Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24)
Growth begins when a seed is planted in a safe space, such as soil, a womb, or a heart. Seeds germinate and poke through the earth, hungry for light and moisture, ultimately yielding fruit. Cells multiply within the woman becoming a fetus and eventually a fearfully and wonderfully created human being, hungry for food, love, and stimulation. If the child is nurtured it too will ultimately bear much fruit in kind. This is the natural order of creation. But what about the heart as a seedbed?
Its development also follows a natural order. The heart is the spiritual dimension of our lives Paul admonishes us to stimulate (in each other) through encouragement because a day of harvest is drawing near. From God’s perspective, our hearts are the soil in which the Seed of God must grow. We receive this Seed into our hearts and the miracle of spiritual transformation begins. Jesus called this being born again. Like the newborn child, this living seed emerges with incredible reproductive potential. And, like the child, it is dependent on those around it for nourishment and stimulation. It needs specific things to reach maturity just as God intended.
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)
Yesterday I proposed that spiritual formation can be interrupted. I suggested that we can be like slow-boiled frogs in a kettle. That idea may be offensive, but I ask you to compare the productivity of the contemporary western church to that of the early church? Yesterday I offered a strategy to escape the cultural soup we are stewing in. We could heed the examples of those who are jumping out of the kettle. I promised to introduce you to a couple of these people. One is Bob Goff; the other is Jen Hatmaker.
Bob first. When I met Bob Goff in 2014, he had me at “Hello.” When he shared his core values I knew I was yoked with him as a co-laborer in Christ. He said our mission is to watch over each other’s hearts because from them flow the origins of life, that guarding and nurturing Christ’s life in each other is our universal calling. Why? Because everything starts there. This is the same thing Paul is saying when he instructs us to stimulate and encourage one another.
In Love Does, Bob demonstrates the essential value of repentance with the recurring phrase, “I used to think this or that, but now I know that…” Here is an example from Chapter 2], “ Sniper Fire:” “I used to think I had to act a certain way to follow God, but now I know God doesn’t want us to be ordinary.” When people ask him about the religious kettle he used to swim in, he responds:
You probably shouldn’t be talking to me because I don’t validate my faith with a church attendance scorecard. I think of church as a vibrant community of people consisting of two or more of varied backgrounds gathering around Jesus. Sometimes they are at a place that might have a steeple or auditorium seating. But it’s just as likely that church happens elsewhere, like coffee shops or on the edge of a glacier or in the bush of Uganda. All of these places work just fine, I suppose. When it’s a matter of the heart, the place doesn’t matter. For me, it’s Jesus plus nothing—not even a building.
Just by being Bob, he casts a legitimate New Testament vision of the Church. His “I used to think, but now I know,” represents the transformation that ultimately translates into God’s perfect will being done. Church to Bob is his vibrant anywhere-anytime meetings. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.”
Thank you, Bob, for saying these things in your own words, which empowers them with legitimate authority. Now let me introduce you to Jen Hatmaker. She is the author of Interrupted: When Jesus Wrecks Your Comfortable Christianity.
Jen and her husband employ the same values Bob lives by inside a denominational church they planted in Austin with a missional focus. She states that living on mission, where you’ve been sent, transforms your faith journey. Like Bob, this others-oriented intentionality is what she believes love does. To those questioning the water temperature in their own kettle, Hatmaker offer:
If an endless array of Bible studies, programs, church events, and sermons (honestly, the last thing we need is another sermon) have left you dry, please hear this: living on mission will transform your faith journey. At the risk of oversimplifying it, I’ve seen missional living cure apathy better than any sermon, promote healing quicker than counseling, deepen discipleship more than Bible studies, and create converts more effectively than events…There is no formula to living on mission.
Jen’s no-formula, communal heart quickly won me. The Hatmakers came to understand the kettle for what it was. She comments: “What we see becomes our reality…Church influence, if followed exclusively, distorts our perception of real life and our role in it.” In other words, if they go unchallenged, the familiar and sacred can be our prison. We know Jesus came with the intention of setting captives free. As his disciples, he has called us to do the same. Jen quotes Isaiah 56:6 in the chapter titled “Mission Possible:” “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” She continues:
Responsibility for each other is the first description of the fast God requires: an abstinence from selfishness, greed, and egotism. Discipleship is not a personal journey with a few links to community; it exists for us to spur one another on toward liberation and execute justice for those too trapped to free themselves. It is a lifestyle obsessed with the broken members of our human tribe: those living next to us, in our families, and everywhere someone is devalued. We have a mandate to liberate our fellow man, in every context. We are in this life together, we belong to one another.
