The Spirit and mission

This is the last in my short series on Life in the Spirit.  We’ve seen that we must be born of the Spirit as he enables faith in Jesus, that the Holy Spirit is the believers helper who convicts the world and makes Jesus real, that he helps us relate to God as his redeemed, adopted and loved children, and enables us to live free to serve God as we listen, live and keep in step with the Spirit.  That it’s the Holy Spirit who gives gifts to everyone in the church to use for the good of others, to build the church and bring God glory, and that he marks us as belonging to and being under God’s protection and works in us to enable us to look, live and long for Christ’s coming again and the new creation.

This morning in Acts 2 we come to the Day of Pentecost, and we see the Holy Spirit and mission.

I wonder how that word – mission – makes you feel? When we hear the word mission we think of it as mission impossible.  Do you ever look at your neighbours, at your street, all those houses and think how can I reach them with the gospel?  Or your workplace, on average 1 christian to 70 workmates – it’s a mission field.  Or maybe it’s your family; parents, children, who are apathetic and seem like mission impossible.  Or maybe as a church it’s when we think of the area we meet in; approx. 10,000 people, at best 3% attend church, leaving 9700 who need to hear the gospel.  Reaching them seems like mission impossible, you can hear the theme tune in your head as you think of it.

And then if you’re anything like me you look at yourself and think; I’m no evangelist, I don’t know enough about the Bible, I’m not eloquent or clever, I don’t have all the answers.  Telling other people about Jesus seems like Mission Impossible – and unlike Ethan Hunt we don’t feel confident or trained for it.

In Acts 1:8 – Jesus says to the disciples “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

None are great evangelists, in fact it’s less than 50 days since they all scattered at Jesus arrest, since Peter denied knowing Jesus, since they huddled fearfully in an upper room with the doors locked.  But he gives them this mission; to be his witnesses in Jerusalem – to the very people who killed Jesus in the city and centre of opposition, fear and failure.  In Judea and Samaria – an area Jews don’t like – and to the ends of the earth – to a world full of foreigners and idol worshippers.  It is Mission Impossible!

But Jesus doesn’t leave them to do it alone (8a)“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…”  He doesn’t leave them a how to manual, or a foolproof 7-step method, he promises them the Holy Spirit, his Spirit.  And it is the Holy Spirit who will empower them to make Mission Impossible, not just Mission improbable, or even mission possible, but mission complete.  And that same Spirit works in us today to the same ends.

A People Filled with the Holy Spirit

Pentecost occurs 50 days after Passover, 10 days after Jesus ascension.  It was a celebration of gathering the firstfruits of the harvest, and a commemoration of the law being given.  It was a day to celebrate the fulfilment of God’s promises, and on it God fulfils his promises again.

(1)The 120 are gathered waiting as Jesus said, when suddenly God acts, suddenly Jesus words and promises are fulfilled.  (2-3)Luke does his best to describe these things; they are like a violent wind and like fire but they come from heaven.  They are signs of God working, appearing and speaking, in Job 38 and Ezekiel 1 wind accompanies God appearing and speaking, in Exodus God’s presence is in the pillar of fire.  It’s also a fulfilment of John the Baptists promise that the Messiah “will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

But there is an important difference.  In Exodus 40:34-35 as God’s glory fills the tent Moses is driven out, as God’s glory fills the temple in Solomon’s day again everyone is driven out.  In Acts do you see the difference?  God’s Spirit comes and fills people not places, it is the disciples who are filled not the building, they are not driven out by God’s Spirit rather they are filled.  Pentecost is a day of fulfilment, when God keeps his promises, when the Son sends the Spirit and it marks the coming of a new age.  When God’s people are filled with the Spirit and have hearts and minds on which God writes the law, when they can know God and all because of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

And the visible sign of this is the disciples praising God in other tongues, other discernable languages.

But this poses a question – is this normal Christian experience?  Does the Holy Spirit come at a date after conversion?  Some argue from here and Acts 8 that there is a 2 stage filling of the Spirit.

I don’t think so and here’s why; the Apostles could not receive the Spirit when they first followed Jesus because Jesus had not ascended and sent it.  Pentecost is unique.  In Acts 8 something similarly unique is happening, the Samaritans believe and are baptised, but it isn’t until Peter and John arrive and pray for the new believers that they receive the Holy Spirit, why?  How did Jews feel about Samaritans?  Hated them.  The Apostles sanction is needed as a sign that the barrier is no longer there, but Samaritans are saved and part of the church, the Holy Spirit’s coming proves that.

The normal experience is that the Holy Spirit fills the believer at conversion, look at (41) 3000 believe and are added to the church, in the rest of Acts that is normal experience.  You are filled with the Spirit when you confess Jesus as Lord.

God is keeping his promises, Jesus sends his Spirit to fill his people as promised.  If you are a believer this morning you have been filled with his Spirit.

A People Empowered, Enabled and Equipped for Mission.

What effects does the disciples speaking in tongues have(6,11)?  It enables the disciples to praise God and draws a crowd with questions.  It gains an audience for the gospel.  And do you notice where the crowd comes from?  All over the world , it is a glimpse of how God will make the impossible complete.  But notice the crowd are amazed but baffled, the tongues themselves don’t convert them but it does lead them to question.  It gets their attention and gets them thinking, like a teaser trailer for a film, or the shadowy outline of a new car yet to be released.

And Peter (14)stands empowered, equipped and enabled by the Holy Spirit to preach to the Spirit gathered and prepared crowd, to explain to them, to correct their wrong thinking about what they hear and to witness to Jesus.

Peter’s explanation goes like this; (17-21)These men aren’t drunk but God is keeping his centuries old promises, the Spirits coming proves Jesus is the Messiah(22-24).  You killed him but God raised him to life and he reigns on high and has sent his Spirit as proof(25-35), Jesus is God’s promised Saviour and Lord(36).

The Holy Spirit empowers Peter and works in the hearers(37-39) bringing conviction and (41)conversion.

The Holy Spirit fills and transforms God’s people making mission impossible, possible.  God empowers, enables and equips his people for the mission he gives them.  Throughout Acts you see it again and again; the Spirit enables Stephen to preach the gospel to the Sanhedrin, guides Philip to the Ethiopian, works in Cornelius and his household.  The Holy Spirit equips, enables and empowers God’s people to witness to their Saviour and Lord.

At breakfast on the day of Pentecost the church numbers 120 and has an impossible mission but filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit by evening it numbers 3000 and the mission has begun.  3000 believe and publicly confess that belief by being baptised, and by Acts end there are churches in Europe, Africa, and Asia who have heard, believed and been baptised, and the world is being turned upside down.

Maybe the Spirit has been convicting you of your need to trust Jesus, that he is Saviour and Lord, and that you need a saviour and want him to be your Lord.  Why not do it now?

Perhaps you have trusted in Jesus as your Saviour and Lord, but you’ve never been baptised and you want to take that step, to publicly profess your faith.  You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to believe in him as your Saviour and Lord.

How do you think of mission? Maybe you don’t.  But as a believer in Jesus, if he is your Lord you take on his mission.  If we have understood the gospel then we can’t be indifferent to those going to a lost eternity.  To understand the gospel means to want to tell others.

Perhaps you think it’s mission impossible, and it is if we try to do it on our own, if we rely on methods or programmes.  But God gives us his Spirit to equip, enable and empower.  It won’t make us all up front evangelists, but it will help us as we engage in evangelism.  As we live following Jesus in front of them, as we answer their questions, as we explain however falteringly the gospel, as we invite people to church.  The Holy Spirit will be with us as we take risks for the sake of the lost.

Have you been on Oblivion, it’s a vertical rollercoaster that holds you over a hundred foot drop, and then drops you.  You plummet down into pitch blackness, its exhilarating.  Why do people ride it?  It is the excitement, the buzz.  But it is also because you trust the equipment will keep you safe, it’s been tried and tested.  

The risks we take in evangelism are a little like riding Oblivion, the anticipation, nerves, stomach churning and adrenalin pumping are all real, but we can take the risk because we have the Holy Spirit, we are secure.  What risks will you take with the gospel secure in the Holy Spirit this week?   

Telling others, witnessing to Jesus as Saviour and Lord is scary, it is nerve racking, but we are not alone.  God in his wisdom has given us the Spirit of his son who lives in us, he makes Mission impossible, mission certain.  What risks will you take this week in sharing the gospel with those around you trusting in him who has died for you, equipped, empowered and enabled you?


