HOW THE GOSPEL WAS PROCLAIMED #3

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BATTLE PLAN

A TWO-PHASE OPERATION

Matthew 4

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralysed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

 

INFORMATION

  1. Jesus travelled to every part of the Roman Province of Galilee
  2. If a town had a synagogue, Jesus attended the Sabbath meeting and gave teaching using his qualification as a rabbi. The content of his teaching was about the kingdom of God.
  3. He healed everyone who was sick or had diseases.
  4. The news of his ministry spread beyond Galilee to the neighbouring province of Syria
  5. People came to him from those areas as well.
  6. Here is a list of the sicknesses that were healed: various diseases, pain, demonised, seizures, paralysis.
  7. Large crowds came and began to follow him – from Galilee, the Decapolis region, Jerusalem, Judea and east of the Jordan.

MESSAGE

Throughout (Galilee)

It is evident from numerous similar statements that Jesus took the responsibility of going TO WHERE the people were as a matter of priority. It is notably consistent with his commission to the disciples before his ascension. One of the gospel imperatives is GOING TO EVERYONE. Sadly we have seen this strategy replaced by our practice of getting a building where we can have a meeting and then trying to get people to COME. The idea of GOING TO EVERYONE is not a marketing tool. It is the expression of divine LOVE. God’s love presumes that he will find the people who are lost where they are lost and offer them the chance of returning to where they will have an opportunity to follow after their God-ordained purpose and potential as they live under God’s shelter and are empowered by his Spirit within them.

If you think about this for a moment, you will begin to see the high-level commitment here. Right now we are involved in GOING to talk with people from the 931 households in a suburban area of Canberra. To this point, we have visited around 120 of those households and have had face to face contact with about 40 of them. It is a big task and one that involves a lot of work without any particular guaranteed response. It is just LOVE that will sustain anyone. And in this case, it is love for people we don’t know yet. There’s a challenge all on its own. So when Jesus set out to visit more than 200 villages, it was a mammoth undertaking. But cruciform LOVE was the reason he embarked on such a project.

Sabbath Meetings in Synagogues

It seems that Jesus was a qualified Rabbi. But Rabbi’s weren’t the only ones who got to speak in the sermon part of the synagogue service. It was open to anyone who had a message to bring. It was the primary entry point for Jesus’ ministry of proclaiming the gospel (the good news of the kingdom). I have often thought about the principle represented by the Jewish synagogues both in the gospel proclaiming ministry of Jesus and that of Paul. The pattern is very consistent throughout the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. The synagogue was a pretty obvious place in that cultural setting to bring his kingdom message. We know that his preaching had impact in a way that was unusual. In other places, we read the reaction of people. Jesus preached with an authority that was different from the scribes and other religious leaders. In my part of the Christian world, we would probably refer to that as “anointing.” Anointing happens when the impact of the words is greater than ambience, power of oratory or persuasive argument. Anointing links the message being presented and the hearts of recipients who are open to the work of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus spoke in the synagogue meetings, the presence of the Spirit or the anointing was so evident that people made open comments about it.

Healing Miracles

From the very outset of Jesus’ ministry, the combination of anointed teaching with signs and wonders was apparent. We all feel a little tightening of the stomach muscles when we read about this, simply because most of us have never been anywhere where every sick person who came to be healed went away healed. It was a hallmark of the ministry of Jesus, and it was the reason people began to flock to where he was. Around the world right now, where Jesus is becoming known by large numbers of people there is not a single instance without profound experiences of signs and wonders. Those of us who have journeyed from evangelical, through charismatic have all become committed to the work of praying for sick people. In most cases, I know it has become a fading shadow in comparison to what we read every time we go to one of the Gospels. Since the message and the ministry of Jesus were one and the same – i.e. the kingdom of God, the hearings and deliverance were the tangible expressions of that kingdom coming. Jesus referred to this when John the Baptist sent some of his disciples to check and make sure that he was the promised Messiah. It is not just the mark of his ministry; it is good news that people get to experience. Healing comes in place of sickness, relief comes in place of pain, freedom of movement comes instead of paralysis, peace comes instead of epileptic seizures and demons have no choice but to leave. And we are left with the phenomenon that ALL who came to him were healed. That’s a head-space challenge if ever there was one.

Second Generation Ministry: People came to him from everywhere

This travelling ministry began to draw people from almost every known quarter. It was not restricted to the places where Jewish people were in the majority (Galilee and Judea). Syria and the Decapolis (ten Hellenistic cities) were also alerted to what Jesus was doing. I have referred to this part of the ministry as a kind of “phase two” simply because it happened as a result of the commitment to go and teach in all of the synagogues and heal people there. I think this may well be true of most strategies for preaching the gospel. We have to take the initiative at the start. When God begins to do things in the lives of ordinary people, their stories create a tipping point. The stories bring the next generation into the Jesus environment.  If gospel proclamation needs an entrance strategy, simple obedience will take us to every place and every person. We should be encouraged to anticipate that the second phase will be classically different from the first.  We can expect to be following opportunities created by the stories told by first generation people. What we have tended to see is what Dave Lawton calls “Extraction Evangelism.” We work hard and lead one person to Christ, and the first thing we do is to rip them out of their environment and plonk them in a church. Usually, they will remain a one generation disciple. In time they become conformed to the tribal mould, their lives a filled with activities within the church community, and they become more and more a foreigner to their family, friends and work colleagues. In this second phase ministry of Jesus, it was the people who were healed who took the story to their region and that testimony, like the one offered by the woman from Sychar, prompted a whole lot of their compatriots to discover Jesus as well.

To put it bluntly, instead of inviting a non-believer to church, why not ask if they would like to host a gathering in their home. When they experience some grace from Jesus, why not encourage them to tell their story to the people in their regular community spheres and invite them to come to a gathering in their home where the same grace will be offered to them. This is the model that Jesus created for us. The first phase was hardcore loving initiative – going as far as was needed to reach them where they were. The second phase was offering the same ministry to all of the people who heard their story and wanted to experience what Jesus was offering for themselves.

 

WE WILL KNOW THAT THIS MESSAGE HAS BEEN RECEIVED WHEN:

  1. We are willing to take full responsibility for all the initiative by going to every person and every place in a given sphere. We will also need to experience some of the love God has for people to overcome the challenge of meeting a lot of people we don’t know, but offering them the very best of indiscriminate redemptive love.
  2. When we freely proclaim the gospel of the kingdom in every part or to any and every person. Most of us probably need to learn how to do that, and most of us will probably not learn unless we do lots of practice.
  3. When we are willing and confident to pray for God’s miraculous intervention – to pray for healing and deliverance from bondages – and when we see people being healed and set free and willingly telling the other people in their spheres what has happened to them.
  4. When we begin to see second generation movement – people coming to suss-out Jesus because they have heard a story from someone whose life has been touched by his love and grace.

 

THE GOSPEL WAS PROCLAIMED IN THIS SERIES OF EVENTS BECAUSE

Jesus found an entry point to share his kingdom message and was willing and able to pray for people to be healed as a testimony to the message he spoke about. Like many of my fellow believers, I am much more ready to offer words to people rather than cry out to God for him to do work in their lives. There is something very unsettling for those of us who are accustomed to preaching when we stop speaking and start praying for people. It is far riskier. That’s why we don’t like doing it so much. What if we all decided to talk less and act on what we were saying more? I think the long term outcomes would more than justify the risks.

DOES GOD HATE FIGS?

Picture1Picture2Westboro Baptist Church gained worldwide infamy through their anti-gay (probably anti- a lot of things) protest built around slogans like “God Hates Fags.” One of the slightly humorous counter protests took an image from the gospel record of Jesus cursing the fig tree (Matthew 21 and Mark 11) with the slogan “God Hates Figs.” This story is both well-known and has a mystery about it that has created a lot of comment. I can’t remember any commentator suggesting that God might have a divine dislike for fig trees – as per the counter-protest slogan of the gay activists in the photo, but there certainly has been a lot of conjecture through Christian history.

There is no doubt, “Fig-Gate” has a mystery about it. It happened on the second day of the final week in Jerusalem before the crucifixion. Jesus and the disciples were on their way into the city. Jesus was hungry and went to grab a few figs from the tree. When he found no fruit (when it was not the season for figs), he made a pronouncement about the tree: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Very, very weird. This story happens in two phases. If we only knew about the first part of the story it would have raised a bunch of questions without answers: Why did Jesus go to a fig tree to get something to eat when it wasn’t the season for figs? Why, when he found no fruit on the tree did he speak to it in such a way?

When the disciples watched this happening and heard what he said they must have been more than a little mystified. But they walked on and walked back home that night and thought nothing more about it. They were surprised next morning. Not only was the fig tree withered in a single day, but it had withered from the roots upward. In other words, supernaturally on both counts.

Is it possible that God hates figs?  Of course, the answer is, “No.” But an explanation is still needed. As a testament to the degree of mystery here, the larger body of opinion has suggested this as a symbolic act by Jesus. The idea assumes that the fig tree is a symbol for fruitless Israel and his pronouncement, a prophetic foreshadowing of the destruction of the temple. While I understand the rationale, especially looking back through the window of that far-reaching catastrophe, it’s assumptions are not supported anywhere in the story itself and struggle for any direct evidence elsewhere. My way of putting any theory to the test is to re-read the whole story with the hypothesis in mind and see if it fits the whole. The idea that this was a symbolic prophetic act on the part of Jesus with his disciples makes the second part of the story a nonsense. If Jesus was carrying out a prophetic act as a rebuke to the fruitlessness of Israel, he doesn’t make a single reference to it when questioned the next day by Peter.  What he refers to instead is the issue of faith in God. Not a general trust either, but the faith that precipitates specific supernatural intervention – like a tree withering from the roots upward.

