Monday, November 28, 2005

Unity or uniformity

I came across this quote today, attributed to General George S Patton:

"If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Intimacy with God (8) - God speaks to our heart

We learn from the Bible that God can communicate with us directly by putting things in our hearts.

Here are some examples:

  • The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart. (1 Kings 10:24)
  • In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing. 2 Chron 36:22 (also Ezra 1:1).
  • I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. (Nehemiah 2:2)
  • I thank God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you. (2 Cor 8:16)

We don't know exactly how God worked in putting something in the hearts of these men. Luke gives us a clue:

"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1:1-4 my emphasis).

Notice what Luke didn't write: “The Lord led me; the Lord spoke to me; I felt impressed by the Spirit to write.” Luke simply had a good idea, and that good idea caused him to write inspired Scripture. When God wanted Luke to write an account of Jesus' life which would become part of the canon of Scripture - what we call "the Bible" - He put it in Luke's heart simply as a good idea.

Some people will argue that this may have been the experience of people "in Bible times" but God doesn't do that sort of thing today (and they say this without any Scriptural evidence that God has stopped communicating with His people in this way). What does the Bible say?

"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33 my emphasis).

The writer of Hebrews quotes these words twice and says first that this prophecy is fulfilled in the "new covenant" which was instituted by Jesus (Heb 8) and then quotes the same prophecy again in 10:14-16 when he says we are "being made holy" through the priestly minstry of Jesus.

So when God says He will put His words into our hearts and minds, He is speaking about something which is accomplished through the work of Jesus and which will become the experience of those who are "being made holy".

Through Ezekiel God says: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel 36:26). He is telling us here that this transformation of the heart is the work of His Spirit.

Paul takes this up when writing to the Corinthians and says: "Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." (2 Cor 1:21-22)

We should expect as a result of the work of Jesus that God will put things in the heart of His people even more so than "in Bible times".

Intimacy with God (7)

In her book Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God's Transforming Presence (InterVarsity Press, 2004), Ruth Haley Barton writes:

What I'm learning these days is that a lot of our God-talk is like the finger that points to the moon. The finger that points to the moon is not the moon; pointing to the moon, talking about the moon, involving ourselves in study and explanation about how the light of the moon is generated is not the same thing as sitting in the moonlight, letting the moonbeams fall around us illuminating what they will. It is not the same thing as noticing how everything is transformed in this numinous light. When we sit in the moonlight, we don't try to figure it out, explain it, or force it to be anything different than what it is. We just enjoy it.

It is the same with God. Our words and mental constructs about God are not the Reality itself. They only point to it. In silence we give in to the fact that our words can never contain God or adequately describe our experiences with God. We give our minds permission to just stop and rest themselves in the experience of the Reality itself. The willingness to be silent in God's presence results in quietness, confidence, and clarity beyond what the human mind can generate. This is a very deep kind of rest indeed.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta once wrote:

Prayer is simply talking to God.
He speaks to us: we listen.
We speak to him: he listens.
A two-way process: speaking and listening.
The more you pray, the easier it becomes.
The easier it becomes, the more you'll pray.
Pray at home every day even if it is only for five minutes.
At a 1999 Prayer Breakfast, President Clinton reported that someone once asked Mother Teresa, "When you pray to God, what do you say?" She replied, "I don't say anything. I listen." The interviewer persisted, "Well, what does God say to you." She answered: "He doesn't say anything. He listens."

To hear the voice of God we need to set aside time to be quiet, to simply be still. In this busy world I wonder how many of us do this. Maybe we're just "too busy" to allow ourselves the luxury of an hour alone with God.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Characteristics of a genuine church

Commenting on 1 Thess 5:16-20 ("Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."), William Barclay wrote:
"Verses 16-18 give us three marks of a genuine Church.

(i) It is a happy Church. There is in it that atmosphere of joy which makes its members feel that they are bathed in sunshine. True Christianity is an exhilarating and not a depressing thing.

(ii) It is a praying Church. Maybe our Church's prayers would be more effective if we remembered that 'they pray best together who also pray alone'.