Gifts and the Holy Spirit

As we explore the role of the Spirit player we need to look at the gifts he gives to the church. In 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 Paul does just that, but it’s a passage that comes loaded with questions; is the gift of tongues still around today?  What is the gift of prophecy?  Does everyone have a gift?  Are some of them still around today?  How do they fit with the fruit of the Spirit?  What is a message of wisdom?

This is one of those passages, and topics – gifts of the Spirit – about which people have lots of questions.  The Corinthian church certainly had questions about it and Paul had lots to say to them about it, in fact ch12-14 are all about gifts and how, and how not, to use them.

Corinth is a church divided, turn back to ch1 Paul tells them not to divide over who their favourite preacher, not to indulge the celebrity cult (we really haven’t come very far from Corinth have we?), not to follow leaders but to follow Christ.  In ch11 he rebukes them for the divisive way they eat the Lord’s Supper, as one family tucks into their John Lewis hamper with its caviar and Bollinger whilst another has nothing.  And here ch12-14, Paul deals with divisions over gifts.

And the big issue seems to be over tongues – speaking in other languages – it appears 21 times in these two chapters.  The Corinthians view of spiritual gifts is wrong, and it is dividing the church.  They seem to see tongues as the top gift, the preserve of the spiritual elite, and the mark of the truly spiritual person.  Anyone else with any other gift is second class.  And on to top of that they use the gifts of the Spirit wrongly; ch14 is about how they use the gifts in their gathering; they are competitive, engaging in one up man ship, battling one another and tearing down rather than building one another up.

We need the book of Corinthians because we have the same issues today, in fact we come with some of the same misunderstandings and ideas and we need its medicine.  It’s like a medicine cupboard – for a headache you take paracetamol, for indigestion you take antacids.  So in Corinthians different chapters are the antidote, the remedy to certain problems.

The mark of the Spirit is confession not gifting (1-3)

What does it mean to be Spiritual?  That seems to be the question and Paul lays the groundwork of understanding here(1). His argument goes like this – as pagans you were led to worship dumb idols, but the Holy Spirit leads to you to confess and worship “Jesus is Lord”.  The mark of the Spirit being at work in your life is confessing Jesus; the spiritual person isn’t marked by specific gifts but by making this confession.

What does it mean to say that Jesus is Lord?  We have lost the radical nature of this; today it means naming him, a vague allegiance.  But for the Jew in Corinth it meant leaving the synagogue, it meant confessing Jesus as God incarnate, it meant confessing that the Messiah had not come to free them politically and restore and rule Israel immediately but died cut off and accursed from God and Israel, and it means confessing to believing in his bodily resurrection.  It was radical, there was one synagogue in a city and the Jewish community was built around it.  To say Jesus is Lord would see you put out of the synagogue.

For the Pagan it was as radical, instead of Jesus being one god among many you were saying Jesus must be worshipped alone.  This confession meant you were saying there are no other gods – all I worshipped before was wrong – and my whole life is now in his service.

Jesus is Lord – God made man who gave his life for me, rose from the dead and is enthroned as Lord of all.  It’s a confession that isn’t just words but results in transformed living which shouts; he has risen and he rules, he has my undivided allegiance and is the absolute ruler over my life.

It is a confession of belief in something that is a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”.  Yet the Spirit brings this new birth, enables this conviction and confession, it is the mark of the spiritual person, not gifts.

This is not just a Corinthian problem, the idea that your gifts tell you how spiritual you are.  I remember being at a Christian event some years ago and some people spoke in tongues and had other experiences whilst others didn’t.  For those who didn’t it raised lots of questions; why not me? Am I not spiritual enough?  Is it because of unconfessed sin?  Do I not have enough faith?  Am I not a Christian?

That is a wrong understanding of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  The mark of being spiritual, of being saved, of being filled with the spirit is not a gift, its not tongues it is not preaching or any other gift, it is confessing Jesus Christ as Lord with lip and life.

The mark of the Spiritual person is confession not gifting.

2. Gifts are given by the Spirit, for God’s glory not mine (4-6)

Having laid the groundwork Paul moves on.  Every believer has the Spirit and God by the Spirit gives everyone different gifts.  The words Paul uses here are deliberate; there is variety – grace gifts, different kinds of service or ministries, and different kinds of working or activity.  And where do they all come from?  They all come from the Holy Spirit and are offered in service of the Lord with God working through them.

It removes all boasting, it removes the idea of something being my gift.  It is given by the Holy Spirit.

Imagine I gave you a really top present, I took you outside and there was a brand new Mini Cooper S, what would you say?  You wouldn’t say “Wow, aren’t I great!”  “Wow, I must be phenomenally clever.”  You open it and it would testify to the generosity of the giver not of how great you are.

God by his Spirit distributes gifts, and those given gifts don’t testify to how spiritual the recipient is but they testify to the grace, love, goodness and majesty of the God who gives them.

Notice too that there is diversity in the gifts given; grace gifts, service and working.  The Corinthians are all about particular up front gifts. But these are not all flashy gifts, they don’t even necessary look supernatural; for example service is used Acts 6 of the deacons waiting on tables, and in 2 Corinthians 8:4 to describe giving money to support brothers and sisters in need, giving money is a gift given by the Spirit.  The spiritual gifts of giving and service, and working – activity.

Gifts are diverse and given by the Spirit for God’s glory and Christ’s service.

Gifts are given to build others up not to puff us up(7-11)

Look at (7) why does the Spirit give gifts?  The Spirit shows himself at work in someone by giving gifts to that individual for the good of all.  That is Paul’s emphasis here, it’s why v7, 11 top and tail this little section, and it is the bookend.

The Holy Spirit works in each believer revealing himself through the gifts he gives, through which God works, in service of Christ our Lord.  And the church needs each person to utilise their gift if the church is to work properly.

Sometimes when watching or playing sport you will see someone and something is wrong, part of their body is not functioning properly so they can’t play on.  Be it a broken metatarsal or the player who pulls up mid run because their hamstring has gone.

That is the image Paul uses of the church(12-26).  Just as the body needs all its parts to work if it is to function properly so the church needs all its gifted members – and all members are gifted – to serve God for everyone’s good.  If not the church is like the team playing on with a hamstrung player.

The purpose that God has gifted you for is the good of others.  In Corinth the problem was a focus on my gift, what it says about me and my spiritual status and my right to use it when I want I want to use it and how I want to use it.  In ch14 they are using gifts in competition, speaking over one another, not valuing the gifts of others, ripping the body apart not building it up.  But they are reminded that these are not their gifts, they are gifts given into their stewardship by the Holy Spirit to build up the Church so it serves God.

Hence the variety in the list that Paul gives as examples (8-10), and that’s all it is, a list of exemplar gifts showing the variety the Spirit distributes so that God’s church will be built up.  It is not an exhaustive list that’s why there are different lists elsewhere.  There is no hierarchy, no one gift that is a badge of spiritual maturity.

Do you see the correction to the Corinthian thinking?  The mark of the Spirit is confessing Christ, therefore all believers have the Spirit and God gives all believers gifts to use to for God’s glory to build others up.

How do you use your gift?  (ch13)is the gift users manual.  I wonder if you’ve ever been given a gift experience, you open the box and there is a booklet on how to use your gift experience.  That’s ch13 of Corinthians it’s directions in how to use your gifts – you use them in love.  This isn’t a wedding homily; it is a damning indictment of the failure of the Corinthians to love like this.  As the Corinthians read this they weren’t smiling at a wedding service they were cringing in embarrassed conviction at their failure to love those around them in a gospel manner.  It teaches us how to use the gifts God has given us – lovingly.

God gives gifts to his church by his Spirit for the good of others.  Gifts don’t say something about the spirituality of the recipient but about the goodness of the giver.  They are not given to divide but to unite as they are used in love.

We are so like the Corinthians; individualistic, concerned with our rights and our gifts and God would have us repent and change our thinking.  Sometimes it results in gift envy – people long to have not the gift God has wisely given them but the gift someone else has.  We need to repent and learn to think biblically about gifts.

The person who sets out the chairs, who cooks a meal for someone, who opens their home, who sweeps the floor, is just as spiritual and gifted as the one who preaches or leads home group.  And the church needs every part to be doing its work, using its Spirit given gifts in service of God for the good of the Church.  We must avoid putting gifts or their bearers on pedestals.