 

If Jesus had been wanting to make a prophetic statement about Israel by cursing a fig tree, surely he would have talked about it when the disciples noticed what had happened?  My way of understanding Biblical meaning is to allow the immediate context to provide the evidence.  We look at the evidence offered and then we can discover meaning and then the message. The second part of the story provides this evidence for us.

When Jesus and the disciples arrive and see a supernaturally withered tree, Peter is the one to share his astonishment. Rather than referring to fruitless Israel, Jesus describes what they see is an object lesson on the matter of having faith in God. Here is the quote:

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Let me re-present of the information offered by Jesus as a set of interpretive statements:

  1. He calls on them to be people who, in the normal flow of daily events [e.g. walking from Bethany to Jerusalem], are willing to be used by God to intervene in ordinary circumstances.
  2. He says that there are virtually no limits to supernatural activity where God’s purposes are involved – It is possible for mountains to be thrown into the sea.
  3. This faith becomes operative through prayer.
  4. Genuine faith is something that happens within a person’s heart before they do or say anything. A person to know in their heart what God wants to do. They experience the total assurance of that inside of them before anything else happens.
  5. For the faith process to be activated, a person needs to speak out those things from a supernaturally assured heart, based on what God intends to do.
  6. When they speak to God in this way, God will bring the matter to pass by supernatural power.
  7. A person’s capacity to gain this assurance will depend on their heart being purified from things like unforgiveness. Our relationships with others have direct impact on our capacity to discover God’s presence and purpose.

 

If we read the first part of the story again, through the lens of the context we get a better understanding of what Jesus was doing. It would appear that Jesus went to the tree with this ‘faith-in-God’ lesson in mind. His comment about hunger and the fact that it was out of season served to aid their memory. Jesus was modeling the lesson in what he did and said.  He was exercising faith in God, and knew what was going to happen to the tree when he spoke the words. When they arrived at the tree and it was bare, he was not surprised like the disciples were. His dissertation about faith was merely describing things that had happened in and through him which the disciples wouldn’t have known if he didn’t make it known.

When we take the immediate context as the primary tool for understanding the story is the message, and the message is the story, not just one part of it at the expense of another part. God doesn’t hate figs. He does use fig trees to teach his followers what it is like to exercise faith.

This story enables us to discover the process involved in having faith in God. It models faith for us.  The first thing happens in our hearts as we discover what God wants to do before they happen. Since our hearts are the crucible for God’s ‘yet-to-be-enacted’ work, they need to be purified from things such as unforgiveness so that we will not pollute what God wants to make known and our motives as well as our actions will reflect His nature and purpose. Based on this assurance (cp. Hebrews 11:1) we can then speak with authority from God and based upon that proclamation God brings about his kingdom purpose. We can see this pattern right through the ministry of Jesus. Whether it was healing, forgiveness, casting out demons or stopping storms, it is entirely consistent with the ‘Fig-Gate’ event for faith to operate in this way.

I need to say by way of postscript that there will be no presumption that we will always have this inner assurance before a proclamation. We are not perfect, and God’s grace covers all kinds of shortcomings. It is true that we can grow in our understanding of faith in God and learn to operate more and more out of the assurance of our hearts rather than the presumption of our minds – or our mouths at times. We ought to be encouraged to allow God to work in our hearts and to learn to recognise what God has and hasn’t put there by way of supernatural assurance. We ought also to be warned that just saying something with our mouths does no always mean we are speaking from a God-assured heart.

 

Brian Medway, May 29, 2016

NO PLACE LEFT TRAIL MARKERS #10 ‘DOWN AND DIRTY’ PRAYING

‘DOWN AND DIRTY’ PRAYING

I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favourably received by the Lord’s people there, so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed. The God of peace be with you all. Amen (Romans 15:30-33).

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The title above may not resonate with some people. I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to find a way to talk about the kind of prayer that will carry a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision to its goal. Perhaps next time this blog appears I will have a more respectable title. Till then, I will use the term “down and dirty” to mean uncompromising, pragmatic, targetted and specific – no holds barred. Prayer that accesses everything that is available to us from heaven and is more than a match for everything Satan wants to do on the earth.

 

 

The final element of the ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision from heaven is referenced by Paul in a request for their involvement through supportive prayer. As with many of the previous ‘NoPlaceLeft’ trail markers, this one invites the ‘contempt’ that accompanies things that carry a semblance of ‘familiarity.’ We are all too familiar with the idea that we need to pray for kingdom of God work to be fulfilled. My plea for fervent prayer is not a simple plea for prayer itself, but a plea about the kind of prayer we are praying. Let us first notice some of the things Paul was asking of the Roman believers related to his work.

First of all, he explains that this work is a struggle. Well, all I can say is, “Amen to that.” I reckon it is a huge struggle. In our culture the word, ‘struggle’ is almost an expletive. We are more likely to offer people outside and inside the kingdom a path where there is greater comfort and self-indulgence.  Our whole culture has been built around the idea that less effort is more desirable that more effort. Less pain is preferred to more pain. Less risk carries a greater sense of virtue than more risk. I have rarely heard any preacher inviting people to leave a life of relative ease and choose a life of struggle. The word in the original language means “to agonize with.” In other words, Paul is asking people from a church he has never visited to participate in something that involves genuine agony. Wow! I doubt that many people from my culture would rush to enlist. The idea that the task of proclaiming the gospel until there is ‘NoPlaceLeft’ involves such acute pain seems as strange to us as it is uninviting. If we look for an example from the ministry of Jesus, we need to see Jesus weeping in prayer over the intransigence of his people as he pleads with the crowds listening to him during his last week in Jerusalem,

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ” (Matthew 23:37-39)

This statement was made at the end of three whole years of travelling to every town and village in Galilee and Judea. It was after the miracles, the signs and the crowds from every part of the region. It expressed his sentiment following a litany of laments about stubbornly resistant religious leaders. These people had watched a man in their midst who brought the greatest revelation of God’s redemptive love of all time. They were on the brink of political oblivion and Jesus was offering them the very pathway they were chosen for.  But they rejected it as stubbornly as we have done in our own nation and culture.  In the midst of that, Jesus’ only desire was to lovingly gather his people around his presence. It was what he woke up to every morning and went to sleep with at night.  This work in any generation anywhere in the world involves a monumental struggle.

Paul invited the Roman believers to join this struggle by praying for him and his work.  He was referring to much more than the parroting of certain religious words. He was asking them to experience and represent the very heart and purpose of God. Such prayer can never be a form or a formula. It must come from a genuine awareness of the immeasurable value of people who are lost from God. They are not to be judged by us but rather, carried by us into the presence of God. They must not be ignored by us but find a welcome in our hearts and lives. It is not a religious duty for us but a heartfelt honour. It is not an option but a regular part of our lifestyle.

The fact that people can join the struggle by prayer defines the very nature of the work. It is primarily a spiritual work. I admit to getting a little worried when people start talking about prayer as some form of accumulative divine arm-twisting. If we pray, enough God will act. Just have a long think about that and ask yourself what kind of picture of God is represented by the idea. Is God hard of hearing like Elijah suggested of Baal (1 Kings 18)? I am certain he is not. Could God be tallying up the hours waiting for some tipping point? Hardly. Is it not prayer that changes things but God working through people. Could it be that our communion with our Father and fellowship with the Father and the Son that IS the supernatural weapon against the powers of darkness? I think so on both counts.

The second feature of the prayer Paul asked for was specific and detailed. He was going to Jerusalem. There were influential people there who didn’t like Jesus and were still incensed that their greatest anti-Jesus ally had made an 180-degree turn and was now serving Jesus. He was not praying that harm and threat would be avoided but that the intentions of his enemies would not be successful. Later in the record of Acts, he receives a prophetic warning that prison and hardship are waiting for him in Jerusalem. Like the Jesus whom he served, he was not trying to avoid any of those things. He only wanted all of those things to end up serving the purposes of the gospel. This prayer was answered, though in a way that many would not have preferred. His arrest and imprisonment resulted in him having the opportunity to preach to the king and his guests and then he was given an all-expenses paid trip to Rome  protected by Roman soldiers. On the way, those soldiers all got to hear and see the gospel. People on the island of Malta were treated to the same proclamation with power. When Paul writes to the Philippians from his house-prison in Rome they hear that the members of Caesar’s household have been impacted by the gospel. All of this came about because people were willing to strive and struggle for it as they cried out to God.

Paul further employed the intercessory power of the Roman Christians about the matter of the offering. In this request, we are given yet another picture of the challenges that Paul faced and the faith he mustered. You have to ask the question as to why Paul would be asking people to pray that the Jerusalem church would favourably receive the offering from the Gentile churches. The only explanation possible would be that certain people may have some objection. We must presume that certain conservative Jewish believers might have been unwilling to receive Gentile money – even when there were people among them who were in extreme poverty. So there was a spiritual battle involving some of the believers, as there was with unbelievers in Jerusalem. Paul was aware that to have people crying out to God for these things was a weapon capable of prevailing against both of these threats.

The essential issue of intercession described here should awaken us to at least two universal principles that we need embrace and implement in our prayer experience. The first of those is the need to pray from hearts that are akin to the heart of God – hearts that agonize. We have to become people with those hearts so we can pray from our hearts. When I think of many of the prayer meetings I have been involved in they are so often full of form and formula. People pray to impress each other. Others pray out of some kind of religious spirit. They pray but they don’t get close to Jesus. If you can agree for even a moment that prayer is a gift from God that allows us to “participate in the divine nature” as Peter talks about (2 Peter 1), then the most important goal in prayer is to connect with God and fellowship with God. It is the time to bring specific issues to God so that we can encounter him and gain his perspective and intention. Then we can unload salvo after salvo on all enemy positions with the assurance that we are joining with God’s purpose and not our own. It is only a religious heart that can abide an experience of prayer without knowing God. Paul was asking the Romans to understand and be personally affected by that understanding. Only then would they join the struggle.