I know now more than ever that an organized church is simply a loose structure to hold us together; people are truly the church. They are its life and breath and strength. It is you. It is me. The kingdom advances in our small neighborhoods and small acts of love and small moments of faithfulness and small feats of courage. It is not encapsulated in programs and top-down structures but activated through the body of Christ daring to be faithful everywhere we’ve been planted.
Dear family, we are being transformed into the image of Christ. This mysterious process began when we received the Seed in the seedbed of our hearts. The Seed grows when those around it encourage it; it does not grow well alone. It requires a community that recognizes that Christ (the Seed), in us, is the treasure whose value dwarfs the accumulated wealth of this world. Our culture looks enviably at Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, but if they do not have Christ in them, reigning in their hearts, they are mere paupers in disguise.
As we encourage the inner life of those around us, we invest in the only Treasure that will survive our mortality—His Life. If we will persevere through the essential trials of spiritual formation, we will one day find ourselves in the appropriate attire at a Wedding Party. In that moment we will finally be in bodies and in an environment where moth and rust no longer have a say.
God is raising up networks of saints who grasp the intended outward focus of their inner lives. This is missional living. The Christian life is not just a peaceful, easy feeling about ourselves and our lives with God. It’s not a refined sense of holiness, which brings efficiency, certainty, and prosperity into our daily lives. If anything, it’s a holy mess where we are becoming aware of each other’s burdens and needs, discovering ways to shoulder them together.
This tribe of saints is breaking free of that downward pull caused by elevating fallen nature above the new creation. They are coming to see their hearts as the dwelling place of Jesus, a safe place where we can inwardly relate to God with full assurance and great confidence.
Please note this place is in no way secured or improved upon by seminary, Bible study, title, pedigree, race, gender, age, IQ or anything else. It is a pure gift. Any other approach to God is a type of religion which denies the Life hidden inside the Seed. If we are attempting to follow Christ without this type of rest, we are swimming in the religious cauldron, from which Christ died to liberate us.
The kingdom of God is not dependent on the pastor or the sermon or the building or the programs. The kingdom of God rests on the unshakable foundation, Jesus Christ. It is nothing more, nor less, than Christ in you and in me, on which the future of the glorified Church and Bride of Christ depends. How astonishing!
Father, deliver us from any spells which have enchanted us, binding us tragically to the temporal. Help us to rest sufficiently in you that we could attract others into this rest. Grant that we might find our tribe—those who will distribute the banquet invitations. Show us how to stimulate each other to love and good deeds. Help us to be the safe place where your word will grow and return to you as the abundant harvest you anticipate. Help us to watch over each other’s hearts for Your name’s sake. Help us to cast the vision that is on Your heart. Wreck us if need be.
After reading this passage one might define ordinary as what life looked like before Jesus showed up. Or you might conclude that Jesus, as the first born of a new race, was being introducing to us as the new “ordinary.” Here is how people responded to the new version of ordinary: “They were all seized with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying, ‘We have seen remarkable things today.’”
In the previous chapter, we see the likely origin of all the excitement. Jesus had stood up in the congregation and said:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are downtrodden,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.
You have to admit, the action in this passage is more than most of us are accustomed to. Unless we are dispensationalists, our contrasting experience begs for explanation. As I surveyed the passage, I looked for things that stood out as unique and noteworthy—possible reasons for our contrasting experience with Jesus.
1) None of these awe-inspiring events took place in a synagogue.
2) At Jesus’ bidding, a business owner (a mere layman) complied and experienced a radical and unexpected return on his investment, so much so it caused him to acknowledge his own sinfulness—which Jesus proceeded to ignore.
3) There were changed vocations (kind of). His followers would still be fisherman, but going for a different catch.
4) We find Jesus favorably disposed to heal. He was willing. It was now the favorable season for this.
5) The abundant outflow of Life, expressed in a) His teaching and b) the miraculous, were the only church growth strategies in play.