But maybe you are sat there and you think but I don’t have any gifts or maybe I don’t know how to use them?  Ask yourself these questions; What can I say or do to build up the church?  What will encourage and strengthen those around me?  And how can I show it in love?  And then serve others, often it is as you engage in the church you discover your gift.

As a church we must encourage and facilitate people to use their gifts in a godly way, in a way that builds up, that is for the common good and that glorifies God.  We mustn’t just fill existing ministries but look to enable people to use the gift God has given them.

If God gave you a gift you would accept it wouldn’t you, you wouldn’t turn round to God and say no I don’t really need it.  As churches we need to be not just ready and willing to lovingly use our gifts but also to allow others to use theirs to serve us.

The mark of being spiritual is confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and living out that confession. It is lovingly using the variety of gifts that God has given for his glory and to build the church up.

Spirit filled sonship

In these posts on the Holy Spirit and our life as disciples in him we’ve looked at how we are born again by the Spirit and how he is s meal guaranteeing our eternal new creation hope. But what about life hear and now, life between new birth and new creation, what does the spirit do? That’s what we’re going to look at in the next couple of few posts as we explore a few Bible passages.

Imagine you are having a coffee with a friend when there’s a pause, you sense that they’re screwing up their courage to ask you something important.  You wait and then they blurt out; ‘How am I supposed to relate to God?  I try my best but I just keep on messing up and I feel so guilty about it.  I try to read my Bible every day but then I get distracted and I miss a few days and then I feel bad.  I try to live the best I can and some days I think I’ve done OK and that God will be pleased with me.  Then others I mess it up and I think he just can’t love me, and I can’t really be a Christian!’

They look up from their coffee, waiting for your answer.  What would you say? How do we relate to God?  Is it about what we do?  Is it performance related?

That is certainly an issue facing the Galatians.  They are in danger of abandoning the gospel all together, that’s why Paul writes this letter.  They are adding to the gospel circumcision and obedience to the law, and Paul’s says don’t.  He reminds them that they are justified – made right with God – not by what they do but by what he has done, and of their status and the reality of their relationship with God.

It’s a letter that helps us deal with the question: how should I relate to God?

You are God’s redeemed and adopted child

What do you think of when you hear the word redeem?  I guess it’s the 50p off a box of cereal, baby wipes or whatever it is, coupon.  As you stand at the till you hand it over and the cashier deducts it as part payment off the total price.

But the Bibles idea of redemption here is very different.  When it says “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law…”  It is not the coupon idea of redemption, it’s not part payment, or a contribution towards it.  Instead it’s the image of the slave market.  And that word redemption carries with it the idea of buying a slave and then setting them free.  That’s what it meant to redeem someone – you bore the total cost, not part of the cost, for their freedom.

(4-5)God sends his Son, Jesus, to redeem us, to buy us out of slavery and he meets the total cost himself.

You see there is a problem for the Galatians, and us, if we want to live, to approach God, by keeping the law.  Just glance back into ch3:10 “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse…Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”  If we want to justify ourselves by the law we have to keep all of it.  It’s not good enough just to keep the do not kill and steal bit and fail to keep the do not give false testimony, or don’t covet.  We have to keep all of it all of the time.

And actually we all have a problem with the very first commandment “You shall have no other gods before me.”  That means there must be nothing else that we ever put in the place of, or alongside, God.  I guess most of us don’t have any idols or shrines at home but what about family, children, career?  An idol is any good gift of God that we allow to become a rival to God.  It is anything that stops us loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

Keeping the law can’t make us right before God, it highlights our guilt and leaves us facing God’s justice and judgement.  But (13)“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…”

We are redeemed, bought back from slavery to the law, from being under the curse by Jesus, having kept the law perfectly suffering our punishment and death in our place and crediting us by faith with his perfect record.

And he redeems his people for a purpose, do you see it in(5)?  “that we may receive adoption to sonship.”  When we were under the curse, when we were rebelling against God we couldn’t be his children.  Just think of Adam and Eve for a moment, what happened when they rebelled against God?  They were under the curse and exiled from God’s presence.  God cannot stand sin and rebellion, so as rebels we cannot be his children, but just as Israel by grace is adopted by God as his son so by faith in Christ are believers.

And as an adopted son we have the full rights of sons, just as in Roman society an adopted male heir had full inheritance rights.

How am I supposed to relate to God?  As his redeemed and adopted children.  That’s what Paul is saying to the Galatians. So why on earth would you go back to being a slave when you can be God’s son.  Our standing before God is not based on our performance, how well we’re doing, it is not based on religion, there is nothing that we can contribute to it.  It is based solely on what Jesus has done for you.

Maybe that’s something you need to grasp.  Maybe you live your life wracked by guilt because of a past failure, or a repeated one, you can’t meet what you think of as God’s performance management targets for the Christian. But see your status – you are God’s redeemed and adopted Son if you have put your faith in him.

Perhaps you haven’t yet put your faith in Jesus, maybe you think I’m not good enough, I couldn’t keep it up.  No, you aren’t and no you can’t, you’re right.  But you don’t have to, Christ does it for you, you just have to accept it by faith.

But how does that work?  Once we are saved by faith in Christ, redeemed and adopted what difference should it make?

We relate to God as a loved child to a loving Father

(6) “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’”  Do you notice how the Holy Spirit is described?  The Spirit of his Son – as we thought in the passage from John the Spirit is another like Jesus, and he is sent by God so that the adopted sons relate to God as Jesus the Son did.

In other words the Holy Spirit comes to make the believers new relationship with God a living breathing reality.  As you read the gospels you can’t help but notice the relationship Jesus has with God.  He listens to him, takes time out to speak with him, seeks to delight and glorify God; acting as God would act, loving as God would love, God’s priorities are his priorities. 

What Paul is saying is amazing.  The very Spirit who makes Jesus relationship with God a reality will do the same for us.  He comes and lives in our hearts – the centre of our wills, intellects and feelings and he changes them, he transforms them; so that we relate to God as his children not as his enemies.  Did you notice that the words that the Spirit calls out within us or through us are the very words Jesus used when addressing his Father.

We can relate to God as our father just as Jesus did because we have the same spirit at work in us.  Abba is a word used in families, it is a term that speaks of a closeness, an intimacy, but not an over familiarity.

Just imagine for a minute a couple who are adopting a child.  How would they feel when the adoption papers are all signed and sealed and they now have a legal relationship with that child?  They would be thrilled.  But imagine how much happier they are when a few months later that child instinctively calls out ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ to them.  Then it wouldn’t just be a legal, formal relationship but a living, breathing, loving reality.

That’s what God sends his Holy Spirit into our lives to do.  He makes the believer’s redemption and adoption a relational reality, as he teaches us how we relate to God, as he opens the Bible to us, as he teaches us what displeases God and what he delights in, as he makes Jesus real to us.  As he leads us to speak to God, to run to him in a crisis, to trust in him in difficulties, to thank him for his mercy and grace, to ask him for what we need, and to share his concerns, and to look and long for his coming.

Let’s just go back to our friend’s question; ‘How am I supposed to relate to God?’  You explain all that to them and they say yes but I just don’t feel that God is my father.

My hunch is that if you go and ask my boys if they feel like I am their dad that they would look at you like you had gone out, they wouldn’t have a clue what you were on about.  But if you were to watch them you would see that they relate to me as their dad.  They ask me things, they try to please me, they are disciplined by me, they come to me when they are upset, and so on.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t make you feel God is your Father, he causes us to practically relate to God as our Father.  The Holy Spirits work in to make our new relationship with God a living breathing reality.  What that looks like will differ for each one of us, and it will differ over time for each of us.

Don’t give up being a son to be a slave.  Do you see our status before God in Christ – we are redeemed and lovingly adopted, we are made heirs and we have a right relationship with God.  And the Holy Spirit is sent to live and work in us so we experience the reality of that relationship of having God as our loving heavenly father.

What will that relationship look like?  How do we relate rightly to God?  The Holy Spirit works to remind us of the wonder of the redemption and relationship we have with God, he helps us to approach and talk to God, he encourages and guides us as we serve God, in a crisis he drives us to cry out to God, he draws us to confess our failure to God and he goes with us and speaks through us as we call others to know God.

Don’t be a slave be a son?

