Responding to what God says
God is always speaking. This is the record of the Bible, from the beginning times through Abraham, Moses, David and the psalmists, the prophets, the Good News of Jesus and the kingdom of God and then, following His resurrection, the Holy Spirit, teacher and Encourager, given to all believers.
However, we are not always listening! The Bible is also a record of man’s difficulty – at times real hard-core obstinacy – in hearing, and responding.
There were particular times when God’s word to encourage re-alignment to Him, and people’s failure to hear, was a sharp and tragic contrast. God’s word was brought by anointed and courageous people called prophets who were set apart to speak for God. Often these were members of the court, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, but sometimes outsiders like Hosea and Amos – and the most famous ‘outsider’ of all, Elijah.
Jeremiah lived right at the time that Israel as the nation of God’s priesthood – people set apart to serve Him – were about to lose that security and suffer the hardship and utter shame of exile to a pagan land and rule. Jeremiah saw what was coming if Israel did not change its direction: the meaning of the word ‘repent’.
He is often caricatured as the prophet of gloom and doom, but mainly because he was called to be the person of ‘final warnings’. They went unheeded.
Jeremiah’s true word was so unheeded and rejected, and his life so threatened, that he poured his feelings, both to God – and to the court: “Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people”, Jeremiah 28:7. This wasn’t just about Jeremiah’s feeling rejected (although he did) but about God’s life-saving word being rejected.
Of course there were others at court. Hananiah is named Jeremiah 28:5 as one who claimed to be speaking for God while telling everyone what they wanted to hear. It was the old, old problem – God saying one thing, sinful man asserting something else Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11; Ezekiel 13:10, 16.
Jesus warned of conflict to do with His coming
When Jesus came, not just a prophet but the complete representation of God in human form, He found hearers and gathered a band of men and women who were learning from Him. They are called disciples, and His call to us now is the same. It is not to be performers of a religion about Him, but to work with Him as apprentices, growing in the new life He brings us when we receive Him into our hearts.
But this is a call with a risk factor, as He makes plain. Following Him risks condemnation and shame from those who are opposed to His values. He uses the picture familiar to His hearers of a convicted prisoner being made to carry the beam of their crucifixion: “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for My sake will find it,” Matthew 10:38-39.
Receiving Jesus into our hearts is how we are born again into a new spiritual life where we “see the kingdom” – understand God’s rule and order of things – as Jesus explained to the Pharisee scholar, Nicodemus, John 3:3.
For a new life to be born, there has to be the death of the old. In effect we agree to let the old selfish life die, in order to take up this new submitted and spiritually-energised life. So we choose to set aside the old life, with its ambitions and achievements and identity. That’s an essential part of receiving a new life with a different agenda, about heaven’s priorities, not ours. And, crucially, it’s about gaining a new identity — who we are “in Christ”, Romans 6:11, 8:1. When we start to grasp who we are in Jesus, we don’t need to prove ourselves or have some other identity or rank or distinction, to feel good about. That’s the part that has to be allowed to die.
This doesn’t mean to say we will be well received everywhere. That kind of freedom is threatening to those who don’t have it. That kind of allegiance exposes other allegiances which are not submitted to Jesus. The Holy Spirit in us who comes into our heart (spirit and soul) in this new spiritual birth brings to us an inner peace Romans 8:6, Galatians 5:22 that cannot be found anywhere else. It’s an inner peace which holds us secure, when on the outside we encounter conflict.
We don’t look for conflict, but conflict finds us. Peter and John needed this inner peace when they were seized by the temple guard and brought before the high priest and others of the ruling council. These were the same ones who had constructed the false case against Jesus, Acts 4:1-3, 8-12.
Receiving and responding
We are not going to avoid spiritual conflict this side of heaven. In the Garden of Eden the original man, Adam, took an independent action he had been told not to take. At that point he assigned legal rights to the devil whose deception he had succumbed to — and that’s what we live in, the ongoing conflict between good and evil, light and truth and darkness and confusion.
How we handle it is what governs the outcome. Do we hand Satan even more legal rights? Or do we assert a different lordship and take them away from Satan in the authority of the One we now belong to?
A common source of conflict is about rules — what rules regulate us? Church life can be full of rules, mostly unwritten.
This new life, new freedom and new identity doesn’t follow the old rules, and there’s a part of us, or a part of church expectation, that thinks it should. That was a major source of difficulty in the early church and we see it in the letters to churches, especially Galatians and the Jerusalem council debate, Galatians 1:8, 5:1–6, Acts 15:1–6.
In the new life in Jesus, the ‘rules’ have changed. They have become a different heart, motivated by God’s Spirit to think and act as He would like. But we try to make this into a tick box exercise. The human desire is for something that can be brought down to our level, defined and repeated. Like a recipe: we generally feel more secure with a recipe we can follow; it feels risky to have an intuitive (or spiritually-directed) sense of the ingredients and method.
Jesus knew that the disciples would find the worst conflicts among other Jews like themselves. Even the ones that believed in Jesus as their Messiah were still at times rule-bound.
So when God is speaking and we are both hearing and sharing today’s ’fresh bread’, the trap is the religious spirit that wants to fit it to man-made rules. That’s where the arguments come from, and the sin that hands Satan so much ammunition.
Many different people who hear God speak prophetic words have heard Him say over the past couple of years especially,“I am doing a new thing” Isaiah 43:18–19. We can respond positively by asking Him what it is, or react less positively, perhaps fearful of losing control at a time of precarious finances, by saying “Not on my watch!”
This time of lockdown and restriction has put on hold our traditions of weekly services. Offsetting the sense of loss and fellowship is an opportunity. The enforced break gives us a really good reason to explore new ways of experiencing God in worship and the Word. But the man-made rules say we ‘ought to’ replicate our ‘normal service’ (although we can’t) and we ‘ought to’ put all our effort into maintaining the routine as far as possible.
It is this sense of being bound by a religious framework and rules, which says we are not free to explore in different ways, or to consider what God might be showing us about the new thing He is doing.
Perhaps our focus in buildings and formality isn’t what connects with today’s people. We live in an informal age – TV presenters often don’t wear ties! By contrast, the Victorian and Edwardian age loved formality and grandeur. It’s highly front-led non-participative worship styles, and its ornate buildings with their symbolism, and its richly-textured, ordered music, were products of that time. The gospel hasn’t changed one iota, but the people who may hear it have changed a great deal. People buy clothes, gadgets and furnishings to be up to date. If we were a retailer stocking museum pieces, we might find some museum interest – but not sales.
God is always speaking a new Word and doing a new thing. It is always rooted in Himself and his eternal plan, but as we see from salvation history, the way the plan is worked out is always being renewed. The question is, will we respond positively, and allow the Holy Spirit to renew us, or will we react against it, and try to close down what we find personally threatening? One way, Paul says, is to respond in a spiritual way; the other is a reaction of the flesh, Romans 6:11–14.
He would want to says to us, don’t be bound to what you have done before, but be free to experience God afresh and in new ways, “because you are not under law, but under grace”, Romans 6:14-15.