Prosperity versus Spirituality

Personal Matters

Last week I was in Bandung Indonesia for an Asian Christian leadership conference.

This Christ-centred event raised more sharply than ever the question of whether a spiritually mature Church can ever exist in a materially affluent culture.

For instance, an elderly South Korean related how after two major wars Korea was one of the poorest nations on earth, then the people started to cry out to God and experienced both economic and spiritual miracles.

Today Protestant Christians are easily the most highly educated and professional group in the country.

But in recent years there have been subject to public scandals a marked decline in prayerfulness and the nation’s youth are turning away from the Church in droves.

What surprised me in Indonesia was listening to speakers from a wide range of nations bemoaning deviations that are becoming normal part of church life. In Thailand for instance a leader is more likely to be chosen for strategic reasons than because he/she is a person of character.

All the sins of the Western Church I have been speaking against for decades seem to be infiltrating the “two thirds world”.

One Puritan famously said of the early American experience; “Religion begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother.” Is this situation inevitable? It certainly seems to be usual in scripture.

Fat Believers

Moses explained that the wilderness experience of Israel was a fatherly test so that in the land of promise they might not say;

‘my power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’

Deut 8:5, 17

But he also prophesied,

‘“Israel soon became fat and unruly; the people grew heavy, plump, and stuffed! Then they abandoned the God who had made them…”

Deut 32:15

Throughout the history of God’s old covenant people physical prosperity is repeatedly followed by spiritual ruin.

Possessed by our Possessions.

For instance the mega rich Solomon, unlike his father David, led Israel into idolatry (1 Ki 11:4).

Whilst the New Testament covers a short span of time we see the same problems surfacing.

Paul warns, “in the last days…people will be lovers of self, lovers of money…lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim 3:1ff.).

These are our days and Christ warned a Church like our own; “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:16).

Few Australian Christians find material prosperity a block to their spiritual maturity because the creature comforts of our capitalist culture long ago got the upper hand. We are possessed by our possessions.

Ownership

Contrast this with the testimony of the Early Church; “those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them…and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4: 32, 34-35).

Living as the family of God the first Christians laid aside their legal rights of ownership so as to better care for each other.

Working to Give to Others

In the light of Christ they knew everything a Christian has is a gift from God and presents an opportunity to give to others. E.g. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Eph 4:28).

I can’t think of many local believers whose primary motivation for working is to give to others. If you are an exception it can only be because you have had an exceptional revelation of the gospel.

Christ the Key

The Bible upholds the super-generosity of God in Christ;For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9).

In heaven Jesus was full of the riches of the love of his Father, but sensing a lost humanity in great spiritual, moral and physical pain he was moved to empty himself and enter our sphere of suffering (Phil 2:7-8).

The absolute impoverishment of the cross launched Jesus into the resurrection as the restorer of all God planned for us to enjoy in the beginning (John 1:16).

Christ’s emptiness has becomes fullness for us (Col 2:9-10).

This measure of love alone can heal the selfish possessive individualism which grips the culture of Western Christianity.

SACRIFICE IS THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY

Jesus gave up everything for us that we might give up everything for him, and for others. Such sacrifice is the essence of Christianity; “By this we know love that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16). Many Christians are praying for the power of the Spirit to signs, wonders and live a more prosperous life. Yet how rare is it to hear folk praying for spiritual power to lay down their lives for others like Christ did. Such prayers would be answered! Whilst most believers would affirm what I have said above hedonism still reigns among us. When I asked the Lord for a solution to this problem he gave me a concrete reply. 

Spiritual Exceptions

The “Clapham sect” was a group which combined affluence with extreme Christian commitment. Gathered around William Wilberforce this wealthy influential group were moved by the sufferings of slaves to give unreservedly of their resources to alleviate suffering.

These men and women truly knew the Spirit’s power because he enabled them to be sensitive to Christ’s sensitivity to the pains of others. This empathy is exactly what is lacking in the affluent Australian Church of today.

It is the “fellowship of sufferings” that alone can enable us to live as exceptions to our greedy culture (Phil 3:10).

The cross teaches that the one thing more powerful than personal pleasure is a love that feels the pain of others. 

