Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Christian Life

THE VINE AND THE BRANCHES – I

 

As the Passover mean came to a close, Jesus said to His disciples, “Arise, let us go from here” (John 14:31; NKJV).  And then in Chapter 19, verse 1 we are told “When Jesus had spoken these words, He went out over the Brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which He and His disciples entered.”  Where exactly along the way the discussion recorded in chapters 15 and 16, and the prayer in chapter 17, took place is anyone’s guess.  But Jesus was certainly aware that He was now literally on His way to His arrest and crucifixion.  The tone of the discussion changes.  Whereas in the Upper Room there was give-and-take, now the discussion takes the form of an extended monologue.  The fact that He was about to depart has now been established; He now focuses on their responsibilities and privileges going forward.

Jesus begins this part of the discussion by telling them a parable (John 15:1-8).  “I am the true vine,” He tells them, “and My Father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (vv. 1,2).  Here we see two different types of branches: those that do not bear fruit and those that do.  The branches that do not bear fruit “He takes away.”  The ones that do bear fruit “He prunes.”

But whom do these two types of branches represent?  Is Jesus saying that it is possible to be a genuine believer and to lose his salvation?

It must be kept in mind when interpreting a parable like this that Jesus is typically making one or two main points, but that analogy must not be pressed too far as to the details.  The main point that Jesus is making in this parable is the importance of maintaining a close relationship with Him.  The details are incidental.

The best answer here seems to be that the branches of the vine are professing Christians, but not necessarily genuinely born-again ones.  They have made professions of faith; they have been baptized; they are recognized members of the visible church.  But not all are vitally connected to Christ through a genuine experience of the new birth, and as a result these show literal evidence of spiritual life.  They are content to go through the motions.  They show up for church most Sundays.  The put money in the offering plate.  They sit patiently and listen to the sermon.  But their heart is somewhere else.

These, then, Jesus says, the Father “takes away.”  Sometimes they fall away of their own accord.  Sometimes they are excommunicated by the church.  In the end they face the judgment seat of Christ who says, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).  What a terrifying prospect!

But then there are other branches as well, ones that do bear fruit.  Of these Jesus says that the Father “prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”   Here it is evident that He is speaking of genuinely born-again Christians, in contrast to the nominal professing Christian, for He goes on to say in the next verse, “You are already clean because of the world which I have spoken to you” (John 15:8).  In the process of hearing the gospel and responding to it they have been inwardly regenerated – they have a new heart and a desire to serve Christ.  The have put the things of the old life behind them.  Yet the Father still “cleans” and “prunes” them.  Even as born-again Christians there are things that come into our lives that come between us and Christ and interfere with our spiritual growth.  This is especially true when things are going well for us outwardly.  We become preoccupied with the things of this life and let our relationship with Christ languish.  But God is a wise and caring “vinedresser,” and His concern is that we “bear more fruit”; and to that end He prunes us – He disciplines us, subjects us to trials and difficulties, but all that we might be more fruitful and blessed in the work of the kingdom.

Sometimes when we are in the midst of trials and difficulties, and God does not seem to be answering our prayers for deliverance, we must keep in mind that God has His own purposes in what He brings our way, and that His divine purpose includes our sanctification and usefulness in the kingdom.  In such circumstances we must learn to submit to His will and patiently learn the lesson He has for us.  He will eventually bring us through the trial, and we will be the better for having gone through it!

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THE PEACE OF CHRIST

 

We often face trials and difficulties in life, and they are often painful to go through.  But nothing can even begin to compare with what Christ Himself was about to endure.  Jesus was conscious of the fact that within a matter of hours He would be arrested, tried and executed.  What is especially remarkable about this is that He made no effort to escape it.   He consciously walked into the trap set for Him, because He knew that it served a higher purpose.  Nevertheless it was a trauma for both Him and His disciples.  Herein lies a lesson or us all.

Jesus begins by reassuring His disciples.  “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27; NKJV).  What is this peace?  Jesus was no doubt speaking in Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and the common language of Palestine in that day.  Very likely the word for “peace” that Jesus used was a variation of the Hebrew word shalom which means a little more than our common English word “peace.”  The noun shalom is derived from the verb shalem, which means to “be complete or sound.”  Thus the noun shalom means completeness or soundness, and by extension, peace, quiet, tranquility, or contentment.  It is that sense of peace and contentment that comes from being at rest with yourself and others around you.  It is a peace of mind that comes from a sense of wholeness.

But what Jesus is referring to in this passage is a “peace” that He would “leave” with them, a peace that He would give to them.  The apostle Paul describes this peace in Phil. 4:7: “. . .and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”  It is an inward peace, the opposite of being “anxious” (v. 6), and it comes in response to prayer.  It is a calm assurance that we have been reconciled to God (Rom. 5:1), that God is in control (Eph. 1:11), and that all things work together for good (Rom. 8:28).

Paul says that this peace “surpasses all understanding.”  In a sense it defies comprehension.  Outwardly, all is turmoil and chaos; and yet inwardly we are calm and at rest.  Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said “You cannot understand this peace, you cannot imagine it, you cannot even believe it is a sense, and yet it is happening and you are experiencing it and enjoying it” (Spiritual Depression, p. 270).