6) A structure (a roof) was dismantled to get to Jesus. Hmm.
7) He heals as easy as He forgives.
If you had a troop of born-again believers who were unencumbered with any of our well-worn templates for doing church, they would be left with miracle-laden passages such as ours as their reference point for ordinary. So, one explanation for the dynamic then and our muted now is that our version of ordinary has been bastardized.
We are like frogs in the kettle that are being slowly and incrementally desensitized to their circumstances, having lost track of the temperature somewhere a ways back. There is a built-in danger to the status quo because it assumes the water temperature of our existing paradigms is safe. This is why so many of us live in this season, so contentedly un-astonished with the unremarkable.
In our passage, two groups are converging upon Jesus: 1) the poor, downtrodden captives and 2) the scribes and teachers who were reasoning incorrectly in their hearts. (Major problem! These were the characters controlling the thermostat!) But there was a Kingdom representative present who happened to be the first-born of a new race of men. The mission of his new tribe would be to redefine and exemplify the new ordinary. It says, “The power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing.” In the previous verse we learned that “He Himself would often slip away to the wilderness to pray.”
I speculate another explanation for the power differential is the shortage of those who slip away—those who continually respond to Jesus’ invitation to come to Him, who in their coming and staying in His presence, learn to enjoy the intimacy between themselves and the Father. I suspect learning to abide in Christ in this way enabled them to maintain the focus on this favorable season of the Lord in which the ordinary can be transformed into the extra-ordinary.
For our mental equilibrium, it is admittedly easier to adopt the dispensational idea that this is now and that was then and everything, in its predestined condition, is as it has been ordained. This is one of the paradoxes that thinking Christians face. It is mentally taxing to ponder the truth that God is sovereign, that things are on track, and simultaneously are not yet all they can and will be. There is an apparent contradiction between these two propositions. Left to pure reasoning, we are driven toward one or the other of these options, tempted to discard one or other of the positions in order to relieve our strain. Living with paradox is troublesome. God knows our dilemma:
“But Jesus, aware of their reasoning, answered and said to them, ‘Why are you reasoning in your hearts?’” Which He might easily have said like this: “Why are you limiting Me to Your human reasoning, allowing apparent contradictions to push you toward the black or the white?”
Has it ever dawned on us how obscenely arrogant it is for us to assume that God is confined by our definitions of ordinary—ideas about God we have derived in our frog-like human reasoning?
I believe we are deficient in the remarkable because we have done much “reasoning in our hearts.” We have been frogging about in relation to the invalid reference points of our own experience, which have unfortunately become our ordinary. Using our versions of ordinary is like recalibrating our thermometers, adjusting 98.6 degrees to 198.6. The outcome is predictable and tragic.
This line of thinking has provoked certain prayers I have prayed, such as: “Search me Oh God and know my heart and see if there be any hurtful (false-benchmark) way in me and lead me in the everlasting way (true-benchmarks).” This line of thinking has provoked my understanding of certain verses, like: “And do not be conformed to this world (heeding false bench marks) but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (heeding true benchmarks), that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good acceptable and perfect.” How could “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” if we have adopted reference points that discount that which is good acceptable and perfect.
The roof of my understanding is being removed and it is not at all comfortable. I have experienced intellectual and emotional loss of equilibrium. I have experienced tensions between my brothers and sisters in Christ as our benchmarks are being reordered and redefined. I trust the fruit will more than justify the expense.
Lord, lead us into Your life. Awaken our hunger and our thirst for kingdom values. May Truth prevail over every lie and half-truth, which have become the sacred markers of our current paradigm. Deliver us from evil that we may be the light of the world—accurate reference points in a darkened world. Amen.
Note: One way to break the status quo is to acquaint ourselves with those who have jumped out of the kettle. I think of Puddleglum, the Marshewiggle who sticks his foot in the fire just to break the witch’s evil enchantment, which had become his ordinary.
(Check out The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis.) Lewis uses the timeless vehicle of fantasy to convey kingdom reality. We also have contemporary examples. Here are just a few reads that shine the spotlight on a whole new normal: Love Does by Bob Goff and Interrupted by Jen Hatmaker. I will have more to say about these two tomorrow as we look at Hebrews 10:19-25 with a focus on verse 24: “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds.”
