“…the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Col. 1:26-27.
Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Especially one that has been kept hidden for ages and generations and now is finally being disclosed? This word picture from Paul is Indiana Jones-like imagery. Something wonderful and powerful has been hidden away for a long, long time and is now finally unleashed. By the end of this remarkable introduction to his Colossians letter, Paul has us all leaning in, desperate to know what it is.
Imago Dei – Created in God’s Image
I believe when God created man (and woman) in His own image, this mystery was more apparent to the angels looking on than to the created man. Being created in God’s image, whatever else that means, surely includes being created with the capacity to be indwelled by God’s own Spirit. Man was created with a void in the shape of God’s spirit; a void that would not be filled on a large scale until a day we know as Pentecost.
Everything changed at Pentecost. The answer to the mystery of what that void was all about was then revealed. For the first time, the Spirit of God completed what was God’s plan from the beginning, to indwell His creation. While we see appearances of His Spirit earlier in His story, temporarily filling individuals for limited purposes. But Pentecost was different. It was a permanent filling of every believer. God, the Spirit…Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Then this Daniel became distinguished above all the other high officials and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom…When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. Daniel 6:3, 10
Our circumstances are similar to Daniel’s in some respects, aren’t they? Babylon was not his home. Rather, he was exiled there for a lifetime, instructed to invest, make a home, and seek the welfare of this lifetime home. As Christ followers, this world is not our home. It is merely where we are for this lifetime. And we are instructed to invest, make a home, and seek the welfare of our lifetime home. God expected Daniel to be salt and light in his new home. God expects the same from us. Finally, like Daniel, we find ourselves in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic toward us and toward the God we worship. So, what does Daniel have to teach us about these circumstances?
When the opposition organized against Daniel and created laws which his walk with God simply could not abide, what did Daniel do? How did he respond? Here’s a list of ways he did NOT respond:
He did not take to his loud, proud social media voice and begin slamming those who had conspired against his God;
He did not stoop to his adversaries’ political ways by mobilizing his own political action committee to fight the battle in the world’s arena;
He did not create a bunch of hateful protest signs and organize a march on King
Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed… to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 1 Corinthians 12:1, 7
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
I wish I could see exactly what the question was from the Corinthian church. I mean, I wish I could know exactly how they reported their issue with spiritual gifts to Paul. The mediator in me has watched Paul call out three of the four factions in that church in the first part of this letter (“I follow Paul”, “I follow Apollos”, and I follow Cephas”), and I wonder if the “I follow Jesus” faction was representative of the culprits here, because that is the way it comes across in so many of our church conflicts today where spiritual gifts are at issue. Somebody is making a practice of doing something that is causing all kinds of havoc in the church, i.e., ripping the church apart, and their excuse is that “I am just exercising my spiritual gift…it is the Spirit of God Himself working through me…I am just following Jesus.” I am troubled by that for several reasons, not the least of which is that spiritual gifts are ALL ABOUT UNITY and bringing …
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words… Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Genesis 11:1, 4-6
There is something utterly intoxicating about banding together with others and overcoming obstacles as a team to achieve something significant. Perhaps you have experienced it. If you have ever been on a team during a championship season, or a part of a military division who survived under daunting circumstances, or shared some life-changing scenario with a group, you know the feeling. I felt it having survived the rigors of law school with my classmates. There is this overwhelming sense of everyone having pulled together and accomplished something bigger than any of us thought possible. Working together, everyone pulling their weight, fighting through struggles, and winning. It’s a good feeling…one which often binds a group together for life.
We have a lot of names for it: team chemistry, “family”, camaraderie, esprit de corp. But no matter what you call it, it is a good thing…a powerful thing. There have been times when we felt it as a country here in the U.S. The last time was probably just after 9-11, when we had identified a common enemy and we banded together as a country, building (short lived) bridges across …
Looking back at the hundred-or-so conflicted congregations with whom I have been called to consult over the last couple of decades, here is an important observation: only a small handful (or so) of them had a strong small group ministry. The vast majority of them either had no small group ministry or they had a tired, ineffective small group or Sunday School ministry. I believe there is a correlation. I believe there is a direct relationship between small group ministries and church unity.
For some decades now, church leaders have been recognizing the importance of small groups as a critical tool for Spiritual formation (or for Spiritual “transformation”, depending on whose vernacular you favor). We have all begun to see that, only in the intimacy and accountability of a small group of friends gathered together around the Word of God, can we live the life God has called us to live and become the Christians God has called us to become. It was true in the lives of the apostles (the first small group ever) and it is still true today. Whether you call them Sunday School, Bible Study, home groups, cell groups, prayer groups, gospel communities, support groups or recovery groups doesn’t matter. They all have slightly different aims, but one reality is the same for all of them: creating a safe environment with equal parts grace and truth and where we “lean into” one another’s lives is where real Spiritual transformation occurs.