Furthermore Paul says that this peace “will guard your hearts and minds.”  It stands like a sentry at the door of your heart and keeps out all the stress and turmoil.  But the condition of all this, as we said above, is prayer: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God . . .” (v. 6).

Jesus says, regarding this peace, “not as the world gives do I give to you.”  The world claims to give peace – the whole purpose of government is to make us secure in our persons and property. There is a wealth of advice on how to achieve economic security.  And yet outward prosperity is no guarantee of inward peace, and the wealthy are oftentimes just as unhappy as the poor.  And so the world offers something to soothe the pain – food, alcohol, drugs – and, if we are sophisticated enough, the psychiatrist who will prescribe the drugs for us.  But what all of these amount to is a chemical solution to a deeper, underlying problem.  They make us feel better but leave the underlying cause of our anxiety unresolved.  As soon as the medication wears off we are faced with the same circumstances that caused the problem in the first place.

The peace which Christ gives stands in sharp contrast with this.  It looks to God and strives to bring everything into harmony with His created order.  It assures that even in the trials and difficulties of this life God has a larger purpose, and in the end the believer will be richly rewarded for the sacrifices he was called upon to make in this life.  “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18; cf. vv. 19-25; II Cor. 4:16-5:8; I Pet. 1:3-9).  And so Jesus tells His disciples, even in spite of what was about to happen to Him and to them, “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

God never promises to keep us form trials and difficulties in life – far from it.  As we shall see later, Jesus forewarned us that the world would hate us (cf. 15:18-21).  But what He has promised us is His peace, an inward peace that will enable us to face the trials that come our way with calm assurance.  It is ours to have if we will only cling to Him.

“You will keep him in perfect peace,

Whose mind is stayed on You,

Because he trusts in You.

Trust in the Lord forever,

For in Yah, the Lord, is everlasting strength.”

Isa. 26:3,4

THE TEACHING MINISTRY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

 

Jesus had just promised us that if we love Him and keep His commandments, “My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23; NKJV); and, as we have seen, this refers primarily to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus now goes on to elaborate on what the Holy Spirit will do for us: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to you remembrance all things that I said to you” (v. 26).

The primary reference here, undoubtedly, is to the apostles.  They would be witnesses to His resurrection, and would be appointed to be His personal representatives to the world.  As they would elaborate on the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit would give them direct revelation.  The apostle Paul, for instance, could describe the process this way: “. . .we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained . . . But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit.  For the Spirit searches all things, yea, the deep things of God . . .” (I Cor.2:7-10)  “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.  These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, combining spiritual things with spiritual” (vv. 12,13). The “words” which the Holy Spirit teaches are logois – concepts, ideas which come from the mind of God Himself.

Jesus also said that the Holy Spirit will “bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.”  This points to the preaching of the apostles, and especially to the writing of the four gospels contained in the New Testament.  Matthew and John were both written by apostles; Mark was written by a close associate of Peter and Luke by a close associate of Paul.  The implication is that the four gospels give us an accurate representation of what the historical Jesus actually said and did.

But the Holy Spirit’s work of “teaching you all things” should not be confined to just the apostles.  There is also work which the Holy Spirit performs in the lives of believers throughout the church as well.  Here again, when the apostle Paul prays for the Ephesians, he asks that God “may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, they eyes of your understanding being enlightened, that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe . . .” (Eph. 1:17-19).

The Bible is written in human language; it has a vocabulary and a grammatical structure.  Almost any educated person can read it and gain at least a general idea of what it says.  But little of it will be real and meaningful to him if the Holy Spirit has not renewed his heart and enlightened his eyes; so that he can genuinely understand the things that the Bible is describing.  These things are spiritual realities, and to gain a proper appreciation of them we must first gain an understanding of them and how they affect us personally.  Significantly Paul asks that the Ephesians would know the “hope” of Christ’s calling, “the riches of the glory” of His inheritance, and “the exceeding greatness” of His power – in other words, the subjective qualities of these things.  And this is something that the Holy Spirit must give us, the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him.”  It is the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination.

This, then, is the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Without it the preaching ministry of the church cannot be successful.  Only the Holy Spirit can enlighten minds and give us spiritual understanding.  And so we must be earnest in prayer that God would pour out His Spirit upon us, and that our hearts would be quickened and we can adore and praise the Savior accordingly.

THE PROMISE OF THE PRESENCE

 

Jesus has already given His disciples the promise of the Holy Spirit (I John 14:16,17).  He has       also told them that “If you love Me, keep My commandments”  (v. 15: NKJV).   He now proceeds to link the two statements together.  “He who had My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me.   And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and manifest Myself to him” (v. 21).  Here the promise that we will be “loved by My Father” is made conditional on our loving Christ and keeping His commandments.  We cannot experience the blessing unless we fulfill the condition.

There is a sense in which “God so loved the world,” but that is a kind of love that is not based on any good which God sees in us.  Rather it is the pity and compassion that a merciful God shows towards His wretched, rebellious creatures.  “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  Theologians sometimes call this God’s “love of benevolence,” from the Latin word “benevolentia” – “good will” or “kindness.”