The Spirit and our future hope

Have you ever heard the phrase “too heavenly minded to be any earthly use”?  It expresses the idea that someone can be too wrapped up in thoughts of heaven and Christ’s coming again, that they can be so future focused that they are not plugged into reality now, that actually they have their head in the clouds. It was often used as a disparaging comment. But it was and is incredibly unhelpful.

Paul in Ephesians gets the church to focus their thinking on both the present blessings that they enjoy but also the certainty of their hope in the future.  We live in a world where our future is not certain, the last year has taught us that, though to be fair so has history.  We don’t know what will happen in 5 years time, will the church be experiencing persecution, will we still be a democracy, what will life look like?

The Ephesians lived in a world that was similar to our own where the future didn’t look certain and Paul writes to encourage them to get their focus right.  He tells them that God will one day reconcile all of creation to himself in Christ, and that in Christ all people are reconciled vertically – to God – and horizontally – to one another.  And he calls for those two realities to influence and affect their thinking and living.

I’m going to focus on 1:13-14 in this post. God sends his Spirit to indwell us so that we keep our present status in view and to enable us to live in the light of our heavenly reality now and our certain future when Christ comes again.

The Holy Spirit marks God’s people

Ephesians begins with the Apostle bursting out in praise of God for what he has done, for the blessings he lavishes on his people.  Paul praises God that the believer is; chosen(4), adopted(5), given grace(6), redeemed(7), has had the mystery of God’s plan of salvation history revealed to them(9), and has a great and certain future to look forward to when Christ comes again(10).

And in(11-14) he continues his praise of God; firstly for having chosen for salvation Jews who have put their faith in Christ, and secondly for having included the Gentiles in his plan of salvation – destroying the old divisions and creating his glorious church diverse but united in the gospel.

As Paul writes he’s calling the Ephesians to join with him in praise of the God who saves us despite ourselves. Who plans and prepares a salvation to which we do not contribute.  In (2:1)Paul reminds these believers that whether they were Jews or Gentiles they were dead before God – not just physically but spiritually.  

In Genesis 2:17 God promises Adam and Eve that if they take of the fruit they will surely die, have you ever noticed that in Genesis 3 after the fall as they are judged and God keeps his promise that they will die they don’t die physically not straight away anyway.  But they do spiritually because they are exiled from God, they can no longer be with God, they can no longer live under his reign and rule and every other catastrophe flows from that exile, that spiritual death.  And a dead person cannot bring themselves back to life.

Imagine for a minute that I dropped down now and my heart stopped beating.  I can’t bring myself back to life, what I need is someone else to perform CPR, or for the ambulance to be called and the paramedics to get the defibrillator and shock my heart back into action.  

So it is spiritually, both Jew and Gentiles in Ephesus – and we with them – are spiritually dead before God, and a corpse cannot bring itself back to life.  We’re dead until God by his Holy Spirit works to convict and convert, until he enables us to have faith in Jesus Christ bringing us new life.

But that is not all the Holy Spirit does, he then goes on to indwell, to live in the believer so that having been born again they can live for God in Christ.  (13)“When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit in the believer functions as a seal, he is a mark.

It’s the idea of a mark used to brand something, maybe a slave or an animal.  It was a sign of belonging, when you bought an animal from the market you would brand it so that everyone knew it was yours.  But it was also a sign that anything with that seal on was under its owners protection.

In Ezekiel 9v4-6 the mark of a seal is put on the heads of those who are truly God’s people, the remnant who are faithful to God, who share God’s concerns.  And that mark showed who they were, it identified them but it also brought protection and security when judgement came (6)”but do not touch anyone who has the mark.”  They were safe because they were God’s people.

In Revelation 7 as John is given his glorious vision of salvation history we see God’s people sealed, and that seal shows they are God’s and are under his protection.

This mark, this seal(13), this indwelling of the Holy Spirit happens “when you believed”.  It’s not a later feature, it’s not connected with baptism or any other event, when you believe in Jesus Christ as your saviour at the moment of your new birth, as you accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord you are sealed in him.

Do you see the wonder of our salvation?  Nothing of us and all of God.  And God in his love and great mercy gives us his Holy Spirit to assure us of our being his, of our being sealed but also protected.

Maybe you struggle with assurance, there are times when you wonder; am I really a Christian or not?  You flit between thinking you are and thinking you’re not.  So often we think of our relationship and status before God as being performance related.  So if we’ve had our quiet time, done this and not done that… God must love me.  But when we fail to have our quite time, when we let God down we’re wracked by guilt and find ourselves questioning whether we ever were saved, how can God love me?

But in Christ you are sealed and the Holy Spirit testifies to it.  It is not performance related it is God secured.  It’s not about what I do but about what God has done.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit is a pledge of a certain future.

But that isn’t all, the Holy Spirit isn’t just a seal on the believer he also helps us to live looking to the future, because he is the “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance…”.  The term comes from the commercial markets of the day.  It was used of the first payment made by a individual towards the purchase of something and that first payment formed a agreement that the rest would be paid in full.

The Holy Spirit indwelling the believer is the first payment, and the promise of the full inheritance to come.  His coming is God’s promise that we will inherit what he has prepared for us fully when Christ comes again.

I wonder how you think of that inheritance?  The cartoons portray it as being dull, it’s sitting on a cloud strumming a harp for eternity.  But the Bible calls for us to long for Christ to come again, for the new creation, for the new heavens and new earth.  For 1v10 everything united under Christ. A world, a universe without flaws, without sin, without sadness, without grief, pain and mourning.  A world that is marked by the curse reversed – right relationship with one another, with the world and all flowing from a right relationship with God.

And the Holy Spirit given by God, living in us is the guarantee that that future which the Bible sets before us is waiting for us, that it is certain, that God is not finished with us yet but that he will complete what he has started.

The Holy Spirit helps us to live as those who belong to the kingdom on earth as we long for the kingdom to come and for God’s reign and rule be fully established.  That means practically that our lives now will be lived with a mixture of joy and groaning.  

We are God’s children, that is our reality, and one day we will fully experience that reality but for now we may struggle with talking to our Father, listening to him and living for him.  We are new creations and one day we will be finally and fully recreated but for now we battle with the sinful nature, with doing the things we don’t want to do and failing to do the things we ought to do.

We are awaiting for a world recreated but for now we live in a world that is disjointed and sick with sin and that means we will groan as we see suffering and death and experience pain and mourning.  But the Holy Spirit within us will make us long for the new creation where everything bad is undone, God’s kingdom and rule are established forever, and the Holy Spirit will make us long and pray for Christ to come.

Our future inheritance is certain and the Holy Spirit is the guarantee.

The Holy Spirit helps us to live as God’s people, marking us as his saved and redeemed people who live under his protection, shelter under his salvation, transforming us and making us long and look for our certain future.

Paul does not call on the Ephesians not to be too heavenly minded but to be more heavenly minded.  Our problem is not being too heavenly minded but not being heavenly minded enough, being too attached to this world.  God gives us his Holy Spirit to makes us certain that as his children redeemed in Christ the inheritance is ours and that we must now live looking for it and longing for it.

In 1915 Earnest Shackleton led an expedition to the South Pole which went horribly wrong, there ship the Endurance was trapped in pack ice and sunk and the crew were left stranded on Elephant Island.  Shackleton and some others left to get help.  It took over three months, but every morning the skipper on the island would get the men up and call them to be ready for Shackleton to return that day.  He reminded them daily of their hope so that they were ready and lived accordingly.

The Holy Spirit is given as a seal and a deposit so that we live looking, live longing, and live ready for Christ to come and our glorious future to be realised and God to be glorified through it. 

For we are God’s people, his God’s possession, who live by God’s will and for God’s glory.

Born of Water and the Spirit

On Sunday I was preaching in the next of our series on discipleship about the role of the Holy Spirt in our discipleship. It was just a quick overview in many ways anchored in John 16 and Galatians 5. But I’m going to blog through some other key passages this week that are helpful for us to understand as disciples.

We begin this morning by coming to a key passage for understanding conversion, for understanding what it means to follow Jesus.  But it’s a passage that comes with baggage.  When you here the phrase ‘Born Again’ what images does it conjure up?

As we look at John 3 we’ll see why it is such an important idea.

(1)Sets the scene; Nicodemus the Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council comes to Jesus at night.  He obviously has questions about who Jesus is. The miracles Jesus has performed have got him thinking though he isn’t sure yet who he is.