But I will take this observation one step further. Because small groups are such a powerful tool for Spiritual transformation, they are also a key ingredient to unity in a local body of believers. Why? Because Spiritual formation is a key ingredient to unity. If the Spirit Himself is the central figure in all questions about …
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 4:1
The church in America is in the wilderness. That’s not such a bad place to be. It’s a difficult place, often a painful place, but it’s a place God often leads his people when He has some difficult lessons to teach them or preparations to be made. And the American church certainly has some difficult lessons to learn. Moses learned in the wilderness, as did Elijah. The people of Israel learned in the wilderness. And Jesus went there as well, where he experienced some critical “perspective builders” in the form of temptations. The American church, while in the wilderness, is experiencing temptations as well. If there were ever a story written about it, the way Jesus’ story in the wilderness has been written, the enemy’s temptations of the church might go something like this…
I. The devil said to them, “If you are the Church of God, tell these people to become members.” As bread represents a basic necessity for our body, believers (i.e., members) represent a basic necessity for the Church. There is not a church leader anywhere who, when describing the church he/she serves, is not tempted to describe it at some level in terms of number of members. It is one way we measure our effectiveness in mission. Every evangelistic outreach is measured this way. And since we all want to be seen as “successful”, the temptation here is to move as many bodies as possible from the “prospect” category to the “member” category as quickly as possible. The temptation is to use emotional pleas, scare tactics, or other forms of manipulation toward an all-important “decision”. And what the church is left with, especially over the long term, …
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” John 17:20-21
No matter what kind of car I drive, no matter how expensive, how amazing, nor how reliable it is, if I cannot see out the windshield, it is worthless to me. It’s ironic. A $20 part (a windshield wiper blade) can make all the difference in whether an otherwise amazing vehicle is of any use at all. The windshield, you see, is the only lens through which we, as drivers, can see the road ahead.
Jesus spoke of a similar concept in John 17. At a moment in time when Jesus was considering the global revolution He and his followers were about to start (we call it “the church”), he lifted his eyes toward heaven and prayed. Understanding the challenges the future church would face in bringing a lost and broken world to see and believe in Christ, he asked his Father for the one thing we would need most in order to accomplish our mission: relationships which point to Jesus.
Here is what Jesus understood and a truth we must grasp as well: if the key to a fruitful church is “Christ in us”, then the key to the world seeing Christ in us is relationships in our lives which point to Jesus. In short, our ability to show this …
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 1 Timothy 1:15-16
Does it matter whether or not Paul was in fact the “foremost sinner” before coming to Christ? Or, is the more important point that he perceived himself as such? Yeh, I think so too. It is the self-perception on this issue which matters most.
I think two of the biggest problems for most Christ-followers today is (1) having a false sense of who God is, and (2) having a false sense of who we are without him. The gospel is difficult in the American culture because there are so many in this culture who, frankly, do not feel the need for a savior. What’s worse, the church has become less effective as those of us in the church have tended to forget for ourselves just how desperately we need a savior. Still.
Churches, you see, can have a false sense of self just as well as individuals…we can actually stop remembering who we are without God. We can get so wrapped up in “doing church” that we lose sight of what matters most. Specifically, here are five ways I have seen us have a false sense of self…here are some lies we sometimes believe about our church:
1. We’re better because our music/preaching/buildings/programming/resources are better. Truth is, we are probably not better at all. ButIF we are better, it is only because of the work of the Spirit among us. All the stuff we do…is just stuff. …
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.Ephesians 2:13-14
We all build fences. It is an essential part of the human condition. We categorize and re-categorize ourselves and others over and over again in order to protect our fragile egos and in order to minimize any complex thinking required to really see others. We are quick to identify differences which separate us and we “otherize” anyone we do not agree with or do not fully understand. We build fences. And we do this within the church.
Apparently, the single most effective tool for breaking down fences between people or groups of people is to identify a bigger, more important dividing line. Having found that more significant division, most of the smaller ones suddenly seem less important and may dissolve altogether. You have experienced this.
Take, for example, the deep, deep political divide the United States was experiencing after the 2000 Presidential election…the race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Does the term “hanging chad” ring a bell? Remember how very deeply this country was split right down the middle? We had almost a full year of political fights over those election results. But then, on September 11 of the following year, the greatest catastrophe this country has ever known was inflicted upon us. Suddenly, those deep, deep dividing lines seemed unimportant, because now there was a much bigger, more important dividing line…one that ran between this country and its terrorist foes. This country has never been more “unified” than in the days and weeks immediately following that event. Democrats and Republicans became …
Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect… Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit,serve the Lord.Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Romans 12:2, 9-13
Paul seems clear enough in his letters to the churches…the community of believers (Christ-followers) should look different from the other communities in our world. We should not conform to their ways. Rather, our community should stand out in several ways. The church should stand out in several ways. Here’s a partial list. See how we’re doing…
Our love should be genuine. I read that as real. Not fake. Not conditional in any respect. It is true agape. I do not love you because of what you do or don’t do…nor because of who you are or are not. My love for you does not depend in any way on you or on circumstances surrounding you. I love you for one very simple reason: because Christ lives in me. And as long as that is true, I will keep loving you. Period.
Abhor what is evil…cling to what is good. This is much more than just a moral compass. Morality, in fact, just scratches the surface of this calling. This is about recognizing the work and influence of our one and only spiritual enemy among us and standing against it. And it is about recognizing the work and influence of God’s …