Material prosperity and spiritual maturity can exist together wherever the followers of Jesus are willing to be brought in touch with the sufferings of lost humanity. It’s as simple, and as hard, as that.

Conclusion

The history of humanity’s quest for affluence is predictable but not inevitable.

The enticements of the delights of Eden overpowered any awareness of the pain sin would cause God (Gen 3:6).

Canaan was a new Eden whose worldly temptations proved as irresistible as the Garden.

Contemporary Australia too is an “Eden” where most believers choose possessions and sensory experiences, especially the emotional one they have in Church, over the pure but painful love of God!

This can change if we ask the Holy Spirit to give us a deeper identification with love’s sensitivity to the pain of others expressed in the cross.

The fruit of such prayer will surely be the highly unusual combination of material prosperity and spiritual maturity.

Do not however expect such a form of life to be appreciated by the wider society or the dominant culture of the Church.

Those who follow in this way of Christ will experience the power of the Spirit, but they will also be labelled, like the godly of old were, as another extreme Christian “Sect”.

But haven’t we had enough of “normality”??

MESSAGE DELIVERED: 11.9.16 | 

Author: Dr. John Yates

The Fellowship of the Wounded

by Dr. John Yates

Personal Matters

Someone approached me recently saying; “The Lord said to me; ‘Speak to John, he’s a ‘wounded spirit’ too.’” This humble testimony was the foundation of our conversation and what I believe will prove to be a deepening fellowship in Christ.

The reason is simple, those who carry wounds without malice are trustworthy before God and man (1 Corinthians 7:25). A few days later when praying with two young men images of broken ground kept appearing to my mind. I recalled Hosea’s call to repentance, “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord,that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.(Hosea 10:12). Then the Parable of the Sower came to mind; better named The Parable of the Soils.

There are 4 types of soil, the trodden path which yields no fruit, the rocky ground whose fruit withers away under persecution, the thorn laden soil whose fruit is choked by worldliness and the good soil which produces 30, 60 and a 100 fold (Mark 4:1-9, Mark 4:13-20).

It is the good soil which is most deeply broken and which alone receives the seed of God’s Word in depth. This teaching is about how brokenness and wounding are the key to fruitfulness in our lives and secure character Christian fellowship.

All Mixed Up

In practice today most Christian congregations and individual lives are characterised by a chaotic mixture of the 4 types of earth in The Parable of the Soils. Some dimensions of the life of these churches/individuals are highly productive, other parts are fruitless, compromised and worldly.

This terrible mixture leads to massive confusion in terms of Christian relationships, particularly in terms of leadership. There is no guarantee that the personal character of a highly gifted and effective prophet, evangelist or apostle is trustworthy. One particular scripture illuminates this unsafe situation in today’s Church.

I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death(Philippians 3:8, 10). Paul is a completely trustworthy minister of Christ because unlike our generation he has never sought power without sufferings. The wounding of which the he frequently speaks is at the core of his C.V.1)E.g. Romans 8:17; 2 Corinthians 1:6; 2 Corinthians 4:8-12; 2 Corinthians 6:3-11; 2 Corinthians 11:23-28; Ephesians 3:13; Colossians 1:24; 2 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 2:9. Genuine mutual trust flows from insight into the woundings another believer has endured for the sake of Christ. Power follows fellowship and not the other way around! This order is a share in Jesus’ own life.

The Wounded Healer

Christ walked in two states of life, humiliation and exaltation and the former is the foundation of the latter. It is because Jesus “emptied himself…and became obedient to death- even death on a cross” that the Father “highly exalted him”, seating him “at the right hand of power” (Matthew 26:63; Philippians 2:7-9). This pattern of power through brokenness and strength through wounding permeates all of Jesus’ life (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9).

Here is one example.

Before Jesus could do any mighty work he needed to be taken into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. When he is famished Satan tempts, ““If you are the Son of God command these stones to become loaves of bread.””  Christ refuses to eat loaves in the wilderness choosing rather to intensify his deprivations in obedience to God (Matthew 4:1-4). Such submission concentrated the powerful presence of the Father within him, so when the time came to exercise power over bread Jesus effortlessly fed the 5,000 (John 14:30).