Jesus response (3)seems a bit abrupt.  “Very truly I tell you, no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

Not only is Jesus a bit abrupt but he can’t be right can he?  Nicodemus is a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, more than that he’s a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He’s very religious, goes to the temple, lives rightly, very moral and yet Jesus says he is outside of God’s kingdom.  He isn’t living under the rule of God or in relationship with God, in fact he is dead as far as God is concerned.  It’s a shocking thing for Jesus to say, and he repeats it(5, 7).

John tells us it is night(2), and darkness, night is significant in John’s gospel, it is night both physically and spiritually for Nicodemus.  (1:5, 9)John opens his gospel by describing Jesus as “The light that shines in the darkness… The true light that gives light to everyone…”  Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night but also in darkness, because he does not know who Jesus is.

Nicodemus’ darkness is reinforced by his reaction to Jesus teaching, he is confused (5)“How can a man be born when they are old?” “How can this be?”(9).  And do you notice that Nicodemus confusion and being in the dark are questioned by Jesus(7, 10) who expects him to understand these things, why?  Because he is Israel’s teacher.

Nicodemus is a Jewish religious leader and yet he doesn’t understand how to get into the kingdom of God.  His religion, learning, nationality, and position count for nothing. He is dead before God and he needs to be made alive.

It takes us to Gen2:17 God promises Adam and Eve that “When you eat of it you will surely die.”  They eat and what happens?  They don’t instantly die physically, that comes later, but that very day they are excluded from the Garden, from God’s presence, exiled from the kingdom – they die spiritually, sin separates them from God, his rule and his kingdom.

Nicodemus for all his religion, learning, and position is in the same position, just like we are, spiritually dead.  That’s why Jesus emphasises three times Nicodemus’ need to be born again, and it’s not just limited to Nicodemus.  Why must I be born again?  Because we’re dead towards God by nature and cannot see and enter the kingdom of God.

So how can I be born again?

Jesus says there’s only one way into the kingdom of God and that any other way leaves you outside the kingdom of God, dead towards God facing judgement and a lost eternity.  And what is perhaps more shocking is that he says we cannot solve the problem ourselves.

Imagine that I dropped down dead right now?  What would you do?  Hopefully you’d check for a pulse, maybe perform CPR, call an ambulance and at the hospital they may shock my heart to start it pumping again.  What would I do?  I could do nothing.

That’s what the problem for Nicodemus. Spiritually he is dead and what he needs is to be given life, to be born again, or born from above so he is alive towards God.  (5)Jesus rephrases it “being born of water and the Spirit.”  It’s not a new idea, that’s why Jesus expects Nicodemus to understand, this is from the Old Testament.  Ezekiel 36:25-27, Israel is in exile, judged for sin and idolatry, but God promises that he’s not finished with them, and do you notice in these verses who is acting?  God, “I will…take you…gather you…sprinkle clean water on you…”.  God sprinkles them to cleanse them – ritually done after contact with a dead body, and he gives them a new heart and puts his spirit in them.

In the same way we cannot save ourselves, a corpse can’t bring itself back to life, but God gives us new birth by his spirit.  In ch37 Ezekiel sees Israel as a valley of dry bones which God by his spirit gives new life to.

Come back to John 3, God gives us new birth by cleansing us and by giving us his Spirit.  (13-15)Tells us how, the Spirit enables us to have faith in his son who cleanses us as he is lifted up.  Jesus again looks back to an incident in Numbers21 where the people are dying because of God’s judgement for their sin but God provides a way for them to live by looking to a bronze snake on a pole, as they look at it they are saved by faith.

The Spirit brings new birth by uniting us by faith with Christ who cleanses us from our sins at the cross, thereby making us alive, giving us new birth into spiritual life.

There are a number of implications of that.  Maybe you’re here this morning and you know that you haven’t been born again.  Perhaps you’ve never heard this before, never understood that you need to be born again.  There is no other way to see the kingdom of God, to be in a right relationship with God.  You must be born again!

It confronts us with a black and white reality.  You are either born again and in the kingdom or not born again and facing exile for eternity. It’s not one road many paths to God, pick’n’mix spirituality will not do.  Only by faith in Jesus Christ, only by being born of water and the Spirit is salvation found.  We must not allow ourselves to be so lulled by society’s mantra about equality that we lose our burden for lost people.  Our friends, our families, our neighbours face a lost eternity.  It should drive us to pray and to share the gospel with them.

We are liberated in our evangelism.  We can’t save people and shouldn’t feel under pressure to, salvation is a work of God through his Spirit.  We are to pray, tell them the gospel and then trust God, not worry about whether or not we did it well enough.

Finally there is no room for pride; we are saved in different ways purely by God’s grace, not because of anything we did.  We must praise God for our salvation and the new life he has given us.

So, what does it produce?  A new person Being born again is transformational.  (6-8)To be born of water and the Spirit makes us alive towards God, to use the language of Ezekiel it replaces our heart of stone with a heart of flesh, a heart soft and responsive towards God, that treasures Christ above everything else, that loves God and wants to see him glorified.  God’s spirit gives birth to new people who now live by the Spirit.

God’s Spirit brings life, it regenerates us, it makes us new beings and indwells us so that we live pleasing our Father.  And others will see the difference.  Just as the wind can’t be controlled but its effects observed so it is with those born of the Spirit, people will look on and see the change the Spirit brings as it brings new birth but not understand it.

Jesus isn’t talking about turning over a new leaf here; it is not about having a moral spring clean of the way we live.  It is a whole new way of living; you are in affect a new person with new priorities, motivations, loves, hope, dream, and desires.  You change; things you did, believed in and followed before are put aside, everything changes.  In the coming weeks we will be exploring what this looks like.  It means change, it means transformation.  It is not adding the conservatory but starting with new foundations.

Why must I be born again?  Because we are spiritually dead towards God and exiled from him for eternity.  How can I be born again?  It is a work of God by his spirit who unites us by faith with Jesus who cleanses us from our sin at the cross.  What does it produce?  A new person living in step with God’s Spirit for his glory.

Reset 5: Disciples live by the Spirit (pt2)

Turn to Galatians 5v13-26.  The church in Galatia is in danger.  They’re confused about the gospel and the freedom that Jesus brings and are turning back to legalism.  They have a false division in their heads because of false teaching.  They think the gospel isn’t enough.  They’re being told you need the law, you need to add to the gospel all sorts of to do’s and festivals and rules to be holy, otherwise you’ll just lapse into sinning.

We struggle with the same false division don’t we?  Does the grace of God free us from the law?  Yes, but then people draw the conclusion that we can live however we want because we’re forgiven for everything.  So anything goes, jump right in, just come and ask for forgiveness every so often.  Or we worry that grace doesn’t lead to holiness and so we add all sorts of to do’s and to don’t’s afraid of falling into sin.  And life following Jesus becomes a life not of joy but of drudgery.

Paul deals with such muddled thinking explosively.  They’re losing the gospel!  And Paul wants something greater for them; to see Christ formed in them.  And so he writes to them and in ch5 explores their freedom in Christ, freedom not to indulge sin but to live by the Spirit.

There are two ways they could live(16).  When we trust Jesus we are free from slavery to sin and the law which reveals our sin.  But we still battle with sin.  We can indulge the flesh, the old appetite driven sinful you, and he paints a picture of what that’s like (19-21)and don’t some of the things on there surprise you?  There’s the usual suspects but also things like envy, jealousy, causing conflict.  I wonder which of those things makes you cringe with shame?  Which makes us feel like we’ve been found out, that God knows!  If you’re thinking I don’t struggle with any of those, then the last three words on that list are there just for us to stop us being smug “and the like.”

We all battle with sin.  Every heart is a battleground of temptation.  But the battle doesn’t mean you’re not a disciple, it means you are. But how do we fight the battle with sin?  How do we not gratify the desires of the flesh?

Paul calls the Galatians to live by the Spirit(16).  But it’s not a simple on or off.  If only there was a switch we could flick to live by the Spirit.  But (17)there is a battle within us, a conflict.  We have followed Jesus but we still struggle with sin.  Our sinful nature is like the baddie at the end of every hero film.  You think they’ve been finished off until they rise up once more, to strike at the hero again.  Don’t you feel that battle within yourself?  Don’t you get frustrated by it?  Or maybe, tragically, the struggle has worn you down to a defeatist apathetic acceptance that you’ll sin, again.

