsel, the families would stand around chatting - just when you’re trying to hear the Lord in it all. There was never the possibility for the privacy that some of the types of problems seemed to demand.
And strange things used to happen amongst the gypsies:
I remember the time that, after my return, the leading gypsy felt he had a word from God that he had to see Cliff Richard and talk with him. So we travelled up to London by train to the show that he was currently performing in and went round backstage. At the time we arrived, he hadn’t yet turned up but Reuben (the name of the gypsy) went back later (I thought it best to let him speak to him alone as he obviously had something private for him and I didn’t want to be restrictive upon what he might need to say) and had a good chat with him. Now if I’d’ve tried to do that...
Then there was the time that one of the leading women came to the meeting to kill the church minister - but she got saved and baptised in water the same evening before she’d had the chance to do what she’d intended.
When the gypsies turned their lives over to God, they were usually filled with the Holy Spirit immediately and spoke with tongues - an all-in-one salvation, just like the New Testament Church. They also wanted to be baptised in water as soon as possible afterwards.
Revelation was so simple to the gypsies. Most couldn’t read, so when God spoke to them they believed Him - they didn’t have to sit down and try to work it out Scripturally.
Reuben one day had heard God tell Him what His favourite colour was so he went round sharing with us the revelation that he’d received. The danger was for each one of us to say ‘Don’t be daft, Reuben, how can God have a favourite colour?’, but you got the assurance in your heart that what he was sharing wasn’t as fanciful as it might have sounded had you tried to think about the question and to try and find its answer by logic!
There was no organisation with the gypsies at all - no fixed structures - or, at least, it seemed that way. So they were not hindered in the slightest to do anything that God asked them to do.
That’s why, I guess, they were God’s tonic for the fellowship - they didn’t conform to the staid ceremonies and, by their presence, broke them up so that God was able to move.
The gypsy life is very much like the christian life should be - indeed, it’s very much more like the christian life should be than the lives we so often live out before Him. They would park their caravans in a specific area until a day came when they felt the urge to move on to another place. It was like that in individual lives, too - you never really knew what they were going to do next. This type of life is outlined for us in John 3:8 where it speaks about all who are born of the Spirit living this way...
4. The life brings new ways of doing things
Different battles need different structures, tactics and methods.
We shall look at this point in greater detail in coming weeks as it’s a subject that needs careful consideration (the notes are entitled 'A new battle means a new strategy') but, for now, consider Peter and John with the lame man at the gate Beautiful in Acts 3. Can we envisaged them discussing amongst themselves the methodology of how they should heal him? Do you think that they thought back to what Jesus had done with the lame man on the pallet in Mark 2:1-12 and then tried to get some helpers to lower him through a roof so that they could follow the set procedure? Of course not - in fact, Acts 19:13-16 gives us a warning as to what can happen when we follow a set format or verbal formula rather than have the reality of God in our midst.
John 3:8 talks about the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing where He will. The Scripture doesn’t say ‘so it is how every person is born of the Spirit’ (which would refer to the new birth) but ‘so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’ (which refers to the experience of the renewed life). The Scripture is speaking about a way of life, not a one-off phenomenon.
So it should be with us if we're moved by that same Spirit. We should be an unpredictable people (yet perfectly stable and secure in God) who move as the Spirit leads us and not in accordance with any man-made or pre-arranged formula. In like manner the apostle Paul moved throughout the world and did things before men that had not been staged or planned in advance, So, too, for that manner, did Jesus...
Statements such as 'We've always done it that way' or 'It's always worked before, why not now?' are of no worth and only prevent the free-working of the Holy Spirit for it’s not a method that works but God who works through the method (though God is often gracious - up to a point).
There have been two times in my life when the Lord has told me directly to go to a church for a specific meeting.
The first time, the preacher didn't turn up, so I was able to put a quick word together where I was sitting and share it at the appropriate time (a word about the baptism in the Holy Spirit which, I found out afterwards, the church didn't believe in!).
The second time, being a bit suspicious of the reasons why I was being sent, I went prepared with a sermon and, again, there was no preacher - however, this time I wasn't allowed to share (even though they knew me and even though the expected preacher had rung the leader to inform him that he wasn’t able to attend on the same day as the Lord had told me to go) and, when I was told that I could come back another week to share the word I declined - God's appointment for me wasn't for a future time but for then. The encouragement that the congregation would have received that God had known their predicament and provided for them was far more important than the word I’d brought - I could have spoken about Mickey Mouse and Pluto for all the Lord cared, the point He was trying to get across to His people was that he knows their predicaments and troubles and will look after them. But the leader robbed his congregation of that blessing.
Subsequent to both these events, I have never had recourse to go back again (or have I turned up at another 'new' church expecting God to axe the speaker for me!) - the word to go to those two particular fellowships was for then, demanding immediate obedience and then it could be put to one side.
5. The sail before the wind
It is quite true that when a structure no longer captures the Life and Presence of God, then it needs to be changed. We have already seen that we should consider altering those things that have long since become dead. In this case, we are changing the structure to catch the wind that’s there.
However, many individuals and congregations institute a different structure to catch the wind that isn’t there. In these cases, when a change of structure brings no change to the deadness, we need to first pray for the wind to come.