Woundings intensify through the course of Christ’s life; abandoned by the crowds, betrayed by a friend, deserted by closest associates. The brokenness he willingly bears for us penetrates deeper and deeper to the point of death (Isaiah 53:5). The greatest wounding of all is not inflicted by men, but by God, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34 cf.; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Total wounding releases total power.

Raised from the dead, the Lord appears to those who refused to share in his sufferings and identifies himself in a very specific way. “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.”” (Luke 24:39-40).

A body of glory which also shows the wounds of death endured for us is absolutely trustworthy.

This is exactly how the mature image of Christ must come to us in the Church today.

Wounded Ground

1 Peter 2:24 is an important healing text, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” The context is the beatings endured by Christians servants unjustly treated by their masters, beatings which left real wounds (1 Peter 2:18-20). The power of these wounds to inflict rejection power is healed by faith in the one who endured unjust brutality for us (1 Peter 2:21-23).

We have all been beaten, rejected and wounded in our spirits by the family of God. It is our scars which open up the way of power through the wisdom of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:24).

An old mentor taught me to trust the people God brought into my life, but he never taught me how to recognise them. The mode of recognition is both simple and profound– these people they will look like Jesus, wounded but with a presence of his glory.

The more wounds such folk carry, without resentment, the more trustworthy they will prove to be. They are men and women the power of whose natural life has been broken by the discipline of the Father, they seek nothing from you, only to bless you in the difficult way of the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ (Philippians 3:10). The multiplication of these sorts of relationships across the body of Christ is the prelude to a powerful manifestation of God’s kingdom.

Conclusion

The world of the cross is a strange one, the world of nails, whips, scars, wounds and blood does not look promising and powerful. But wounding carried in forgiving love is the foundation for the release of manifest resurrection power. When the individuals who comprise the wounded ground of the Church come together in holy fellowship God can trust such a humbled body with the power of his resurrected Word so 30, 60 and a 100 fold fruit will come.

It will be just like Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.(Mark 10:29-30).

A soil of consistent brokenness is the order of the day, personally and as the Church of God.

References   [ + ]

1. E.g. Romans 8:17; 2 Corinthians 1:6; 2 Corinthians 4:8-12; 2 Corinthians 6:3-11; 2 Corinthians 11:23-28; Ephesians 3:13; Colossians 1:24; 2 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 2:9.

Building on Christ

by Dr. John Yates

Readings: Ex 20:1-4, Ex 20:7-9, Ex 20:12-20 Ps 19 Phil 3:4-14 Matt 21:33-46

Introduction

The story goes that early in the 1700’s the dean of St Paul’s London walked into the church on Easter Day and decided there were so few attendees there was no point in going ahead with the service. The Spirit however was already at work planning the great Methodist revival that would break out a few years later. With the diocese of Perth in visible decline what is the Spirit planning today? Since every weakening of Christianity is grounded in a falling away from the supremacy of Jesus he is working to restore the person of Christ to his rightful place as the centre of all things (Col 1:15).

Jesus promise, “I will build my church and the gates of death will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18) is as true today as ever. Whilst the media focuses on the horrors of Islamic State tent churches are popping up in the refugee camps across the region and more Muslims are becoming Christians ever before.  Having visited the Middle East in recent years most conversion stories go something like this; “I had a dream in which a man in white appeared and he said “Follow me.”?

The answer as to how Jesus will manifest himself to us is given in a text from today’s Gospel reading, ““The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.””  (Matt 21:42). The action of God in the dying and rising of Jesus is amazing beyond measure, and testifies to the one form of spirituality that can rebuild the Church today. But first some remarks about other forms of spirituality.

Building on the Law

I recall my disappointment after listening to a sermon on the Ten Commandments from today’s Old Testament reading. Since the preacher did not mention Jesus at any time his sermon could not be called “Christ-ian”. Two crucial texts about Jesus and the Law come to mind, the first from John’s Gospel and the second from Romans, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17), “Christ is the end of the law, that all who believe might be righteous.” (Rom 10:4).

