Review: Intentional Discipleship and Disciple-Making – An Anglican Guide for Christian Life and Formation

The word “discipleship” has become such a buzzword in recent years that when it is used, particularly in official documents or vision statements, it’s intended meaning is not always certain.

I have a vested interest in pursuing discipleship in an Anglican context.  It is useful, therefore, to familiarise myself with how discipleship is being understood, talked about, and promoted.  Practical on-the-ground examples are the most valuable.  But perspectives from the heights of the institution are also important.  Last year’s Archbishops’ Council report, Setting God’s People Free pointed out that the main obstacle to discipleship is cultural intransigence.  Sometimes it is possible for papers at the top to cut across the lower tides of avoidance; they can simply state what needs to be stated, even if their immediate effect is not obvious.

This small book, published by the Anglican Consultative Council in 2016, is a case in point.  It is a Communion-level, globally-scoped report.  It brings some important insights, especially from the Global South.  I’m finding it invaluable as I prepare some thoughts on discipleship for our Deanery strategic planning process.

It is available for download in pdf.

One of the ways we avoid a discipleship culture is by subsuming the term into our existing church culture, rather than allowing it to provoke much-needed adaptive change.  That is, we undertake “discipleship activities” or, worse yet, we simply shoehorn the word “discipleship” into the description of our existing activities, and we quench the Spirit. In the end, discipleship is about being a disciple/student/follower of Jesus himself. If we think we can do that and remain unchanged. If we think we can avoid having our “self-identity” challenged (page 5), we are deluding ourselves. Yet we try.

Archbishop Ng Moon Hing of South East Asia addresses this symptom from the very beginning, in his foreword:

To follow Jesus of Nazareth into his cosmic reign is simply the most challenging, the most beautiful, the most costly, the most rewarding journey we could ever choose to begin…  our following Jesus requires much more than the latest course or introduction to Christian living. Courses have their place… but our apostleship, our discipleship demands much more – in fact it demands everything. (Page vii)

A definition of discipleship is needed for this book to make any sense.  The definition it gives is not so much provided as located; discipleship “encompasses this total God-ward transformation which takes place when individuals and communities intentionally, sacrificially, and consistently live every aspect of their daily life in commitment to following Jesus Christ” (Page 4).

This is a wonderfully Anglican way of doing it: Discipleship is not so delicately defined that it adheres to one time or place, but it is bounded so that we know what we’re talking about.

It is also wonderfully Anglican to begin from the basis of biblical theology.  Discipleship themes are quickly traced through the Old Testament before focusing on Jesus himself, with his “group of ‘learners’ who were selected to be with him” (page 11).  The book does well to go beyond the prosaic picture of Jesus merely as pedagogical examplar, as if Jesus is defined by his discipleship methods.  Rather, the fundamentals of Christ’s person and mission are first and foremost.  It is discipleship that is defined by Jesus, not the other way around.  Therefore, true discipleship bears the mark of the cross. It is much more than a spiritualised self-help program, “much more than belief and personal growth in Christian character” (page 16):

For the original twelve there was a literal journey following Jesus up from Galilee into the eye of the storm, Jerusalem – a journey marked with misguided hopes and some trepidation…: we are all on a journey, following Jesus… we are to leave things behind… we are to trust him both for our eventual arrival in the city and also for the surprising details along the way and through the desert; above all, we are to ‘take up [our] cross daily’ and follow Jesus (Lk 9.23) (Page 15)

From this biblical starting point, we are taken through a cursory look at discipleship in the early and historical church and arrive at a multi-faceted examination in recent and contemporary Christianity.  Like the charismatic renewals of that latter 20th Century, there appears to be evidence of similarly transdenominational currents in this area. I find this encouraging.

Consequently, this book has stimulated my thinking.  For instance, there is a harmony in discipleship between separation (as in the monastic tradition of withdrawing from “the accommodation of Christian communities to the ways of the secular world” (page 35), or the Latin American emphasis (page 101) on “preparing Christ’s disciples to act differently”), and missional engagement that connects with and promotes a relevant gospel.  Popular evangelicalism lacks the language to tackle this.

For instance, I found myself unexpectedly pushing back at how we describe secular “work and other human activities as a form of vocation” (page 65). It’s not that I disagree that secular work is vocational. Nor do I wish to slip into some sort of clericalism that elevates church work as somehow spiritually superior.  It’s just that the language does not prevent an apparent lack of distinctiveness in the pursuit of vocation. The consequence is our propensity to sacralise all work and so fall into the careerism of our surrounding culture; to assert the divine right to pursue the career of my choice. Rather, the journey of discipleship necessarily moves us away from careerism; it may take us on either path of secular work or ecclesial ministry, (if we need to make the distinction at all), but whatever it is, whatever we do, it is to be submitted to the call of Christ. Our career is first and foremost shaped by our vocation, our discipleship, and not the other way around.

This book has stirred my consideration of practice The way it draws on the experiences of discipleship in various parts of the world and diverse cultures is stimulating. The common threads recognise that discipleship is holisticcommunal, missional, and deliberate.  Jesus is the beginning and the end.

Churches should be assemblies of disciples of Christ and not pew-warming believers. All sermons should be discipleship-driven and not entertain spectators with feel-good sensation. Christ’s death is costly, and it would be considered worthy if he knew that his life was laid down for people who became his disciples. It would be sad for him if he knew that it is for pew-warmer Christians. A disciple of Christ will ask, ‘What and how shall I serve and live for Christ?’ A pew-warmer believer will ask, ‘What will Christ do for me?’ (Page 89)

These experiences are wells to draw from. They help us get to some practicalities without becoming programmatic.

For instance, the importance of cultural analysis is present in the reflection from the Middle East. Cultural self-awareness is something that can be learned and practised.  It is a skill that is sadly missing in much of the Western Church, an aspect of our normative missional illiteracy. The book speaks of “an adventure for the ‘disciple-maker’ as for the ‘disciple’… discovering where the Spirit of God applauds the norms of our culture, where he accepts some norms as a fair enough starting point and where he says ‘not good enough!’ about them” (page 91). Similarly, the cultural questions posed by “insider movements” (page 120) poses important cultural questions that can and should be more readily asked; we are all inside a culture.

The practical importance of relational and emotional courage is present in the reflection from Latin America. This pushes back at the Western tendency (or perhaps it’s British?) to confuse harmony with polite silence and emotional avoidance.  This lesson moves away from an attitude of “waiting for someone else to solve [the] problem.”  Drawing upon the lessons of the Road to Emmaus, it speaks of the importance of the final movement back “to Jerusalem – to community, joy, dynamism, but also to the conflicts, to the Cross… to the crises” (page 102).

There is one significant weakness, a gap that is almost bewildering: Despite the brief acknowledgement of the “importance of the parents’ role in teaching each new generation to walk in the ways of the Lord” (page 9, see also page 68), there is very little at all on the place of family, children and youth.  The one perfunctory chapter (page 107) is insufficient.  A discipleship culture is inherently intergenerational and that characteristic deserves more engagement.  Our prevailing habit in the Western church of splitting the Body of Christ into homogenous age brackets is fundamentally antagonistic to Christ’s heart for mission.  A failure to engage with that diminishes this book.

Nevertheless, the book’s ambition is valuable: It is fundamentally vocational. i.e it issues a call that is coherent across all Anglican contexts.  Without whitewashing the “rich diversity in the understanding and practice of discipleship and disciple-making” (page 3), it nevertheless affirms a “strong intentionality” and lays it before us: “…the Church needs to be called back to its roots as a community of disciples who make disciples.”

It is therefore yet another resonance to the growing prophetic voice caling for a shift in culture. More voices are still needed.

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Review: Prayer – Finding the Heart’s True Home

Richard Foster’s Prayer is a classic of the early ’90s but I’m glad that I have only just recently read it. I don’t think I would have truly understood it, or been impacted by it, if I had come to it before I’d lived some life.

Foster is, of course, known for his teaching on spiritual disciplines with contemporary application. This book is in the same vein. It is a compendium of independent chapters, each considering the sorts of prayer that we see in the biblical narrative and in Christian experience. A quick look at the table of contents reveals the gist: “Simple Prayer, Prayer of the Forsaken, The Prayer of Examen, The Prayer of Tears, The Prayer of Relinquishiment…” and so on.