For God who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
The next verse reveals a core truth about God’s intention to shine the light of his glory into the darkness of this world. But we have this treasure in earthen (ordinary) vessels that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves. What treasure is Paul referring to? 1 Corinthians 3:16 provides the answer: “Do you not know you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”
God’s plan of revealing Himself to the world involves you and I—the receptacles of his indwelling Spirit. So how does this light within get projected outwardly into the surrounding darkness? What must happen to “produce for us this eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison?” Paul responds, “It may require some momentary light affliction.” We ask, timidly, “How light?” Paul’s response: “We are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down” and “our outer man is decaying.”
And so we ask, “How could affliction possibly produce any light? Where is the victory in this negativity?” Paul would ask us to bear with his foolishness a little longer:
Even though we are afflicted in every way, we are not crushed. Even though we are perplexed, we aren’t despairing about it. Even though we are persecuted, we are not forsaken. Even though we are struck down we are not destroyed. And, even though our bodies are deteriorating, our spirits are being renewed every day. (a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 4:7-10 & 16)
Paul goes on to explain the mysterious perplexity of suffering:
We are always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body, for we are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:10-11)
Paul, knowing this is complicated, continues: “While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)
If I am not mistaken, Paul just challenged our inalienable right to pursue happiness. How un-American of him! Yet, for light to truly shine from sea to shining sea, it is going to require a right response on our part—to affliction. While it may not be in keeping with western culture’s personal-success gospel, scripture makes it clear: God is glorified as much (if not more) by endurance through affliction as He is by deliverance from it.
Knowing now that becoming the light of the world involves more than asking Jesus into our hearts, do we remain as attracted to that eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison?
Father, each of us knows affliction to some degree. As to the why behind it, we are perplexed and even knocked down. Help us to see, like Paul, that our afflictions are merely light and momentary. Where we have been knocked down and confused by our trials, help us to our knees where we can focus on the eternal things beyond our sight. Help us to shine brightly in the midst of our particular darkness. May our extra ordinary lives provide the surprising context for Your incomparable and compelling glory. Amen.
This is the story of the burning bush – the strange fire that distracted Moses from the task at hand so that God could reveal to him the holy ground on which he stood. The larger context of this encounter is Israel’s enslavement to Egypt. God had heard the pitiful cry of his chosen and was responding by way of Moses who would be God’s instrument of liberation, leading Israel out of slavery, toward a land of promise.
The ground we are standing on is holy as well. You may be saying, “How could that be? I see no burning bushes. I’m not drawn away from my responsibilities. I don’t hear any commissioning words from the great I Am.” Was it the heat or the light radiating from the fire that made that ancient ground holy? I don’t think it was either. I believe the agent of cause was simply God’s presence. For us, too, it is God’s presence making the ordinary ground we are standing on holy.
A strong case can be made that the circumstances of our lives, the seemingly ordinary ground we are walking on is even now holy, bursting with potential, because God is present. You might be saying, “I would still prefer a burning bush, some external stimulus to inspire and direct me. Then, I would rise above the ordinary. Then, I would have purpose.”
Since the birth of the Church, we Gentiles are being invited into the kingdom of God through a new and better covenant than the one ancient Israel knew. We are living by faith in God’s administration of grace. In this season, authentic born again saints have the Holy Spirit in them as an internal stimulus, enabling them to embrace a new exodus and a new kingdom.
Isn’t the context really the same between this Old Testament story and ours? Isn’t God still listening to His chosen ones who are crying out, along with creation, for wholesale liberation? I have a dream of seeing the Church embrace the holy ground she is walking on, where we discover that, in Christ, our circumstances, however messy, are always the optimum condition for our growth. Here, in our ordinary circumstances we can grow progressively free and become extra-ordinary agents of deliverance, just as Moses was.
Father, as we live and move and have our being in you, we celebrate the ordinary aspects of our lives. Give us eyes to see! Grant us endurance that we might discover our new identities as saints, as brothers and sisters of Jesus, as students of the Holy Spirit, as kings and priests, as your sons and friends. You, O Lord, are our burning bush. Burn brightly in us. Amen.
While talking about churches, one of my daughters asked me, “Dad, why do you think some stories turn out well and others poorly?” While my response may be broader than she anticipated, today’s reflections are my attempt to answer her question.