However wonderful God’s gift of his Law was in its own time, as the second part of Psalm 19 extols, any attempt to build a Christian spirituality on the rock of Law is a contradiction. The Exodus passage on the giving of the commandments ends with the LORD in thick darkness and the people in fear thankful for the distance between them and God (Exo 20:18-21; Deut 4:13; Deut 10:4).

From my childhood I remember how the Ten Commandments were part of the foundation of Australian society. The morality of that civilisation no longer exists, today people no longer want to be told the “do’s and don’ts” of life. As society shifted away from conservative middle class morality a Church established on the Law of God rather than the amazement of  intimacy with the Son of God inevitably began to crumble (cf. Matt 19:20).

Building on Nature

Having abandoned the Law of God many Australians swung their spirituality to nature. Having returned on Friday from the Nannup forests the memory of the beauty of nature is still fresh. Looking up at the crystal clear night sky highlighted the testimony of the psalmist, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Ps 19:1).

A mystical nature-based spirituality appeals to reflective men and women who have seen through the superficialities of consumerism. Yet the message of the prophets reminds us that the Maker of nature must never be confused with what he has made (Acts 7:42-43 cf. Baalism was a nature religion). To worship and serve the creature rather than the creator is the essence of sin (Rom 1:21-23).

The right relationship between nature and God is put concisely for us in John’s words about Jesus; “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:3). In God’s design, nature, just as much as Law, has as its ultimate purpose to lead us to Christ (Col 1:15). If all things ultimately point to Jesus why was he rejected by the religious authorities of his day?

Building on Christ Alone

““The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.”” (Matt 21:42). The Jerusalem temple was an architectural wonder and the biggest economic hub in the eastern Roman Empire. The impressive structure of temple, priesthood and sacrifice had upon it a divine imprimatur that seemed unchangeable.

The “builders” of the day, the chief priests and elders, knew exactly how to do “church”, and understood their religious system was fundamentally incompatible with the one presented by the itinerant miracle working Galilean who was so attractive to the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners (John 9:34 etc.).

[Those friends of mine working in bars and brothels around Perth find that Jesus is just as amazing to out castes today.] No building can have two foundations, and the cross was the “builders” proof that Jesus was not Messiah. These men however knew neither the scriptures not the power of God (Matt 22:29).

One of the background passages for “the stone” imagery in Jesus’ parable is Daniel 2. The Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar has a dream in which he saw a great statue, then “a stone …cut out by no human hand” appeared and “broke the statue into pieces….the stone…became a great mountain that filled the whole earth.” (vv.31 ff.) The uncut stone is God’s kingdom and the statue it destroys is all man-made rivals to the rule of God. By the time of the coming of Jesus the temple system had become hopelessly corrupted it could only be broken to pieces (Matt 21:44).

There is an essential dynamic here we must understand. The kingdom of God, God’s own power, builds the Church and not the other way around (Matt 16:16-19). Christ did not teach us to pray, “Thy Church come…”.

I had a clear dream about these things some years ago. In this dream there was a huge uncut precious stone, amethyst. Then a group of people came along took hold of the stone and by their own hands cut and polished it into many finely honed gems of manageable proportions.  The message of the dream was plain; when the Church cuts the kingdom of God down to size it loses the power of God’s presence to overthrow the idolatrous structures of this age. When we cut King Jesus down to a manageable size the impotency of the people of God soon becomes manifest.

““The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.”” (Matt 21:42). If rejection speaks of crucifixion, becoming the cornerstone speaks of resurrection. It was the rejection of Jesus as spiritually and religiously useless by the builders of his time that enabled the Father to pour out upon him resurrection power.  It is the rejection of the stone that leads to his triumph; such is the message of the gospel.

When Paul testifies, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Phil 3:6) he is reliving in his personal experience the rejection of Jesus. His repeated rejections by men and rescues by God enabled him to be the foundational church planter of all time (Acts 9:15-16; Rom 15:18-19).  When Paul speaks of “knowing the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” (Phil 3:10 he is describing the only true form of Christian spirituality.