The second principle involves the matter of specifics. So much prayer is generalized and ambiguous to the point that we are not being intercessors at all. The word intercession requires the intercessor to stand between two parties. In the matter of prayer, the intercessor should be bringing human circumstances into the presence of God and then being enabled to go to those human circumstances with God’s kingdom purpose. I think the reason why we do this is because we have so little faith. When you don’t have faith, you are not inclined to be specific in your requests simply because you don’t want to face the likelihood of nothing happening. It’s like the challenge of asking God to heal someone who is in pain and then asking them how they feel at the end of the prayer. We are often more likely to pray a general prayer and then avoid the issue of possible results. Not having faith is no shame. The shame comes when we aren’t prepared to own the fact that we don’t have faith. Faith is knowing what God will do before he does it and rejoices in the opportunity accept God’s invitation to be part of the process of seeing that action come to pass. If we don’t have a particular faith, then we should seek God and his Word so that we can gain genuine assurance.  The writer to the Hebrews refers to this assurance when he says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1,2).

I am beginning to see much more of this in my own ‘NoPlaceLeft’ enterprise. The reluctance, insecurity and fears that arise from embracing such a goal are not created by the people and areas where we are seeking to proclaim the gospel and make disciples. The main issues are within me, maybe us. I am finding that the things I need are those contained in the imperatives associated with the actual Great Commission statements (see the list in the earlier blog, “No Place Left Markers #7, Fully Proclaiming the Gospel”). Since these things have become my prayer agenda, I find that I am beginning to change. This change then makes the ministry different. I know that specific, targeted prayer for actual people attacks the defense shield created by the enemy. Put those two things together and we have a recipe for stories of amazing grace.

There will be no success in accomplishing a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ goal unless we allow God to change us.  We will we be successful without destroying enemy defenses. I am certain Paul is describing this in his second letter to the Corinthians,

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.  (10:3-6)

It is not just praying that disables enemy strongholds.  When humans, transformed through prayer, engage lost people with kingdom attitudes and kingdom actions, then enemy defenses crumble.   We must stand and speak with hearts that are like the heart of God. We need to know how the Holy Spirit will be working in the people we are seeking to love. The more these things are part of us the more we will see outcomes telling the story of fields that are ripe for harvest and of a gospel is, indeed, the power of God for salvation. We will neither be ashamed nor fearful but bold and confident. Then we, like Paul, will arrive at the “NoPlaceLeft” destination in our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.

 

NO PLACE LEFT TRAIL MARKERS #9 HONOUR, EQUIVALENCE AND UNITY

HONOUR, EQUIVALENCE AND UNITY

Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed, they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. (Romans 15:25-27)

Bless those who.....

“Bless those who…..”  (Romans 12:14)

I need to make a confession about my experience of identifying what I have been calling ‘NoPlaceLeft’ Trail Markers. It exposes something I find myself doing and notice others doing as well when it comes to embracing revelation. In my initial draft of these ‘Trail Markers,’ I was going to move now to the end of this little segment of the story to talk about the need for a prayer base (see vs. 30-33). It is an expression of my bias. I need to confess, first of all, my profound trust in the text of the Bible. I have no interest in producing a sharply reasoned doctrinal position. It is more a testimony of my experience. I have come to see that the Bible is actually a whole collection of stories. I counted them a little while ago. I think there are somewhere between 1450 and 1500 different stories. So I have come to see that the revelation is in the story. The story is the message and the message is the story. I have become profoundly suspicious of the idea of ripping a set of single-verse texts from their place in a particular story with the notion that understanding will only come if we create collections of verses supposedly giving insight into a certain pre-selected subject or theme. When we use the Bible like this, we do it at the expense of the form it was first gathered and then handed down. So when I re-read this story, I realised that I was leaving out part of the ‘story’ that Paul was telling. By making a list and then some observations about the different elements of Paul’s ‘NoPlaceLeft’ ministry I was leaving out his reference to his intended journey to Jerusalem. I realised that this was as much an essential part of the overall vision as any of the others. To get to the universal principle, we need to notice the historical particulars.

Paul was engaged in gathering a financial offering to take to the church in Jerusalem to care for the people there who had been impoverished by natural disaster and economic oppression (see, e.g. 1 Corinthians 16; 2 Corinthians 8,9; Acts 20).  It is clear that Paul experienced tension, especially with some groups within the Jerusalem church. This church had been strongly influenced by followers of Jesus who had given Jewish religious tradition a place of equal importance to the offer of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. This tension gets a mention in almost every one of Paul’s letters. It is the exclusive theme of Galatians, and the letter to the Hebrews (possibly but not certainly written by Paul). Look at Paul’s bold statement to Peter when he withdrew from sharing meals with Gentiles in Antioch upon the arrival of some of the ‘circumcision party’ from Jerusalem,

When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Galatians 2)

I reference all of these issues only to brag about what Paul spent many months of travelling and visiting to bring about. The church in Antioch had already sent aid to the Jerusalem church courtesy of a prophetic word from Agabus. This project was much bigger, being gathered from all around the Gentile churches. Paul spends two whole chapters of the second Corinthian letter encouraging them to be generous and stirring them by the example set by the Macedonian churches. Those chapters are interesting from the fact that he doesn’t say much about what is going on in Judea. He doesn’t have a PowerPoint presentation showing hungry children; he just urges them to be generous because it is a godly thing to do.

When Paul speaks about the matter, purely as an explanation for his intentions as to when he would be coming to Rome, that he gives more insight into the deeper reasons for the project.

They were pleased to do it, and indeed, they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.

At the risk of unjustifiable exaggeration, I think the main reason why there wasn’t a massive split in the church was due to Paul’s leadership in these and other ways. The post-reformation way of solving such problems is to create yet another church split. The many issues we divide over are no less justifiable than this believing-Jew/believing-Gentile division. Look at the forty thousand-plus divisions we have invented and justified. Think of the blood that has been shed by Christians against other Christians. Think even more of the tragic vitriol that gets poured out, decade by decade, the accusations and the slander. You’ll notice that even though Paul defends the gospel against the ‘circumcision group,’ he doesn’t get embroiled in the character assassination of his detractors. He just points out what is genuine and non-genuine gospel. Even though he warns the people against those who would intimidate them with Jewish traditions, he doesn’t set out to destroy them. We hear the cry of his heart for his people earlier in the Roman letter (Chs. 9-11).

When we read the first two chapters of Ephesians, we are made aware of the powerful foundations incorporated in the message of the gospel. God was making one new kind of human person in Christ – he destroyed the dividing wall through his death. Jews can no longer claim the high ground by their traditions and Gentiles find no barrier to knowing and serving in God’s new family. Such a view was at the heart of his enthusiasm for the Gentile churches to provide a relief fund for the poor in Jerusalem. He saw it as an opportunity for the Gentile churches to honour their fathers and mothers in the faith – by a generous act of love shown by all of the churches in the Gentile regions around the Mediterranean.

In the individualistic modern world, sacred relationships across the board are sacrificed on the altar of self-centredness. We should rather treat the temptation to withdraw into our small tribal territory with the contempt it deserves. Just look further at the other ways this heart for unity was manifest. When Paul returned to Jerusalem at the end of this journey, he was immediately confronted by leaders who were nervous that his presence might cause trouble. They convinced him to make a traditional Jewish offering in the hope that such a situation might be avoided. Ironically, if he had not done so, he might not have ended up in gaol.  It was because when he went to the Temple, some of the religious leaders recognised him and presumed (falsely) that he had brought Gentiles into the Temple area. The result was some serious death threats from the Jewish authorities and a two-year stint in a Caesarean prison where the only way to get to Rome was to make an appeal to have his charges heard by Caesar. Paul went to the Temple for the same reason as he took up the offering. There isn’t a single hint that he ever complained about their request or the resultant impact on his circumstances.  We need to dwell on these heart attitudes and cry out to God until they are our own.

We need to have a long hard look at what Paul was willing to DO. He wanted the Gentile church to honour and serve the part of the church that criticised and obstructed what he was trying to do.  It could well have been the part that he, and his colleagues,  could have spent time criticising for their rigid adherence to Jewish tradition.

Paul never compromised the truth of the gospel but he was equally unwilling to compromise relationships with the Jerusalem church. He became a spokesman for Gentile believers in the presence of Jewish believers and he became an apostle of love for the Jerusalem fathers when he was among Gentiles. When you have the time and opportunity, you should read Acts 9-28 and all of Paul’s letters just to see this in operation. He was the one who said that “circumcision means nothing” (1 Corinthians 7:19) but was the same one who had Timothy circumcised just to remove a possible cause of offence among Jews he was seeking to win to Christ (Acts 16:3).

We have not done what Paul was prepared to do to maintain relationship with the ‘mother church’ in Jerusalem. The bottom line of the message incorporated in the offering was nothing more complicated than, “We love you!!” If this is the historical detail, we need to establish the universal principle. It is the matter of unity. I have come to see that there are many different kinds of unity. Paul never allowed his calling to be limited by the Jerusalem church but, at the same time, he openly honoured and blessed them. We are often guilty of dishonouring a previous church or group just because it makes us more convinced that we are right and they are wrong.   Because we live in the “what’s new is true” culture, we can gain its fickle support to look with disdain on anything that might seem old-fashioned.

There is no question that a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ is going to be all consuming. I am aware that this, like most passionate visions, has its dangers as well as strengths. I’ve been around many leaders who have deeply felt and clearly articulated goals. The problem is not with the vision or its aims. The problem is that they have allowed it to become tribalized. By that, I am referring to the fact that the vision itself has become their world. When you speak with them, you discover that what they are doing is all they can talk about. It is the single source of their identity and significance. It drives their ambition and measures their success. It is the basis upon which they measure others and it is the world that consumes their attention. The problem with this centres around the fact that their world is not even close to being God’s world and therefore not the kingdom of God world.