But that is not what Jesus is describing here.  This is a love which God has especially for those who love Christ and keep His commandments.  He loves them because they love Him.  He is genuinely pleased with their love.  Theologians sometimes refer to this as God’s “love of complacence,” from a Latin word which means “to be pleased with” something.  And that is the kind of love which God has for those who consciously try to please Him.

God originally created us human beings to have fellowship with Him.  He created us in His image, and endowed us with intellect, emotion and will, so that we could have a personal relationship with Him.  But what ruined that was our sin and rebellion.  The relationship was severed and we were alienated from God – we had become His enemies and were therefore under His wrath and condemnation.

But that changes when we become Christians.  Christ died for our sins.  We repent and ask for forgiveness and put our trust in Him.  We are reconciled to God and can now have the relationship with Him that we were originally meant to have.  We are brought into a position in which we can appreciate Christ for all that He is and has done for us – we love Him, and want to please Him, and as a result “. . . he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”

But how does Jesus “manifest” Himself to us?  Certainly not in any physical way.  None of us has ever seen Jesus physically = the pictures that we see of Him were all created in the artists’ imaginations.  But there is a sense in which we can know Jesus personally – to have real communion with Him, to sense His presence with us, and to know and understand Him better.  This happens when we spend time alone with Him in prayer and in meditation upon His Word, and the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to receive the truth.  We then come to understand and appreciate Jesus in a way that we never did before.  He as manifested Himself to us.

The disciples were still somewhat puzzled by this, and Judas (not Iscariot) asked Jesus, “Lord, how is it that You will manifest Yourself to us, and not to the world?” (v. 22); to which Jesus replied, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.  He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the world you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me” (vv. 23,24).

Here again He emphasizes that if we genuinely love Him we will keep His word.  But He elaborates a little further on the promise: “and we will come to him and make Our home [NASV: “abode”] with Him.”  Again, Jesus is not speaking of physically dwelling with us; He is in heaven and we are here on earth.  Rather He is speaking of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts and making His presence felt.  It is a spiritual abiding.

But Jesus makes this blessing contingent on our loving Him and keeping His word?  Does not every Christian believer have the Holy Spirit dwelling in his heart?  Yes, but not to the same degree.  While it is true that every truly born-again Christian has the Holy Spirit dwelling inside his heart, the New Testament makes it clear that the blessings of the Holy Spirit are variable, depending on a believer’s love and devotion to Christ.  We can be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18) or we can “quench the Spirit” (I Thess. 5:19).  The apostle Paul could pray for the Ephesians that they would be “strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to . . .know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19; cf. 1:15-19; Col. 1:9-11).  To be filled with the Spirit is to have “the love of God” which “has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5); it is to have “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7); it is to have “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (I Peter. 1:8).  To be filled with the Spirit is to have the fruit of the Spirit in abundance.  But Jesus emphasizes that all of this is contingent on our loving Him and keeping His word.

The modern church is not experiencing the blessing largely because our love for Christ has grown cold.  We are too preoccupied with the things of this world and have largely forgotten Christ.  Too often our Sunday morning worship is mere entertainment and the Wednesday night prayer meeting has largely been abandoned.  We have “a form of godliness” but deny “its power” (II Tim. 3:5).  We have an intellectual knowledge of the truth, but perform the outward duties of religion in a mechanical way.  Our devotion is lukewarm, and the sad result is that there is little evidence of the Holy Spirit working among. Us.

Much of the blame lies squarely at the feet of pastors.  In most churches the congregation looks to the pastor for direction and guidance in spiritual matters.  The congregations will rarely advance spiritually beyond the pastor.  And if the pastor is spiritually immature, if his own prayer life is wanting and he is not consciously seeking guidance from the Lord, it will be reflected in empty worship and dull, lifeless sermons.  The spiritual life of the congregation languishes while the surrounding world perishes.

What is at stake can hardly be overestimated.  There are human beings who are trapped in sin and are on their way to an eternity in hell.  And much of it is due to the lack of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church.

Oh, that we would heed the words of Christ!  Oh that we would claim the promise!  Oh that the power of the Holy Spirit was a living reality in our churches today!  But it will only happen when we devote ourselves completely to Christ and heed His word.

BELIEVERS NOT LEFT ORPHANS

 

As Jesus continued to reassure His disciples He tells them, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.  A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me.  Because I live, you will live also” (John 14:18,19).  He will not leave them “orphans.”  Up until now they were almost little children to Him.  They enjoyed a warm, affectionate relationship with Him; not as equals, but rather like children might have with their fathers.  And now He was about to depart.  Where would that leave them?  He reassures them that even though He was about to be physically removed from them, He would not leave them orphaned.

How this will come about takes several forms.  First He tells them that “I will come to you.”  This almost certainly refers to His post-resurrection appearances to them.  They would see Him, but the world would not.  Luke tells us that “He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).  John will go on to relate three of these appearances (cf. John 21:14).