Foster takes us to the base foundation of spirituality, to the character of God himself. God is a God who speaks, and who listens, and who creates and restores the relationship between himself and his people. How we interact with him, i.e. how we pray, is the question that takes us into these depths.  Like similar relational questions (e.g. “How do I speak and be closer to my husband, my wife, my child?”) the answer is both simple (“Just speak!”) and profoundly deep, even mysterious.  Like all relational issues, it requires both deliberate action and humble response. Prayer is not something to “master, the way we master algebra or motor mechanics” (page 8), but “we come ‘underneath’, where we calmly and deliberately surrender control and become incompetent.”

As I record my thoughts here I am not going to touch on every chapter, but on those parts that have challenged me, taken me deeper, or have reminded me of the gracious permission I have, as a child of God, to come to him in prayer.

Prayer of the Forsaken.

It is right that Foster touchs on forsakenness early in the book. This sense, occasional or frequent, is part and parcel of the Christian experience; we feel as if we are praying to bronzed-over heavens, when everything would scream at us that God is absent.  Foster has drawn on “old writers” to give me a new phrase, “Deus Absconditus – the God who is hidden” (page 17) for those times when God appears to have disappeared.

The prayer of the forsaken is the prayer of the pair on the road to Emmaus who stand with “downcast faces” because of their dashed hopes about the one who was “going to redeem Israel.”  They walk with Jesus, but he is hidden from them.  It is the prayer of Jonah in the belly of the whale. It is the prayer of David, and Jesus himself, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Times of forsakenness are a given in the Christian pilgrimage of life.  And they are necessary. They take us to the bedrock of God’s sovereign grace where we are stripped of any pretence that we might manipulate God in relationship or prayer.

That is the next thing that should be said about our sense of the absence of God, namely that we are entering into a living relationship that begins and develops in mutual freedom. God grants us perfect freedom because he desires creatures who freely choose to be in relationship with him. Through the Prayer of the Forsaken we are learning to give God the same freedom. Relationships of this kind can never be manipulated or forced. (Page 20)

Such seasons are seasons of refining that burn hot.  We question ourselves, and “nagging questions assail us with a force they never had before” (Page 23)… “‘Is there any real meaning in the universe?’ ‘Does God really love me?'”

Through all of this, paradoxically, God is purifying our faith by threatening to destroy it. We are led to a profound and holy distrust of all superficial drives and human strivings. We know more deeply than ever before our capacity for infinite self-deception. Slowly we are being taken off vain securities and false allegiances. Our trust in all exterior and interior results is being shattered so that we can learn faith in God alone. Through our barrenness of sould God is producing detachment, humility, patience, perseverance. (Page 23)

In the last year we have experienced a sense of this forsakenness. One instructive experience stands out for me: At a summer festival in 2017, ironically surrounded by the joy and bustle of the worshipping people of God, we found ourselves in this dark place – a deep sense of being lonely, abandoned, forsaken.  As I breathed and paced myself to get to the next workshop a leader approached me and gave me a word that had been impressed upon him as he saw me randomly within the crowd. What was that word of the Lord in the midst of emptiness, frailty, darkness, and lost hope? “God is saying, he is giving you the courage of a lion.”  It broke me, I wept, and it was bitter. It was bitter, but right.

True courage rests not on ourselves, but on faith. The prayer of the forsaken takes us deeper yet; faith rests on trust.

When you are unable to put your spiritual life into drive, do not put it into reverse; put it into neutral… Trust is confidence in the character of God… I do not understand what God is doing or even where God is, but I know that he is out do me good.” This is trust. (Page 25)

We cry out to the infinite mercy of God. We learn that “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” finds its answer in “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.”

The Prayer of Relinquishment.

There is faithfulness in the simple prayer of petition, in which our needs are laid out before our Lord and provider. But I have noticed that this form of petition can actually play an opposite role; we often use it as a defense against the leading of the Spirit. We lay out our needs before God and say “Lord, bless us” with a heart that actually says “I am going this way. I am doing these things. Now do your part, God, and make them work.” We build self-reliant castles, and hold our petitionary facade as evidence of faithfulness.

I have noted this tendency in my own journey with Jesus, sometimes with a desperate internal monologue: “Look at these things, fix them, sort them, don’t let me fall! I’ve turned up to work, where are you?” In an era of church which is fundamentally performance-driven, and amongst my generation of church leaders who are so readily anxiety-driven, I have heard this insecure form of “prayer” echoed time and time again.

The prayer of relinquishment calls us away from this dysfunction.  It is the spiritual equivalent of a trust exercise, or, as Foster describes, “a person falling into the arms of Jesus, with a thirst-quenching sense of ‘ahhh!'” (page 50).  Yet while this “soul-satisfying rest” is the end result of the Prayer of Relinquishment, it is not the journey.

The journey is Gethsemane. It is “yet not my will but yours be done”, prayed not as a catch-all default at the end of a prayer, but as a positive deliberate choice to submit our plans, our desires, our lives to the will of God. “All of my ambitions, hopes and plans,” sings Robin Mark, “I surrender these into your hands.”

We pray. We struggle. We weep. We go back and forth, back and forth, weighing option after option. We pray again, struggle again, weep again. (Page 53)

Indeed, “relinquishment brings to us a priceless treasure: the crucifixion of the will.” (Page 55) Personally speaking, given my first name, I can almost take this literally!  And it is a treasure. In many ways, the battle of the cross was won at Gethsemane; from this point in the garden, Jesus endures for the sake of the joy set before him.

There is death to the self-life. But there is also a releasing with hope… It means freedom from the self-sins: self-sufficiency, self-pity, self-absorption, self-abuse, self-aggrandizement, self-castigation, self-deception, self-exaltation, self-depreciation, self-indulgence, self-hatred and a host of others just like them. (Page 56)

The Prayer of Suffering

When the journey with Jesus takes us to fields of forsakenness, or roads of relinquishment, our prayer can bear substantial internal fruit; we grow spiritually and the path leads to maturity. But prayer is not all about introspection. As his book concludes, Foster’s focus becomes increasingly external, even missional. He turns to intercession, to what he calls “radical” prayer, and to a vision for church as missional community (Page 268) that the rest of us are only just starting to realise.

The prayer of suffering embraces the missional concept of incarnation.  This is not to undermine, as some have taken it, the salvation-bringing incarnation of Jesus. Rather, it takes the character of God in Christ as a model for how we obey the Great Commission and are sent as Christ was sent.

Christ serves us not from above and beyond our condition, but from within it.  And so Paul can speak of a participation in the afflictions of Christ as part and parcel of his participation in his mission. And Peter can extend that participation in both suffering and glory to his readers, and so to us.  In this sense we talk about suffering as redemptive, the same sense in which confession, preaching, evangelism, and other forms of witness are redemptive. The prayer of suffering expresses it.

In redemptive suffering we stand with people in their sin and in their sorrow. There can be no sterile, arms-length purity. Their suffering is a messy business and we must be prepared to step smack into the middle of the mess. We are ‘crucified’ not just for others but with others. (Page 234)

This is a conscious shouldering of the sins and sorrows of others in order that they may be healed and given new life. George MacDonald notes, ‘The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his.” (Page 238)

As Foster points out, (page 233), the concept of suffering is almost anathema to the consumerist culture of comfort that coerces conformity in the contemporary church. But this, itself, can create the redemptive suffering. Uncomfortable prophets and travailing intercessors are politely pushed aside or even directly silenced; their suffering and sorrow embodies the plight of the church and they cry out in the anguish of the church’s self-abuse.  And so Jesus yearns for his Jerusalem and Moses refuses to give up the Golden-Calf-enslaved people of God:

‘I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin’ (Exod. 32:30b). And this is exactly what he does, boldly standing between God and the people, arguing with God to withhold his hand of judgment. Listen to the next words Moses speaks: ‘But now, if you will only forgive their sin – but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written’ (Exod. 32:32). What a prayer! What a reckless, mediatorial, suffering prayer! It is exactly the kind of prayer in which we are privileged to participate. (Page 257)

What I have learned from Foster here is that this form of suffering is not only permitted, but valued in the dynamic of Jesus with his followers. In recent years I have come across many of the faithful who are have been all but submerged in the bloody mess that flows from the machinations of our religious organisations. I have come across the abused with their wounds flowing. I have witnessed the weary weeping of senior leaders overcome by the inertia of apathy. I have seen the delicate shells of those discounted, despised, condescended to and cut off by orphan-hearted panderers.  I can count myself amongst both the wounding and the wounded.

