Friday, May 16, 2014

God’s Vision for the Local Church

So what is God’s vision for the body of Christ?  How does he want us to meet together?  What does he want us to do?

The authority for the Christian church comes from Jesus himself, in his final words before his ascension, often called the Great Commission.  Jesus said, “Therefore when you have gone, make disciples of all the nations (all the Gentiles), baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).  We are to go into all the world making disciples.  But what does it mean to be a disciple? 

In Jesus’ day, a disciple was somebody that followed his teacher, his rabbi, around all the time.  He didn’t just listen to him preach on Sabbath.  He wasn’t just a member of the local synagogue.  A disciple traveled with his rabbi, just as the apostles did with Jesus.  He observed how his rabbi lived.  He memorized his teachings.  And then he modeled his life after his teacher.  In other words, his life goal was to become like his teacher in every way.  And that’s what we’re supposed to do with Jesus:  become like him in every way.

How do we make disciples like this?  “…teaching them to do everything that I commanded you, and see, I am with you always until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).  The key to discipleship, according to Jesus, is teaching.  But this is not just the communication of ideas.  It’s teaching others to do what Jesus taught us to do.  This is not the kind of teaching you need a Ph.D. for.  What you need is the experience of living life the way Jesus told us to live.

The hardest things about the gospel are usually the easiest to understand:  ‘Love your enemy’ sounds easy until you’re face to face with your enemy (Matt. 5:44).  ‘Give to everyone that asks’ sounds fine until they start asking (Matt. 5:42).  ‘Sin no more’ sounds great until an opportunity for sin presents itself (John 8:11).  These simple commands are not just learned through hearing them, but by seeing people do them.  And some of the most powerful lessons don’t require any words at all. 

How you live your life is your testimony to the world.  And if you do it Jesus’ way, it will be an open book read by many.  There’s no one group of believers that has a monopoly on this, certainly not the pastors.  Pastors have areas of strength and areas of weakness just like everyone else.  We all have different abilities and inabilities.  But working together in the Body of Messiah, our strengths cover our weaknesses. 

This was the reason that Christianity was first called “the Way.”  It was a Way of life in imitation of Rabbi Jesus.  One of the earliest instruction manuals of the Christian faith from outside of the Bible, written perhaps even before the New Testament was finished, describes the Christian life as a choice between two ways:  “There are two ways, one of life and one of death.  But there is a great difference between the two ways.  The way of life, then, is this:  First you will love God who made you, second, love your neighbor as yourself” (Didache 1.1-2).  And then it goes on to list all the commandments of Jesus:  love your enemy, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to everyone that asks.  It lists which sins to avoid, and so on.  In other words, it doesn’t present the faith as a set of beliefs.  It presents the faith as a way of life, as actions that you will and you won’t do because you’re a follower of Jesus. 

This doesn’t mean that our beliefs are unimportant.  You cannot be a Christian without certain basic beliefs.  But the most important question after you become a Christian is how you live your life.  Are you living Jesus’ way or not?  Because that’s where the really difficult challenges of life come: putting our faith into practice in the real world. 

To be a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean that every believer has to do exactly the same types of ministry that others are doing.  Have you ever been in a church that had an evangelist for a pastor?  He’ll encourage you to go out and win souls every day, just like he does!  That’s his gift.  And of course, it’s true that all Christians should be involved in winning souls.  But the more he talks about it, and the more he encourages you, the more depressed you feel.  Why?  Because his method of doing it may not work for you the way it works for him.  You can’t measure up to his example.  Or perhaps he has some other gift that you wish you had, too.  It’s just natural for a gifted person to be excited about his gift.  But not everyone has the same gift, or uses it the same way. 

On the contrary, the New Testament teaches a variety of gifts and callings, all working together to build up the body of Messiah.  The most beautiful statement of this is in Ephesians 4.  First Paul mentions the basic things that all believers share:  “one body” of Messiah, one Holy Spirit, one “hope” of Messiah’s return and our reigning with him, “one Lord” Jesus, “one faith,” “one baptism,” and one Father God who rules over all (Eph. 4:4-6).  These are the things we all share. 

But there are also things that differ from believer to believer.  “But grace (God’s favor) was given to each of us individually, according to the measure of Messiah’s gift [to each of us]” (Eph. 4:7).  Messiah has extended grace to each of us differently according to the individual gift he has given each one of us.  In the area of gifting, each one of us is unique. 