But to return to the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus mentions the significance of His resurrection: “Because I live, you will live also” (v. 19).  The disciples at this point probably did not understand that what Jesus was saying was that He was about to be put to death, but would then rise from the dead.  And what they certainly did not understand was what this would mean for them personally.  What Jesus was about to accomplish, in effect, was the victory over death.  We are fallen sinners.  We live in a sin-cursed world.  Eventually we must all die.  But is there any hope for life after death?  Or is death the end of it?

The Bible makes it clear that death is a result of sin.  When our first parents sinned they alienated themselves from God, and death was the curse that God pronounced on them as a result.  But what the death of Christ did was to make a sacrificial atonement for our sin, and the resurrection of Christ was the proof that God the Father had accepted the sacrifice.  The curse was then removed and now He could live.  And because of that we can live too, if we confess our sins, put our personal trust in Christ as our Savior, and receive the forgiveness of our sins.  “Because I live, you will live also.”

Jesus then went on to draw out a further implication of His resurrection: “And in that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (v. 20).  Here He uses the proposition “in” to describe three relationships: “in My Father,” “you in Me,” and “I in you”; and yet the relationships are not the same.  But what the preposition “in” represents in all three cases is an intimate relationship of some sort.

First He says that “I am in My Father.”  This, of course, takes us into the doctrine of the Trinity, a concept that boggles the human imagination.  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three different persons, but share one substance (John 10:30).  Jesus was God incarnate (John 1:1-14; I John 1:1,2); and Jesus possessed the Holy Spirit beyond all measure (John 3:34,35).  Thus Jesus could say that He was “in My Father.”

But He also told His disciples that “you [are] in Me.”  This points to a different kind of close relationship, a legal or judicial one.  When we are baptized “into Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27) we are then “in Christ.”  As a result God the Father views us as a part of Christ and counts us as righteous as Christ Himself.  “But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption –“ (I Cor. 1:30).  “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to His grace” (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14).  Moreover, since we share this privilege with all other believers, collectively we form one body – the body of Christ, of which He is the Head and we are the individual members (I Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 2:13-21; 4:11-16).

And then Jesus says that “I [am] in you.”  Here He is pointing to our mystical union with Himself, which is realized through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within in our hearts.  “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who love me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).  What an awesome thought this is!  That we would have the Spirit of Christ – God eternal, omnipotent and absolutely holy – dwelling within our hearts!   What an awesome privilege, and yet at the same time a responsibility!  And yet that is the blessed experience of every person who has been truly born of God!

Jesus says that “At that day you will know” all of this.  The Greek used here for “know” is gnosesthe, which means to know by observation and experience as opposed to a mental process based on an intuition or information (Abbott-Smith).  The disciples had heard Jesus teach; had a mental grasp of what He was saying.  But after His resurrection and ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they would know by actual experience.  The abstract truth would become a living reality.

The question is, is it a living reality for us?  Have we experienced the blessing and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives?  For too long the modern church has neglected prayer and tried to “go on its own,” with disastrous results.  Churches are dying and the surrounding culture is sinking deeper into a cesspool of sin.  What is desperately needed is a revival – a genuine revival – a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church.  But that will only come when we get down on our knees, go humbly to God in prayer, acknowledging our sins and our shortcomings, and ask Him to return and to bless.  It is only then that we can expect to see real spiritual life and vitality in the church – to see the word being preached with real unction and convicting power, to see believers being lifted from their spiritual slumber and apathy, and see sinners coming to genuine repentance and faith in Christ.  Even so come, Lord Jesus!

“All our knowledge, sense and sight

Lie in deepest darkness shrouded

Till thy Spirit breaks our night

With the beams of truth unclouded.

Thou alone to God canst win us;

Thou must work all good within us.”

Tobias Clausnitzer

(tr. by Catherine Winkworth)

THE PROMISE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

 

 

Jesus has been seeking to comfort His disciples and to show them that it really was to their advantage that He leave them to go to be with the Father.  And an important part of that was the promise to send the Holy Spirit.

“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever – the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:147,18; NKJV).  The Greek word translated here as “Helper” is Parakletos, or “Paraclete,” as it is sometimes transliterated into English; and the commentators have long debated exactly what the word means.  The old King James Version translated it here as “Comforter,” but in I John 2:1 rendered the same word as “Advocate.”  In our present text in John 14, the NASV, ESV and TEV, besides the NKJV, all render it “Helper.”  The NIV, NRSV, NEB and JB all have “Advocate.”  In the New Testament the word only occurs in the writings of John, and in the present passage it translates something that Jesus had probably said in Aramaic.  In the immediate context Jesus obviously wanted to comfort His disciples, but, as the use of the word in John 14:26; 15:26 and 16:7 indicates, there is more to the work of the Holy Spirit than being just a Comforter of legal Advocate.  The Holy Spirit was sent to help us in a variety of ways, and thus the translation “Helper” is probably best.

When Jesus said that the Father would give them “another Helper,” the implication is that the Holy Spirit would be a Helper in the same manner as Jesus Himself.  Jesus will go on to elaborate on that further later on in the Upper Room Discourse, and the rest of the New Testament will describe it even further.  It suffice to say here that just as Jesus taught, directed and comforted His disciples here on earth, the Holy Spirit would continue to do so after Jesus’ departure.  And this is important.  The church is not left to its own resources, and it was never meant to.  We are dependent on the divine power that is communicated to us through the Holy Spirit.

