Relevance Within Scripture
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
John 1:1, 2
The Apostle John, who was as close to Jesus as any of the disciples, opened his gospel with these arresting words: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” Although books have been written about this introduction, let’s itemize briefly what John is telling us about Jesus through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
Jesus, as the Word, is the verbal expression of God
Jesus, as the Word, is coeternal with God
Jesus, as the Word, is coequal with God
Jesus, as the Word, supersedes all other existence, thought and action
In the twelve verses that follow (in John 1), the Apostle fills out the detail of his opening statement. Then, John uses the rest of his gospel to develop a dynamic enlargement of these verses.
Nonetheless, the two introductory verses summarize and settle the question about truth. They reveal God’s eternal arrangement: Jesus accurately, completely and permanently disclosed the person and purposes of God to humanity. Not attempting to trivialize this matter, Jesus came “to tell the truth, who whole truth and nothing but the truth” about God. By His very nature that is the only thing He could do.
As Jesus later testified, the miracles He did were so “you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:38). In John 14:10, Jesus said much the same. “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not my own. Rather it is the Father, living in me, who is doing the work.”
Then, shortly prior to His crucifixion, He disclosed that His work of revealing the person and purposes of God would continue through the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:24-26).
The disciples knew they could not, on their own, recall all the teaching Jesus had given over three years. Jesus declared that the Holy Spirit, as the Divine Agent, would remind them. Through the Holy Spirit they were to be the “biographers” of the revelation from the Father fulfilled by the Son of God.
The question to which the church needs to respond is not whether Jesus is the Son of God. Nor is it whether Jesus represented God to humankind. Most Christians would answer those two questions positively. The critical issue to be examined by today’s church is: What will we do about truth? That question is thrust upon us because of the overwhelming wave of relativism in our culture that is suffocating the church’s vitality.
The Person of Christ
In the previous chapter, we established the purpose of the Church of the Firstborn is to bring individuals into conformity with the likeness of the Son of God. Just who is the Son of God? Many passages of Scripture present the Person of Christ, but perhaps the Apostle Paul developed the most complete picture for us in his letter to the Colossians.
“He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20).
You might want to read those incredible words again. As you do, can you see Jesus as the master Planner? How much power does He have? Do you believe He has enough power to accomplish the task assigned to Him by the Triune God, of which He is a part? Do you believe that anything can prevent him from completing His assignment? Do you think there is anything that could be suggested to improve on His plan? Accordingly, is there any reason why He should not be in charge of the Church?
Under the umbrella of specious arguments, the trend today is to make the attractiveness and success of the Gospel mean something other than what Jesus said. You will recall the trouble Jesus was having in getting Nicodemus to understand the basics of God’s Kingdom. So Jesus explained to Nicodemus the root or the foundation of the Gospel. Using a familiar story, He said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14). Remember that the brazen snake on a pole during Moses’ time brought healing from the venom. (Numbers 21:8, 9).
Jesus is not only the center; He is the energizing power of the Gospel. Without Him, we are left with the worthless ashes of human effort and plans. The Church has only one thing to do today or any other time! Jesus again said, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all (people) to myself.” (John 12:31, 32).
Our job is not to make our church grow. We don’t have to read books, hold seminars or pay consultants to find out what the church is supposed to be doing. It is the church’s job to present Jesus Christ—to be His witnesses to the world. Paul and the other apostles preached Christ. They wanted “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” (Philippians 3:10). Incredible things took place when they preached. The apostles knew it was not their own doing. “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted the message were baptized and about three thousand were added to their number that day” . . . “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:40, 41, 47).
The he apostles recognized it was their job to witness. It is the Lord’s job to bring results. As Jesus said, “If I am lifted up, I will draw all people unto me.” This brings us to another critical issue for the present-day church.
How Was Christ Lifted in the New Testament Church?
To look into this question, we will return to the young Pharisee, Saul, on the road to Damascus. The risen Christ confronted this man who was on his way to imprison some of Jesus’ followers. You will remember that Jesus asked Saul, “Why do you persecute me?” Saul’s response was, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:1-6).
Jesus told Saul (soon to be Paul) in the clearest terms possible: “When you persecute these followers of mine, you are persecuting Me. They are My body. When you strike one of them you are striking Me. When you imprison them, you are putting Me into prison. When you stone one of them, you are killing Me again.”
