God Works Through His People | The Voice 12.04: January 23, 2022

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The Voice

God Works Through His People

Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, was this grace given, to preach unto the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men see what is the dispensation of the mystery which for ages hath been hid in God who created all things; to the intent that now unto the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places might be made known through the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ephesians 3:8-11).

For the past two hundred years the proclamation of the Gospel has featured a very individualistic focus; it seems the ultimate goal of preaching is to “get people saved”. This tendency is understandable in a post-Enlightenment and particularly American context, maintaining a strong focus on the individual and his or her autonomy and independence. Unfortunately this emphasis has led to a Christian spirituality perhaps more wide but significantly less deep. When salvation is described strictly in terms of God solving the sin problem we cannot solve on our own, it is tempting for people to prove willing to “get saved” however they are told to do so and then feel as if the problem is solved and they can get back to their lives.

In such an environment we do well to get back to a fundamental premise of both theology and God’s interaction with humanity throughout time: God works through His people. God has never expected to save an assortment of scattered individuals in various times and places; God intends to save a people, a nation, a people for His own possession, and those people are expected to share in community (1 Peter 2:9).

God’s work through His people makes sense in terms of God’s nature within Himself. The New Testament speaks of God’s unity not in personhood but in relationship: the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. Yet God is one, so unified that we can speak of God in the singular (John 1:1, 1 Peter 1:2, 2 Peter 1:29). This unity in relationship is described in John 17:20-23 with the appropriate conclusion: the Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father, and since the Son is dying and being raised again so that people can be reconciled back to the Father, the Son prays for the people of God to be one, both with God and with one another, as the Father and Son are one. For God to be only concerned about the salvation of individuals without consideration for others would be a denial of Himself; as He is one in relationship, and man is made in His image, so man seeks after relationship both with God and with each other (Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:24-28, Romans 1:18-20).

Throughout time God has first established a people for His own possession and then worked with and through them. God began by making Adam and Eve and through them all their descendants (Genesis 2:4-6:32). He began again with Noah and his family (Genesis 6:1-9:28). Yes, God chose and worked with the individuals Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but always in view of the “great nation” which He established through Jacob, called Israel (Genesis 12:1-49:33). God intended for all Israel to serve Him as priests and to bless the world through Israel, giving them His own Law to follow (Exodus 19:1-20:17), yet Israel continually chose to reflect the nations around them than the particular inheritance given to them by God.

And so it is, as Paul states in Ephesians 3:10-11, that God’s ultimate and eternal purpose in Jesus was to display His own manifold wisdom through the church. The church is the visible manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth, inaugurated through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and lordship, looking forward to the promise of His return, judgment, and resurrection (Philippians 3:20-21, Colossians 1:13). Paul speaks of the church as the Body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23, Colossians 1:18), and emphasizes the need for the members of that body to work both independently and together to strengthen and build up that body (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Ephesians 4:11-16). It is not for nothing that as Jesus gives a vision to John of the beauty of the saved after the day of resurrection it is in terms of the “holy city Jerusalem,” the “bride of Christ,” that is, as the church, in unspeakable glory, forever in the presence of her God and Savior (Revelation 21:1-22:6).

At no point in the New Testament do we see commendation of “Lone Ranger Christianity.” To “pick yourself up by your own bootstraps” is a good Americanism but it is never found in the pages of Scripture. Instead Scripture speaks of the need to love one another, to serve one another, to care for one another, to strengthen one another, and to participate together with one another in the faith (John 13:14, 34, Acts 2:42-47, 1 Corinthians 12:26, 1 Thessalonians 5:11). Peter reminds us that the devil goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8); as anyone who has watched lions on a television documentary can attest, lions always like going after the loners, the isolated, the weak and ill of a group. Individualism and independence may be virtues in American society yet they prove to be vices in the Kingdom of God which values joint participation and interdependence (Acts 2:42-46, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 12:12-28). Even that which we have as individuals is to be used to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10-11)!

Therefore we can see that the God who is one in relational unity works through His people, presently found in the church. God’s working in and through His people has many important implications for discipleship and evangelism.