We can see this kind of thing happening during the ministry of the prophet, Elijah. In the shadow of his major success on Mt. Carmel and the drought being broken things didn’t work out the way he expected. Instead of turning the hearts of the king and queen toward God, Jezebel let it be known that she was going to kill him. This disappointment rocked “his” world so badly that he wanted to end his life. Fortunately, he decided to seek God in a special way, by going to Mt Horeb in the Sinai where God had met with Moses (First, Kings 19). When he finally heard from God he discovered that the cause of his problem was not Jezebel’s threat it was the fact that he had limited his ‘world’ by the false presumption that he was the only one left who was serving God. That perception had blinded him to the fact that there were seven thousand others out there serving God faithfully. They were scattered among the northern tribes of Israel, but his selective self-focus had rendered him incapable of seeing or acknowledging them. It had also caused him to think that a single disappointment somehow disqualified him from further things God had called him to do. Part of that ongoing work was to recognise that the Elijah’s own life was not the ‘end of the world.’ He was to appoint a successor who was actually going to do bigger and better things than he had done. All of this came down to a wrong set of assumptions about his own call from God. He had tribalized the ‘kingdom of God call’ on his life.

The fact that Paul refused to allow his personal call and ministry to become his ‘world’ and the fact that he was willing to send a message to the Jerusalem church to say, “We love you, we love you.”  How’s that for a kingdom response toward people who include some of your most strident critics.  It is profoundly Jesus-looking and spells an end to the power vested in an adversary who preys heavily on divisive attitudes and actions. It was made possible by the fact that he understood the world of ministry to be before, after and beyond his own. He had a message and a ministry that was important but it was never going to be exclusive. If we are going to embrace a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision, we need to make sure we have the same heart and the same attitude. For us to be able to honour and bless the wider world of ministry that is beyond our own call and work will directly make the fulfilment of that vision the more possible. Instead of competing we should complement. Instead of criticising others we should direct our energies toward getting on with our primary purpose. Instead of separating we should take every opportunity to affirm openly what others are doing to serve God’s purpose in the earth.

NO PLACE LEFT TRAIL MARKERS #7 FULLY PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL

FULLY PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL

So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. (Romans 15:19)

Large gospel meeting in Malaysia

Large gospel meeting in Malaysia

The reality described by these words from Paul just take your breath away. They seem so very far from anything most of us have ever known. In a Roman Empire comprising approximately 60 million people, this sector was the most populous, estimated at around 20 million. At the time of writing the words, Paul was almost certainly in Corinth and was coming to the end of his third missionary journey. The narrative contained in Acts 20 tells us that he spent three months in Corinth, possibly his last visit to the city. During those three months, he wrote the Roman letter indicating his intention to come and his plan to visit Spain. In the section from which the above quote is taken, he outlines his reasons for making those plans. To put it simply, he has finished his part of the job given to him in that region.

The “NoPlaceLeft” trail marker, in this case, is contained in the words, “fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” As it is with many other Biblical terms, they simply slide by our eyes without the chance to make any impact at all. It is a sad fact of life that the words of Jesus to the religious leaders of his day seem to apply to us with matters like this one:

“You have made the word of God of no effect for the sake of the traditions you have handed down; you do many things like that.” (Mark 7:13)

We have built traditions around our Christian living regarding the preaching of the gospel. Our picture may be of an evangelist preaching to a gathering of people in a stadium somewhere, or a visiting ministry coming to the church. It may be associated with a “gospel appeal” at the end of a sermon. There are churches where such an appeal would happen on a weekly basis. We may associate the idea of proclaiming the gospel to stories we hear from a small number of individuals who are supposed to have a “gift” of evangelism. From time to time, they will tell stories of being on a plane or a public place where they end up talking to someone about Jesus. These experiences are not common and are often nothing more than a brief encounter that does not lead to discipleship. We have also grown accustomed to thinking that the typical gospel proclaiming method is to bring people to a church service; either a special one or a regular one. The assumption is that the programme is the primary agent for the proclamation whether it be in the form of a preacher giving an appeal or just giving people a pleasant experience and hoping they will come back again.

This picture looks nothing like what Jesus draws for his followers in the words of any or all of the Great Commission statements, nor in the Acts of the Apostles, nor in Paul’s letters. The culture and focus are different. That’s the reason for drawing a parallel between what Jesus said about the religious leaders of his day. He said their traditions had caused the Word of God to have no power. It is the same for us. Our practices (culture and tradition) have robbed the Great Commission of its power to inspire, challenge and equip us with what we need to do the work. We can read it again and again but never reach the conclusion that we should change anything we do in a given week or month of our life.

The following is a summary of the things that Jesus said in the six great commission statements:

  1. They were to intentionally go to the people lost from God.
  2. They were to go with the intention of making the gospel known to them.
  3. They were to make sure they proclaimed the gospel to every person.
  4. They were to enable those who responded to become disciples of Jesus.
  5. They were to baptise them.
  6. They were to teach them to obey everything Jesus had commanded.
  7. They were to do this ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  8. They were to maintain a constant relationship with Jesus.

You only have to frame these commands in the form of questions to see the calibre of our neglect. Consider what your response would be to any or all of the following questions:

  1. How many times during the past week have you deliberately gone among people lost from God with the intention of proclaiming the gospel to them?
  2. How many times during the last week have you proclaimed the gospel?
  3. When was the last time you worked strategically among a group of people so that you were able to proclaim the gospel to everyone?
  4. Of the people who have responded to the gospel when you have proclaimed it, how many became disciples of Jesus?
  5. How many did you baptise?
  6. How many were taught to obey all the commands of Jesus?
  7. How did the Holy Spirit work through you?
  8. To what degree do you experience the fellowship and presence of Jesus as you do this work?

It soon becomes apparent that we have dropped the ball on most of these issues, big time.

When Paul tells the Romans that the gospel had been “fully proclaimed,” as Jesus had said, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria – and Illyricum was on the way to Spain – which may well have seemed to Paul and his companions as the “ends of the earth.” What did Paul mean by “fully proclaimed?” I think it is safe to assume that that all twenty million individual people were not individually approached. What we do know is that a church was planted in Thessalonica, which then proclaimed the gospel to the rest of Macedonia. We are aware that he planted a church in Ephesus and within three years the gospel had come to every part of the province of Asia. We know that most of the one hundred names Paul mentioned in his letters and the Book of Acts were people who, when they became committed to Christ began to take responsibility for the people and places that had not yet received the message. If the researchers are right, we know Paul visited fifty cities and was personally involved in planting twenty churches. That was the backbone of a multiplying number of disciples and churches, many of whom had not personally known Paul but knew people who were trained by him. All of these were involved in reaching the twenty-million as their priority.

These observations require us to have a clear understanding of what the gospel IS. Once again, it becomes like many other things within Christian faith. It has been given so many meanings by so many people that it has lost its original distinctive.  If we were going to take the Gospels themselves and the ministry of Jesus as a basis for understanding the nature of the gospel, we would need to take seriously the Matthew 24 phrase used by Jesus, “the gospel of the kingdom.” Jesus proclaimed the gospel every time Jesus taught or healed or delivered someone from a demon. Here is my working definition of what it means to proclaim the gospel:  it is a tangible demonstration of the kingdom of God where people get to experience the nature and purpose of God for themselves and have an opportunity to respond. It could be in word, sign or deed in my view. In the 180 plus stories of Jesus’ ministry recorded in the gospels offer one or more of those. Each of these gave people a choice to believe or not believe what they heard or saw. The same is true for the events recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. These tangible connections are like the seeds referred to in some parables. We need to sow these seeds and then watch to see what happens. In the words of Mark 4:26-29, once the seed is sown the farmer has to wait. The next part of the process is a mystery that goes on between the soil and the seed. Only when that has been completed does the farmer get involved again. It is worthy of note that the first examples of gospel ministry in the Acts of the Apostles were acts of God being explained, not offering a philosophical argument about the existence of God or a heavily worded presentation of atonement theology. So “fully proclaimed” requires a rethink and some prolific road testing of what constitutes a gospel proclamation. I find myself wanting to ask the question, “What would it take to know for sure that you had proclaimed the gospel to someone?” Only then will it become possible for us to know what “fully proclaimed” means in our circumstances.

I live in a city of approximately 400,000 people in a nation of twenty-four million. I can’t say I have ever participated in a plan that was credibly capable of seeing the gospel proclaimed to every person.  I haven’t even been part of such a plan in a smaller region – until now. For the first time in my life, I am connected to people who only want to do that and call others to do the same. The model we are using is not about large buildings and employing highly skilled people to run programmes. We are starting at the other end of the Christian spectrum. We are learning how ordinary people can effectively proclaim the gospel in the spheres where they live and work.  We are learning how to preach the gospel and make disciples who can immediately preach the gospel and make disciples. We are starting out with a goal to see four streams of four generations of believers. In this way, we plan to see 5,000 missionaries equipped and sent to preach the gospel until it is “fully proclaimed.” It is hard and not a little scary, but we will learn what it takes and work within a defined region or community sphere until we can say, there is ‘NoPlaceLeft.’

NO PLACE LEFT TRAIL MARKERS #8 “WHERE-CHRIST-IS-NOT-KNOWN” DEFAULT

 

THE ‘WHERE CHRIST IS NOT KNOWN’ DEFAULT

It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” (Romans 15:20)

HTBD

Having a preference for ‘off-the-map’ disciplemaking

This part of the ‘NoPlaceLeft’ toolkit is as profound as it is unnatural. Some of the people who make comments about this reference in Romans think that Paul was such an independent operator that he wasn’t capable of working with others. They assume that the phrase, “so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” is a statement of pride or arrogance. There is no genuine evidence to support this.