The prayer of suffering turns this pain towards redemption. Daniel prays in the pain of exile, confessing the sins of those others that sent him there.  Jesus, impaled by the nails of desperate human rebellion, prays for their forgiveness and Stephen later echoes him as the stones descend and Saul looks on.  Their prayers availeth much, redeemeth much. They are prayers of suffering.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that when we pray for our enemies, ‘we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them. We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves.’ (Page 240)

There is intimacy in this prayer, and it brings intimacy to our mission with Jesus. Only in intimacy can we pummel the chest of our heavenly Father, offering prayers of “holy violence to God” (Page 241). Only in intimacy can the accusatory cry of the martyrs, “How long, oh Lord?” find its answer in the divine heart.

This is not anger. It is not whining. It is, as Martin Luther puts it, ‘a continuous violent action of the spirit as it is lifted up to God’. We are engaging in serious business. Our prayers are important, having effect with God. We want God to know the earnestness of our heart. We beat on the doors of heaven because we want to be heard on high. We agonize. We cry out. We shout. We pray with sobs and tears. Our prayers become the groanings of a struggling faith. (Pages 241-242)

Foster has reminded us here that suffering can be redemptive and should be released, not suppressed, in prayer. It is not wrong to demand a divine audience. It is not wrong to be more persistent than the widow. It is entirely right to bring our cause before our righteous, just, and loving Father.  Maybe our cause is unjust; he can meet us in our prayer and change our heart. But maybe it is true, and we have been unknowingly sharing the heart of God, who mourns with those who mourn, and is stirred to redemptive action.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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Q&A: How can we best share the good news with friends who are indifferent due to self-reliance?

Sarah writes:

Hi Will,

How can we best share the good news with friends who are totally indifferent to the message of the gospel? Particularly when the indifference is due to self-reliance (working hard, planning ahead and being the best they can be in the responsibilities and relationships they have).

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks Sarah. An interesting question.  Allow me to answer it generally, and then more specifically.

Generally speaking: My first inclination is to say, “Perhaps you can’t, you may have to wait for the right time.”

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting that sharing the good news of Jesus is a bad thing to do; it’s just that at any given time it may be that you’ve said and done all that you can.

I think of Jesus with the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-27.  This young man was pious and upright, yet the gospel for him was “‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’”  Jesus delivered that message with a more perfect understanding than any of us could ever muster. Yet the man still walked away. And Jesus let him.

I think of Jesus’ instructions to the disciples that he sends out to the villages in Luke 10:1-23. They had a gospel of peace to proclaim, which they did. Yet Jesus fully expected that in some places they would not be welcomed and their peace would “return to them.” Their instruction was to move on.

Now, I recognise that in both these cases, even though Jesus is talking about people who are indifferent to the message, that is not quite the same as friends who are indifferent to the gospel. So there’s nothing here that should suggest a “moving on” from the friendship or anything like that!  Friendship is valuable for its own sake.  Be friends with your friends. Pray for your friends. Share your life with your friends.

But there is a certain wisdom in knowing that there is a time and place for explicit evangelism, and that may not be right now!  Within a friendship, it may be that at some point the wisdom of 1 Peter 3:15 will apply: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”

More specifically you mention the particular circumstance “when the indifference is due to self-reliance (working hard, planning ahead and being the best they can be in the responsibilities and relationships they have).”

Thank you for this.  What you have done is an important part of the missiological task, which is to consider your context and to be aware of the prevailing presuppositions, assumptions, motivations and patterns that manifest in its culture.  It’s remarkable how often this necessary work is overlooked.

You have identified “self-reliance” and it is, indeed, prevalent in our culture, including within the church. We often find that our talking about the gospel is ineffective because, functionally, the culture we embrace as Christians and as a church proclaims its self-reliance more loudly.

Having identified this characteristic, what you are able to do is to be deliberately counter-cultural.  This means we think about how our life can proclaim faith and dependence on God, and we turn aside from self-reliance. This consequentially means that we need to be real, vulnerable, and emotionally honest.

After all, when our friends get to the end of themselves, (which we all do at some point), what will we say and do? A false-gospel of self-reliance in the name of Jesus (“Let’s buck up and smile and get on with life”) will not bring any sense of hope, peace, or restoration, and certainly not conviction and repentance.  Rather, our readiness to “give an answer to everyone who asks” will need to take the counter-cultural form, that shares in the suffering (“I’ve been there also, my friend.”) and lays hold of hope (“This is where I lean on Jesus.”)

So adding to your general readiness to share the good news, put your missiology into practice. Reflect on yourself and your culture. Be counter-cultural and Chistlike.  Come in close to the real world of your friends, especially when that’s a costly hard thing to do. Walk the hard roads next to them. Simply live out your faith.

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Q&A: What does it mean to be co-heirs with Christ?

Sarah asks:

Hi Will,

What does it mean to be co-heirs with Christ in Romans 8:17?

It must be unfathomable, outrageous grace to inherit all that Christ has as God the Son!

This is way better than Eden isn’t it?

What does being co-heirs with Jesus look like expressed in our relationship with him for eternity – how does it fit in with us being the worshippers and him being worshipped? I suppose I mean what does it mean to be alongside God as heirs but being glorified humans, not divine?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks Sarah,

The passage you are quoting is (to use the NIV) Romans 8:14-17:

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

To respond to your first two points. Yes, this is “unfathomable, outrageous grace” and yes, “this is way better than Eden”!

You ask what does it mean?

Firstly, we need to grasp what Christ’s inheritance is. The answer is big and simple: Christ’s inheritance is everything.  It isn’t always spelled out; after all, how do you detail everything? What might it include? Big things, like “eternal life”, the “new heaven and the new earth”, and “peace.” It’s everything.

The go-to passage that helps us out is Hebrews 1:1-2

1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

You might also be familiar with the “attitude of Christ” that Paul espouses in Philippians 2:1-11.  This passage talks about the “self-emptying” (the technical term is kenosis) of Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”  Paul then talks about Christ’s exaltation, and in many ways he is talking about Christ’s inheritance – what God the Father rightly gives the Son who gave himself up for his people:

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Christ’s inheritance is the reverse kenosis, that comes not from himself, but from his Father.

And it’s not just every thing, it is also all authority.  Just look at Matthew 28:18 or 1 Corinthians 15:24 and many other places. Jesus really is the “Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (Revelation 21:6).

That’s his inheritance.  Of which we are co-heirs.

That’s amazing.

We can pull it apart theologically, but the narrative is simple: The heart of God has always been to share the fullness of himself with his people. We see it in Eden. We see it as he reaches out to Abram, making his promises, intervening in history.  We see it as his presence goes with his people out of Egypt, through the sea, and on into the wilderness years. We see it as he speaks through his prophets. We see it as he nurtures a king whose heart is after his own. We see it as he pours himself out as a child, and in sharing our humanity, covers us with his grace and his purpose.  He now shares with us his sonship, his sweet heart of faith, his trust and dependence, his obedience even to the point of death, and the blessings that rightly flow from it.

We are “in Christ” as he covers us, and Christ is “in us” by his Spirit. Salvation catches us up into the relational dynamics of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Thinking of salvation without any sense of sharing in Christ’s inheritance, is like conceiving of a banquet without any reference to food; you can sort of imagine something in the abstract, but it doesn’t really make any sense.

But your secondary question draws the meaning out even more.  You ask, “What does being co-heirs with Jesus look like expressed in our relationship with him for eternity – how does it fit in with us being the worshippers and him being worshipped?”

I think there’s something here: God is a worshipper.  The object of God’s worship is himself.  This is not vanity, it is truthful delight and entirely appropriate.  The Father adores the Son. The Son is devoted to the Father. The Spirit raises up the name of God!  Surely we can say that Jesus, as the incarnate Son of God, rightly worships his Father, perfectly, throughout his life and especially in his death.

To be co-heirs with Christ is, therefore, to share in his role as a worshipper.  In Christ, we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and, in Christ, it is worthy and honourable and received in great delight by Almighty Creator God.

Again, there’s something amazing about that.

But does our inheritance with Christ also mean an inheritance in the worship he receives? In some sense, yes, but I mean this very carefully: as Christ’s people, we share in the worship he receives, not in any worship we receive, but in the worship he receives.