Maybe lockdown and the pressure it brings; living life on top of each other without the escape valve of time apart makes you particularly prone to some of these sins.  But lockdown hasn’t caused you to sin it just reveals what was there in your heart, but covered over, all the time.

That’s where the role of the Spirit is so vital.  (16)“So I say, live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”  How do we fight sin, those lusts and appetites that well up in us?  How is Christ formed in us?  We live by the Spirit, growing in the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  All one fruit not various fruits.  To have Christ formed in us is to grow in all of these attributes of Jesus not just one or two.  But how?

It starts with understanding that(24) because we belong to Jesus we have crucified that flesh, it’s not our master, we don’t have to obey.  But instead (25)“Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”  Isn’t that a great image.  We walk where the Spirit walks.  We walk in step with him.  Think of soldiers on the parade ground, all marching in step with one another.  Or of the child trying to walk in heavy snow, stepping in dad’s footsteps.

Disciples are called to change.  To become more like Jesus.  Not to gratify the flesh and it’s desires, but to be those who live by the Spirit, walking in step with him.   

We’re not passive in our discipleship.  We actively keep in step with the Spirit.  Walking where he walks, fighting sin.  Disciples listen to the Spirit Jesus pours out on us and in us.  Listening as he lights up Jesus for us in the words of the Bible, as we see what the holiness Jesus calls us to looks like, what sin is as Jesus defines it.  We listen to him as we humbly pray and ask for him to change us because he can do what we can’t.  We listen to him as he exposes sin and drives us again to Jesus to confess and repent.

Living by the Spirit liberates us to enjoy following Jesus.  He makes Jesus real for us.  And as we walk with the Spirit Jesus is formed in us, we become like the one we behold.

So what?  Firstly we need to keep coming back to the Bible, God’s word to us, to hear Jesus, to know him, to be reminded of grace, to see sin as sin, to be reminded of our new identity, to hear his invitation to forgiveness, rest, rescue, redemption and reconciliation.  To ask the Spirit, as we do, to light up Jesus for us.  To make God’s word alive in us.  The Spirit delights to show us Christ and to see Christ formed in those who love, worship, enjoy and obey Jesus.  He loves to gives gifts to God’s church not for individual glory but so others see Christ more clearly.  If we want to grow as disciples we need to give ourselves more and more to God’s word so the Spirit shows us Jesus and we spend time with him.Secondly we need to walk with the Spirit.  To open our lives to him, to ask him to show us our sin, and who we are in Christ, and we need to cooperate in growing fruit and crucifying sin.  To ask him to work to equip and empower us to be like Jesus as we listen and walk where he leads so that Christ is glorified in us through him.

Reset 5: Disciples live by the Spirit (pt1)

What practical difference does Jesus sending the Holy Spirit make to you day by day?  How would you answer that question?

Without the Holy Spirit we wouldn’t be saved.  We wouldn’t know who Jesus was.  Wouldn’t have a Bible or be able to understand it or enjoy any relationship with God.  We wouldn’t be able to grow in holiness, or pray, or experience unity in our church family, or be able to serve one another with the gifts he gives, or have any confidence in sharing the good news of Jesus with those who don’t yet follow him.  And our future would be uncertain not full of hope and joyful expectation.

Disciples rely on the Holy Spirit to make our relationship with Jesus a possibility and a reality.  And so we need to understand his role and how we cooperate with him if we want to know joy and grow as we follow Jesus.

God is a Tri-unity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  Three distinct persons, all equally divine, utterly united in love and purpose.  All 3 working together in perfect harmony in every aspect of their cosmic scale plan of salvation.

As followers of Jesus the Holy Spirit and his work is vital in our trusting, knowing, growing, loving and enjoying Jesus.   This morning we’re going to look at a few ways the Holy Spirit is vital for our following Jesus, but really we’re just skimming stones across the surface of a deep lake, there’s so much more to explore and in so much more depth.

Turn to John 16.  Where we see:

The Holy Spirit delights in bringing people to love, follow, worship, and obey Jesus

As Jesus teaches his disciples – with his arrest, trial and death imminent – he warns them that they’ll face opposition.  And then he says something mind-blowing that sucked all hope from them.  He tells them(4-6) that he’s going away, but (7)“very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away…”  How can it be for their good?  How can it be better for them that Jesus goes away when they’re about to face opposition, isolation and even death?

Listen to what he says next; “Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go away, I will send him to you.”

Can you imagine the disciples shock; how is this better?  Don’t we sometimes echo that thought ourselves?  That following Jesus would be easier if he was here, if he was bodily with us, if I could just see him, ask him, talk to him, listen to him, learn from him.  But, Jesus says, it’s better for the 12, and therefore for us, that he ascends into heaven and sends the Holy Spirit.  Let’s explore how and why as Jesus teaches.

Firstly the Spirit’s coming is for their good because the Holy Spirit testifies about Jesus(15v26-7).  Jesus promises his disciples a helper, a truth teller, who will testify about Jesus as he gives them the task of testifying about him.  The Spirit testifies that from eternity past this has been the Triune God’s plan, Father.  And from womb to tomb to throne the Spirit has been Jesus’ constant companion.  And as the disciples testify about Jesus the Spirit will testify with them and through them.  The Holy Spirit is like a floodlight lighting up Jesus, witnessing to him, shining a light on him and empowering them to do the same.

Secondly it’s for their good because the Holy Spirit convicts and converts(8-11).  The Spirit will prove the world wrong in it’s thinking about sin, righteousness and judgement.  Sin as we saw with the children is living life saying Shove off God, I’m in charge, not you!  And that means we reject Jesus(9) God’s answer to our sin.  The Holy Spirit will convict people of their rebellion in rejecting Jesus as he opens their eyes to who Jesus is and the sheer depth of their sin.  And that human righteousness falls far short of God’s demands (10)and of the truth that Jesus will return to judge and they have sided against him and with Satan who stands condemned(11).

We see the Holy Spirit do exactly that in Acts 2, on the Day of Pentecost.  The risen and ascended Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit on his people who testify that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified both Lord and Messiah.”  How do the people react?  They’re convicted, “cut to the heart”, that they rejected Jesus, failed to be righteous and stand opposed to God and face judgement and eternal separation from God.  They cry out “What shall we do?”  That’s a supernatural miraculous act of the Spirit.  He convicts and converts as 3,000 repent and trust Jesus for salvation, become disciples and join the church.

The Spirit convicts and converts, he brings new life, as Jesus tells Nicodemus “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born by water and the Spirit.”  The Spirit has been doing that work ever since Pentecost, every believer you read of in Acts is born again by the Spirit, convicted of their sin and rejection of Jesus and converted as they repent and turn to follow him.  You and I, if we’re followers of Jesus, have experienced that work of the Spirit in our lives.  We’ve been convicted and converted.  We ought to praise God for the work of the Spirit in our lives.  Without him we’d be lost and unable to be saved.  Do you see why it’s good that Jesus goes and sends the Spirit?

And practically that means we must pray for the Spirit to be at work in the lives of those around us who don’t know Jesus yet.  We ought to be praying that God by his Spirit would be convicting them of their failed righteousness, danger of judgement and need of Jesus.  We can and must work hard to live and speak the gospel – and the Spirit testifies as we testify – but salvation is a miraculous work of God by the Spirit showing people their sin and Jesus as Saviour, and so we must pray.

Thirdly the Spirit inspires and illuminates scripture(12-13).  Jesus knows that the disciples are reeling from everything he’s telling them.  From the recasting of the Passover meal as being about his death, to Judas leaving, to this bombshell that he’s going away and they face persecution.  They stand on the threshold of the darkest night as Jesus is arrested, tried and tomorrow will be condemned and crucified.  Jesus is leaving and there’s still so much they don’t understand(12).

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.”  Don’t you love Jesus compassion, his tender care, his knowledge of and respect for their limits.  “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.”  Back in ch14v26 Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would “teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”  He repeats that here.

Context matters here.  Jesus is speaking specifically to the twelve.  The Holy Spirit will help them remember everything Jesus has said to them.  He’ll guide them into all truth.  The Holy Spirit inspired the Apostles to write down what they saw, heard and witnessed.  So that every Christian that followed them could see, hear and know Jesus just as the disciples had.  All the bible is God breathed, it is God’s word through the Holy Spirit, God speaking to us.