(iii) It is a thankful Church. There is always something for which to give thanks; even on the darkest day there are blessings to count. We must remember that if we face the sun the shadows will fall behind us but if we turn our backs on the sun all the shadows will be in front."

These are good points, but I personally believe that there are also other additional marks of a genuine church (e.g. the two subsequent verses reveal two more). The Christadelphian community has always emphasised the importance of sound doctrine, but what other characteristics distinguish a "genuine church" from the others?

Worship is central in a genuine church.

I believe another characteristic of "a genuine church" is that Worship is a central part of the life of the church and its members. Worship is not optional. It is not an "add-on". Worship, if it is true worship at all, should reflect a major commitment on the part of the worshipper(s) to give glory and honour to God.

Whether we sings hymns or use contemporary music styles, there should be a commitment to excellence. Musicians should select music appropriate to the occasion and take time to rehearse it. Teachers need to spend time in meditation and preparation. It saddens me when I see musicians choosing hymns or music only minutes before a meeting which will incorporate worship, or hearing teachers say they have not prepared their message for a meeting on the following day. This shows a lack of respect for the One Whom we worship, and for our fellow-worshippers.

A genuine church will grow.

A living church is a growing church. Any living organism will grow. When it stops growing it begins to die.
The same is true, I believe, of the church.
  • "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." (Acts 2:47)
  • " ... more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number" (Acts 5:14).

Is there any good reason top believe that a dying church is a healthy church?

A genuine church grows because it takes "the Great Commission" seriously.

There are a couple of versions of this Commission by Jesus to His church:

Matthew 28:19-20 "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Mark 16:15 "He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation."

Similarly, Jesus also said:

John 15:16 "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit - fruit that will last."

Luke 14:21 "Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame."

A genuine church is Christ-centred.

I have been criticised by some Christadelphians in the past for saying that the church should be Christ-centred, and have been told that the church should, in fact, be "God-centred".

However, Scripture says that:
  • Jesus Christ is the head of the church (Eph 4:15; 5:23; Col 1:18). In fact, He is "the head over every power and authority" (Col 2:10) and "all power in heaven and earth" has been given to Him (Matt 28:18).
  • Jesus has been exalted to the highest place and has been given a name above every name (Phil 2:9-11).
  • "In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Col 1:19; 2:9).

Because Jesus is "the image of the invisible God", "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being" (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3; cp. John 1:18; 14:9; 2 Cor 4:4) a church which is Christ-centred is therefore God-centred. We cannot be God-centred unless we are Christ-centred. Jesus said "He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him" (John 5:23).

John made a powerful allusion to the tabernacle in the wilderness which was positioned in the centre of the camp of Israel, when he said of the Word-made-flesh that He "made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14), which literally means He "tabernacled" among us, or "pitched His tent with us". As the tabernacle was at the centre of the camp of Israel, so Jesus Christ is the centre of the church, the place where God dwells among His people.

What does this mean in practice? A Christ-centred church will honour Him with its praises, giving Him glory (e.g. Rev 1:6; 5:12; Heb 13:21; 1 Peter 4:11; 2 Peter 3:18). A church which honours the Father alone with its praises does not practice the Truth in relation to the supremacy of the Son.

I personally feel that it was a backward step when the revisers of the Christadelphian hymn book changed a much-loved hymn, "Allelulia, sing to Jesus" to "Hallelujah, sing of Jesus." The change suggested that we should not address our praises to Him who is the Head of the Body, to Whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given, and Whose name is above every name. If so, then the revision is a sad denial of a foundational Truth, and an indication that the doctrine of God-manifestation is either ignored or not understood by those in the Christadelphian community who should know better.

Let's give Jesus His rightful place as the object of our praises.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Lord's table (8) - the Last Supper

The celebration of Communion, or the "Breaking of Bread", is a Christian tradition which is based in the words of our Lord at His final meal with His disciples before His crucifixion: "do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor 11:24).

But in response to Jesus' words "do this" we should ask "do what?" Did Jesus intend that thereafter the church should obey this instruction by eating a small piece of bread (or wafer) and a thimbleful of wine as part of a structured religious service?