What I’m trying to grasp is in this account from the end of the book, in Revelation 21:9-27:

9 One of the seven angels… came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.

John then goes on to talk about the gates and walls of the New Jerusalem and includes imagery of apostolic foundations and things like that.  The overall picture is one of beauty, and purity, of the Bride of Christ, who shines (and this is the point) with the glory of God.  Jesus covers his bride with his glory.  That is our inheritance. It is not our glory. It is his.  But we share in it. All creation will gaze upon us, his people, and worship him.

And that brings us back to Romans 8:17, where we started, because there it is in the second part of the verse:

Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

It is outrageously amazing.

Image credit: Licensed by Waiting For The Word under CC BY 2.0

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Q&A: How do we bring about cultural change in our churches?

A Friend asks:

My question is, how do we, who are in Christian leadership encourage and bring about cultural change in our churches? I am sure that it is already a question that you are grappling with and probably have no easy answers to.

In the past I would have simply said the main component is leading by example. Lead and others will simply change. In recent experience I would say that, unfortunately that only seems to work when the people around are teachable and actively pursuing growth.

Previously I would have also said teach from the Scriptures and let them speak for themselves. But again, I have seen time and time again a misunderstanding of those Scriptures even when it is spelled out in black and white.

And then what do you do when there are different cultures in the mix? I don’t mean racial cultures, but church cultures. How do we authentically worship when so many different priorities are given to the various components of what constitutes a worship service or Bible study? How do we encourage true disciples in a way that is maintainable in Western society and yet still confronting, challenging and deep?

[This is a Q&A question. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thank you, dear friend. What a joyfully fundamental question! Answer this, and you will have answered the cry of the heart of every pastor who takes their calling seriously.  Books have been written about this. Even Archbishops’ Councils wrestle with the conundrum – I reflected on a recent attempt at “Setting God’s People Free” not too long ago.

You’re right. I am grappling with it, and I don’t have any easy answers.  There is a whole bunch of theory out there about changing organisational culture etc.  In my mind, however, it’s like mentoring and spiritual direction; it relies on discernment more than anything else and therefore can only truly be known in context and in practice, not in theory.  So here follows some random thoughts from what I’ve seen in the real world:

The first thing I want to do in response is to affirm the premise of the question. Cultural change is to a church what sanctification is to a person.  Just as individuals Christians are called to grow into maturity in Christ, so churches are called to grow into maturity as the Body of Christ.

The road of maturation for an individual is, necessarily, “a long road of obedience in the same direction” (I think I’m quoting Eugene Peterson there).  It involves confronting one’s past, one’s brokenness, one’s fears and pains. It involves repenting of sin, and seizing the lifegiving ways of God with a firm faith in his grace. It can involve times of trial and failure, as well as the temptations of both success and boredom.  This is something we all understand.

That leadership task is first and foremost not about the “professional” tasks of institutional refurbishment and resource management, it is the “pastoral” task of leading a community on a long road of obedience. As I said many years ago, this means “we have to talk about the real issues – rebellion, idolatry, lack of belief, hard-heartedness, and unfaithfulness – rather than the excuses of broken systems.”

More recently I have reflected a little more deeply on this. Culture itself can be conceived of in terms of the “stories we tell each other”, i.e. it is grounded in a narrative that encapsulates the collective worldview. A racist culture will share a narrative about the inhumanity of different ethnicities, for instance. Similarly, the grounding of an individual person’s life can also be thought of in terms of narrative: what story helps us conceive of ourselves within the world? This is why we consider things like “self-talk” when we help an individual to reflect. Individuals and churches share a narratival world, i.e. a cultural context.

The Christian task is to make sure we are operating out of the correct narrative so that we conceive of ourselves and the world according to God’s truth, and where we find ourselves in his story.  In fact, we can think of the conversion experience in terms of an exchange of stories, where we die to an old narrative of sin and self-centredness, and are raised to find ourselves in another story in which Jesus is King, and we are forgiven and embraced.  I alluded to this in a recent sermon on wisdom in Job, if you have some time to listen.

The sad fact is, in these terms, some churches, as much as any individual, need to convert to Christ.  That is the cultural change that is needed. And it is an ongoing journey. As the saying  goes: “I AM saved, I am BEING saved, I WILL be saved”

But your question is how do we bring cultural change about

Firstly, understand that just as with individual sanctification, it is not entirely humanly possible. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul says in Philippians 2, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.”  Work it out, because God is at work in you, and in the church. Or as someone wise I know says, “We are Christ’s church, and he will grow us.”

This isn’t a cop-out, it’s a focus. And the practical application is this: It begins with worship. Sort out the upward focus of your life first, work on the upward focus of the church first, and all manner of other things will sort themselves out.

This rubs up against one of your subquestions about authentic worship in competing church cultures.  One form of worship can only compete with another if we are worshipping the wrong thing!  Yes, we need to attend to our attitudes, and recognise different styles, and compromise a bit about liturgical rigour. But I’ve only ever seen this work when the attitude has been “we are all here to help one another to worship Jesus.”

Secondly, your negative experiences don’t mean you had the wrong idea. You talk about leading by example, and about preaching the word. Sometimes they don’t seem to “work.” That doesn’t mean that they are the wrong thing to do.

In fact, they are the right thing to do.  Our story changes, our culture shifts, as individuals and as churches, when we pay heed to what the Lord has to say to us.  He has spoken the words of life, and by God’s grace, that word is present for us to read, hear and receive. Preach the word, brothers and sisters! Do it without fear or favour, without tickling ears. And by some miracle, and the power of the Spirit, that word will take root and shift our story.

Similarly, preach with your deeds. As Paul exhorted Timothy set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.

In both cases, of courses, the preaching may seem fruitless. People are hardened to the word, unteachable; they mishandle the Word of God to suit their own ends. You can’t do anything about that. But we preach the word both in and out of season.

As a leader, of course, there is a sense in which we must go ahead. We must preach to ourselves first. We must attend to our own sanctification. It is often the case that churches “catch up” to the culture of their leaders. Unless the leader is willing to attend to the long walk of obedience in themselves, they are likely to be content in their existing church culture where their insecurities are stabilised and their sins are acceptable.

So it’s an absolute imperative: Sanctification begins with me. Personally, I have to say that to myself, even today.

Thirdly, you ask about encouraging “true disciples… in a way that is maintainable in Western society and yet still confronting, challenging and deep?”

In my experience, what you are hoping for here is blocked by the blindness of the culture that you’re hoping to change. In the West our culture is significantly shaped by consumerism and individualism. When the term “discipleship” is used in churches it has often been emptied of its real meaning and held captive by the culture; it is reduced to a product by which consumer Christians are given “nice ideas by which I might build a successful spiritual life.”  It has elements of truth, but it has a self-righteous posture; there is an incomprehension that we might have to have our story shifted.

We need to cut across that dynamic somehow, and sometimes we need to be upfront about it. The gospel is encouraging and lifegiving, and it is about being unmade as much as it is about being remade.  The gospel is about conviction and confrontation as much as it is about affirmation. We can set expectations, explaining to people that we are expecting to be undone by God, in fact hoping to be challenged and confronted with ourselves. Otherwise, what’s the point?

We also need to give them the tools to proceed.  A good tool is the ability to question our own cultural assumptions, to question ourselves. Help them to affirm what can be affirmed and question what needs to be questioned. Push for the story underneath the top layer. Ask “why?” a lot. “Why do we do that? Why, really?” What’s under the facade? “We have words to explain ourselves, but what do we really believe?”  It’s the difference, as they say, between “espoused theology” and “actual theology”.  The exposition of Moral Therapeutic Deism is an excellent case study in this; it is the actual religion of much of the Western church.

Above all, this is a pastoral task. The incarnation teaches us about how God enters into our world in order to bring us out of darkness into his wonderful light. We must have the same attitude of Christ. Enter the culture. Affirm what can be affirmed. Work out where the ugly bits rub against the gospel, and then bring that light to bear, beginning in yourself. Walk the hard road, and when others join you in it, rejoice.

Photo Credit: © Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 Licence.

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Q&A: Should we pray for blessings for unbelievers?

Sarah A writes:

Hi Will,
Should we as individuals or churches offer prayer for unbelievers for God to intervene in day to day challenges or bring his blessings on a situation?
I completely appreciate that the motivation to offer this is loving and evangelistic and that God of course can use these interactions for his glory.