Significantly Jesus makes a special point of calling the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of truth.”  He is the Spirit who is truth (I John 5:6), and Who guides us into all truth (John 16:13).  The truth is ultimately God Himself, and His purpose and design in creating the world.  But He is infinite, and we are not; and, to make matters worse, we are fallen sinners, our eyes darkened by sin.  A key role of the Holy Spirit, then, is to reveal the truth to a lost and dying world, and this He does through the preaching of the Gospel; He empowers the preacher and opens the hearts and minds of the listeners to receive the truth.

But his, then, creates a sharp contrast between the church and the world.  Jesus said that the world “cannot receive” the Spirit, “because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you” (v. 17).  Jesus here, of course, is referring to the situation that will exist after He has ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit is poured out at Pentecost.  But He uses verbs in the present tense in anticipation of the event (grammarians call this “prolepsis”).  Here the conditions of believers and of the world are contrasted.  The world “cannot receive” the Spirit, and the reason given is that “it neither sees Him nor knows Him.”  This, of course, is referring to man in his natural condition, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.  He is spiritually blind.  He does not want to know the truth because he wants to live his life apart from God.  And because the Holy Spirit is invisible, and works inside the heart, the unregenerate sinner knows nothing of His presence and operation.

But how vastly different it is with the person who has been born of God!  “ . . .but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.”  He comes into the heart and creates spiritual life.  He fills the believer’s heart with a real desire to know God, to love Him, and to serve Him.  And thus ter3e is a real sense in which the believer lives in a different world from that of the non-believer.  The Christian is attuned to a spiritual reality of which the unbeliever is completely unaware.

This, in turn, points to the fact that the church needs to be a spiritual brotherhood of genuine believers who are set apart from the world.  It is supposed to be a believers’ church with a regenerate church membership.  And in its public gatherings, its worship and its life together as believers it needs to make manifest the life of Christ – a genuine reverence for God, a love for the brethren, the fruit of the Spirit.

“There is a scene where spirits blend,

Where friend holds fellowship with friend,

Tho’ sundered far, by faith they meet

Around one common mercy seat.”

Hugh Stowell

Significantly Jesus says that all of this will come about through His intercession.  Having just told them that He is about to depart from them and return to the Father in heaven, he says, “And I will pray [or “ask” – NASV, ESV] the Father, and He will give you another Helper” (v. 16).  And, as it happened, that is exactly what occurred.  After His resurrection Jesus instructed His disciples to wait at Jerusalem “until you are endued with power from on high” (Lu. 24:49).  As Paul would later put it, paraphrasing Psalm 68:18, “When He ascended on high, / He led captivity captive, / And gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8).  The presence of spiritual gifts within the church is proof that Jesus ascended into heaven, and is alive and making intercession there for us.  It is a testimony to the fact that Jesus loves us, He deeply cares for us, and is actively interceding there on our behalf.

And Jesus reassures them that He will ask that this Helper “may abide with you forever” (v. 10).  Jesus was about to depart.  His disciples were filled with dismay.  But Jesus’ departure was both necessary and beneficial to them, as He pointed out to them.  But with the Holy Spirit it would be different.  He would be with us until the very end.

Unfortunately it is too easy for the American church to underestimate the work of the Holy Spirit.  We are proud and self-sufficient – well=known for our “can-do” attitude.  But in the long run we accomplish little apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.  He must bless; He must provide.  America is sinking into a cesspool of sin.  We keep hoping that the next politician will help us out of it.  But ultimately it comes down to the Holy Spirit working in the hearts and lives of individuals, transforming them from within, and giving them spiritual life.

“Showers of blessing,

Showers of blessing we need:

Mercy drops round us are falling,

But for the showers we plead.”

Daniel W. Whittle

PRAYER MEETING

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Review:

A Praying Church: The Neglected Blessing of Corporate Prayer

Dennis Gundersen

Grace & Truth Books

170 pp., pb

 

It is a sad fact of modern church life that prayer meetings are poorly attended, if they still exist at all.  Many churches no longer have them, and the ones that do typically see only a handful of people show up on a Wednesday evening.  It was to address this sad state of affairs that Dennis Gundersen wrote his book, A Praying Church: The Neglected Blessing of Corporate Prayer.

Dennis and I are past acquaintances (and subsequent Facebook friends), having both attended Trinity Baptist Church of Montville, NJ in the 1970’s, where we had the privilege of sitting under the ministry of Pastor Albert N. Martin.  Dennis has since gone on to serve as pastor of several churches in the Tulsa, OK area, and his is currently President and owner of Grace and Truth Books, which published the current volume.

Dennis, of course, is very much concerned about the demise of the midweek prayer meeting; but his take on the problem is a little unusual.  He lays most of the blame at the feet of the people leading the prayer meetings, if we can even call it “leading” at all.  Dennis notes that one of the pervasive problems with the meetings is the utter lack of direction.  The person nominally in charge simply asks if there are any prayer requests, and most of the requests forthcoming deal with personal issues, especially health needs.  It is no wonder then that many church members wonder what the point of it all is, and choose to stay home on prayer meeting night.