These truths remain unchanged over the centuries. A prominent bust of John Wesley sits in Christ Church Oxford, commemorating his expulsion from preaching in the university. Rejection by the church builders of the day led Wesley to do something previously unthinkable for a Church of England minister, preach Christ in the open air. The resurrection power which attended his messages has never been forgotten.

In the early 80’s I was assisting in a parish in Brisbane whilst studying for my PhD. My main duties involved pastoring a daughter church where I grew increasingly popular. The local leaders put a proposal to the rector that they set me up in a house in their suburb so I could concentrate more effectively on ministry. Soon after I received a note in my letter box from the rector. It stated that my appointment in the daughter church was terminated and that my family must stop worshiping within the parish.

No reasons were given. I remember going into the forest and praying; “I have nowhere to minister, I have nowhere to take my family to church, but if I have you I have everything”. Amazingly, Jesus became closer than ever before.  This is something of what it means to be rejected by the builders in order to gain Christ.

Application and Conclusion

Traditional forms of Anglicanism may be dying, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8). Times of weakness are in God’s plan times of revelation. The mystery of the kingdom of God is to know that we come to the Church through Jesus and not the other way around.  

He builds through us; we do not build for him. Our identification must be with the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners and not with the chief priests and elders. Jesus has unlimited power to restore his Church today, but only as we pursue a deeper  identification with the one rejected as useless by the builders of his time raised from the dead in God’s resurrection power. You will not find this power in either Law or nature but only in Jesus’ personal presence.

Some time before he was speared to death by the natives with whom he was sharing the gospel Jim Eliot said this, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”  If we are willing to lose everything in order to gain Christ he will most definitely become amazing in our eyes.

Cling

by Dr. John Yates

Personal matters

Recently I have been sensing that we are too measured in our approach to the things of God. This might seem like a reflection of my “intense” personality; but I believe such a conviction is biblical. An example of a healthy approach to God in prayer springs to mind. I was visiting a pastor who remarked that 100 churches had been planted out of his local congregation. The reason he gave for such remarkable growth was not contemporary worship, anointed preaching or fine coffee, but that in their building day or night you would find someone “laying hold of God” in prayer.

This is not some archaic Pentecostal language for the prophet Isaiah laments before the LORD, “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” (Isaiah 64:7 ESV). The absence of intense clinging to God is interpreted as a sign not merely of apathy but of judgement upon the land! I am not suggesting we should psych ourselves up into a hyperemotional state and pretend this is spiritual, this will not help at all (cf. 1 Ki 18:28). Perhaps some confronting negative examples may help us understand what’s at stake here.

Letting Go

I ran into one of my African Christian friends recently who I hadn’t seen for some time. He gave a generally positive report about work and family life. When however he mentioned that he was not enjoying regular fellowship with other believers and sort of “coasting along” with God I had a sharp reply. “You are becoming like us; you are becoming like the average Australian.” He speedily agreed and went on to tell me how he had said recently to his wife that when back in Africa life’s circumstances made God-dependence necessary, but here it was so much easier to forget our spiritual need. The power of affluence to diminish spiritual intensity is a universal human problem.

About 30 years ago I was powerfully impacted by a pastor from Korea who testified that it was considered the norm to get up at 5:00 am every day to pray at church for the powerful working of the Holy Spirit in the nation; then to pray all night on the Friday. No wonder revival was happening in those days in South Korea. “Pastors pray three hours a day, others at least one hour.” he declared. I was stunned therefore to read recently that since the economic boom in that country such fervent intercession is no longer the norm, and Christianity is now in serious decline.

Financial prosperity had made life easier for the South Koreans: they did not “need” God so much anymore. The moment our physical needs are met, we become complacent about spiritual matters. I am convinced however there is a remedy for such spiritual decline; it is the passion of the cross.

Love That Will Not Let Go

Every genuine believer has experienced an intense sense that God will never-ever let go of them (John 10:28-29). As the psalmist says, “Though my father and my mother forsaken me, the Lord will take me in.” (Ps 27:10). Underlying our convictions about God’s intense relationship with us is the witness of the cross. The terrible cry, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34) though absolutely real in the experience of Jesus does not mean the Father “turned his back” or “hid his face” from the Son (cf. Ps 22:24).