But is it right to be offering this kind of prayer? It seems to be offering prayer for what God can do rather than seeking him for who he is. Clearly an unbeliever’s first and greatest need is to come to repentance and find Jesus. To me, offering prayer for problems or asking for blessings seems to put God in the role of fixer with the Christian acting as an intermediary therefore bypassing the need for a relationship between God and the one who wants prayer. But we know that only Jesus is the intermediary between man and God and the promise of Hebrews 4:14 – 16 is for Christians who now have access to the throne of God to receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.

1 John 5:14 – 16 tells us that if we ask anything according to God’s will, he hears us. So does God hear these kind of prayers?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks Sarah,

Great question. In summary, you ask “Should we pray for unbelievers for God to intervene or bring blessings?” In summary, my answer is “Yes.”  Does he “hear these kind of prayers”? Yes, but as with all pastoral encounters, praying for someone in this way comes with a responsiblity to exercise care, faithfulness, and discernment.

There’s a lot going on behind this answer, though, and I’d like to unpack it if I may. The first thing to consider, although it may seem like a simplistic question, is this:

What do we mean by “unbeliever” anyway?

I’m not sure I actually like the term “unbeliever” as it’s a little denigrating: everybody believes in something after all.  But clearly we do need to grasp some sort of distinction between those who do and do not believe those things that Paul tells us are of “first importance”, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, [and] that he was raised on the third day.” We are at least talking about those who do not have a personal faith in Jesus.

That’s simple enough. If we start there, it is biblical example that leads us to conclude that praying for someone who doesn’t have this faith is not only permissible, but it is often desirable.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus himself intervened in the lives of many who had not yet put their faith in him in a formal sense. Similarly, in Matthew 10, he commissions the disciples to go and “freely give” just as they have “freely received” and in practice that means that they are to “heal those who are ill, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.”  I think that puts us in the ballpark of “praying for God to intervene in day to day challenges and to bring his blessings on a situation”, to use your words.

I find the example of Peter and John in Acts 3 particularly informative.  Here the lame man does not ask for salvation, not even healing; he is simply asking for money.  Peter and John do not take the opportunity to evangelise to him (although the end result has the man dancing in praise to God), rather we get the following famous line (emphasised below):

When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, ‘Look at us!’ So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, ‘Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong.

This phenomenon appears to be writ large in Acts 5:12-16 where we read that  “a great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.” None of this appears to depend on those involved having a pre-existing state of belief in Jesus. In fact, usually the intervention and intercession leads to belief.

We could just about leave it there, but let’s push a little deeper.

That push begins with something of a counterpoint to what I’ve just suggested: You see, one problem in using the examples I have is that all those who are being blessed are, in some way, already part of the people of God.  That is, they are members of the Jewish people, under the covenant promises of God.  The miracles, blessings, and interventions that we see being ministered through Jesus and his disciples are not so much prayers for unbelievers, but a demonstration that God’s promises to his people have been fulfilled.

This, itself, is gospel: The kingdom of God is here, the blessings of the covenant are fulfilled in Jesus; enter into the hope of your people. Or simply, in application, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!”

In some sense, then, these blessings and interventions are “in-house.”  The covenant blessings come to God’s people when the covenant is obeyed, (just consider Deuteronomy 28 if you have the time). It is no surprise, then that these blessings of healing, restoration, and divine intervention are made manifest through the faithful obedience of Christ, especially in his death.  The blessings now flow, through him, to the “lost sheep of Israel”.  Examples such as the healing of the lame man in Acts 3 are not so much about “praying for unbelievers who are on the outside” but “demonstrating that the gospel is true on the inside.”

But that doesn’t mean I’ve contradicted myself.  What we’ve done is dug down to the roots of the gospel, and found them grounded on the covenant promises of God.  So let’s go back to that covenant:

What is at the heart of the promises of God? 

Look at the covenant that God makes with Abram (later called Abraham) in Genesis 12:

‘I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.

Here’s the impetus: Whatever blessing comes to God’s people, it is to flow out into the world. Whatever blessing we have in Christ, we are to share it.

So perhaps we should turn to a different biblical example to interact with your question. Consider something like Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 as he heals her daughter.  This example is particularly telling: Both the woman and Jesus make a point about blessings for those who are currently outside of covenant grace.  The dialogue about Jesus only going to the “lost sheep of Israel” and whether or not she might “eat the crumbs that fall from the table” serves not to diminish but amplify the faith she has exhibited outside of the fold.  She was not yet been brought into the fold, so to speak, but the blessings can and do flow to her.  Her prayer was heard and it was answered.  Jesus is simply doing what the promises of God demand; sharing the blessing.

So our very foundation, the grounding of God’s words of promise that sets the shape of who we are in Jesus, shifts us to look outwards. Seeking the blessing of those who are “outside” in some sense is not just one possible outworking of our own belief and covenant inclusion, it’s essential to its very character. We bless because we are blessed, we freely give because we have freely received.  We, who are in Christ, are to act as he acted, and continues to act through his Spirit in us.

To pray for a person who is not yet “in Christ” doesn’t usurp Christ’s role as an intermediary, it exercises it, as long as we pray according to his character.  We can only pray from the basis of the covenant blessing we have in him, i.e. we can only pray in his name. To offer to pray for someone in their circumstances, is therefore an act that reveals Jesus more than it hides him. To pray for someone in their circumstances is to act according to the promises that God has fulfilled in Jesus, not against them.

That’s the foundation I’m coming from, in answering your question. There are, however, a couple of things to tease out:

Firstly, you write “It seems to be offering prayer for what God can do rather than seeking him for who he is. Clearly an unbeliever’s first and greatest need is to come to repentance and find Jesus. To me, offering prayer for problems or asking for blessings seems to put God in the role of fixer with the Christian acting as an intermediary therefore bypassing the need for a relationship between God and the one who wants prayer.” 

I think I get what you mean, but excuse me if I miss the mark.

Clearly, our longing for people to share in the blessings of God is ultimately met if they, too, become a part of the covenant people; if they turn to Jesus in faith, and receive forgiveness, renewal, and all the other things.  But we cannot separate prayer for other forms of blessing from this.  If comfort, healing, or divine intervention comes from answered prayer, this is more likely to draw people to the ultimate blessing rather than hide it.  To separate prayer for salvation from prayer for blessing in general creates a false dichotomy.

But secondly, your concerns are valid, and should remind us to be careful in how we pray.  In some way, this is why I bother to go to some of the depths that I do in answering these sorts of questions.  If we pray as if “God is a fixer” then that is the “gospel” that we will proclaim in those prayers; and, especially in the event that the “fix” doesn’t come as we thought it might, we might hinder people’s view of God.

But if we pray from an understanding of who we are in Christ, covered by his grace, filled with his spirit, inheriting his blessing, that is what we reveal.  We know how we pray for ourselves and for our fellow brothers and Christians, with confidence in God’s character, with an understanding of how he works all things together for good, with an assurance of God’s love even in the midst of suffering.  We pray from the same place when we pray for those who don’t share this understanding, and we must be additionally careful to ensure that this understanding, and our meaning, is clear.

I’ve seen it done badly. I’ve also seen it done well. I’ve been to big events where it’s all about the guru fixing things on some messiah’s behalf. I’ve also been to big events where sweet prayer and intercession has been offered, and things were gently and clearly explained along the way; the heart of God was spoken of, shared, manifested.

In short, wisdom is required. Whether it be a “Healing On The Streets” ministry, or an opportunity that comes from a conversation with a friend, as we come to our Father on their behalf, we need to ensure that our words help them to come along with us.

In the end, that’s the sweet childlike dynamic on which it all rests. We have found the one who is our, Saviour, Lord and Leader, who has the words of eternal life, the blessings of eternity.  In him we are caught up into our Creator. This is a precious, beautiful, sacred thing.  It’s not ours to hide, but we share it carefully, with wonder, joy, and delight. And who knows what our Lord will do?

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Q&A: What do we learn from the use of “saying” and “breathing” to describe creation in Genesis 1 and 2?

DaveO asks:

Will, looking at creation accounts a Gen 1 & 2. In Gen 1 in various English translations it is ‘And God said…’ In Gen 2 God’s creative act ( in English translation at least) becomes ‘breathed’.