We know that Paul’s was writing to the Romans for a very particular reason.  He planned to go to Spain. Spain was a region where the gospel had not yet been preached. This decision was based on one of Paul’s longstanding principles. It was his default and it is sadly not one that many Christian groups seem to follow.  Think of the spheres around you – your neighbourhood, workplace, suburb or your extended family.  Think of the commandment of Jesus to the disciples that they were to “go” and preach the gospel to “every person.”  It is clear that the idea of focusing attention, resources and action on places and individuals who have not heard the gospel is not a priority at all.

The evidence from the four gospel records shows that Jesus operated with a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ strategy. The following references establish this pattern at least for Galilee.

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. (Matthew 9:35)

But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43)

After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, (Luke 8:1)

Add to that the fact that he visited the regions of Gadara, Samaria, Syro-Phoenicia, Caesarea-Philippi and probably Mt. Hermon and most of the region is covered.  Historians have established that there were approximately 178 towns and villages in all.  It appears that these were deliberately visited at least once and possibly more than once from his home base in Caesarea.

Paul’s ‘NoPlaceLeft’ principle is also evident from the record.  There is much more going on than the more well-known missionary journeys that took him from Antioch to the provinces of Asia Minor, Macedonia and Achaea. Eckhardt Schnabel’s mammoth research[1]  identifies missionary ministry in Syria, Arabia and his home province of Cilicia before his association with the church in Antioch.

The account described at the beginning of Acts 16 is instructive on this matter. After visiting the churches in Galatia, Paul and Silas and their companions seek to implement the “where-Christ-is-not-known” default.

Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night, Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16)

It seems that they went to six different places to preach the gospel but were prevented by the Holy Spirit from doing so on each occasion. When we take into account, the distances involved and the fact that they were walking everywhere, it is just astounding. What God had in mind was a visit to a ladies prayer meeting in Philippi and the start of church planting in Macedonia and Achaia. All of those areas saw the gospel proclaimed in the years following but the incident shows the way Word of God intention and Holy Spirit tactics worked together. It was the Great Commission that started the team in those directions. It was the Holy Spirit who enabled them to fine-tune the operation. It is also an example of servants of Jesus going in obedience as a foundation to discovering the whole of the plan as a result of that obedience. I can hear people asking why a spiritual giant like Paul could have wasted so much time going to the wrong places. My response would be to suggest that those who raise such issues are probably better at idealistic theory  than practice. I’m sure every practitioner would have one or more Acts 16 stories in their timeline. The point to notice is the simple, godly principle: the next place to go is where there are people closest to you who have never heard the gospel.

It goes against human nature to be attracted to the least known more strongly than the most known. If you stand back and watch what happens when people from a church community meet together on a Sunday morning, you will find that just about everyone will gravitate towards the few people they know well and with whom they have already formed friendships. It is common for people to visit a different church and find that no one talks to them – except perhaps the person who is rostered on to greet people. This is so ungodly. It is similar concerning ethnic differences. If I am visiting a foreign country and I ask for assistance from two people – and if one of those people happens to be from my ethnic background, I will have an innate tendency to trust the person who is ‘like me’ more than the person from a different race. There is no logic to it. It is what happens to us when we live separately from God.

God is not like this and we are not created for this. It was the nature of God to want to dwell in the midst of separated and dysfunctional humanity. When Jesus entered Jericho with crowds lining the roads to watch him, it is possible that the person furthest from God in that crowd was the one perched in a tree – perhaps for security reasons as well as to be able to see. That Jesus spoke to him and reached out to him was not the result of an unusual decision to be generous.  It was his nature. The gospel records are replete with stories of the way Jesus defaulted toward lostness.  We only have to know Jesus a little bit and this kind of behaviour becomes entirely predictable.  The story from Luke 19 concludes with these words, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”  I challenge you to live a single ordinary day based on this principle and you will get a sense of how far from the narrow way we have strayed.  We would much prefer to seek out “already found” people and spend our time with them.

When Paul met Jesus, his Gentile-hating heart began to be transformed.  He actually spent the rest of his life championing a cause to see them transfer their citizenship from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God. Just try to imagine what you would be like if this was your normal way of thinking and acting.

Or, suppose you are in a room with twenty people in it. Five of them are known to you and fifteen are not known. Five are fellow believers and fifteen are non-believers. Then think about arriving home and being asked about the meeting. A typical response might sound like this, “Oh I hardly knew anyone there and most of the people were non-Christians. But, thanks be to God, there were four other Christians there so I was able to spend the whole evening talking with them about Christian things.” A less common but possible response might go like this, “Well there were a few Christians there that I knew but, thanks be to God I had the opportunity to meet some people I had not known before and who had never heard of Jesus. I was able to connect with them and share gospel ministry with them. What a great opportunity and a wonderful time!” It may sound a bit corny, but my point is that we need to deal with our ungodly default. I know there are fears and risks, but Jesus showed the best way to overcome all fear – by learning to exercise faith for a predisposition toward lost people.

It is possible that our self-centred culture and its traditions have infiltrated the church to the point where we have substituted a kind of safety and comfort default. We choose a few good friends in the church or we discover a few other Christian people in our workplace and form a cozy little tribal group that consumes all of our social energies and we make it sound like a godly virtue. When we read about Jesus totally identifying with humanity and living for thirty years in Nazareth without once indicating that he was God, we just admire it from a distance. We don’t get its message. We don’t consider that we should become incarnate to a group of people who are lost from God and live among them and learn to understand them so that we can effectively and lovingly minister the gospel of the kingdom to them. Rarely would we see this a something mainstream. Mostly we just see it is too hard and therefore invent ways of avoiding the idea let alone the practice.

Paul was not like that, nor were his fellow-workers and nor were the disciples they made in the churches they planted. They could plant a church in the centre of a region and know that the region would be saturated with gospel proclamation. Paul’s hunger to be like Jesus meant that his preference was to be with people who had never heard the gospel. It became the common experience. One of the reasons why we never hear the New Testament apostles writing to churches imploring them to abundantly share the gospel was probably because it was one of the things that they DID DO, even though they had problems with other issues – as we read in the letters.

One of the terms used to describe churches in recent years is the term, “great commission church.” It presumes that there are ‘normal’ mainstream churches that are not urgently fulfilling the command of Christ to preach the gospel and make disciples. Then there are a few churches that are nicknamed “great commission churches” because they intend to see the great commission fulfilled in their areas and beyond in their contemporary generation. Such churches and the followers of Jesus in them have to “deny themselves, take up their cross” to follow Jesus. It is a hard task. When was the last time you heard someone crying out in a prayer meeting for the lost people in their community spheres? When was the last time you went to a church leaders’ meeting where the agenda was all about how to fulfil the great commission?

I would love you to make this a diary item for your life for the next three months. Start reading the many passages in the Old and New Testaments that exemplify the heart of God to reach his lost children. Just get a hold of the parade of the prodigal son for a start and begin to ask God how the heart of the father in that story could be reproduced in your own heart. Then get a few other desperadoes to join you in this magnificent obsession. Just make a start in the Holy Spirit university course, “Where Christ is not Known 1.01”. Make a list of the people in your spheres who don’t know Jesus and begin to pray for them and then plonk yourself in their world enough times with the intention of making the gospel known to them in some way. May such an experiment become a life-long passion.

The only way a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision will be fulfilled is when enough believers in a given area make it their weekly goal to make a difference to the degree of lostness in that area. It will take a group of people to do it because it will be the only way there will be enough encouragement and faith to carry the day against the remiss of the church as a whole and the barriers put up by our culture and its traditions. Just think for a moment. Our culture has been so effective in disempowering the idea of rescuing lost people with the message of the gospel that it is considered culturally inappropriate, not just by the community but often by the church as well. Let’s make a commitment to see God change that status quo.  We can start by deliberately focusing our attention on the next person who has never known the amazing love of Jesus.

[1]      Early Christian Mission (2 Volume Set)  – IVP, 2004

NO PLACE LEFT TRAIL MARKERS #6 HOLY SPIRIT POWER

HOLY SPIRIT POWER

”Therefore, I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God.” (Romans 15:19)

sf_outpouring_03SFaith - SteveThere is no doubt that the twentieth century was the century of Holy Spirit re-discovery for the church. It began with a global phenomenon of Holy Spirit movements not dependent on one another but producing the same result. The Welsh Revival of 1904, Asuza Street in Los Angeles in 1906, spreading to Scandinavia, Europe, the UK, Australia and South America. Add to this an amazing revival in Pyongyang in 1907 and you have an undeniable statement of God’s agenda – a century of Holy Spirit renewal and revival. Not without controversy of course, but these events were followed by the Latter Rain revival during the middle of the century and then the Charismatic Renewal during the last quarter. In terms of social movements throughout history, the last phase of the movement has become the most prolific in the history of mankind. The number of people impacted by the Holy Spirit now exceeds 600 million in every nation on every continent and within every identifiable stream of the Christian church.

All of that is to say that God has always intended a church that is notably identified with Holy Spirit power. While there has never been an era of Christian experience without people who sought and engaged with Holy Spirit power, the church as a whole was lost to the Spirit as it came under various cultural constraints during the Christendom era, then from the Enlightenment and its successors. It seems that every vessel of refreshing and revival that set its sail to fresh wind from heaven seems to easily founder on the rocks of human flesh in some form or other. The words of Paul to the Galatians sound a perennial prophetic warning:

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes, Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3)

To make the observation that Paul’s ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision was built by Holy Spirit power will probably draw the same response as saying, “A mother’s milk is good for the baby.” No one is going to debate the point. The problem for us is that we agree with the words but are not willing to make them an essential part of our practice. I will never forget a comment by contemporary Chinese church leader, Brother Yun (cp. the book, “The Heavenly Man”) when he made his first visit to the United States and spoke in many large churches. When asked by an interviewer what his impression was of the American church he replied, “I am amazed at how much they can do without the Holy Spirit.”