The experience which led to the writing of this article was a deep sense in prayer of how the Father’s love would not let go of the dying Son and that the Son would not let go of the Father. In the power of the Spirit they clung to each other in the midst of the darkness of our sin, the overwhelming presence of Satan and the impending power of death  (cf. Heb 9:14). This mutual clinging is the power of the Trinitarian love and the substance of our salvation. It is such a clinging that must be restored to our experience if there is to be any fundamental spiritual transformation in our midst. As Mary spontaneously clung to Jesus on the resurrection morning it is imperative we cling to Christ today (John 20:17). What is at stake is the revelation of our very identity.

Revelation

One of the most intense religious experiences of my life came when I was so overcome by heaviness and oppression that I found myself lying face down literally clinging to the carpet and holding on for dear life grasping to pray. The spiritual opposition seemed overwhelming. But this posture of desperation proved to be a share in the ordeals of the cross and led into a transforming revelation of the ascended Christ. This experience was a share in “the mystery of Christ” of which the New Testament speaks so forcefully (e.g. Rom 16:25; Eph 3:3 ff; Col 4:3; 1 Tim 3:16). At the heart of this mystery is a state of life about which we know so much and so little; marriage.

Paul cites Genesis 2:24 and applies it to Jesus and the Church; ““Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to1)The one Hebrew term is variously translated as cleave, hold fast, cling etc. his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”(Ephesians 5:31-32). As “clinging” is essential to a natural marriage so it creates the relationship between Jesus as Bridegroom and Church as his Bride. To the degree that I am healthily “clingy” to my wife Donna, and she to me, to that degree we experience the reality of being married to each other. This is how it is meant to be between us and Christ.

Conclusion

What is it that is holding us back from unapologetically laying hold of Christ with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Matt 22:37)? Perhaps we don’t want to look foolish, to stand out as a white hot lover of Jesus in the midst of a lukewarm crowd (Rev 3:16)? Something much deeper is however at work that must be acknowledged and overcome. The classic hymn “Rock of Ages” prophetically underlines the state of consciousness we must possess if we are truly to cling to Christ.

The composer boldly states, “Simply to Thy cross I cling” because he acknowledges our spiritual condition apart from the Saviour, “Naked, come to Thee for dress”. Adam and Eve were created to cling to each other in Eden (Gen 2:24), naked and “abandoned” Jesus clung to the Father on the cross and it is due time for the affluent Western Church to confess that in the presence of God we are stark naked (Heb 4:13).

Like the physically prosperous Laodiceans to whom Christ spoke so sharply we need to acknowledge that only Jesus can cover “the shame of our nakedness” (Rev 3:17-18). Only one revelation has the power to strip off our pretentiousness, the wisdom of Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:17 ff.).

May the Lord interpret these words to us about the way of the cross, “She (wisdom) is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who cling to her are called blessed.” (Proverbs 3:18)

References   [ + ]

1. The one Hebrew term is variously translated as cleave, hold fast, cling etc.

Success in the Son

Introduction

by Dr. John Yates
In the process of reading a biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer1)German pastor and theologian hung in 1945 for involvement in a plot to kill Hitler. I was struck by one of his statements concerning success; “God’s cause is not always the “successful” one …we really could be “unsuccessful” and still be on the right road…”

Around the same time I walked past a billboard proclaiming the achievements of a prestigious Melbourne church school; VCE [year 12] SUCCESS 24% of students performed in the Top 5% of Victoria… 100% pass rate …..

These two perspectives are incomparable;2)Not just incompatible. E.g. to ask, “Who is on the right side of history, Bonhoeffer or Mentone Grammar?” would be to place the two views on the same plane and to submit to the idolisation of success once again. and tragically the idol of success has deeply penetrated the Church from earliest times.3)E.g. Paul’s struggles with the “super apostles” in Corinth [2 Cor 11:5; 12:11].