Where did Paul get this idea?  From Psalm 68 (in the Old Greek translation of the Bible): “Therefore it [Scripture] says, ‘When he ascended on high, he made captivity captive and gave gifts to men’ [Psalm 68:18 LXX]” (Eph. 4:8).  This verse is a prophecy of the ascension of Jesus and of two things that Jesus did in his ascension.  First, “he made captivity captive.”  What’s that talking about?  What was our captivity?  The captivity of sin:  we were slaves of sin and Satan.  But now Jesus has taken sin and Satan captive:  he has had perfect victory over them, and given that victory to us. 

There’s such a beautiful picture of this in Colossians, “having disarmed the rulers and authorities, he publicly disgraced them, having triumphed over them through it [the cross]” (Col. 2:15).  The rulers and authorities mentioned here are spiritual authorities of wickedness in heavenly places.  By his death on the cross, Jesus has disgraced them publicly and triumphed over them. 

The word “triumphed” here has a very specific meaning.  It refers to the victory procession of a Roman general through the city of Rome after a great victory.  In that victory procession, he would show all the prisoners he had taken, who marched bound in the streets after him, as well as all the riches he had won and the kings he had defeated.  Jesus’ ascension into heaven was his triumph:  a victory procession showing his victory over all the forces of darkness. 

When Jesus ascended into heaven, first he took our captivity captive, that is, he released us from slavery to sin, and then he gave us gifts, spiritual gifts—just like a victorious general or emperor might give gifts to the population after a great victory.  What are the gifts that Jesus gave us?  “He himself also gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11).  We often think of these as ministry giftings, but the point here is that these are people given as gifts to the Body of Messiah.   And what is their purpose?

Ephesians 4:12:  “…toward the equipping of the holy ones for the work of service (or ministry), for building up the body of Messiah.”  The purpose of these gifts to the Body of Messiah—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers—is to equip the members of the Body.  For what?  To serve.  To minister.  The gift ministries are not there to meet all the needs of the Body themselves.  No.  They’re there to equip others, to train them, so that all of us together will be able to do the work of service.  And when that happens, it builds up the Body of Messiah. 

Most churches are very happy with ministry participation rates that are very low.  5% or 10% is considered high in many places.  But in a New Testament church, the participation rate is 100%.  Believe it or not, this can actually happen.  In our church in the Philippines, we had over 50% participation in ministry.  How can this be?  Most Christians think of doing ministry as heavy labor.  The pastor asked me to do this, he asked me to do that.  Over time, the burden gets heavier and heavier, and people burn out.  Why?  Because you’re following a man instead of following God.  And because of this, you end up doing things that you’re not gifted for.  It’s much better if you allow people to be directed by their gifting. 

How can you tell if you’re gifted for a particular ministry?  It makes your heart sing.  You’re excited.  You can’t wait to do it.  Why?  Because that’s your spiritual gifting.  And others can see your gifting.  They can see that you’re anointed for that task. 

So how do you get a bunch of happy people serving the Lord with all their hearts?  Don’t ask them to do anything! Really!—except for easy, short term things, of course.  But for more serious, long term ministry, wait until God talks to them about it.  How does God do that?  In different ways.

Sometimes they look at a ministry in the church and they think, you know, I could do that.  And they start to feel the call of God. Sometimes the idea comes to them that the church should really be doing this or that.  And it just eats away at them.  Eventually they come and ask one of the leaders about it.  Then we encourage them to pray about it, and if it’s really God speaking to them, they need to do it.  After all, there’s a reason God chose to speak to them about it.  So often the person that recognizes a need is the person that has creative ideas for how that need can be met:  they have a vision for it, or they have an ability in that area. 

But here’s the key:  when God speaks to them, you’ve got to support them 100%.  And you’ve got to let them own that ministry.  So many people have gotten discouraged and hurt by pastors coming in and tinkering with their ministry—trying to micromanage it or suddenly taking it away from them for no good reason.  It shouldn’t be that way.  The only time I would intervene as a pastor is if there was some conflict between ministries, or scheduling problems, or something like that but this very rarely happened.  A pastor also has to step in if there’s a doctrinal problem or spiritual issue.  But other than that, why would you want to mess with what God is doing?  Much more gets done when you let God do his thing.  If you talked to the people in our church, they would identify themselves by their ministry.  I never told them to do this.  But they just loved being who God called them to be.  It’s very rewarding. 

I know this sounds scary to many pastors.  But I'm not saying we should abandon our pastoral duties.  We just need to teach people to rely more on the Holy Spirit and the Word of God for guidance, and show them how to do that practically in their lives.  