Is this nuance there in the original Hebrew or is it the same word with a sense of say/breath and translators have followed precedent with said in the G1 and breathed in G2.

John picks this idea up and plays with word/life, at the start of his gospel.

I have some vague recollection of the idea that when we ‘speak’ this difference in our living being from the other creatures is this free will act of God emulating (in a very small way) speaking and changing, stewarding his creation.

Thanks, DaveO

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Oh I do miss your questions, DaveO. Forgive some interesting tangents in what follows!

Some interesting thoughts to think about here.  Three parts to my answer

  1. Let’s look at the original text.
  2. What does the story tell us about human distinctiveness?
  3. Let’s think about that in terms of creativity.

Part 1 – Original Text
(Intended for the technically minded; feel free to jump to the next heading)

I’ll start with a big caveat – I am nowhere near being a Hebrew scholar! In all that follows, I’m relying on internet tools, interlinears, and Strong’s numbers etc!  I know from my (slightly greater) NT Greek work that such tools can give a good beginning, but are sometimes a false path.

In Genesis 1, there is indeed a series of places where “God said.”  It begins in Genesis 1:3 with the famous:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light

Eventually we get to the creation of the man and the woman 1:26 and following.  Here we have (I’m using the ESV as it tends to have some lexical precision) this, with some highlighting from me:

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

In each place, this speaking (“said”) is described using the Hebrew root word, amar (אָמַר) which simply means to “utter” or “say.” What God says he wishes to do is “make” (Hebrew asah (עָשָׂה) meaning “do” or “make”) and it is the same word used for the making of the various animals etc.  Here, however, in verse 27, when it comes to describing what God actually does, the word is bara’ (בָּרָא) meaning to “create”, “fashion”,”form”,”choose”.  It’s the same word used to describe creation of the heavens and earth in verse 1.  But while it is used distinctively here, it is not unique; bara’ is also used, for instance, to describe the creation of the sea creatures in verse 21.

There is a sense of breath/breathing which in the English in verse 30 with the reference to the “breath of life” but (and I found this surprising) this appears to be overplaying the “breath” imagery.  The Complete Jewish Bible (which tends to get its Hebrew nuances right) simply renders it as “everything… in which there is a living soul.” The Hebrew is more literally “everything with a living life” where “life/living being/soul” is nephesh (נָ֫פֶשׁ). There is some connection with the verb “to breathe” (naphach (נָפַח), see below) but this link is not emphasised.  Nor is it particularly connected with the speech-acts of God in this context; it is language that simply seems to be a descriptor of all of the living and breathing creatures – human and animal alike.

The Genesis 2 parallel hones in on verse 7 (in the ESV):

then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

Here “formed” is yatsar (יָצַר) meaning “to form” or “to fashion” and is used exclusively of the man and woman in this context.

“Breathed” is naphach (נָפַח) which is close to nephesh (נָ֫פֶשׁ), which we saw above relates simply to the liveliness of animal creatures.  It is interesting that the ESV has deviated from it’s earlier rendering, using “living creatures” rather than “everything that has the breath of life”.  It is forced to do so because there is an explicit reference to the “breath of life” here that uses neshamah (נְשָׁמָה).  This does seem to emphasise the breathing as part of God’s act of forming the man.  In my mangled grammar, the dynamic it’s like this: God forms by breathing (naphach) the breath (neshamah) of life so that the man becomes a living (i.e. “breathing” nephesh) creature. That is, there are three “breathing” words in the sentence – verb, noun, and adjective.

However, I don’t think this emphasis alone would make us consider that this “breathing” creative dynamic is unique to the creation of humanity here, differently to the creation of the other animals.  If there is any difference at this level of analysis between the creation of animals and the creation of the man, it is one of “more so” rather than “differently to”.

To draw a conclusion then, I would argue that while there is a contextual link between words relating to “creating”/”making”/”forming” and those relating to “breathing” and those related to “saying” this link is attached to the lexical choices, rather than derived from them.

Which is to say, that we’re on pretty safe ground with the decent English translations; there doesn’t appear to be anything of significance in the Hebrew that is particularly hidden or skewed by the translation choices. And so:

Part 2 – What does the story tell us about human distinctiveness?

Clearly, the creative acts of God are preceded by his speaking, and saying, his intent.  There is no narrative that expands this causation (e.g. we could imagine a mythology in which God makes his orders known and some minions carry it out). Rather, as we see from 1:3 – God says and then something simply is: God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. It is right to think of creation as a speech-act of God, an outworking of triune communication (as I alluded to in a previous post), which, as you point out, is later picked up in passages such as John 1.

It is also clear that there is both a similarity and a distinctiveness between the creation of the man and woman and the creation of other animals.  The similarity is clear as the word nephesh – “life”/”soul”/”existence” with a nuance of “breath” – is applied to all living things. And there is nothing theologically wrong with this – we are of the same category as animals for some sense of it, and it is right to affirm this.  Much gospel imagery, particularly when it derives from the concept of animal sacrifice, hangs on this point. But I’ll leave it to others to unpack the implications of animals having nephesh, which can have the sense of a “soul”!

But there is also a distinction.  It is only of human creatures that God declares them to be “made in our image, in the likeness of ourselves” (1:26).  It is only the human creatures that are delegated dominion over the other living things. There are little phrases that emphasise the distinction: For the other creatures, God decrees “let the earth bring them forth” (1:24) almost as natural outworkings of the creation at that point, but for the man God himself “forms him from the dust of the earth” (2:7); there is something much more intimate and “hands on” – the man and woman don’t just have the nephesh (life-breath) of the other creatures, but receive the very breath of life itself (2:7).

The speech-act of God with regards to the creation of humanity does indeed breathe something into us that makes us unique. The narrative makes this clear.

Part 3: Let’s think about that in terms of creativity.

Clearly there are ways in which we can be creative that is similar to the animals. Across the animal kingdom, not only is there reproduction and procreation, but degrees of communication, and even emotion.

But your point, I think, is about how humanity operates creatively in our unique divine image? Particularly, can we do speech-acts, can our speaking also be breathing something new?

The answer, I think, is in the affirmative.

To limit ourselves to Genesis, we see that Adam speaks things into existence.  In 2:19 it is the man who names the animals and in 2:23 Adam’s declaration over Eve is almost a consummation of God’s creative act, i.e. it does something.  Even the concept of sexual intercourse and conception as the man knowing his wife (4:1) is not some euphemism (have you known the Bible to be squeamish?) but a connection of the creative act with knowledge/understanding and the intercourse (defined in its broadest sense) of the couple. The ultimate “speech”/communication is the intimate sharing of oneself with another – no surprise that it is also creative!

We see it also in the concept of “blessing” – of speaking words over others, particular offspring.  God continues his speech acts, over, for instance, Noah, in 6:1. Noah then himself speaks over his sons (positively and negatively) in 9:25. It is also interesting that when the Lord wants to frustrate humanity’s creativity (with good reason!), he does it through confusing language (11:7).

To extend beyond Genesis, consider, of course, Jesus. His speech is powerful, but not just in terms of his teaching. Most of his miracles attend to a declaration, an imperative, or even a rebuke. The Kingdom of God comes near, in a real and material sense, through speech.  And the imagery comes full circle when Jesus breathes on the disciples as an act of imparting that same hovering Spirit of creation and re-creation. It is by that same Spirit that we pray, which is truly creative speech, resonant with intimate communion between our maker and ourselves.

The biblical narrative brings speech, breath, spirit, and creativity together as a powerful dynamic. And I don’t think this is something strange within the general human experience: it derives from our roots as created beings.

I think, then, that we can generalise:  Human creativity rests on our speech, and in a much more deeper sense than the mere passing on of information; our speech is creative, and unique amongst the animal kingdom.  It literally “puts ourselves out there” expressing ideas, imagination, hopes, dreams, and so forth.  It externalises our intent, our will, our purpose, our self-understanding. Its initial effect is relational (speech requires a speaker and a listener), but also sociological, and even material.

It also grounds the gospel in our createdness: it makes absolute sense that the gospel turns on the God who reveals himself to us still, who speaks to us, and would have us speak to him.  It is the basis of our mission, that would have us speak to the world, discipling and baptising nations in the name of the one who is the Word of God.

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Q&A: Do you believe in Soul Sleep after death?