If we compare the story of the early church to that of the contemporary church, we see the second playing out very differently. We are told the early church turned the world upside down, while, in this hour, it would seem the world is turning our westernized version of Christianity upside down.
That may seem harsh. You may be reacting, “Now, hold on. Our church is a good church; it has had the same pastor for “x” number of years; we support missions with a generous part of our budget; membership is growing; we have programs that are meeting people’s needs.” That is fine, but from where in the Bible did you extract those standards of measurement?
When I use the word church, I’m not just speaking about the various groups that assemble weekly and the things they do. The Church I am referring to, strictly speaking, cannot be attended, because it is neither a place nor an event. It is a body of people joined together in Christ. We can attend a church but we cannot attend the Church. The Church are those people, from the first chapters in Acts until now, who have been forgiven of their sins, who have been filled with the Holy Spirit, and who now live in communion with God.
What provoked this lengthy introduction is the context of today’s passage which is captured well by Acts 4:16. The Council, comprised of the elders, priests, and scribes, had assembled and were asking themselves this question, “What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it.” After hearing the account from Peter and John, and “seeing the man who had been healed standing with them,” the religious elite had nothing to say—a rare problem for them.
Acts 4:33 says it was with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. To answer my daughter’s question and account for the very different experiences of the Church, then and now, at least one major difference stands out. That is power.
The New Testament is a collection of noteworthy miracles. There is no question these supernatural events attracted people to the gospel and brought glory to God. We may have abundant grace, but do we have power, and is that power upon us all? Are we free enough in our contemporary contexts to ask what has happened to power?
Asking questions when things are biblically amiss is a responsibility every believer must exercise. (Warning: Asking questions will never be welcome by the religious elite.) Asking questions is not easy in a context where Pastor is the sole arbiter of God’s will. Nor is this easy where history is auto-sanctified as God’s will. Could there be a more perfect way to sustain an old wineskin? I believe honest, biblically informed questions are an essential variable in how stories play out. If we can express them from our knees, we might see a new genesis.
If western Christianity mirrors New Testament Christianity then we have no need for questions. However, if the New Testament was our blue print, we should be asking ourselves some significant questions in light of the gulf between these two stories.
While the elite stood by with nothing to say, they “observed the confidence of Peter and John, and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were marveling, and began recognizing them as having been with Jesus.” Stories turn out differently only where men have spent time in close proximity to Jesus. Therefore, I will echo Paul’s prayer: “And now Lord, take note of their threats and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant, Jesus.” Amen.
Isaiah begins with a question: “Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Then he provides an unlikely description of the coming Messiah. If Peter had been there, he might have said, “Nope, Isaiah, this won’t do; He must have stately form and majesty!” I shouldn’t be so hard on Peter. I too wish Jesus would present Himself to the world in extraordinary ways.
Yet God ignored human wisdom, coming to us as an ordinary man. There was nothing distinguishing in His appearance. It is noteworthy those with preconceived notions about Him were not those who “believed the message nor to whom the arm of the Lord was revealed.”
Long after Isaiah recorded his prophecy, we learn something of God’s reasoning. Being an ordinary man positioned Him so that the stroke of God’s judgment would fall upon Him. I am surprised more do not believe based simply on the sheer impossibility that humans could invent such a bizarre story!
Those who have believed the message have embraced the Son of Man whose life, for 30 years, was ordinary in appearance. That Jesus did not posture Himself as an elite reveals a surprising aspect of divine royalty—it is approachable. It is humble and does not seek to lord authority over people. Even though He is a king, He prefers to draw us by way of invitation rather than control us with mandates.
We do have a robed King with a scepter, but He loves us and desires we find Him accessible, not aloof. We think of Jesus as God’s disguise. Perhaps it was no disguise at all. Perhaps Jesus is the exact representation of the Father just as the book of Hebrews tells us.
Father, we have believed your message and your strong arm has been revealed to us in the wisdom of Your gospel. That you are our friend and not our dictator is tremendously good news. As common as Jesus may have appeared, You did extraordinary things through Him that drew men to You. May we too, whatever our appearance, be vessels of honor overflowing with the surprising Life of God to all those You permit us to serve. Amen.