As we read it we see Jesus.  Think of the Bible like a stained glass window showing us Jesus.  The Holy Spirit inspired and spoke through the Apostles and prophets to produce the picture of Jesus so we can see him.  And now, as we look at that window, the Holy Spirit is like the sun shining through that window to bring it to life for us.  Illuminating the window so that we can see and know Jesus.

(14-15)Father, Son and Spirit are all at work in the inspiration of scripture and the Spirit is now at work showing us Jesus.  The Bible isn’t just a book, but God’s word active by the spirit so we can see Jesus.  That means as we read our bible we ought to praise God and be thankful that we have God’s word.  And pray for the Spirit to be at work to show us Christ.  If we want to know Jesus more we explore the Bible where God the Spirit speaks to us, illuminating Jesus.

The Holy Spirit delights in bringing people to love, follow, worship, and obey Jesus, that is how you spot the Spirit at work.  He does it as he convicts us of sin and shows us who Jesus is and leads us to repent and follow him.  He’s at work as he testifies about Jesus as he inspires the Apostles to write the Bible and as he illuminates scripture for us, and all so that we can know Jesus.

Do you want to know and grow as a follower of Jesus?  The good news is we haven’t missed out on knowing Jesus, the Holy Spirit is sent by Jesus so we can know Jesus.  We don’t have a second hand experience as we open our Bible.  We can hear him speak, see him in action, hear him teach, as we pick it up and read at home, in church in or gospel group.  And the Spirit is at work in us to make Jesus real to us.  The question is, will we pick up our Bible, will we set time aside to listen?  Will we believe Jesus words “it is for your good…”?

The Holy Spirit is integral to our following Jesus not just in convicting and converting or inspiring and illuminating the Bible.  But in our being transformed to be more like Jesus as we grow to love him more.

Living out the gospel when our consciences conflict

 Paul’s letter to the Romans brilliantly unpacks the gospel and its implications.  He gives a significant chunk of the letter to applying the gospel to potential conscience conflicts in the church.

He particularly has two areas in mind in chapter 14; (2)whether believers should eat meat – not because some vegetarians were squeamish about how it was killed but because almost all meat came from the worship sacrifices to idols in the temples.  And the second issue is that of special days and whether to keep them or not.  Both are matters of conscience.  But there are two groups in the church in Rome, probably divided along Jew/Gentile lines.  Those whose conscience is weak and want to avoid the meat and keep the special days, and those whose conscience is strong who happily eat the meat and don’t want to keep special days.

Paul doesn’t focus on who is right or wrong.  Notice what he calls this, it’s a “disputable matter”.  It’s not a gospel issue, it’s not a non-negotiable, or even a debateable.  This is a matter of conscience.  What he focuses on here is how the church applies the gospel to this situation.  He wants to bring gospel unity by teaching those with differing views how to love each other in that difference.  He doesn’t tell them what should be taught to whoever is right or wrong, but his focus is everyone in the church applying the gospel to themselves and one another.

There are times elsewhere when these conscience issues have gone a step further and become gospel issues, when they have impacted the non-negotiables and then Paul swiftly corrects the heresy.  In 1 Corinthians 10 some have taken their freedom to eat meat sacrificed in idol temples too far and are actually going to feasts and celebrations at the temples.  Paul says they must stop.  On the other extreme, in Galatia, some believers take the conscience issue over what they should or shouldn’t eat or do and are saying unless you obey the Mosaic law and are circumcised you aren’t a Christian.  Again a matter of conscience has become a gospel issue which must be corrected and Paul moves to correct it.  We need to watch our conscience, that we don’t slip into either lawlessness or legalism because that will divide the church.

But here in Rome they haven’t gone that far.  But how do we treat those with whom we disagree over matters of conscience?  Helpfully Paul’s teaching provides us with 10 principles for how we apply the gospel to our conscience conflicts in church:

  1. Is this a disputable issue?  That’s the first question to ask.  Is it a matter of conscience or a gospel issue?  Non-negotiable, debateable or matter of conscience?  That will affect how we approach the issue and should impact the tone in which we discuss such issues (or tweet about them!).
  2. Welcome difference (1-3)“Accept” or welcome those whose conscience is different from yours is the instruction.  Listen to them, engage with them, let them know they are part of the church family even as you hold different views.  Don’t look to win an argument, (3)don’t look down on others or treat them with contempt.  Don’t judge.  Remember God accepts and welcomes them so how can we do any less?
  3. Be fully convinced yourself (5)Think through issues of conscience, search the Bible, wrestle with what God says and what that looks like applied to life.  Reach your own conclusions and convictions.  Ask how do I honour God in this area?  Don’t just go along with others.
  4. Assume others are seeking to honour God too (6-9)Paul calls believers to do what they do, no matter what that is, to the Lord.  Everything is to be in service of God.  And so we’re to assume the person who works this out differently to us is trying to honour God.  We don’t assume we are the only one concerned to honour God or who has the monopoly on how to do that.
  5. God is judge not you (10-13a)We all hate the idea of being judged by others and yet we’re quick to act as judge aren’t we?  Don’t says Paul.  God is judge and he’s the one each of us will answer to for how we have obeyed our conscience.
  6. Don’t be a stumbling block (13b-15, 19-21)You might be thinking this is too hard.  I’m just going to keep my conscience to myself.  Except we can’t.  It impacts our actions.  Others watch what you do and determine what you believe.  We don’t serve God in isolation and our actions can cause others to stumble.  We must work out the gospel in terms of our actions because we might cause someone else to stumble by what we do.  Do I love others enough to curb my rights?  Will I flex on expressing my conscience if it will cause someone distress or destroy their faith?  Act in love(15).  Do what builds up(19).
  7. Pursue righteousness, peace and joy (16-18)To insist on our rights at the expense of others is to deny and destroy the kingdom.  The kingdom isn’t about rights or food, that’s the way the world works.  It is about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. We live not to delight ourselves or get our way but to please God.
  8. Don’t expect everyone to be like you (22a)Don’t try to police others.  Don’t set out to convert people to your expression of your conscience.  Accept that people will express it differently, it is between us and God.
  9. Living by faith brings blessing (22b-23)Don’t compromise your conscience, but live by your conscience.
  10. Mimic Jesus (15v1-4) Bear with each other, flex your expression of your conscience to build others up because that is what Jesus did, he didn’t please himself but lovingly bore the failings of others.  And Jesus had no need to do so.  He wasn’t short of anything or out to get anything.  In love he left the splendour of heaven, in love he took on the nature of a servant, in love he humbled himself, God the Son made man, the creator living in his creation.  Experiencing its best and worst.  Why?  In order to bear our failings.

Jesus bears our scorn and the insults we deserve.  God himself associates with us for the sake of God’s truth.  If Jesus is our Saviour we are his people and we are to be like him.  We will in love bear with others, because Christ supremely set aside his rights to save us.  Whatever we lay aside or bear with is not a patch on what Christ has done for us.  So we flex on our expression of our conscience for the sake of others because the gospel compels us to.

That’s so helpful isn’t it.  Because it reminds us that when we don’t feel like doing that we go back to the cross.  We wonder afresh at what Christ did for us, laying aside not whether he could eat meat but heaven.  And not just not eating but going to the cross for us.As a church we need to be helping one another align our conscience with God’s word.  To learn more and more perfectly how to obey his word.  We need to wrestle with scripture and seek to honour God.  But as we do so we need to apply the gospel again and again to how we think of and treat one another and express our conscience.  Christ is our example of sacrificial love that doesn’t stand on rights but pours itself out for the gospel good of others.  May God be glorified as we do so united in the gospel of Jesus who bore our insults.

Conscience: non-negotiable, debatable and matters of conscience

Churches aren’t perfect because we as individuals and leaders aren’t perfect.  When we trust Jesus we’re given his perfect record and filled with his Spirit, but we’re still works in progress.  God is at work changing us and recalibrating our conscience, and each of us will be calibrating our consciences at different times in different places.  It will also look different for each of us to have calibrated our conscience on different issues, we may have reached different conclusions and/or express our understanding differently in the way we live it out.  So there is always the potential for conflict when two or more consciences meet.

But how do we deal with that well?  Accepting that we’re each at different places in our spiritual maturity, accepting that God in his sovereign wisdom doesn’t have a universal conscience-forming curriculum which works through A, B, C, D, and E in that order.  Accepting that the same conclusion on a matter of conscience can be applied very differently in how we live that out.  How do we as a church and as Christians live and talk about these issues without causing conflict?  How do we know what are matters of conscience we can differ on and truths we have to hold to?