Jesus could have chosen many ways in which to be remembered, but he chose to be remembered by a meal. What He considered memorable and characteristic of His ministry was His table-fellowship, and that table-fellowship was itself characterised by its openness to all. The marginalised, the 'sinner', those who were excluded from society and fellowship, those considered by the religious leaders and 'the righteous' to be beyond the pale, were all invited and welcomed at His table.

How then should we follow His instruction to "do this in rememberance of me"?

If we follow the Lord's words, and example, we should invite all those who are excluded or marginalised in society. We should be generous in our hospitality towards them. We should regard them as equals, not as inferiors.

Jesus used table-fellowship as an opportunity to then talk with those at His table about the need for repentance and forgiveness. The pattern in many churches is to try first to convince people that they need to repent, and then, only after they have demonstrated their repentance and confessed their faith, they are admitted to fellowship. In Christadelphian meetings, for example, "outsiders" are invited to attend "the Lecture" on Sunday evenings, or a programme of seminars. Only after they have gone through "instruction" can they be baptised. Traditionally, on the first Sunday after their baptism, the ecclesia "extends the right hand of fellowship".

But Jesus' pattern was quite different. He invited the "outsider" to come in and fellowship with Him, and then He showed them their need for repentance.

What can we learn from this for the way we parctice "fellowship" today?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Lord's table (7) - causing offence

There is a remarkable incident in Luke's Gospel which provides a wonderful insight into our Lord's methods.

"When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal, was surprised." (Luke 11:37-38).

Luke says simply that the Pharisee 'noticed' that Jesus didn't wash his hands, but the preceeding statement that Jesus "went in and reclined at the table" implies a deliberateness on Jesus' part to avoid the ritual purification of hand-washing. Jesus' involvement with the crowds immediately prior to this would have left him 'impure' in the Pharisee's mind, so to a righteous person hand-washing was an absolute necessity.

There are two possibilities as to what happened here. Either bowls of water were standing ready for handwashing, and Jesus passed them by, or, bowls were passed around the tables and Jesus may have deliberately handed them on without using them. Either way, His actions would have been deliberate and would have been a breach of the social etiquette. The Pharisee was surprised/astonished. The Greek word (from thaumazo) suggests almost shock.

But the biggest shock is yet to come! Jesus berates his host. He begins with these words:

"Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you." (vv. 39-40).

This leads into a catalogue of "Woe to you Pharisees" statements. His listeners understandably feel insulted (v. 45) as Jesus unleashes a critique which leaves his audience angry and ready to mount a counter-attack. It was a radical challenge both to their conventions of ritual purity as well as to their table-fellowship practices in general.

In an incident with some similarities in Mark 7:17-22 Jesus "declared all foods clean". Here, by refusing to wash after contact with the crowds, He is declaring all people clean!

This incident tells us some interesting things about how our Lord confronted the errors of the religious leaders.
  1. It tells us that Jesus deliberately took advantage of an opportunity to confront and challenge them regarding their religious practices.
  2. He did so in a way which completely disregarded social etiquette and good manners, and as a guest He confronts His host in his own home.
  3. Jesus insulted, shocked and offended people who were wrong (so much for "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild"!)
All too frequently people with an alternative view about how things should be done are told by their religious leaders (possibly 'Arranging Brethren') that they should submit to people who might be 'offended' if the alternative view was adopted. For example, men have to wear suits and ties and women have to wear hats in church ('Meeting') so as not to 'offend' those who think this is the only appropriate way to dress at the Meeting. A brother cannot pray using 'you' and 'your' if it 'offends' people who prefer 'thee' and 'thou'. Reading from a modern translation might 'offend' someone who prefers the King James Version, and contemporary Christian music is 'offensive' to some people, so only the Hymn Book from the CMPA can be used.

What would Jesus have done? Well, our Lord could certainly be 'offensive' when He needed to make a point! He would have done things the right way, not the way which gave in to those who were 'offended'.

Monday, November 07, 2005

God speaks through the Bible (3) - Are we following the Pharisees?

Jack Deere asks the question "Are we following the Pharisees?"