If we take our modeling from the ministry of Jesus we will soon become aware that we have major work to do. A gospel comment on our current state might well come from Luke 9 where Jesus’ utters his most despairing words of the whole time he was on earth. I am talking about despair and not just pain and anguish. When he comes down from the mountain of transfiguration with Peter, James and John in tow the disciples are found to be in an argument with religious leaders. The incident is due to the fact that a man brought a demon-possessed son to be delivered and they weren’t able to do it even though they had had previous experience. Here is what he said to them,

“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” “He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” “ (Matthew 17)

I consider myself fortunate to have lived my Christian life during some exciting decades. As someone who was born again and nurtured in the evangelical stream of the church, I was also among those who embraced the Holy Spirit empowering offered through the Charismatic renewal in the early 1970’s. The controversy, as well as the excitement of that time, seems to be quietly morphed into something that has become respectable and mainstream. We have not fallen for the intimidation of traditional legalism like the Galatians. But we do seem to have morphed into a form of professional institutionalism that replaces personal Holy Spirit dependence with church program dependence. The more we offer carefully choreographed professional excellence as a substitute for discovering Holy Spirit presence we will find ourselves losing the power we need where we need it most. I am told that the average regular church attendance in western societies like ours has dropped to around 1.5 occasions per month. Even if this is supplemented with attendance at a home based Bible study group (now fortnightly during school terms rather than weekly) it amounts to approximately 1.25 hours per week. If a large percentage of church budgets and of resources is injected into the weekly meeting we are spending a lot of money convincing people that they just need to watch the professionals do their thing rather than equipping and releasing them to depend on the Holy Spirit everywhere every day.

When Paul found himself in Athens, the major centre of cultural influence in the Mediterranean world at the time, he did his usual thing by going to the synagogue, but it seems that there was no response to the gospel there. He also went to the marketplaces and a debate with some philosophers led to an invitation to speak to the Greek equivalent of a parliament. We have an account of his speech on that occasion and it is interesting from many points of view. A few people hung around and that’s all we know about gospel ministry in Athens. When he moved on to Corinth we are left in no doubt as to his feelings. He recounts them very succinctly in 1 Corinthians 2,

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

It is possible that the experience in Athens was a modest wake-up call even for someone as focused as Paul. It may be too great an assumption for us to make that his resolve and re-kindled dependence on the simple message of the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit was a reaction to what had happened (and not happened) in Athens. His words to the spiritually supercharged believers in Corinth are challenge enough without knowing the certainty of the context. Like Paul in Greece, we are surrounded by a deluge of marketing eloquence and human wisdom. It bombards us from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep. It is the assumption of everything we see and hear. No wonder it is hard for us to avoid mission-drift not to mention message-drift. Our only hope is to keep on making a similar resolution as a way of combatting the mainstream culture that wants to tell us what we have is either weak or foolish.

My attention is drawn particularly to the last few phrases of Paul’s words, “so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” In our discipling, if we depend on slick persuasive words we will need to keep up a succession of hyped-up statements that appeal to the emotions but do nothing to connect the heart of a person to the Holy Spirit. If we take the risk and make a resolve to unashamedly depend on the Holy Spirit then the people we are seeking to reach and disciple will be much more likely to do the same.

We just have to ask the question, “Is what happened today a human story or a Holy Spirit story?” Here is a suggestion. Start reading any part of the Bible you like and look for the Holy Spirit stories. See how an everyday human story was suddenly transformed into a Holy Spirit story. Build a dossier of how ordinary human people became the agents of something the Holy Spirit did. See also where and why the people missed out on being Holy Spirit people doing Holy Spirit things. As you start to see these things begin to think and pray about your own circumstances and get some ideas as to how you may get to understand what God wants to do and how you can serve that purpose.

If you have never been filled with the Spirit or have no understanding of what it is like to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, start to read about it in the book of Acts and through into Paul’s letters. Ask Christian people who know the Holy Spirit to help you to get to know his presence and power in your own life.

There is no way a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision will be possible without the power of God. Jesus made this point clear to the disciples who waited for the Day of Pentecost to come. That empowering presence changed everything. When people gathered from every nation under heaven and watched the 120 disciples worshipping God in the power of the Spirit the phenomenon defied all religious and human logic. When Peter stood up and preached the gospel they felt Holy Spirit power inside them as they heard the words on the outside. Their baptism and experience of Holy Spirit power created a supernatural community. If you want a definitive description of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit you can read about it in Acts 2:36-47,

“Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off —for all whom the Lord our God will call.”  With many other words, he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had a need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

It was so much more than speaking in tongues. When you think that this community was made up of people who came from all around the Mediterranean just count the personal and social miracles that are described in the first and most striking definition we have of what makes a group of people a church. All of these were produced at once by Holy Spirit power. When Paul wrote to the Romans, approximately twenty-five years later he was talking about exactly the same thing. This is the kind of Holy Spirit power that will make ‘NoPlaceLeft’ a possibility.

NO PLACE LEFT TRAIL MARKERS #5 DISCIPLE-MAKING

DISCIPLE-MAKING

“Therefore, I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—“ Romans 15:18

jesus_and_lambs_animation_400x400An interesting turn of phrase, “leading the Gentiles to obey God.” Previously Paul talked about his calling as a “minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles…so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (v. 16,17) The bottom-line reality about these phrases is the fact that all across the north-east quarter of the Roman empire the lives of Gentiles had been transformed as they determined to be followers of Jesus Christ and members of the household of God.

Here are some of the supporting statements from Paul’s letters

“But now in Jesus Christ, you who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2)

“For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. ……..You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore, we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead —Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (1 Thessalonians 1)

The issue to note here is that the measure of Paul’s ministry in this instance is not how well he preached or whether he felt good about himself in doing so. The measure was that people’s lives had been changed by the power of God. Instead of imitating their neighbours and drooling after their new four-wheel-drive, they took their modelling from the way Paul and his companions lived their lives. Instead of forming a cosy little spiritual club they shared their story all over Macedonia and Achaea. The story they had to tell was of encountering God through the power of Word and Spirit causing them to turn from serving idols to serving God.

Any goal that would worthily carry ‘NoPlaceLeft’ potential will require a discipleship markedly different to what we commonly serve up under that title. And it starts with the person or persons who carry the message. Paul’s words from Romans 15 (quoted above) tell that story. There were two parts to the equation. The first was that Paul said and did things with the deliberate intention of making disciples.  The second was the fact that people who heard what was said and saw what he did cashed in their former lifestyle in favour of trusting and obeying God. The change in people’s lives will expose the nature of what was said and done.  If what we say and do doesn’t produce that kind of change in the disciples we are involved with, it is clear evidence that what we are saying and doing has been compromised.

It may sound a bit harsh in the ears of people who have been raised in a self-indulgent, convenience-motivated culture like ours. But it is probably the truth. In many cases we have lowered the price tag on discipleship in order to “sell the product.”  What we have not said and not done will testify against us. We have a society saturated by independence, self-gratification and comfort. It shouts at us a hundred times a day.  It is the wide road Jesus talked about that offers everything but produces nothing of value.  The narrow gate and the more challenging way is easy to miss but it is the only discipleship path that leads to life – not just for us but for the people for whom we carry divine responsibility.

We only need to glance at the discipleship statements of Jesus to feel the difference in the culture and climate. The fact that a renowned New Testament scholar like F.F. Bruce would write a book with the title, “The Hard Sayings of Jesus” tells us that there is something wrong with the window we look through. He has a list of seventy in all. The “hard” in some cases means hard to understand, but mostly the sayings are hard because we have become soft and self-centred. Jesus ONLY spoke loving words. He only called people to embrace things that were good and worthwhile. So why would we think they are ‘hard?’ I think the reverse is the case. It is hard when we do something other than what Jesus has said. It is tragic when we compromise what Jesus said to make it fit our otherwise self-determined lifestyle limits. The apostle, John got it right when he said that the commands of Jesus were a delight, not a burden. A delight because of the opportunity to demonstrate love, freely given in the form of trust.

This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (1 John 5)

When we treat the commands of Jesus as an obligation or reluctant duty we are betraying attitudes dangerously close to the oldest in the book, quoting the serpent’s words to Eve: “Has God said…… ?” (Genesis 3). The suggestion was that God had some less-than-worthy purpose in mind when he gave Adam and Eve an instruction about a certain tree when, in reality it was a loving and protective instruction seeking a loving and trusting response.

So we have not made discipleship about obeying what Jesus has said. We should have listened to the words of the Great Commission and we would have heard, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28). It really is about teaching obedience. Paul lived a life of literal obedience to the words of Jesus’ last command. Ironic indeed, that he was the only one NOT present but he HEARD what Jesus said more carefully than the eleven apostles who could read Jesus’ lips as he spoke. When we talk about obedience in relation to what Jesus intended we are not talking about a set of religious rituals. We are talking about an expression of faith in God that is designed to get us from no experience of God’s promise to the full experience. Obedience to Christ is a set of actions that demonstrate trust on the part of the disciple and look for transformation by the power of God. When someone offends me and I become hurt or angry, the command of Jesus is for me to forgive them.  That may seem unfair at best or impossible at worst.  I have two choices. I can do what I feel like doing and hang on to my resentment, even think of ways of getting even OR I can make a decision to forgive trusting that God will give me a new forgiving heart. When I have a forgiving heart I will forgive not because I am slavishly obeying a command, but because my heart has become like the heart of God.

And that’s exactly what was happening to the Gentiles and Jews who heard what Paul said and saw what he did. They heard God’s story in his preaching and teaching and saw his story in the what he did and the way he did it. Both were the work of the same Holy Spirit. As a result, the disciples found that the same Holy Spirit was available to them and their lives were changed. As we saw from the Thessalonians, and now the Romans. The measure of the ministry is told in the quality of the disciples it produces. I’ve heard quite a few Christian leaders complaining about the lack of commitment in their congregations, and I’ve contributed to it myself more than I like to admit. We need to be complaining to the person who looks back at us in the mirror. Then we need to go before God and ask why our message and lifestyle isn’t producing self-governing and passionately obedient disciples. I don’t think I will ever forget Paul Scanlan’s reference to the first three words used about the church in Acts 2 (Crossing Over) – “they devoted themselves…” That simple fact tells us that people were become disciples of Jesus, not members of a personality fan club.