There are biblical principles that help us know where we hold to the truth but differ on matters of conscience.  So we can speak the truth to one another in love and encourage each other to grow in grace as we humbly sit under God’s word in love.

Non-Negotiables, debateables and matters of conscience

In 1 Corinthians 15v1-8 Paul writes to the church in Corinth.  It’s a church full of gifts and life and energy, but also conflict, error and arrogance.  It’s divided over which teachers are the best, how to deal with conflict, whether or not to eat meat, and so on.  Paul writes this letter to remind them of key truths they must hold on to and help them love each other on matters of conscience on which they should flex.  But the danger is in getting mixed up between the two.  Not everything is a matter of conscience or debate.

In ch15 Paul wants to make clear the things that are of “first importance”(3).  He is reminding them of the gospel.  These things aren’t matters of conscience, they’re not debateable, they are Non-negotiable.  If you reject them you’re not a Christian.  What are they?  That Jesus was the Messiah – God’s long promised anointed Saviour(3), that Jesus died for our sins(3), he was buried – in other words he really died(4), he rose again(5), and was seen physically resurrected by eye witnesses(5-8).  Paul also repeatedly makes reference to “according to the scriptures”, in other words it happened just as God said in his Holy word.  Paul isn’t giving an exhaustive list, but giving key non-negotiable truths that apply to the issue, the resurrection, being debated in Corinth.  Some things aren’t matters of conscience, they’re not matters of interpretation, they are foundation unchangeable truths.  Without them we have no faith, no salvation and no hope.

There are other non-negotiables that we’d find in the Bible; the nature of God as Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit, God being eternal, sovereign and good.  Salvation being by grace alone through faith not works, the fallen nature of every single human in Adam, and the certainty of the coming return of Jesus, among others.

These truths are non-negotiable.  Without these there is no salvation.  You can’t abandon them and be a Christian.  These are the minimum that every believer must believe.  And we must stand for these truths.

However, not everything is non-negotiable, some things are debateable.  There are some matters where Christians who agree on the non-negotiables differ on how they interpret the Bible.  They are significant issues but they’re not foundational.  For example, baptism, should it be of believers when they are able to make a clear profession of faith or do you baptism the infants of believers?  Believers sincerely, after wrestling with the Bible, reach different conclusions.

These are important things and generally they influence what church we go to, and we may hold these views strongly, but we accept you can have a different interpretation and be a Christian.  Other examples might include whether church leadership is composed of a pastor, or elders or deacons or any combination of those, or gifts of the Spirit and their practice in church.

These are important but not of first importance.  They aren’t matters of conscience they are matters of our understanding of truth from scripture.

There is also the third level; matters of conscience.  Some examples would be how we view Sunday, alcohol, tattoo’s, singing, instruments in church, dress and so on.  There will be differences of conscience across our church family on these issues.  And we don’t need to eliminate these differences; rather the gospel calls us to love one another in our differences.

We must stand on non-negotiable issues not flex on them because salvation is at stake.  On the debateables we stand though we accept that others differ.  But on matters of conscience we mustn’t allow our differences to cause division or splits in the church into which Satan would love to insert his crowbar.  We must listen with grace and assuming godly motives and discuss our thinking. Not throw theological stones. So how do we do that?

Watch your tone!

Christians should be different. We should be distinctive. And one of the ways for us to be most distinctive is in the way we disagree with one another. But that’s hard in an age of outrage. We live in a world of SHOUTED text messages and media posts. In a world where might is right. Where the belittling withering put down is applauded and the deliverer of such lines admired. Where revenge is a dish best served cold but also as publicly as possible via ever medium and platform you can.

One of the great sadnesses for the over the last few years has been watching Christianity ape society in this area. Humility, gentleness, considerateness and self control all seem have been jettisoned as relics, quaint antiques from a bygone era. Discourse between Christians increasingly happens in an echo chamber of likes and friendly follows, to the in our own tribes and those who air an opinion or thought we disagree with are pummelled via our keyboards, disliked, unfollowed and black listed.

That tragically has been the tone of so much of the discourse about church opening and reopening. Differing tribes with differing views assuming the worst of others, seeing only deficient ecclesiology and failing to imagine that their may be good motives and tender consciences behind decisions. I fear that we’re going to see the same division about the vaccine and whether Christians should have it or not. Is it unloving to your neighbours to risk not having it or a failure to stand up for the rights of the unborn and the sanctity of life God has created? It seems for some you are anathema if you disagree with them.

Debate is good. Airing different views is good. Sharing with others what has shaped our conscience ad therefore our actions is good but attacking, belittling and catastrophizing is not.

Our conscience is like plasticine.  It can and is being moulded, shaped and reshaped all the time.  From generation to generation conscience changes.  From culture to culture conscience differs.  From person to person conscience differs.  We all have a conscience, but it is unique.  Our society, our family, our parents, our peers, the media and our education all seek to shape our conscience.  To remould it into its image, with it’s values.  That can be good or bad.  

The Bible warns of 4 dangers for our conscience in a fallen world:

1. Weak/wounded conscience (1 Corinthians 8v7, 12)

A weak conscience is too quick to accuse us and find us guilty over things that aren’t wrong.  In Corinth it’s over eating meat sacrificed to idols.  Paul says it’s OK to eat meat sacrificed to idols but for some people in the church their conscience still feels it’s wrong.  They mustn’t ignore their conscience, instead over time it needs teaching gently.  But in the meantime others must be careful to avoid wounding them by their actions in eating such meat.  And both sides must avoid being judgemental of the other, instead they are to love each other and bear with each other.

We need to think carefully about this on every issue and especially when engaging on social media.

2. Defiled Conscience (Titus 1v15)

This is a misfiring conscience.  It calls good what God calls evil and evil what God calls good.  The false teachers in Titus don’t know God and the freedom that is ours to be enjoyed in Christ and so they create all sorts of rules and limits and actions that aren’t God given and produce a joylessness.

3. A guilty conscience (Hebrews 10v22)

In context of Hebrews a guilty conscience is one that convicts us of sin rightly.  But instead of repenting and turning to Jesus for forgiveness the guilty conscience does nothing with that guilt.  Whether by common grace or the Spirit you feel guilt but you do nothing with it waiting for it to pass, distracting yourself, pricked only for a moment but then carrying on sinning.  We know its wrong, we feel its wrong, but we just keep on doing it.

4. A seared conscience (1 Timothy 4v2)

Ultimately this is where an ignored guilty conscience leads.  This is the cauterised conscience where there is no sense or feeling.  If we ignore our consciences warnings over and over and over and keep on sinning in going against our conscience this is where it leads us.  Our conscience becomes desensitised and deadened until there is no feeling left and we unthinkingly do what is wrong without any twinge from our conscience at all.

Our conscience is a God given gift but in a fallen world it can be weak and wounded, defiled, guilty and seared.  It is moulded and shaped by what we listen to and how we respond to it.

As Christians we are called to cooperate daily with the Spirit in reshaping our conscience in line with God’s word to us.  Why?  Because God is eternal and unchangeable, his word and his wisdom is not reshaped generation by generation it is eternally true.  As those who follow Jesus our call is to be increasingly becoming like him, for our conscience to be more and more like his.

But we live in a world that is hostile to God and wants to reshape our conscience in its image.  None of us are immune to that. We also tend to adopt the world’s hectoring tone.  None of us have a conscience that is perfectly in line with God’s.  Where is your conscience weak?  Where is your conscience defiled, saying something is wrong or dirty that God says is not, or where does it say something is good which God says is not?  Where is your conscience guilty?  Where are there sins that you know are wrong, repeated patters of behaviour that leave you feeling shame or guilt but where you still keep on doing them?  Where you keep on squashing your guilt down, denying your conscience the oxygen it so desperately needs?  Where is your conscience seared, cauterised so that you no longer feel guilt?

How do we deal with such feelings?  As Christians we are not perfect, we know that, but what do we do with our guilt when our conscience pricks us or lays siege to our hearts?  Our conscience is God given to drive us to Jesus for forgiveness because only in the gospel is there grace to deal with a guilty conscience. I can’t help thinking if we remember this the we will be more careful in our tone, we are dealing with our brothers consciences and we ought to deal with them tenderly.