Much of Dennis’ book, then, is basically an instruction manual on how properly to lead a prayer meeting.  In Chapter Four he specifically goes into what to prayer for; and points out that the spread of the kingdom should have priority – we should be praying for our missionaries, the persecuted church, our lost neighbors, and other churches in the vicinity.  We should also make it a priority to pray for each other’s spiritual needs.  This then could be followed by the various personal needs of the members.  There is also a chapter by a fellow pastor, Larry Dean, on the qualifications for a prayer meeting leader.

The second half of the book consists of thirty devotionals which are ones that Dennis actually gave at the prayer meetings at his church.  They cover a variety of topics related to prayer.  One particularly interesting one is entitled “Devoting an Evening of Serious Prayer for Genuine Revival,” which apparently was intended for a special prayer meeting that lasted (apparently by design) longer than usual.  In it he gives us a good definition of “revival.”  He points out that the word “revival” literally means to “’bring back to life,’ to rekindle what was nearly extinguished; to fan the flames which have died out or become low, so that the fire rages hot again” (p. 144).  In a word, it is the revival of spiritual life within the church, along with the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit in evangelism, that constitute a revival.  We should all desire it, but are we praying for it?

On the whole the book is very helpful and worthwhile.  We would want to make a couple of observations, however.  At points Dennis seems to be reading modern church life back into the New Testament when he argues the case for the traditional mid-week prayer meeting.  The prayers mentioned in I Tim. 2:1-8, however, most likely were a part of the regular weekly gatherings of the assemblies, apparently held on Sunday evenings in private homes (cf. Acts 2:46; see Acts 20:6-12 for a brief description of such a meeting).  In many of the better modern churches something similar occurs in small group meetings.  But what the Bible does make clear, however, is the importance of corporate in some shape or form, and Dennis cites several passages from the Book of Acts to underscore the point.  We would simply add to that the promise that Jesus gave us in Matt. 18:19,20: “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (NKJV).

We also cannot help but wonder if the modern church’s spiritual problems do go beyond simple ineptitude in the way prayer meetings are led.  Too often on Sunday mornings we have seen dull, formal “worship” followed by a sermon marked by poor exegesis, a flat delivery, and little or no practical application.  Many of the men, including sometimes even the pastor, will stand with one of their hands in their pocket – can anyone even imagine Moses at the burning bush with one of his hands in his pocket?  Where is the sense of the presence of God in all of this?  Might not the underlying problem be with the spiritual life of the pastor?  Too often the pastor has received a formal, academic education at a seminary or Bible college, who then treated the ministry as a job description he was being paid to fill.  Where there is no spiritual life in the pulpit there is not likely to be found more life in the pew.  Is it possible that the reason so few people attend prayer meeting is because they do not see the need for prayer?  We leave it to each pastor to search his own heart and decide for himself.

On the whole, however, A Praying Church is a good book deserving of serious consideration.  It can be ordered online directly from the publisher at www.graceandtruthbooks.com

 

 

THE PROMISE TO ANSWER PRAYER

 

Jesus had been seeking to reassure His disciples, deeply troubled as they were by His announcement of His immanent departure.  And to do that He encourages them to look beyond their immediate circumstances and to see the bigger picture.  He points out to them what He will accomplish for them by His departure.

Jesus makes an extraordinary promise to His disciples: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father” (John 14:12; NKJV).  The commentators have struggled to understand what exactly that means.  To whom was the promise given?  And how will they perform works that are greater than what Jesus Himself had done?  Some have thought that the promise is given to all believers, and that we could perform miracles if we simply had enough faith to do so.  Others have argued that all believers are included in the promise, but that it simply refers to the ordinary blessings of salvation and the Christian life.  Others, (including Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh) say that it refers only to the apostles themselves, although the work of converting sinners through the preaching of the gospel constitutes “greater works than these.”

What Jesus evidently had in mind was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the ministry of the apostles in its aftermath.  This would be the direct result of His ascension into heaven. Just prior to His ascension He would tell them that “you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” and “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:5,8).

But was this true of just the apostles, or does it apply to the entire church in every age?  The apostle Paul did speak of miracles as one of the charismatic gifts given to the church as a whole (I Cor. 12:8-11, 28-30; cf. Gal. 3:5), and there is no clear indication anywhere in the New Testament that any of the gifts were temporary and meant to cease.  On the other hand Paul makes it clear that not everyone would have the gift of miracles.  “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit . . . one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills” (I Cor. 12:4-6, 11).  It is also true that the apostles were especially endowed with the ability to perform “signs” as a testimony to the gospel they proclaimed: “Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds” (II Cor. 12:12).

Did miracles cease with the apostles?  The evidence suggests that the gifts of prophecy and exorcism continued into the Second Century, and that the prophecies and healings appeared sporadically thereafter.  But we do not see the more spectacular miracles that Christ and the apostles performed.  One possible explanation is that those kinds of miracles were specifically suited to a Jewish audience.  When the last of the apostles died, the more spectacular miracles ceased.