Megan asks:

Do you believe in soul-sleep after death, where we will awake at the second coming, or that our spirits will be with God immediately after our death? I Googled this the other day, and found scriptural foundation for both answers. What does the church teach? What do you believe?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks for the question, someone asked me something very similar a number of years ago: Q&A – As an Anglican, what do you believe [about the intermediate state]? and I still agree with the substance of my answer.  The focus of that answer is the “What does the church teach?” question and goes to some of the doctrinal formularies, with some of my personal conclusions.  My position is  that after death we will be “with God” in some way, and this is prior to the Lord’s return and the time of general resurrection.

Turning to the “scriptural foundation” that you explored – there isn’t an absolute-proof-text to turn to.  The difficulty is, of course, that the focus of the gospel has more to do with our present state and our final state.  The question of any intermediate state is a technical question that isn’t precisely addressed.

There are, of course, many biblical references in which those who have died are referred to as sleeping – e.g Psalm 13:3, 1 Kings 2:10, John 11:11 etc. etc.  I am unable to find any reference, however, that suggests that this is anything more than imagery.  In fact, it is powerful imagery – sleep as an image of death, from the point of view of those left behind, speaks of both the absence of a person in death, and also the temporary nature of it in the gospel scheme of things.  It is the sense of “they are gone, but we will be reunited one day.”

On the other hand, there are other descriptions of post-death experiences that make very little, if any, sense if that experience is limited to a form of slumber.  Jesus’ assurance to the thief on the cross, that “today, you will be with me in paradise” is the famous example.  Similarly, in Revelation 6 we hear the voices of those who have been martyred, crying out in a loud voice,”How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”  Clearly, this presumes a post-death, pre-resurrection-and-judgement, conscious existence!

Of course, one of the conceptual problems is as to what this non-sleeping intermediate state is actually like.  This question goes to theological anthropology, i.e. what is a human being after all?  Are we soul, spirit, and body, and what does that mean? Where is our personhood?  After all, Christian thought emphasises the value of the embodied self.  We affirm, for instance, that a violation of someone’s body is not just the wounding of flesh, it is an injury done to their person. It is why we (along with Jesus) mourn death, which is (at the very least), the ending of bodily function.  In the final state we are looking forward not towards an eternal disembodied state, but towards an immortally glorified bodily existence, an “eternal house”. Moreover, this is exactly what we understand of Jesus’ currrent existence as a physically resurrected human being: he has a human body that is real and glorified, and the first fruits of our final eternal life.

So how do we conceive of  ourselves in a disembodied state, if this is what happens immediately after death?  This is where I don’t have a complete answer.  Some resolve it by suggesting that there is no intermediate state at all – sleeping or otherwise – and it’s just that time works differently in paradise and our experience of death is to jump ahead to the general resurrection.  I’m not convinced.  Others suggest (and I lean this way) that it is possible to conceive of personhood without physical referent, especially in an interim or temporary sense.  We are much more than our bodies:  Close your eyes and imagine someone who is very close to you… you will be thinking of and “experiencing” them as much more than just the recollection of their physical face, you are touching upon a deeper sense of who they are.

The biggest question, however, (as it is for many theological things), is “so what?”  What difference does it make to the gospel itself, to our proclamation of the gospel, or to our experience of living out the gospel?  In my reflection I am taking to think about how, while this world is our home, being with Jesus is even more so.  Our “enduring city” is not here.  As Gill and I pass through more and more seasons of life, especially difficult ones, we get a growing sense of what Paul alludes to in 2 Corinthians 5.  We are of “good courage” and make it our purpose to please Jesus in our earthly life. Yet, we “long to be at home with him” even if that is “absent from the body.”

So here is good news to me (although it is not the whole of the good news): I know that, when I die, I shall be at home with the Lord.  And it is hard to think of such a joyous existence being of nothing but sleep.

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Q&A: Should we make more of Baptism in the Holy Spirit?

MK asks:

It’s taken me an age to get to this point, but certainly for some, baptism is just the start. Simply recognising another broken person wants to be fixed. Sometimes, of course, a recognition that parents see their child needs to be fixed which the child confirms later. There is another baptism we need, that from the Spirit. This one must necessarily come later as our brokenness is being mended. Nonetheless it seems crucial. We don’t seem to make too much of this in ‘official’ church, but should we?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

This is an interesting question, and it goes where angels fear to tread… to some of the most precious parts of our Christian experience, and the words that we use to describe them.  As a church we should be making more of these experiences, but we often struggle for the language, and the courage.

There is a pastoral dilemma, you see.  In our insecurities, often the exuberant expression of one person’s testimony can feel like an invalidation of our own.  And “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” is fraught in this regard.  I think what you have described is an excellent expression of the Christian journey, but we must be careful in how we talk about it… but sometimes we are too careful and we avoid the difficult conversation.

Here’s the problem: the word “Baptism” is being used in multiple senses – to speak about both the beginning and promise of the Christian journey, and also for the ongoing experience of the Christian journey.

Baptism rightly describes the beginning.  Baptism with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a sacramental beginning of the Christian journey – it so symbolically embraces the promises of salvation and covenantal inclusion that we can look upon it as the foundation on which our faith experience is built.  It incorporates a “fixing” as you say, either for ourselves or as an embrace of our children.

That “fixing” includes the understanding of being “born again” (Baptism symbolises a dying and resurrection), of having the Holy Spirit come and dwell within us (an important declaration in the act of confirming one’s Baptism), of being regenerate by the grace of God, and of taking our place within the Body of Christ.

Our Baptism with water is therefore much more than “John’s Baptism” of repentance only.  Yes, it is a sacramental symbol of repentance, but it is also a baptism into Christ.  John himself says “I baptised you with water; but He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8), and he is referring to the new beginning that Jesus will bring about.

Similarly, in Acts we see a couple of occasions when new Christians had only received John’s Baptism.  Paul’s experience in Ephesus in Acts 19:1-6 describes this:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’
They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’
So Paul asked, ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’
‘John’s baptism,’ they replied.
Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

Paul baptises them “in the name of Lord Jesus”, as the foundation and beginning of their faith, and the Holy Spirit coming upon them is part and parcel of that.  Amongst the baptised people of God there are no gradations, and no one is a second class Christian needing another dose of God’s grace, if you know what I mean.

It’s in this sense of beginnings that I prefer the use of the word “Baptism.”  The “official church” does talk about this lot, and usually reasonably well.

Nevertheless, “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” describes a genuine experience, which I share and affirmeven if I might use slightly different language.  And, yes, it’s usually something we don’t talk about well at all.  Indeed, often we prefer stability and order, and so we inhibit new experiences, misconstrue and misunderstand them, or seek to restrict them to controllable structures and programs.  In so doing, even when well-intentioned, we discourage growth and maturity.

The genuine experience that we’re talking about here takes many forms. It invariably involves a sense of God being closer than he has before, of being filled, touched, moved, even overcome by the Spirit of God. It often comes with a sense of freedom, restoration, healing, and sometimes an increase in boldness and courage.  I think this is the sense of “being mended” that you are talking about.

It’s an experience that for some can be almost spontaneous and unexpected, for some it comes as an answer to prayer in the midst of trauma or darkness, for some it’s because someone has laid hands on them, others have experienced it in ecstatic worship, others have found an encounter in times of deep contemplation.  It is an experience that is often accompanied by the manifestations of the Spirit that we see in Acts and read about in places like 1 Corinthians 12 – tongues, interpretations, prophesying and all the other sorts of gifts of the Spirit.

For some it is a unique one-off phenomenon, for others it’s like a new chapter in their “deeper walk with thee.”  It is not wrong to call it a “baptism” with the Holy Spirit, in the broad sense of an “immersion” in the Holy Spirit, a filling up, an overflowing etc.  But I try to avoid the “baptism” language so as not to confuse with Baptism as the sacrament that speaks of being included in Christ.

The two senses come close together sometimes though. I have observed that an experience with the Holy Spirit can feel like a fundamental new beginning.  I observe this in three ways:

1) Sometimes, in people’s experience, their actual Baptism was not a matter of faith. It had meaning, but it was the meaningfulness of ritual, social expectation and so on. In experiential terms, their Baptism was akin to “the Baptism of John.”  The subsequent encounter and “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” coincides with a coming to faith. They have an experience of regeneration and renewal and the presence of God. Theologically, I would affirm this as a “coming to life” in faith of what was previously done in ceremony.  In experience, it would feel like a new beginning, an initiation in itself.