First and foremost is the need to emphasize that those who are truly God’s people work together in community as the church to glorify God. The Gospel is proclaimed not as the ultimate self-help fix, but to emphasize the need to be reconciled back to God and also to His people; notice in Ephesians 2:1-22 the thrust of Paul’s explication of the salvation process has led to both Jews and Gentiles being incorporated into one body and to share as fellow-citizens of the Kingdom of God. How can one preach Christ without preaching His Body? How can a Gospel truly reflect God’s purposes if it does not emphasize the need to join and share with the community of God’s people to build up and be strengthened in turn? Those who were baptized in Acts 2:41 immediately devoted themselves not only to the Apostles’ instruction but also the fellowship (the association, the joint participation, the community) of believers (Acts 2:42). The call of conversion demands not just a change of mind and heart but also a change of primary identification, no longer of the world and the various ways it divides people, but of Christ and by necessity the Kingdom of Christ, declaring one’s identification with the fellow people of God (Philippians 3:20).

Likewise, as we proclaim the Gospel, we cannot do so entirely independently of the people of God and expect God to bless it or for it to truly succeed. After all, what is the goal of all evangelism? Just to baptize people? That is not even the primary goal of the Great Commission, which sees baptism, along with teaching, as the means by which disciples are made (Matthew 28:18-19). The goal of evangelism is to make disciples and then to help them grow to maturity, and if nothing else, that growth process can only take place in the context of the community of God’s people as it has for millennia. Such is why the members of the church are to strengthen and care for one another; that is why the members of the church assemble, to spiritually build up and strengthen one another toward maturity (1 Corinthians 12:26, 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 10:24-25). Even the most zealous and driven self-directed disciple still needs the encouragement, exhortation, and often redirection or perhaps rebuke which comes from joint participation with the people of God as we all seek to come to the appropriate understanding of God’s message to us (Ephesians 4:11-16, 2 Timothy 2:15).

We all are who we are because of God and His grace; yet how often has God worked through some of His people to be the sources of information, instruction, encouragement, exhortation, and perhaps even rebuke in our lives? As the Gospel was proclaimed in the first century, even if great divine effort was necessary to arrange for the hearing of the message, its proclamation was still accomplished by His people (e.g. Acts 9:1-18, 10:1-48). Since God works through His people, we must take care so as to be people in whom and through whom God can work. Are we doing our part to facilitate an environment among our fellow people of God in which disciples can grow in trust, faith, and strength? Are the parts of the body doing the functions God has given them both independently and interdependently? Are lives being transformed to better conform to the image of Jesus so that Christ’s body is growing in Him?

As He did in the original creation of humanity and in Israel, God now works through His people now in the church. On the final day He will glorify the saved as the collective and communal people of God. That which is not connected to the Body of Christ will not stand nor endure for eternity. Let us therefore strive to work effectively in community as the people of God, manifesting among ourselves the unity shared by God in Himself and with God so that He can work through us to make disciples and help them grow to maturity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Voice 4.52: December 28, 2014

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The Voice

Christians and Society: Communism

Christianity was established during the days of the Roman Empire with the claim that God had made Jesus of Nazareth Lord and King, declaring Him the Son of God through His resurrection (Acts 2:36, 17:6-9, Romans 1:4). All Christians, therefore, recognized they were part of the great spiritual and trans-national Kingdom of God in Christ over whom Jesus rules as Lord (Philippians 3:20, Colossians 1:13, Revelation 1:12-20). Meanwhile they still lived within the Roman Empire, obeyed civil authority whenever possible, and strove to live by their faith while existing in Greco-Roman culture (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Corinthians 5:9-10, 1 Peter 2:11-15). The Roman Empire has come and gone as have many other successive states, powers, societies, and cultures, yet Christians continue to strive to live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven while existing within their societies and cultures on earth (Philippians 3:20-21, Colossians 3:1-11).