But another possible explanation is that the church went into a state of spiritual decline.  The church became more institutionalized.  The bishops assumed a more autocratic role.  Infant baptism began to be practiced and the Lord’s Table became more dramatized.  And by the end of the Second Century we begin to see bitter rivalries and divisions, which would have grieved the Holy Spirit.  The result would have been a lack of the Spirit’s presence in the church.

Jesus went on to say “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13,14).  Here we see the key to success or failure in the church’s mission – it is prayer.  “If you ask.”  Our problem is that we do not ask.  We Americans in particular are very independent minded and like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient.  We plan and we organize, prayer is an afterthought, if it happens at all.  But Jesus makes everything depend on prayer.  Why?  First of all, we are not self-sufficient.  Only the Holy Spirit can convict a sinner of his guilt, open his eyes so that he can behold the glory of Christ in the gospel, and renew the heart so that he responds in faith.

But why is prayer the means of accomplishing this?  “That the Father may be glorified in the Son.”  When something happens in response to prayer, it is evident that it was God who did it.  And by asking the Father in the name of Christ, it is evident that prayer is efficacious because of the atoning and intercessory work of Christ.  Why should God the Father answer our prayers?  Because Christ died for our sins and pleads on our behalf.  In this way the Father and the Son are glorified when we pray in the name of Christ.

The way Jesus stated all of this sounds like an unconditional promise.  But as is evident from other passages of Scripture there are limitations.  God is a wise and loving Father, and He will not give us something that is bad for us or for others.  Miracles should not be used to glorify the preacher, but Christ.  How God answers a prayer will depend on the circumstances.

But we do not want to limit God either by assuming that He cannot perform miracles today.  He is sovereign and He is omnipotent.  He can do whatever He pleases.  The great weakness of the modern church is it’s prayerlessness.  We have not because we ask not (Jas. 4:2).  True revival begins on our knees, when we come face to face with the reality of God, humble ourselves before Him, and acknowledge our dependence upon Him.  Only then can we expect to receive blessings from Him.  How much more could God accomplish through us if we prayed more!

CHRIST OR THE WORLD

4.2.7

Raphael: St. George and the Dragon

Review:

Culturally Relevant: Connection or Compromise

Dennis Bliss

Christian Faith Publishing

174 pp., pb.

 

Dennis Bliss is a longtime Christian musician and counsellor who has spent a lifetime observing the Christian scene, and his recently published book Culturally Relevant, expresses the deep concern he has over the direction that many churches have taken.  It is a call to reexamine the depth of our commitment to Christ, and to rededicate ourselves to His kingdom and glory.  It is a much needed book at the present hour.

Denny begins (and he happens to be a personal friend of mine, so I will call him “Denny”) by asking what it means to be “culturally relevant.”  The church, of course, exists in a surrounding culture, and ideally seeks to win the people of that culture to Christ.  But to do so it must connect with them somehow.  But how?  What does it mean to adapt to a local culture?  Is it simply a matter of speaking the same language so that they can understand what we are saying?  Or does it mean changing the message so that we are telling them what they want to hear?  Or, even worse, is it conforming to their standards of behavior so that they will accept us?

Denny argues a strong case that in seeking to win the lost we must never compromise our moral or ethical standards.  People will not be won to Christ if they cannot see any difference between the church and what they already have in the world.  In the end the strategy of compromise is self-defeating.

Denny then goes on to discuss a wide variety of issues confronting the church today: love and marriage, child discipline, evolution, abortion, divorce, adultery, premarital sex, homosexuality, feminism, the use of alcohol, and dress.  Many of his observations are borne of his many long years of experience as a Christian counsellor.  He then goes on to address certain issues that affect the church as a whole – evangelism, Bible translations and church music.  On the subject of Bible translations he expresses the confusion and dismay that many feel when, confronted by the bewildering array versions on the market today, and not having access to the underlying Hebrew and Greek, are not in a position to tell which versions are more accurate.  On the subject of church music we will have more to say in a subsequent blog post.

On most of these issues Denny takes a conservative stand: he is opposed to alcohol consumption in any amount, as well as tattoos.  He is in favor of spanking children, and believes that men should wear suites to church.  He prefers the old King James Version of the Bible.  (He does make a concession to modernity by using the New King James Version in his book.)

Occasionally Denny gets caught in an apparent contradiction.  On one hand he condemns denominationalism and suggests that it arose through human pride.  But then he wants churches to separate themselves from doctrinal error and take an uncompromising stance on what they believe to be the truth.  But is that not how the different denominations came into existence in the first place, and continue to this day?   One could only wonder what Denny would have told Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 after they could not reach an agreement on the nature of the Lord’s Table.  Which one was being proud and stubborn, and which one should refuse to compromise?

Denny argues a very strong case throughout for non-conformity to the world, and argues that obedience to Christ must always be our top priority in life.  He makes the helpful observation that this does not mean that the Bible spells out in detail exactly how we are to act in every situation.  What is needed, he points out, is spiritual discernment, and toward the very end of his book he lays out his “Twelve Step Program” – twelve basic principles or tests that we can use to determine if a given course of action is in line with God’s will.