The Pharisees read, studied, amd memorized the Bible more than most churchgoing people today will ever do, but unlike Moses and the other Old Testament heroes, they could not hear God's voice. Jesus said the Pharisees never heard his Father's voice at any time (John 5:37). The Pharisees claimed to be looking for the coming Messiah, but they never really expected the Old Testament examples of supernatural phenomena to be repeated in their lifetime. They had a theoretical belief in the supernatural - they believed in angels and the resurrection of the body - but expected nothing supernatural in their own lives. They did not listen for God's voice apart from the Scriptures, and they never heard his voice in the Scriptures.

He goes on to say:

There are a number of examples from the New Testament that show us that God still speaks today in ways other than the Bible - examples from the lives of Jesus, the apostles, and others. It would be easy to discount these examples by saying these were special people living in special times. But this would be a very unbiblical way of reading the Bible. A more biblical way is to think of Jesus as our supreme example of both how to live and how to minister.

Think of the apostles as James said to think of Elijah, "as men like us who prayed earnestly." Consider the possibility of angelic visitations as suggested in Hebrews 13:2. Remember what Paul said of the miracles and judgements that happened to the Israelites in the wilderness, "These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come" (1 Cor 10:11). The miracles of the Bible are still examples and warnings for contemporary Christians.
I think I wrote somewhere earlier on this weblog that there is something seriously faulty with the way that many modern Christadelphians discount parts of the Bible as having no application for today. "Oh, that only applied in the first century" we might hear someone say; "that was for them, not for us". While this may be true about some Scriptures, the big problem with the way many Christadelphians use this method of interpretation is that they have no rules for deciding when something applies to us and when it doesn't. If it doesn't fit with their own experience, then "it doesn't apply to us".

One thing we discover from the way the Old Testament is quoted in the New is that God can use the same words which were used in one situation and apply them to a completely new one. So it is that the words of the prophets might be taken completely out of their context and given an entirely new meaning in a new context. In doing this the Holy Spirit shows us that the words of Scripture can be recalled and applied in new situations. The Bible reveals God's truth; but the Holy Spirit can reveal new applications, or apply the words of Scripture to specific situations in the lives of individual believers.

I want to give just one example of this from my own experience. Some time ago there was a serious issue at the church where my wife and I had been members for several years. Without giving details, try as much as we did not to take sides we found that the tension eventually became intolerable for us. We hated going to church on Sundays. Our children hated going, and our spiritual lives were suffering. One day we were on our way to visit some good Christian friends who lived quite a long way away. On our way my wife and I were discussing what we should do and while we felt that we would have to leave that church we also felt that we couldn't leave until we had found an alternative - until we knew where to go. We decided to pray about it and ask God to show us where we should go, and until He did we would just stay in that unbearable situation. Later that night at our friend's home our host asked if we would like to do a Bible reading with them. For no particular reason he chose Hebrews 11 for the reading. We started to read around. My friend read verse 8: "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going." He then stopped reading and said, "I've never noticed those words before, but I sense that God has a message for you there. We should stop there." The amazing thing was that we hadn't discussed our dilemma with our friends - in fact, we had decided earlier not to discuss it with them but that we would simply pray about it. There is absolutely no way they could have known what we had been discussing and praying about. But my friend (who is very receptive to the voice of God) had "sensed" that God was speaking to us through this Scripture.

The solution to our problem became clear: like Abram we were to leave "not knowing where we were going" and trust God to show us the way. The results of that journey have been truly amazing for us and we have been blessed in many ways by trusting God to how us where He wants us to go. The journey has become as exciting as the destination.

I learned very powerfully through this that God can take the words of Scripture and apply them to me personally in a way which is relevant to my particular situation, and in a way which I may never have discovered simply through "Bible study".

God speaks through the Bible (2)

In a chapter titled "The Problem of the Unreal Bible" Jack Deere* writes about how some people read the Bible in a "de-supernaturalizing manner".