Have you ever wondered why God gives young married people the awesome responsibility of raising children, without years of training first?  There's something about being given responsibility from God that brings out the best in people, and especially in God's people.  What if we pastors truly surrender our "vision" for what the church "should" be, with all our own personal goals and expectations, and let the church be what God wants it to be?  What if we put the Holy Spirit back in the position of final authority?  

Most pastors are thrilled with the feeling that they are anointed by God to do ministry.  It’s a wonderful feeling.  Just imagine if everyone in the church feels that way!  Just imagine how exciting it is when people come back and give testimonies of what God has done through them!  It’s a completely different kind of church experience.  Instead of the pastor pushing people to do things they don’t really want to do, we can rejoice together as co-laborers in the gospel.  And since the people are motivated and able to work on their own, pastors are freed up for other kinds of outreach and ministry—and even just for rest.  I’m convinced that this is the kind of church the New Testament is talking about.  It produces lasting fruit in people’s lives. 

Discipleship is an intensely personal thing.  It means putting a person directly in touch with the power of God.  It means encouraging and enabling a person to turn to God for direction and guidance.  And then it means setting them loose under the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Remember, we’re supposed to make disciples of Jesus, not of ourselves.  Whether a church is successful or not depends on how well it is making disciples.  A program or activity of a church should be judged by whether it’s helping to make disciples or not.  Is it making disciples, or is it making seat-warmers?  Is it enabling people to follow God, or is it keeping them from following God?  Is it entrusting them to God, or is it making them slaves to a church?  These are important questions that every church needs to consider. 

This is just the opposite of what many pastors are taught these days.  The church growth movement teaches pastors to preach obedience, obedience, obedience right from the start.  Obedience to whom?  The pastor!  In this kind of church, they don’t want you to think too much.  They want you to believe that the pastor is the only one with a vision.  And so you do what he says, you fulfill his vision.  But you know, over time that brings spiritual bondage.  Most big churches, and lots of small ones, just want you to fill a seat and pay your tithes.  You’re a milk cow for the benefit of the pastor.  Yes, you can grow a big church this way.  But it’s a spiritually weak church.  The people are hungry for God, but they’re not being led into discipleship.  They’re not being trained to hear from God themselves.  

The church is intended to be a place of spiritual freedom, where you can come out from under spiritual oppression and learn to connect with God yourself directly.  It’s purpose is to empower you and send you out to do whatever God is calling you to do.  If we all act together in love, building each other up, concerned for each other, it works.  The church becomes a place to recharge for whatever ministry Jesus has called you to do. 

You know, our church in the Philippines was not a wealthy church.  Some of the people lived in shacks, many lived in humble homes.  Yet do you know we built five church buildings in different parts of the Philippines?  We were involved in missions trips several times a year to other islands.  As a pastor, I didn’t even go on most of the trips, because I was busy teaching pastors’ groups.  And they didn’t need me—they were well able.  We had all kinds of Bible studies going in the area, and children’s outreaches to poverty-stricken areas.  Some of those poor kids are now graduating from college thanks to the help and ministry they received.  How did all that happen?   

It happened best when we let the Holy Spirit do his thing.  When you do that, what happens?  The ministry gifts equip the Body to serve “until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge found in the Son of God, to the goal of becoming a complete [or perfect] man, and to the maturity found in the fullness of the Messiah” (Eph. 4:13).  What does this mean?  The ministry gifts equip the Body to serve (Eph. 4:12).  And then, when everyone in the Body is using their gifts to serve like this, it builds us all up until we all become like Jesus in faith, in knowledge, and in maturity.  We become like him not just in our minds, but in our whole lives.  We are empowered to become mature disciples of Jesus. 

God doesn’t want us to be children anymore:  “…in order that we may no longer be immature—tossed here and there in the waves and carried here and there in every wind of doctrine by the trickery of men, by a cleverness with regard to the scheming of error” (Eph. 4:14).  The tossing waves of doctrine are not just people’s mistakes.  They are often somebody’s plan.  Sometimes it’s clever men, making vast sums of money by misusing the Word of God.  A lot of prophecy teaching, for example, puts people in bondage to fear, so they will run out to buy the next prophecy book.  This is a misuse of the Word of God.  Prophecy is intended to make us free from fear:  to let us know that no matter how bad it gets, God is still in charge.

Just recently, one of our friends was listening to a story on the radio about a guy who claimed to have found the Ark of the Covenant.  It’s a great story.  It sells a lot of books.  But it’s not true. 

Did you hear how someone found a drop of blood on the Ark of the Covenant, had it analyzed, and it turned out to be Jesus’ blood!  This teaching is still going around here in Taiwan.  But wait a minute!  How could you tell it was Jesus’ blood?  Did they have another sample to compare it with?  No.  And where’s a photo of this Ark of the Covenant where it was supposedly found?  What museum is it in?  What tests have been done to prove it’s the real thing?  These stories are lies, the trickery of men.   