At first glance Denny’s book may come across as the work of a cranky old man throwing a hissy fit.  And yet his book comes out at a critical time in history.  Up until now American Christians have had the luxury of living in a country where the freedom of religion was enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It was respectable to be a Christian.

And yet the times began to change.  The surrounding culture became increasingly secular and materialistic, and the bulk of the population lost its interest in church.  At first church leaders thought that they could entertain people back into church.  The church became consumer oriented, but in the end fought a losing battle with TV, sports and shopping to get peoples’ attention.

But now the surrounding culture is not just indifferent to Christianity; it is becoming increasingly hostile towards it.  Anyone who dares to take a stand for traditional Judeo-Christian morality is liable to be called “sexist” and “homophobic.”  Thus we are rapidly moving toward a time when modern Christians will have to learn anew what was perfectly obvious to believers in the First Century: that if anyone wishes to be a true follower of Jesus Christ, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24; NKJV).

THE BELIEVER’S RULE OF CONDUCT – III

 

 

As we have seen then what God requires of us is that we love Him with whole heart, soul and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves.  How, then, does a Christian determine whether a given action is right or wrong?  First of all through the imitation of Christ.  We should imitate Him and His example of self-sacrificing love.  “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus . . .” (Phil. 2:5; NKJV, cf. Eph. 4:32-5:1; Col. 3:13).  What would Jesus do in a given situation?  How would He react to the other person?

Secondly, we should follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.  “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).  There will not be a written instruction to cover every possible situation.  But a genuine concern for the other person, arising from a proper attitude of heart produced by the Holy Spirit, will lead us to do the right thing.  Our lives should manifest the fruit of the Spirit.

Everything, of course, should be consistent with the teachings of the New Testament.  “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him, abounding in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6,7).  “Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and please God: for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus” (I Thess. 4:1,2)/  Jesus and the apostles have given us general instructions on how to live a life that is pleasing to God.  These instructions are contained in the New Testament and ought always to be observed.

What all of this requires is that we “test” or “prove” what the will of God is.  The apostle Paul tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2), or as it might more literally be translated, “that you might test and prove what the will of God is, the good and the well-pleasing, and the complete or perfect.”  The implication is that in each situation that we encounter we should ask, “Is it good? – does it have a beneficial effect?”  “Is it well-pleasing to God – in accordance with His moral attributes?”  “Is it complete or perfect? – Does it fully meet the need?”  We should apply the general principles of God’s Word to a given situation to see what course of action would be acceptable to Him (cf. Eph. 5:10; Phil. 1:9-11; I Thess. 5:21,22).

An example will illustrate the difference between being under the law and being under grace.  Consider the biblical teaching on marriage.  The 7th Commandment states “You shall not commit adultery,” and the Old Testament then goes on to condemn various sexual practices: incest, homosexual behavior (Lev. 18:22; 20:13), bestiality and prostitution.  It gives various regulations on how to handle cases of sex outside of marriage, female captives taken in war, polygamy and spouses who die without offspring.  And there is a provision on how to handle divorce (Dt. 24:1-4).  Marriage is looked at as a civil institution enforceable by law.  But the Torah (Pentateuch) is largely silent on how spouses are to treat each other.  (There are passages in Psalms, Proverbs and the Song of Solomon that talk about the pleasures and pains of marriage.)

But when we turn to the New Testament a somewhat different picture emerges.  Jesus begins by quoting the 7th Commandment, but then goes on to say, “But I say to you that whoever looks on a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).  Here the focus shifts from the outward act to the inward thought, and it is the thought that makes one guilty in the sight of God.

But just as revealing is Jesus’ teaching concerning divorce.  He began by going to the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 (“and the two shall become one flesh” – Matt. 19:5) and then said, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (v. 6).  He then went on to say that “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (v. 8).  The implication is that Moses had made certain concessions to human weakness, and the Mosaic legislation did not perfectly reflect what God actually requires of us as human beings.

And when we turn to the epistles we get an even fuller picture of what God actually requires of us.  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25).  And “just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (v. 24).  It is not enough merely to avoid an act of open adultery.  Husbands are to love their wives.  And how?  “. . . just as Christ love the church.”  What is required is more than just bare compliance with the letter of the law.  What is required is genuine and active concern for others, a self-sacrificing love; and Christ is our supreme example of that. (Interestingly the Westminster Larger Catechism, in its treatment of the 7th Commandment, does not mention husbands loving their wives, other than “conjugal love” and “cohabitation” ).

The New Testament, then, gives us a fuller revelation of the will of God than does the Old, and the Old Testament should be interpreted in the light of the New.  And sanctification is not so much a matter of following a detailed list of rules and regulations as it is manifesting the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

The goal, then, is not just an external conformity to the letter of the law.  What God requires of us as human beings is love; but love cannot be reduced to a set of written rules and regulations.  Love avoids harming others, and thus fulfills the law.  But it goes beyond the law to seek the positive good of others.  And true Christian love springs from an active principle produced within the heart by the Holy Spirit.  Let us make it our aim. Then, in life, to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; II Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10).  May Jesus Christ be praised!