I was once given cash by a parishioner (whose business was called “Image of Success”) to purchase fashionable clothing for when I preached! The successful have a ready audience; the larger the church you pastor the greater the crowd you can attract. There is even one very large international denomination whose motto is, “Successful Families”. The pressure is definitely on us as Christians to have “successful” marriages, ministries and careers.4)Larry Crabb’s book, “The Pressure’s Off” is a fine attempt to tackle this issue. Such a perspective has nothing to do with the kingdom of God and knowing Christ (Matt 7:21-23). In order to grasp the radical transformation Jesus brings to human expectations of success we need first consider the limited parameters of the old covenant.

success_at_workSome Scriptural Reflections

The Old Testament writers unanimously attribute success to God, and in the case of several outstanding leaders define this as a result of God’s presence. One particularly lucid example concerns the life of Moses and his successor Joshua.

Moses found favour with God because he discerned that the divine presence was the essential prerequisite to his leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. He petitioned, ““v15 If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. v16 For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?v17 And the LORD said to Moses,This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.”(Ex 33:15-17 ESV). Success for Moses was being accompanied by God into Canaan; but in this he was to fail the LORD.

When the Israelites grumbled of thirst in the wilderness Moses was commanded to simply speak God’s Word, “v8 Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” In indignation however Moses angrily rebelled against the LORD, “v10 Hear now, you rebels:5)It might seem that God was “hard” on Moses and Aaron, but the very thing that enraged these leaders, the rebellion of the people, God charges to their account [Ex 20:10; 24]. shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” v11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.” (Num 20:8, 10-11 ESV).

Moses’ great sin was to arrogantly place himself in the centre of the drama between the sovereign LORD and his people, “shall we bring water for you”. Moses acted as if the LORD had forsaken him! By denying the presence of God in his Word Moses was instantly judged and forfeited the life goal of entry into the Promised Land.  (Num 20:2-13).

Only in the light of such a tragedy we can `grasp the impact of Moses’ counsel to his spiritual heir, Joshua. “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them (the Canaanites), for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” (Deut 31:6).  Moses’ final message is to keep believing in the presence of God.

After the death of Moses God confirms his counsel to Joshua. “v7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you….v8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success…. v9 Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”” (Josh 1:7-8, 9 ESV).

Through adhering to the divine promises Joshua will find God to be a constant presence that shall never fail him. The promised good success (sakal) however means more than accomplishments; it contains wisdom and insight beyond mere outcome.6)Sakal is also translated to mean wisdom [Genesis 3:6]; being wise [Psalm 2:10]; good understanding [2 Chronicles 30:22]; aptitude [Daniel 1:4]; insight [Daniel 9:22]; instructed[Proverbs 16:20]; prudent [Proverbs 19:14); has regard for [Psalm 41:1]; ponder [Psalm 64:9]; take heed [Psalm 94:8]; take note of [Proverbs 21:12] and give attention to [Daniel 9:13]. See Link

The other exceptionally successful leader under the old covenant is David, whose victories are clearly explained, “v14 And David had success in all his undertakings, for the LORD was with him.”(1 Samuel 18:14; [cf.] [vv.]1 Samuel 18:5; 1 Samuel 18:15).7)In blatant contrast to King Saul, from whom “the Spirit of the LORD had departed” [1 Sam 16:14; 18:12]. David’s outstanding position in the history of Israel is not to be measured by his successful military conquests but is much more inward. At the end of his life he confidently sings, “For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God.” (2 Sam 22:22; Ps 18:21).

David sought God’s own heart (Acts 13:22) and so receives a messianic promise from God that explains the secret of all “good success”. “v14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him v15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.” (2 Sam 7:14-15 ESV). This irrevocable pledge of the divine presence finds its fulfilment in Jesus, but in paradoxical manner which puts to death all our ordinary human imaginings of success.

Jesus Changes Everything

The vocabulary of “success” is glaringly absent from all the New Testament writings because it has been crucified so that something immeasurably greater might rise from the dead. Whereas the horizons of the old covenant were largely limited to the blessings of this present world, the Word of the death and resurrection of Jesus opens up a panorama onto a new creation.

This message of the gospel of God’s kingdom concerns neither success nor failure but centres on submission to his will. Unlike for Moses, Joshua and David, God’s mission for his Son can only be accomplished through the departure of his Spirit.

Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus sounds defeated; “ “v38 My soul is very sorrowful, even to death”…v39 he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:38-39 ESV). Something is about to happen which by the standard spirituality of decent humanity is scandalous.