He writes:
So many of us have been conditioned to read the Bible in terms of our experience rather than in terms of the experience of the people in the Bible. If we don't hear God's voice today in special ways, we assume he is not speaking in special ways anymore. If we don't see miracles today, we assume he's not doing miracles anymore. Yet the Bible is filled with dreams, visions, miracles and many other supernatural experiences. Liberal churchgoers simply deny that these things ever happened. They say these stories are myths that were never meant to be taken literally, they were just meant to illustrate great theological truths.

Many conservative churchgoers are appalled anyone would ever read the Bible like this. They want nothing to do with the rationalistic unbelief of liberals. They are certain every miracle in the Bible took place just as it's recorded. Yet when it comes to applying the Bible to today's experience, many conservatives are filled with the same kind of unbelief as the liberals. For many orthodox Christians [and Christadelphians - Steve], the Bible is a book of abstract truths about God rather than a guide into the supernatural realm of God's power.

Two sad effects invariably result from reading the Bible in such a de-supernaturalizing manner. First, we experience very little of God's supernatural power. Why? Because we have neither the faith to pray for miracles nor the confidence that God can speak to us in any supernatural way. Why do we lack faith? Because our method of reading the Bible has taught us not to expect these things [my emphasis]. This leaves us with a moralistic version of Christianity that believes discipline is the key to the spiritual life.

Jack Deere notes that as a result of reading the Bible this way "we don't expect too much from God. And usually we get what we expect."

He goes on to write:
I was the pastor of a Bible church for a number of years. During that time I did not believe God spoke in any reliable way except through the Bible, nor did I believe he was doing miracles or healings today. My number one prescription for the people was, "Read your Bible every day". The most frequent confession I heard from my church members was, "I don't read my Bible".

It is hard to read a book every day that tells how God supernaturally intervenes in the daily lives of his children, and yet see no practical relevance for these supernatural phenomena in our present experience. Once the supernatural element is taken out of the Bible, it becomes merely a moralistic life guide. And God becomes a remote God who helps his people, but not very much [my emphasis].

The Bible is more than a theological treatise. It is a guide to dynamic encounters with a God who works wonders. The Bible was given to us that we might hear God's voice and respond to that voice with life-changing faith. Yet it is all too common for Bible-believing people to read the Bible without ever hearing that voice.
Still more to come.
* Surprised by the Voice of God, Zondervan, 1996

Intimacy with God (6) - God speaks through the Bible

I am returning to an earlier series of messages about developing intimacy with God. I had been looking at some of the ways God communicates with us, and how we can become more receptive to this. I said earlier:
Over the next few posts I would like to explore some of the ways God communicates with His people, including:

- through His Word (this is where cessationists would start - and end - but I'll leave this one to later)

- through angels

- through other people

- through dreams and visions

- by placing things in our hearts

- by speaking directly

I got about half-way through that list and then went off on a tangent. I'd like to return to it with a couple of posts about how God speaks through His Word.