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century many people have hoped to establish or live in a society ordered according to the principles of communism. “Communism” is a term that can mean many different things depending on one’s scope and reference. In the broadest sense of the term “communism” refers to a society in which all things are held in common (from the Latin communis, “common, universal”). In the middle of the nineteenth century the term became associated with the political and economic philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who claimed that society was presently ordered into two classes, the “proletariat” (the working class) and the “bourgeoisie” (the middle and upper classes). They claimed that the class struggle between the groups would eventually lead to the victory of the proletariat who would then abolish money and class distinctions, the reason for government, and thus lead to the ultimate “communist” society where all things are held in common. Such is also called Marxism. In the twentieth century communism became associated with the Comintern of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, a totalitarian government run by one party, highlighting certain elements of Marxist thought while dispensing with others. When most people think of communism they still have in mind the government and socio-economic systems of the former Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba, China, and Vietnam.

What should a Christian’s attitude be toward a communist society?

In the New Testament we do not see a particular socio-economic theory specifically commended; Christians may live under many different types of governments and in many different socio-economic systems and are called to remain faithful in such environments (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Corinthians 5:9-11, 1 Peter 2:11-15). In terms of the culture of the local church the New Testament provides an example of “communism” in the most general sense in Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37, in which all Christians had everything in common and had no need among them. While such a culture has Apostolic commendation it was not imposed on all Christians: we read of Christians who had greater wealth than others (e.g. Romans 16:1) and of Christians of different classes assembling with each other without the expectation that everything would be held in common (but to be sensitive so as to not allow class distinctions to divide the Body; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The Bible is full of exhortations to care for the poor and to provide justice for the widow and orphan and excoriates those who accumulate wealth by oppression and to the hurt of his fellow man (e.g. Psalm 10:1-10, Isaiah 1:10-17, Amos 4:1-3, 5:24, Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27, 5:1-6). God is very concerned for the welfare of the poor and dispossessed.

Nevertheless, in practice, communist societies have proven impractical and quite hostile to Christians and the Christian faith. Humans are sinful and seek their own advantage (Romans 3:11-23); government is established for a reason and has its purpose (Romans 13:1-7). No society has been able to practice pure communism, for some will labor diligently and others will not, and there is no mechanism by which to censure those who are not diligent in their effort (contrary to 2 Thessalonians 3:10). All remaining “Communist” societies have either accommodated with capitalistic market forces (China, Vietnam) or have been impoverished and ever more firmly under dictatorial rule (Cuba, North Korea). Meanwhile, communism in modern practice took Marx’s dictum that “religion is the opiate of the masses” (a condensed version of a quote in Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February 1844). To Marx religion, especially Christianity, was escapist, a means by which the bourgeoisie controlled and manipulated the proletariat to accept their lot in life. Communist societies attempted to do away with religion and those who maintained adherence to them. The Soviet Union sent many professing Christians to the gulag and before the executioners; to this day Christianity is not fully legal in any Communist society and Christians continue to be persecuted for their faith in them.

Therefore a Christian cannot fully affirm allegiance to the Kingdom of God in Christ while identifying as a full Marxist or Communist since Marx and those who later claimed his mantle were atheists and hostile toward God in Christ. Nevertheless many Christians continue to live in communist countries and societies; they do well to seek to remain faithful to the Lord Jesus, working in their jobs as to the Lord, promoting the Gospel, ready to suffer persecution from the authorities if need be to uphold God’s work in the Kingdom of His Son (Ephesians 6:5-9, 1 Peter 1:3-9, 4:1-19). All Christians do well to pray for these saints so that God may strengthen them (1 Peter 5:8-9). Let us ever affirm Christ, remain rooted in Him, and maintain our allegiance to His Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Voice 4.47: November 23, 2014

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The Voice

Christians and Government: Civil Disobedience

Christianity was established during the days of the Roman Empire with a radical claim: God made Jesus of Nazareth Lord and King, declaring Him the Son of God through His resurrection (Acts 2:36, 17:6-9, Romans 1:4). All Christians, therefore, recognized they were part of the great spiritual and trans-national Kingdom of God in Christ over whom Jesus rules as Lord (Philippians 3:20, Colossians 1:13, Revelation 1:12-20). Yet subjection to God in Christ in the Kingdom did not automatically mean rebellion and resistance against the earthly Roman power: Paul explained how earthly authorities have been empowered by God for their purpose, and both he and Peter encouraged Christians to honor the Emperor and remain subject to civil authority (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Early Christians were therefore expected to maintain primary loyalty to Jesus, the King of kings, while remaining subject to the Roman Emperor. But what was to happen if and when a Christian would be forced to disobey the commands of God through the Lord Jesus in order to obey the decree of Caesar or his appointed local or regional authority?