Reproducing passionate commitment to Christ will only happen when three things line up: an open unashamed passion in the heart of the disciple-making person, a disciple who has knowingly and freely signed up for the obedience-to-Jesus package deal and then a step by step approach to hearing and obeying Jesus that is willing and accountable. I can think of so many people I have been involved with at the time who came to me because they were wanting a problem solved, wanted me to solve it for them and when the problem was solved they lost interest in seeking and following Jesus. We are not in this work to make the idea of following Jesus more comfortable, we are here to follow Jesus because that’s the most desirable option.  This is discipleship.

Here is a simple challenge. The next time you are engaged with someone who purports to be a follower of Jesus and you have the opportunity of helping their discipleship, build that encounter around something Jesus has said to DO. Help them hear what Jesus said and then ask them to obey. If you are bold enough, get them to agree that at the start of your next meeting you will ask how the obedience is going and what has happened as a result. Don’t pull back from this issue until they have discovered the joy of faith-based obedience and before they have experienced a greater trust and love for Jesus in the process. The next challenge should be to get them to teach what they have learned with someone else. When you have enabled this two-generation process, it will be time to move on to obeying another thing that Jesus said. It is common for us to assume that because someone ‘knows’ what Jesus has commanded, that they have obeyed it. Wrong assumption. We have produced church congregations full of people who know all about things they have never done. They have the information about what Jesus said but not the experience of obeying and therefore being transformed.

The task of making disciples is getting people connected to Jesus, not dependent on us.  Paul’s ‘NoPlaceLeft’ objective was not dependent on his constant presence.  They couldn’t tweet him day and night.  When he put his feet on the road out of town he knew and they knew they needed to have a connection with Jesus that was strong and accessible.  We need to work hard to see the same thing happen even though we have tweets, SMS, emails and blog pages. The bottom line is the same in 2016 as it was in 0050.  We need to have a personal connection with Jesus and to belong to a bunch of other people with the same connection.  This discipleship is the primary reproductive agent.  It has always been this way and will always be thus.  Only when this discipleship becomes multi-stream and multi-generational,  will we see movements that cannot be stopped.

NOPLACELEFT TRAIL MARKERS #4 PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY

 

“Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—“ Romans 15:17,18

supermancomicsIs it a just a trait of Western culture or human nature in general?  I know that media from magazines to mega-movies present us with the opportunity of locating a hero and a villain and derive satisfaction from their scripted victory. It has always amazed me to think that in 1939 twenty million Americans became avid readers of the Superman comic strip as he tugged their heartstrings in the assumed and interwoven causes of “truth, justice, and the American way.” The fictional role has endured for nearly eighty years.

But let’s not stop there. There are much more tangible examples of the heroes who attract an unhealthy level of devotion and loyalty from us. In Australia, they tend to be sporting personalities with fan sites, blog pages, and social media accounts that alert us to their latest thought and latest exciting event. The consumption rate of this information confirms the widespread nature of the disease. We are puny and ordinary, and they are the towering figures that command adulation. Somehow, their success translates into at least a portion of our own, even from our lounge chair.

The world of Christian discipleship has its equivalent. In a day when we can download audio and video from just about notable Christian leaders around the world, we find ourselves telling their stories and repeating their insights. We are capable of recounting their exploits with hushed adulation. It is the same disease.

Now this is not a life coaching site, and I am not a motivational guru. I am referring to is the crying need for us to celebrate our own stories rather than living vicariously off the stories of others. We need to be doing our own digging in the Word and getting our own revelation, not listening to yet another series by whoever happens to be in vogue. It used to annoy me that people would wake up at 5:00 am to ingest endless episodes of Joyce Meyer on TV and then show up to church late on the 1.5 times per month they deigned to grace us mere mortals with their presence. In the meantime, mostly, they were doing little or nothing to serve the kingdom of God anywhere in their real world.

All of these may be considered as extremes. My point here is to highlight a capacity in all of us to become overly dependent on what others accomplish as a substitute.  We need to be taking personal responsibility and to be generating our own story from our own relationship with Jesus and in partnership with others. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should not listen to other people or hear their stories. I am just making the point that those stories and the insights that they provide for us ought to inspire us to trust the Lord, do the work. It is the earnest assumption of the gospel message. John writes about this in his first letter,

As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us—eternal life. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him. (First John 2)

Sadly, churches do the same thing when they keep inviting amazing itinerant ministries to frequent their pulpits.  The ministries come and often amazing things happen.  But it is not equipping.  There is no accountability to see whether anyone did anything or whether anything changed.  It would be better if the speaker came three times in two years and trained ten or twenty people who learned to do whatever it was they could do.  Then the itinerant person could come back and see how they were going. He or she could model, assist, watch and then leave.  The result at the end of two years would be better on every count. Those twenty could then equip another twenty or forty.  The whole church could be equipped.  Just ponder the different dynamic and you will see the different potential outcomes.  Once again, there is nothing evil about visiting speakers.  We all need inspiration.  A problem exists when we only get inspiration and nothing more.  It entertains the crowd but doesn’t do much to fulfill the ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision.

catndog-faultPaul provides us with yet another marker to tell whether we are on the trail that will make a “NoPlaceLeft” vision possible. It is a path exclusively for practitioners. Paul wasn’t sitting in a pastor’s study every day. He was walking thousands of kilometres, getting kicked out of synagogues, but all the time, looking for the next place to preach the gospel, make disciples and form churches. In other words, his lifestyle was consistent with his goal and his goal was apparent from his lifestyle.

At the end of these fifteen years and the gospel had been ‘fully proclaimed’ to the Jerusalem-to-Illyricum sector, Paul had visited more than fifty cities. He had planted missional church sending bases in approximately twenty different regional cities. He was systematic, and Holy Spirit led at the same time. The ‘system’ was shaped by the work of fulfilling the Great Commission. The ‘Holy-Spirit-led’ part is wonderfully described in Acts 16. After Paul and Silas visit the Galatian churches, they tried to preach the gospel in three different provinces but were prevented each time by the Holy Spirit. That unexpected journey eventually led them to a small prayer gathering outside of Philippi and marked the start of a new phase of ministry in Macedonia and then, Greece.

When we have finished eulogizing Paul’s incredible missionary commitment and accomplishments we must remember that he was also a regular human person who opened his eyes when he woke up and closed them when he went to sleep, just like you and me. I say this because we need to understand that the outcomes of Paul’s life and ministry resulted from a deep and passionate sense of responsibility he took for doing what Jesus had said. It was all the more critical when we consider that there was strong opposition from the apostles themselves. Think of the relationship atmosphere.  At one time Paul is killing and jailing Christians and not much later he is challenging them about not doing what Jesus had told them.

As for those who were held in high esteem —whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism —they added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised.   (Galatians 2)

My question is, “How could Peter justify the idea of being ‘called’ to limit his preaching ministry to the Jews?” He heard what Jesus had said on numerous occasions. Jesus was re-stating God’s commission to Abraham: “..in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12). He said that the gospel was to be preached to ‘every person,’ and disciples made of ‘all nations,’ and that they would be witnesses to the ‘ends of the earth.’ We know from Acts 11 that initial gospel preaching was only to Jews. It was some amazing men from Cyprus and Cyrene who broke that mold. It is probable that these missionaries implemented ministry in Antioch because they had done so in their native regions but the church in Antioch was the first multi-ethnic church about which we have specific details. Barnabas probably went looking for Saul so that he could assist him in Antioch because Saul had been preaching to Gentiles from the beginning.

Paul received his revelation of the gospel separately to the other apostles. Galatians makes that clear. His story rolled out as we read about it in Acts only because he took personal responsibility for implementing what Jesus had told him without the cultural compromise that was evident in the Jerusalem apostles.  He did so despite the intimidation of conservatives from Jerusalem.

We know he was willing to confront Peter in Antioch over the issue of Jews and Gentiles sharing meals together in their homes. At the same time, he was not running a rebellion based on what Jesus had revealed to him. If he followed the pattern of many leaders in more recent years, he would have caused a church split, moved church down the road and railed against the people who disagreed with him. His commitment to Jerusalem, the leaders and the church there was as uncompromising as his commitment to preaching to the Gentiles. It is a definite word in season for all of us.

Here are some statements that reveal the true nature of this responsibility:

“I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish.” (Romans 1)

“For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel” (First Corinthians 9)

“So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26).

I deplore what I see so often and am ashamed of it when I discover it in my own experience. God speaks a word. Someone hears what God says. They begin to travel down the road marked out by that revelation until one or more of the following things happen: hardship, lack of money, opposition from people who matter, people leaving, the need to radically change, family pressures, etc. and etc. They somehow conclude that God no longer wants to do what he said at first. They find a way of rationalizing their situation and find ways of justifying their different intention. It is always a sad story and it often produces a sorry outcome.

The NoPlaceLeft vision requires a long term, undaunted sense of personal responsibility. The thousands of churches and millions of individual believers who come and go without carrying a shred of responsibility for the condition of lost people are the product of church leaders who have pioneered that compromise ahead of them. Just think of what is going on in your own city or region right now. If most churches keep doing what they are currently doing there will be little to no impact on ‘lostness.’ The great commission will remain unfulfilled. Think of all of the sermons that will be preached, leadership meetings that will be attended, Bible studies and prayer meetings held that will have no connection with changing the status of lost-ness let alone complete the task. It just isn’t there.

I know how powerful this compromise is. I have been as much a representative of lost people within the church and as much committed to preaching the gospel as most other people in my sphere, but I can live with an uneasy contentedness for longer than I like to admit without doing anything to challenge lost-ness.