I have seen many fellowships institute a structure that ‘works’ in another fellowship, thinking they will capture the life that they have. But they gain nothing except another dead structure. In these cases, it is the life, the presence of the Spirit of God, that needs to come first and not the structure.
We shouldn’t imagine that by instituting structures God must turn up. In like manner, no yachtsman hoists a sail on the mast of his boat to make the wind come - it’s only put up when the wind is already there. A sail is only ever of use when there is wind to be caught to give a vessel motion.
THE GREAT COMMISSION
It is often stated with absolute certainty that 'Go and preach' is the Great Commission (Mark 16:16, Acts 1:8b) even though, by the omission of certain words, this statement becomes deceptive. Certainly the disciples could have structured themselves to do it (though I doubt that they had the capacity to achieve it!) but they would have had little success. However, if we look at the context of the words that Jesus spoke, we see that this ‘Great Commission’ is actually 'When you receive power...you shall be My witnesses' (Lk 24:48-49, Acts 1:8a). The power of God, the life of God, must come first into our lives to enable us to carry out the Master's orders.
As Zech 4:6 says (GNB) 'It's not by military might, nor in your own strength, but by My Spirit...'. Even though we would try and achieve things in our own strength (in this case it was the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem), it is necessary that we do all things by God’s Spirit - both in His will and in His power and provision.
I Timothy 3:1-7 details the appointment of oversight. In numerous fellowships that I’ve attended, it has been the case that individuals have been selected to fulfil a specific function within the body when that individual was not currently fulfilling that function and, if you were to assess whether that person could fulfil it, you would have to say ‘no’.
When there are gaps in ministry areas within a local body of believers, it is not correct to appoint men and women to fill those gaps, expecting that somehow they will rise to the challenge and ‘make good’.
The appointment of men to fulfil a calling is not the way - rather, when people fulfil the calling then they should be recognised by appointment. This was Paul’s way of appointing oversight where he is recognising the ministry that a person has rather than expecting that person to fulfil something that he currently isn’t. Of course, this would make for a more open style of Church, a road down which leadership is often unwilling to travel, but if the local church is to fulfil its calling in the world then such a course of action is vitally necessary.
After all, who would appoint a man as an HGV driver if he hadn't passed his driving test and so shown he was capable of handling a vehicle? But we do such things in the Lord’s church!
The mantle of authority on a prophet symbolised the life of God that was present and the authority that had been invested in that person. Therefore, Elijah casts his mantle over Elisha as his successor because the Lord has already chosen him for the task (I Kings 19:16,19) even though it’s a considerable time before he is in a position to be capable of taking up where Elijah is to leave off.
But the mantle did not magically bring with it the life - just as a position of leadership does not necessarily bring with it the authority of God. Even when Elisha picks up the mantle of Elijah after he has ascended into heaven (II Kings 2:12-14), it isn’t the mantle that is magically performing the miracles through the prophet but that the prophet has been called by God to be the successor and to do such things.
When we look to the office to bring authority upon an individual then we are looking at it the wrong way round. Far better to look to God to see who He’s called and then to get behind His chosen.
In Acts, the disciples were given the life of the Spirit in chapter 2, and in 6:1-6 they structured around it when necessity raised its head. Today, however, we seem to know what structure we want and then try to make the life come out of it or, just as bad, we try and fit the life into it.
But it doesn't work that way.
Then, when the life came, structure eventually became a necessity. Now, we make structure a necessity and hope the life will come. Our minds are fixed on methodology and organisation, thinking that, if we get the structures in place, then God has to be pleased and bless us - but our lives should rather be reflections of who He is and, with willing hearts, we should look to Him to lead us in the direction of His choice, removing structures that hinder or get in the way of His will.
We also often do something for God and hope that He'll bless it instead of allowing him to bless us and then do something for God. In our desire to be pleasing to God, we forget that ‘work’ is a poor substitute for spending time alone with Him and then, out of that relationship, the call will come to do something for Him.
Many today have a structured religion but they do not know the Father. Many are being ‘blessed’ by God, thinking that the ‘blessing’ indicates the Lord’s favour and acknowledgement of their relationship when it is not a definitive proof to us of this (Mtw 5:45).
Many own a Bible but they do not know the One who wrote it. Many people attend buildings out of religious duty that were (supposedly) built for Someone who they have never experienced.
In summary, some have put a sail up to capture the wind while others had a structure God was blowing into but now the wind is gone. Whatever, the wind is the important factor, not the structure.
All structures that take the place of a relationship with God are sails that are hoisted on the masts of our lives when the ship lies becalmed on a motionless sea.
And just what is the point of a sail when there isn't any wind?
6. The wind is coming
The wind of God is definitely coming - maybe today, maybe next century, maybe in a different location to where we are or maybe here where we meet together.
But we mustn’t restrict Him by our dead structure. Although we have all seen the Lord do marvellous works in our midst and with us as individuals, yet still we haven't seen the fulness of all that He wants to achieve through His Church.
But the wind will come.
In previous revivals, chapels in the same city and village experienced different things. One knew the life of God while another carried on as they’d always done - dead and lifeless. Simply, the reason was that one wanted the life and would change with it while the other didn't and so saw little of what God wanted to do. In fact, history teaches us that the latter became the persecutors of the former.
So let us set our wills to change - not for change-sake - but as and when the Holy Spirit leads us.