The New Testament provides two examples of such circumstances. In Acts 4:15-18 and Acts 5:27-28 the Jewish Sanhedrin, a recognized authority for intra-Jewish matters, commanded Peter and John to no longer teach in the name of Jesus. Had Peter and John obeyed the Sanhedrin they would have proven disobedient to the Lord Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:18-20. In both circumstances Peter responded by indicating that he and the others would obey God rather than man and could not stop speaking of what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:19-20, 5:29). Peter and John would go on to absorb the threats and beatings of the Sanhedrin but remained faithful to Jesus (Acts 4:21, 5:40-42). In Revelation John, in figures, speaks of the Roman authority persecuting Christians to the point of death (Revelation 2:12-14, 13:1-8. 15:2). Later documents make explicit what the Christians experienced: they would be sought out by the Roman authorities or denounced as Christians before them, told to curse Christ and offer sacrifices to the genius of the Emperor, or to suffer execution (ca. 111-113 CE; Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97). Christian literature from the first three centuries are full of martyrdom stories of Christians who preferred to suffer death rather than deny the name of the Lord Jesus.

We can see from these examples that there are times when civil disobedience is justified. Nevertheless we do well to recognize that a spirit of disobedience or rebellion is never commended or justified in the New Testament: Peter, John, and others did not wish to disobey the authorities nor were they fomenting insurrection against the regime, but instead exhibited greater loyalty to the Lord Jesus and obedience to His purposes. In Acts 5:29 Peter does not speak explicitly in terms of disobedience or rebellion but of obedience: he must obey God rather than man. In every other respect Peter obeyed the civil authorities and exhorted others to do likewise (1 Peter 2:13-17); throughout Peter and the other early Christians respected the civil authorities, not resisting the punishments imposed as the consequence of civil disobedience, even if it meant death (Acts 4:21, 5:40-42, Revelation 12:10-11). Paul frequently insisted on his rights as a Roman citizen and strenuously disputed false charges against him, yet even Paul proved willing to suffer the consequences of the state if he had acted wrongly (Acts 25:10-11). Both Peter and Paul would be executed by the Roman authority for holding firm to their faith (John 21:19, 2 Timothy 4:6-8).

Many in our modern world maintain a strong skepticism of inherited authority and government. Yet there is no room among servants of the Lord Jesus Christ for spirits of disobedience, insurrection, and rebellion. Civil disobedience is only justifiable when Christians would prove disobedient to the commands of the Lord Jesus if they obeyed a given decree of the state (Acts 5:29). Civil disobedience should never be the goal; whenever possible Christians should seek ways of obeying both God and “Caesar”, for both have been commanded (Acts 5:29, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17).

Christians have also been commanded to respect the civil authorities, and Peter speaks of the duly empowered people and not institutions (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). In times past it has been fashionable to interpret Romans 13:3-4 so as to justify Christians rising in rebellion against what is perceived to be an unjust government, yet such an interpretation runs contrary to the commands and examples of the Lord and His Apostles. New Testament Christians suffered under the undeniably unjust and cruel regimes of Caligula, Nero, and Domitian; in Revelation John spoke of the Roman authority as having been empowered by Satan to persecute the people of God (Revelation 13:1-18); yet we have no commands, examples, or inferences from the New Testament to suggest that early Christians took up the pen or arms so as to try to overthrow the Roman authority and replace it with another. Christians do well to remember Romans 13:1-2: all authorities that exist have been ordained of God, and when God believes that a given authority is to be overthrown or toppled, He will see to it that it comes to pass. Nowhere in the New Testament has it been given to Christians to judge the earthly authority; instead they are to obey and respect no matter how the authority is disposed toward them (1 Peter 2:17).

Peter exhorts us to use our freedom not as a cloak for unrighteousness but as slaves of God in Christ (1 Peter 2:16). Let us take this exhortation to heart and prove willing to obey and respect earthly authorities, and practice civil disobedience only when necessary to obey God!

Ethan R. Longhenry