This story, or at least the versions I’ve heard lately, come from Ron Wyatt.  He was one of the wild-eyed explorers on which the character of Indiana Jones was based (as in the movie “The Raiders of the Lost Ark”).  Ron claimed to have found Sodom and Gomorrah, the Ark of Noah, chariot wheels from the Exodus, and on and on.  All the things people have spent thousands of years looking for, he found them all.  Or so he says.  Do you believe him?  Do you believe every story you hear? 

For example, there’s one guy raising money to discover the ashes of the red heifer, supposedly buried in the desert in Israel—Vendyl Jones.  This guy has raised millions of dollars for this in America.  But in Israel, he’s been operating like a criminal.  He’s been digging in the desert without a license and without archeological supervision.  But people don’t know this.  Many Christians are immature.  They believe every wind of doctrine they hear.  When I went to Israel, I spent the first year unlearning all the false things I had been told in churches.

Sometimes it’s Satan himself trying to confuse the believers and get them to believe a lie.  How else could Christians have been involved in so many terrible things over the years?  How can churches today be supporting actions and lifestyles that go completely against God’s Word?  There are churches supporting homosexuality, abortion, and other moral evils.  How can this be?  We’re not supposed to be immature anymore, but to grow up in the things of God. 

The gospel is not what men say it is.  The gospel is what the Bible says it is.  Many here in Taiwan accept the teachings of Joel Osteen as gospel.  But they don't realize that Joel’s message is very different than the gospel of the New Testament, and very different than the historic message of the Christian Church.  In a television interview, for example, Joel couldn’t bring himself to say that believing in Jesus is the only way to be saved.  This is foundational to the gospel (Acts 4:12).  (This was a Larry King Live interview, where Larry asked him this question directly.  You can see the clip on YouTube: )  Joel says that he purposely doesn’t talk about “negative” things like sin and hell.  But without an understanding of sin, there can be no true repentance.  And without repentance, there can be no salvation.*

* These are only a few of the many issues raised by his ministry.  I posted a video on our church’s YouTube group recently that carefully analyzes Joel’s message and compares it to the gospel. I would highly recommend watching it.  It's important for all of us to exercise discernment, and not just believe everything we hear.  

We should no longer be immature, “…but being truthful in love, we may cause all [the members of the Body] to grow until they become like him who is the head, Messiah” (Eph. 4:15).  There’s our goal again:  to be like Jesus, to be true disciples of the Lord. 

The next verse is more difficult: “…from whom the whole body, being joined and held together by every supporting ligament is, as a result of the divine action corresponding to the measure of the gift given to each individual part, making the growth of the body result in its being built up in love” (Eph. 4:16).  What’s this talking about?  From Jesus, the whole Body of Messiah is joined and held together by every supporting ligament:  these are the ministry gifts he talked about before, the apostles and prophets, the pastors and teachers.  These “ligaments” hold the body together, so that God can activate the gift he has given to each one of us.  And when God is moving in every part of the Body like this, the growth that results from it builds up the Body in love.  The ministry gifts hold the whole thing together, but they and everyone else are empowered directly by Jesus through the action of the Holy Spirit through the gifts he has given us.  If each of us is doing what we are called to do, good things happen, and all of us are built up.    

People often ask me, how can I find out God’s will for my life?  That is something that God will reveal to you and you alone.  Don’t let somebody who says they’re a “prophet” come and tell you what to do.  Listen to God.  Not every prophet is from God. 

Most of the prophets mentioned in the Old Testament were false prophets.  There were hundreds of false prophets!  The ones who were the true prophets of God were in the minority.  That’s why the Bible tells us to use discernment:  because not everything is true.  If God has told you something already in your heart and then the prophet confirms it, that’s okay.  Then you should listen to it.  But don’t go running off somewhere just because of something somebody said to you.  Pray about it.  Don’t let yourself be blown around by the winds of doctrine and the trickery of men.  Seek God.  He will show you the way to go. 

People always ask me, so how do I know what my gift is?  It’s usually the thing you really want to do, and when you do it, you feel great.  If you don’t have any idea, try lots of different things.  You’ll know it when you find it.  And there will be a testimony, because other people will see that it’s your gifting, that you’re good at it.

What gifts are mentioned in the Bible?  We already mentioned apostles.  These are people who go outside of their own culture to plant the gospel where the gospel has not been before.  They’re what today we call cross-cultural missionaries.  Jesus sent his apostles out from Israel to preach in other countries and in other language groups.    