First I'd like to explode the misconception amongst some Christians that whenever we read "Word of God" the writer is referring to the Bible. There are several places in the Bible where this expression cannot mean "the Bible". For example, the most frequent use of the expression is in describing incidents like these:
  • "the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision" (Gen 15:1)
  • "the word of God came to Nathan" (1 Chron 17:3)
  • "this word of God came to Shemaiah the man of God" (1 Kings 12:22)
  • "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert" (Luke 3:2)
  • "In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions." (1 Sam 3:1)
  • " Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD : The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him." (1 Sam 3:7)
  • " Then the word of the LORD came to Samuel" (1 Sam 15:10)
  • "the word of the LORD had come to Gad the prophet, David's seer" (2 Sam 24:11)
  • " The word of the LORD came to Solomon" (1 Kings 6:11)
  • " By the word of the LORD were the heavens made" (Psalm 33:6)
  • "The word of the LORD came to me, saying ..." (Jeremiah 1:4; also 1:13; 2:1; 13:3; 16:1; 18:5; 24:4; 29:30; 32:26; etc. The same or similar expressions occur even more frequently in Ezekiel, as well as in Hosea, Joel, Jonah, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.)
In all these places the reference is to a spoken word or vision from God and not to the written Scriptures. In fact, when the Bible refers to itself it uses expressions like these:
  • The Scriptures (more than 50 times e.g. Daniel 9:2; Matt 21:42; 22:29; 26:54; Luke 4:21; 24:27, 32, 45; John 2:22; 5:39; 7:38, 42; 10:35; Acts 1:16; 8:32; 17:2; Romans 1:2; 4:3; 10:11; 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4; Galatians 3:8, 16, 22; 1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 3:15; James 2:8; 1 Peter 2:6; 2 Peter 1:20; 3:16).
  • The Law and the Prophets (about 10 times in the NewTestament, refering to the Old e.g. Matt 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; 22:44; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; Romans 3:21).
In at least two places the Bible uses the expression "the Word [of God]" to refer to Jesus as the living embodiment of God's word:
  • "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning ... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:1-2, 14).
  • "He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God" (Revelation 19:13).
There are other places in the New Testament where it is highly improbable that the writers were thinking about "the Bible" when they referred to "the word of God". For example:
  • "For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do." (Heb 4:12-13 KJV). Not only does the writer use the personal pronoun ("his") when referring to the Word, but we could ask how "the Bible" can be a "discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart"? A later usage in Hebews 13:7 ("Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you") reveals that the writer had a spoken, rather than written, Word of God in mind when writing this letter.
  • " After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly." (Acts 4:31).
  • "The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God." (Acts 13:7). Did he want to hear them read to him from the Bible, or did he want to hear the word of God directly from men of God?
  • "Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: 'We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles'." (Acts 13:46)
More to come.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Lord's table (6)

Of all our Lord's miracles only one is recorded in all four Gospels. That unique position would suggest that all four writers considered this incident to be a central part of our Lord's ministry.

The feeding of the 5,000 appears in all the Gospels because its message characterises the primary focus of Jesus' teaching. The Pharisees and "the righteous" had an obsession with their ritual purity, especially at meals. They washed their hands before meals, and were particular about with whom they ate. Yet here, in this remote place, Jesus tells a group of more than 5,000 people to sit down and eat with Him. There was no possibility of washing hands, and certainly no way of checking if there were any sinners, tax collectors, or "unrighteous" in the crowd. The Lord dramatically and miraculously breaks down these religious barriers between people and invites them to eat with Him at His table. No one was excluded.

The early Christians took up this practice and "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer ... They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (Acts 2:42, 46). Their meetings were based around a shared meal (called "love feasts" in Jude 12) - commonly called "breaking bread". This term is used elsewhere to describe sharing a meal together, any meal, and is not a unique descriptor for the Christian ritual called Communion, Eucharist, the Lord's supper, or Breaking of Bread. The meal probably began with the host saying a blessing over bread (kiddush), and ended with a cup of wine after supper (1 Cor 11:25). From beginning to end it was "in memory" of Jesus and was a re-enactment of His open table fellowship.

There is not a hint of a suggestion anywhere in the New Testament that children or visitors were excluded from any part of the meal. No where does the Bible say that this Christian ritual is for baptised "members only", or that people were excluded from it because of some sinfulness on their part.

Luke records a remarkable incident when Paul "broke bread" with his fellow-survivors of a ship wreck. After the storm "he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves." (Acts 27:35-36). These words are almost identical to the way Luke records the last supper: "he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them" (Luke 22:19) and an incident when Jesus broke bread with some disciples after His resurrection: "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them" (24:30). In fact, Luke highlights that it was through this breaking of bread that these disciples recognised Jesus (v. 35) - no doubt because table-fellowship was such a central part of our Lord's ministry. Notice how each record has these words: (1) took bread (2) gave thanks (3) broke it and (4) gave it to them. (See also 1 Cor 11:23-24 where the same words are carefully recorded as the foundation for the celebration of Communion by the church). The breaking of bread after the shipwreck followed the same form as the breaking of bread ritual of the believers.

But we should also note that Paul "broke bread" with people who were strangers to him, "sinners" and non-Jews alike. They had been through a common experience and been saved. They were invited to the Lord's table in celebration. Perhaps we need to re-think what it is we celebrate at the Lord's table, and with whom.