Whilst the saints of the old covenant were never able to call God “Father” as Jesus did, they nevertheless received a firm promise from the LORD that he would never leave or forsake them.

Yet this is precisely the condition into which Jesus is plunged in the cross. “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying…“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Matt 27:46 ESV). In submissive faith Jesus accepted the judgement of God upon all our endeavours, the best as much as the worst, our victories as much as our failures.8)In George Whitefield’s words, “Our repentance needs to be repented of, and our sins need to be washed in the blood of Christ.”

Jesus’ experience of abandonment by God as an obedient Son radically re-orientates all our conceptions of success and failure. Our sole point of reference for anything meaningful moves from achievement to Christ in whom “everything has become new” (2 Cor 5:17cf. Gal 6:15). Such a dramatic transformation does not come about however through human reason, but in personally hearing the Word of the risen Lord concerning an essentially new identity.

Jesus said…“go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”(John 20:17 ESV).

“v10 Then Jesus said …“Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee….v18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…..v20 And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”(Matt 28:10, 16, 18, 20 ESV).

The achievement of Jesus cannot be measured by the numbers, holiness or deeds of those who follow him. His great attainment is to turn us into his brothers who share with him in the eternal kingdom of our common Father (Heb 2:10-15). If we find that we cannot avoid the language of “success”, it is best to say that for a Christian success is neither more nor less than to be a successor of Christ, and in the kingdom of God succession means sonship , and sonship means God is always with us.9)A lengthier treatment could connect this theme to the ministry of the apostles and their “children” [1 Cor 4:15-17; Gal 4:19; Phil 2:22; 1 tim 1:2; 2 Ti 1:2; 1 John 2:1, 18] and what today is called mentoring.

Conclusion

Through Christ’s death and resurrection the meaning and value of our lives is to be found solely in the unconditional acceptance we enjoy through Christ with God as our Father. This is the true gospel which has been marginalised in our time. Swinging between feelings of triumph and failure is a sure sign we have been seduced by this world’s definition of “success”, and witnesses to the fact that we need to be grasped once more by the enormity of Jesus’ transformation of all human values.

The thoughts in this article took on a greater depth of clarity for me during a time when I was feeling particularly bankrupt spiritually. Such times are not to be resented nor denied, as if they indicated some sort of failure, but embraced as a share in the deepest aspect of what it means to be a true son of God, walking in the paradoxical discipleship of the cross: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23).

References   [ + ]

1. German pastor and theologian hung in 1945 for involvement in a plot to kill Hitler.
2. Not just incompatible. E.g. to ask, “Who is on the right side of history, Bonhoeffer or Mentone Grammar?” would be to place the two views on the same plane and to submit to the idolisation of success once again.
3. E.g. Paul’s struggles with the “super apostles” in Corinth [2 Cor 11:5; 12:11].
4. Larry Crabb’s book, “The Pressure’s Off” is a fine attempt to tackle this issue.
5. It might seem that God was “hard” on Moses and Aaron, but the very thing that enraged these leaders, the rebellion of the people, God charges to their account [Ex 20:10; 24].
6. Sakal is also translated to mean wisdom [Genesis 3:6]; being wise [Psalm 2:10]; good understanding [2 Chronicles 30:22]; aptitude [Daniel 1:4]; insight [Daniel 9:22]; instructed[Proverbs 16:20]; prudent [Proverbs 19:14); has regard for [Psalm 41:1]; ponder [Psalm 64:9]; take heed [Psalm 94:8]; take note of [Proverbs 21:12] and give attention to [Daniel 9:13]. See Link
7. In blatant contrast to King Saul, from whom “the Spirit of the LORD had departed” [1 Sam 16:14; 18:12].
8. In George Whitefield’s words, “Our repentance needs to be repented of, and our sins need to be washed in the blood of Christ.”
9. A lengthier treatment could connect this theme to the ministry of the apostles and their “children” [1 Cor 4:15-17; Gal 4:19; Phil 2:22; 1 tim 1:2; 2 Ti 1:2; 1 John 2:1, 18] and what today is called mentoring.