Prophets are those who speak out what God tells them to say—and often get in trouble for it, especially when it’s really from God.  Evangelists are those who win people to Messiah where the gospel is already planted.  Pastors take care of people and make sure that everything’s going all right with them.  You don’t have to be “the pastor” to do this.  You just have to care about people, talk to them and help them.  Teachers of course, teach. 

But there are also “miracles” in the Body (1 Cor. 12:28).  Now who is that?  Notice I didn’t say “what” is that.  All the others before this are people given to the church.  So who is a “miracle” given to the Church?  Well, my kids are miracles.  The doctor said we would never have children.  But here one of them is today!  These things build up the body.  I bet we could come up with a few more miracles here today. 

There are also “gifts of healings” (1 Cor. 12:28).  It doesn’t say “the gift of healing” here.  It’s talking about “gifts of healing” given to the Body of Messiah.  What are they?  My wife has one of those.  One of her legs used to be shorter than the other.  But God healed her leg through a bunch of pastors praying over her in Denmark.  And here she is today.  Her healing is encouraging to all of us.  It’s a gift to the whole body of Messiah.  I bet we could find quite a few more of those gifts here today.  Any more miraculous healings here? 

“Helps” means people helping out with stuff (1 Cor. 12:28).  That’s a gift to the Body.  “Administrations” means papers and records among other things, scheduling events, keeping things running smoothly (1 Cor. 12:28).  When people do that, it’s a gift to the Body.  Tongues means messages from the Holy Spirit that build up our spirits (1 Cor. 12:28).  When there is interpretation, this builds up the body (1 Cor. 14:13,27).

There’s also service, which is the same word as ministry (diakonia), because that’s what ministry is supposed to be, serving each other (Rom. 12:7).  There’s exhortation, which means speaking to people to encourage them (Rom. 12:8).  There’s giving to advance the kingdom by giving into ministries, there’s also giving to help those in need (Rom. 12:8).

Leading shows people the right way to go (Rom. 12:8).  The Biblical meaning of leading is not that the leader sits back, telling everyone what to do, but that he goes first.  He shows the way by example.  There’s also showing mercy, which can be done in so many different ways (Rom. 12:8).  There’s no end to the good gifts God wants to make alive in every congregation. 

What’s your gift?  What gift are you?  A lot of people already know.  You’re already involved in ministry.  We all want to support you and encourage you in what you’re doing for the Lord.  And we want you to be an encouragement to us, too. 

Your gifting is not just something you do on Sundays.  Your gifting is who you are.  Did you notice the Bible’s language?  Yes, we have gifts.  But these make us gifts to the church.  We become gifts to the Body of Messiah because of what he has done and what he is doing in us.  We do ministry because that’s what we are:  gift receivers and gift givers. 

There’s so much more we could say about this topic.  But let’s summarize what we’ve learned so far: 

1) The purpose of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus. 
2) Discipleship is not just ideas, but a lifestyle.  Being a disciple of Jesus means living the way Jesus did, becoming like Jesus.  
3)  Our testimony is not just our words, but our actions.
4)  Jesus, through his ascension, has given spiritual gifts to every believer.
5)  These gifted people are given as gifts to the churches.
6)  People are happier in ministry when they follow the calling of God on their life, rather than the requests of a pastor or organization
7) We need to be mature in our faith, and not be blown around by every wind of doctrine.

There’s a tremendous amount that God can do through happy, motivated believers.  This doesn’t mean that everything’s going to be exciting and wonderful all the time. There are some days when we just don’t feel like doing anything at all, when we’re exhausted.  There are other times when we come under the attack of Satan.  Sometimes difficult things happen to God’s people, just like everyone else.  But in the end, we feel the joy of the Lord deep down in our hearts, even in difficult situations.  And we’ve got the Body of Messiah, including Jesus himself, backing us up, helping us, and encouraging us.  What could be better than that?  Amen?

Let’s pray:  Lord God, thank you for the gifts you have put into the Body of Messiah—including every person here today that knows you.  And if there’s anyone here today that doesn’t know you, I pray that today would be their day to accept Jesus as Lord.  Lord, I pray that you would deepen our walk with you.  Make us not just believers, but disciples, followers of Jesus in every way.  Help us to be connected to the head of the Body, to Messiah, in everything we think and do.  And help us find our gifts and enjoy our gifts as we minister to others with those gifts and with our lives.  And we give all the honor and the glory and the praise to you, Lord Jesus.  In your name we pray.  Amen?

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