2) Sometimes, it is an experience that precedes receiving Baptism in water. People come to faith, and encounter the Holy Spirit in a real and tangible way.  In this experience the encounter is a new beginning, and the sacrament is a means of catching up to what God is doing, just like in Acts 10:47.

3) For others the experience so marks a significant step in their walk with God, that it feels like a new beginning, a refreshing, revitalisation of faith. This is especially so if there had previously been resisting of the work of God in their lives, or if they had received a fundamental shift in their understanding of God through the reading and hearing of Scripture, prayer, or prophetic word. This sense of a new beginning can also come with the  “laying on of hands” in a commissioning into a ministry (e.g. Acts 13:3) or to impart a spiritual gift (e.g 2 Timothy 1:6).  In all these cases, the encounter with the Spirit is a significant moment, and precious, but it’s a part of the journey, a fresh chapter in something already begun. Something broken has become significantly, experientially mended.

In all of these experiences I don’t mind if people call it a “baptism in (or of/with/by) the Holy Spirit” but often I find other language to be more helpful.

But your question is a necessary provocation. Whatever language we use, we must make more of these experiences. We must talk about what’s it like to journey with Jesus through the realities of life. This experience of God, as opposed to the mere theory, must be part of our preaching and teaching, our praying, our sharing, our testimony, our pastoral care, our intercession etc. We must be willing to pray for and help people encounter the Holy Spirit in their lives in real and substantial ways, and help provide the language to describe it.

Instead, it seems to me, that our tendency as the church at large is to practise a form of ongoing abandonment as we act more like a boarding school than the family of God: We’ll give you some rites of passage, teach you some theory, and expect you to act your part – but for everything else you’re on you’re own.  “Discipleship” in this caricature is a classroom, and “vocation” is about appointment to house captain or something.

Rather the Holy Spirit calls us to an intimacy with God and a vulnerability, a depth that can we come to share with one another.  As we receive him, are “overcome” by him, and yes, in that sense “baptised” in the Holy Spirit, we come to see God, and see one another. We walk with each other, share those experiences of brokenness and restoration (this is discipleship), and we call out to one another what we can see the Holy Spirit is doing and gifting in us and through us (this is vocation).

So yes, we should make much more of these experiences, providing the context, the space, the protection, the understanding, the language, and the simple care for people to grow and encounter God.  Sometimes I think we would rather be organised, but at what cost?!

Thanks for the question!

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Q&A: Who are the poor? Is our first challenge the spiritually poor?

Anonymous asks:

We are challenged certainly in some Anglican communities to look after the poor. I suppose the biggest question is going to be who are the poor? May seem a daft question, but in financial terms we have very few poor. However, certainly some of the financially richest people I know are very, very poor; spiritually and otherwise? My personal thought is that we do have poor with us, right now. Our challenge is to reveal those clothes they are wearing are actually rags. Is that our first big challenge?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks for the question. I have some general thoughts on this in a recent review:  A Church for the Poor?

My first thoughts on the poor usually arrive with the famous “sheep and goats” passage of Matthew 25. In this passage the returning King, acting as judge, declares (for the righteous):

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?”

‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

And of course, there’s an equivalent and negative judgement for those who did not feed, give drink, clothe, or visit etc.

This gets us into your question. Who are the poor? They are indeed those who are financially, physically impoverished: hungry, destitute, excluded by their circumstances.

We can’t overlook this. There is a clear gospel challenge to look after and to care for the physically poor. This is clear from the Scriptures: the laws on gleaning is about providing for those who are literally hungry, as are the many passages that talk about caring for widows and orphans, who lack the stability and security not only of societal standing, but also of the basics of life. James considers the care of these physically vulnerable people to be an aspect of “genuine religion”.

It also gives some exhortational force. Who are the poor? The ones who we can see. We are held to account for who is in front of us; e have personal responsiblity for those who God brings across our path. There is also communal responsiblity for those who are in front of us as a community.  This is just as serious and calls us to move our community towards caring for the poor through advocacy and social justice and personal example.

We cannot ignore the physically poor. As Keith Green would imply, we make too many excuses, individually and together, we ought to care for those who do not have as much we are do. It is good in its own right. It is a gospel imperative.  Or shall we insist that what we have is ours alone, and not God’s?

But you are right, there is also a spiritual poverty. But there are two ways in which we need to take this.

Firstly, there is spiritual poverty that speaks to a hardness of heart, a self-righteousness that, as you say, dresses itself in resplendent rags.  This is not just preening and pride, but facade, self-reliance, the idolisation of financial security, and other “decent” sins.

Such folk are the “goats” of Matthew 25. They are the rich man with Lazarus. They are the fat cows of Bashan. Such hardness of heart is rightly and justly judged harshly. And notice how the spiritual poverty is often marked by the hardened attitude towards those who are physically poor, or a general dismissiveness of those who are weak and dependent in some way.

Is it, then, as you say “our challenge to reveal those clothes… are actually rags”? That is, is it our task to reveal this hypocrisy, this hardness of heart? To some extent, yes. We are called to not only advocate for the poor, but also to exhort people to repentance, to soften their hearts, to take a posture of faith and humility, to enter into the insecurity of faith whereby their hearts might break with the massive longings of God’s own heart.  Biblical and Christian history is full of characters who have served us in this way, by provoking us towards righteousness.

We must feed them, as we must feed the physically poor.  These people need the Word of God (“All they need is Moses,” the rich man is told…), and they are in front of us. If church members and even clergy find themselves uncomprehending of how to apply the elementary teachings of the faith then it’s not somebody else’s job. We must dig into the Word, speak the truth, exhort repentance, paint a vision of hope, etc. etc. That is, we are called to “feed the sheep” that are in front of us, even if they think they are princes.

Secondly we might think of spiritual poverty in the sense of being poor in spirit. This is a more positive sense.

There is a recognition that those who are physically poor, by their circumstances, are dependent, vulnerable, reliant, weak.  The poor in spirit may have enough to eat, but they may be dependent, vulnerable, reliant and weak in other ways – even if they don’t know it.  In our middle class town I know those who are involved in picking up the pieces from addictive behaviours, neglected children. The book that I reviewed, A Church for the Poor?, understands this, for instance, and speaks of things such as aspirational poverty and relational poverty.

There is a similar imperative to care for these who are in front of us: If we encounter a depressed young man, we cannot turn aside. If there is a lonely widow in front of us, we should not simply “leave her to the professionals.”  And when society begins to produce a younger generation with increasing incidences of anxiety we should be amongst those standing up and saying “Come on, we can do better, let’s change how we do this!”

But here is the difference between hard-hearted “spiritual poverty” and being “poor in spirit.”  Itis this: the way of Christ moves away from one and toward the other.

You see, in this context, being “poor in spirit” is an indicator of faith, a positive thing – the opposite of being “poor in spirit” is being “rich in ourselves” that is, self-righteous.  The physically poor teach this lesson, they weather circumstances in which they are weak, vulnerable, and dependent, and God honours them by valuing the related things of faith, trust, and honesty and judges the rich-in-themselves for their lack of them. 

No wonder Jesus identifies with the physically poor!   They look more like Jesus than the self-secure rich!

Just as we are all relatively physically wealthy in the global scheme of things, we must realise that we are all relatively poverty stricken, hardened in the spiritual sense. I know for myself that while I might have “done good” from time to time, I am most likely to be moved by the financial and other physical insecurities that beset my own family. I find myself protecting myself emotionally as I encounter those who are wounded by life.  I cling to my wealth, my strength.

The Christian journey begins and continues with the basic understanding of “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” Any challenge to “reveal the rags” must begin in us.  When we realise that we are spiritually poor, we are also drawn to our weakness, vulnerability, and dependency, and, faith, trust, and honesty is the sweet fruit of it. We cannot turn to ourselves, so we turn to God, and inherit the kingdom of heaven.

The Christian journey is one of constant relinquishment and surrender in this regard, a long slow walk of obedience. We become poor in spirit, and find ourselves with riches that are not limited by our capacity, but strength in our weakness, life in our death. This is what Jesus looks like.

That is our first big challenge. To look to our own posture before God, a posture of faith that is soft towards God and others, and not self-reliance that just builds fine looking decent protective, hard, walls.

[Image Credit: Lithogr Wellcome V0021724 CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

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