In the text from Romans 15 and the other references, Paul is just testifying to a sense of responsibility that comes from the inside out. It wasn’t dependent on anyone else or anything else. The motive force was coming from inside of him. So, ‘NoPlaceLeft’ was going to happen, somehow regardless of circumstances and personnel. When the sense of responsibility comes from the inside, it works a bit like a disease. It starts infecting others who are close enough to the carrier. This happened with Paul everywhere he went. The numbers of people we read about in almost every letter he wrote and especially here in Romans are proof of it. My experience in churches is that others will test out your convictions and will challenge your personal sense of responsibility but if you pass those tests you will influence others – not your words, but your lifestyle. And the flip-side of that is this piece of advice: if you don’t have this inner compulsion, then make a decision to hang about with someone who does or a group of people who do. I don’t mean talkers. There are plenty of those. I mean practitioners. They may do things that embarrass you and you may feel uneasy at times, but if they have an inner conviction that looks and sounds like a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ commitment, then hang in with the hanging out. You’ll get what they’ve got from the same place as they got it – I mean Jesus and I mean Holy Spirit heart change.

NoPlaceLeft will not happen unless individual followers of Jesus gain a sense of personal conviction that emerges as a sense of responsibility greater than personal fears, rationalizations, circumstances, opinions and outright opposition. Paul had it. His fellow workers had it and we who live in the ‘uttermost parts of the earth’ honour their decisions and applaud their costly investment.

NO PLACE LEFT TRAIL MARKERS #3

APOSTOLIC CONNECTIONS

“Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles.” Romans 15:15

Which WayIt is worth remembering that Paul was writing from Corinth toward the end of a fifteen-year period where he had pioneered the proclamation of the gospel to a sector of the Roman world from Jerusalem to Illyricum, (approximately 20 million people and about a third of the Roman Empire). His eyes were now looking to Spain. He had carried a long term desire to visit Rome and during a three-month stay in Corinth, he penned the letter to the Roman church that is the first of thirteen in the New Testament that bear his signature.

It is evident from the last chapter of Romans that Paul knew quite a few people in the church there. There is no definitive information about how or when the church was planted. It is possible that Jews who visited Jerusalem for Passover and Pentecost (Acts 2) are possible suspects. We also know that during the reign of Claudius Jews were expelled from Rome and two of those were followers of Jesus: Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18). The many greetings in Romans 16 are impressive from the point of view that Paul names at least 27 different individuals and refers to at least five groups, probably house churches. That’s a lot of people to know by name. The message being shouted across the centuries is about close networks that develop between leaders like Paul and others who shared the ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision.

Regardless of who planted the church in Rome, Paul’s words indicate that there was a special relationship between them. He has the qualification and the willingness to speak apostolically to them. In our part of the Christian world, we would refer to this as an apostolic connection. It has almost nothing to do with a different but more common form of authority in our world.  I speak of the authority that is associated with a particular position or rank within an organization.  In the case of Paul his boldness to write and the assumption that believers in Rome would hear and receive what was written has nothing to do with human status or position. It has to do with what is inside Paul and the relationship he has with the people to whom he is writing.

What was inside of Paul, put there by the Holy Spirit was what he described here,

              “the grace God gave to me to be a minister of Jesus Christ (i.e. a servant) to the Gentiles.”

We know a lot of the things that happened to Paul.  It started on the Damascus road encounter, then years of relative obscurity (though probably he was preaching the gospel in Arabia and in his home town of Tarsus), then to Antioch as part of the leadership team with Barnabas. Fifteen years later he has seen this “grace” give birth to churches that create Jesus-looking communities among people who were formerly separated by ethnicity, religious background or social status. It is not just the capacity to plant churches. It is the ability to see supernatural community. That’s what makes this apostolic.

Paul knows how this works. It comes from Holy Spirit revelation and its implementation. He also knows how to address the issues that rise up when these diversely drawn people get into trouble along the way. His boldness is not because he happens to be an alpha-male personality type. It comes from the revelation he has received from heaven and its revolutionary effect on his life. Again and again in the letters of Paul, he hauls the believers back to the pathway that had been forged in his passionate relationship with Jesus. These convictions were not simply downloaded in the hallowed sanctity of a room with a desk and walls covered in books. It was hammered out in all of the places where he had been obedient to the vision from heaven. It was sharpened in the face of suspicion and harsh criticism from some of the influential church leaders, and yet it carried the commendation of the apostles in Jerusalem and the council of leaders who met to resolve contentious issues. (Acts 15). It would have been there with or without formal human recognition. As he says in this same chapter, the “signs” of apostleship were from heaven, not from the earth.

It is also true that Paul’s apostolic ministry was attested by his ability to speak “boldly” to a group of people, many of whom he didn’t know personally. He was able to do so because he was appealing to the other side of this same coin. For apostolic connections to be genuine, there needs to be a Holy Spirit recognition in the hearts of the people of God. We know that many others went about claiming they were apostles (see e.g. 2 Corinthians) but where the outcome was to call people away from Christ toward various personality cults. Often these associations involved significant amounts of money going into the coffers of these same apostles. How amazing that so little has changed over the centuries.

Paul admits he has

“written quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again…”

Without reference to individuals, as he does elsewhere, he writes to a people in Rome from a distinct knowledge of their circumstances. He is certainly not writing a doctrinal thesis. He writes to resolve issues that challenge the integrity of the gospel and of the community it produced.

“I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” (Romans 1)

If Paul is offering solutions to problems, we can ask the question: “If this is the solution, then what were the problems needing Holy Spirit revelation?  Here is my summary:

  1. Separation between Jew and Gentile disciples and the discriminatory assumption that Jews were intrinsically better than Gentiles because of their history and traditions (Ch. 1-5)
  2. The idea that a failure to abide by traditional Jewish customs and practices would lift restraint and people would be encouraged to sin even more (Ch. 6-8)
  3. Discrimination toward Jews by Gentiles based on the fact that their generation had largely rejected the Messiah (Ch. 9-11)
  4. The idea that status in the church was related to position rather than everyone being equal but having different gifts and anointing (Ch. 12).
  5. Attitudes of disrespect and rebellion toward civil authorities, no doubt arising from many instances of injustice or mistreatment (Ch.13)
  6. People being maligned because they hold different views on certain ritual practices – a situation that would only be resolved with love (Ch.14).

Paul speaks in a straightforward way because he is bringing core revelation to issues that are catalyzed by deep feelings and fiery emotion. He brings revelation God has given him for these very issues. If there was one subject that Paul found himself addressing from the beginning of his ministry to the end, it was the ones raised around the relationship between the message of the gospel and the traditional heritage of Judaism. Of course, it was the issue for Jesus as well. It is clear that church communities throughout the Gentile provinces were always going to have difficulty with these matters and were almost always confused by them. The church in Antioch was confused by a visit from the “circumcision group” (Galatians 2). The Galatians ended up with a false gospel for the same reason (Galatians 1,2). The Colossians were similarly challenged (Colossians 2). It was like a plague in the early church. So when Paul wrote to the Roman believers, he again challenged the foundations for this kind of division.

The universal issue here is the need for genuine apostolic connections. Paul told the Ephesians that the church is to be built on the foundation of apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2).  The plumb line of those ministries is the whether they draw people to become more like Jesus Christ. There can be no substance in the view that elevates this ministry to the top of some kind of pyramid structure, nor should apostolic ministry to be equated with exceptional leadership ability. Paul’s apostolic ministry amounted to an authority to keep the churches purely and sincerely devoted to Jesus. When they lost touch with Jesus and the gospel he jealously challenged them to get reconnected.

Paul’s apostolic authority was not something he put on and put off depending on the circumstances. He had authority because on the inside he was jealous for the purity of the gospel message.  It was the only message with the power to rescue both Jew and Gentile, and only this message would join people to the “NoPlaceLeft” cause. He is very clear about that in Romans 15. He wants to share ministry with them for their encouragement, and he also wants them to share his commitment to preach the gospel where Christ was not known. In this instance it was Spain. In our case, it would be every person in our spheres who knows nothing of the saving grace of Jesus.

Without apostolic connections churches and their leaders will give way to compromise. It is the record of both Christian history and current experience.  No surprise that this is probably the most neglected of all activities in most Christian churches. It is neglected by the predominance of leadership models that are derived from human wisdom rather than divine unction. In many cultures leaders are either treated like rock stars on the one hand or dirt on the other. As a result, it is not just the leadership provision that is lacking but its fruit.  Churches morph into comfortable tribal associations and lose both the capacity and the heart for a NoPlaceLeft enterprise.

 

Hardly anyone wants to do this. Most people are fearful, or too comfortable or too self-indulgent. It will take apostolic presence and apostolic authority to challenge and encourage, train and support. The fact that we have so little practical connections with genuine apostolic leadership is part of the reason our discipleship culture is so compromised. Even though apostolic presence may not be cozy and comfortable, it is essential if we are going to re-discover the grieving heart of God for the people he loves who are lost from him. In Paul’s case, his lifestyle and his message would not allow anyone in his company to stray far from the gospel cause without being lovingly but powerfully challenged to go where they feared to go and do what they were not naturally capable of doing. When this happens, the NoPlaceLeft goal becomes achievable. Believers and especially their leaders need to find good quality apostolic connections. We need to pray for them, be bold in seeking them and be generous in responding to them.

 

May God raise up many wonderful, humble servants who are willing to put themselves last in the line so that God can use the ordinary believers to carry a Holy Spirit fire that will not be quenched either by the deceitfulness of Western materialism or the intimidations of totalitarian regimes. From current world experience, it seems that the former are more effective than the latter. If there is going to be a capacity in local churches and groups of believers everywhere to effect a NoPlaceLeft vision, it will only come if apostolic leadership is understood, valued and embraced.