The implications of what Jesus told Saul that day are fantastic. In effect He was saying, “Every time one of My followers has contact with someone in the world, that person is meeting Me, Jesus Christ.” Jesus’ statement that He would “draw all people to himself.” has the potential of being fulfilled daily by millions of people in the world. While Peter and Paul may have stood up and “preached Christ,” Christians are witnessing to Jesus continually as they lift Him up in their lives. (See Matthew 25:31-40).
Read how the Apostle Paul saw this in his own life. “I have been crucified (lifted up) with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20). Paul declared that his body was the clothing for the Son of God: “Christ lives in me.”
Lifting up Jesus Christ to the world was not accomplished by a repetition of Jesus’ crucifixion, but through daily lifting Him up in Paul’s life—and in your life and my life! The Son of God enables us to do just that. Paul explained that kind of life, saying, “You are all (children) of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Galatians 3:26).
The Church of the Firstborn does not come clothed in entertaining programs and techniques patched together from the fabric of our secular culture. It comes as people who are alive with Christ in their neighborhoods and where they work. The world needs to hear the preaching of the Gospel in the public square through the everyday meeting between people who are clothed with Jesus Christ and those who do not know Him.
Believers are the authentic presence of Jesus Christ to the world. That being true, only two questions need our attention:
Are we really preaching the everlasting Gospel?
Is my life being conformed to the likeness of Christ?
That is where the truth and the proof of the Gospel is found. The Scriptures and the Holy Spirit enable us to live like that. Substitutes fail!
What is the Place of Scripture and Prayer?
Why did God give us His Word, the Bible? What was His purpose in providing special revelation to humanity through the inspired writings of Scripture? The answers have decisive implications. Thus, whenever we pick up the Bible to read, we should ask ourselves the question: Why did God give me this Book?
Conversely, if there were no Bible, what would my life be like? Since God’s Word is indispensable to our Christian vitality, another question comes to mind: What has the church done with the Bible? For some answers, let’s first look at the experience of public schools in America.
The Bible in Public Schools
In a much-publicized decision in 1962, the United States Supreme Court ruled that prayer and Bible reading in publicly funded schools violated the separation of church and state provisions of the United States Constitution. As a ninth grader in a public school in New Jersey, I can recall that our classes routinely opened with prayer, the pledge of allegiance to the flag, and regularly, the reading of some Scripture. No one thought we were participating in brazen defiance of our nation’s constitution. We did not expect the police or the F. B. I. to come storming in to stop this “outrage” against the Constitution.
Postponing our judgment on the Supreme Court’s decision for a moment, let’s ask another question: Did our educational system discard the Bible before or after the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling? Yes, the formal action to remove prayer and the Scriptures from public education did have profound consequences in our schools. That has been well documented by attorney and talk show host Charles Crismier in his book, Preserve Us A Nation. Nevertheless, to claim that our educational system had not already long abandoned any reliance on prayer and the Bible would show a lack of awareness.
Much earlier than the Court’s 1962 decision, the American educational system had generally adopted the permissive philosophy and lowering of standards that sprang out of human secularism. You will recall that educators held no angry protests against the Supreme Court’s decision about Bible reading and prayer in the classroom. For most, it was already “a done deal.” Although they may have read the Scriptures in class, they had long abandoned its principles.
Yes, prayer and Bible reading in school did have value. However, it was not considered significant. For most classes, Bible reading had become a tradition and routine to go through. It was a performance, not to be taken seriously. The loss of respect for God and His Word in most of the educational system was long gone before the Supreme Court spoke in 1962. Its ruling just formalized what had already taken place.
How is this connected to the church? Well, just like the American educational system, the church can discard the Bible while it continues to read it! As a living example, we could cite the liberal churches in the United States. The irrelevance of the Scriptures to personal and corporate life within that branch of the church is widespread. For them, there are no miracles, no Son of God, no substitutionary death, no resurrection, and thus, no heaven or hell. However, they don’t really claim to be people of the Word. As evangelicals, we do make that claim. Is that claim valid?
Scripture Reading as Theater
Theater takes us into the world of make-believe. Actors in a theatrical production are not really the characters they are playing. We understand that. For the duration of the play, they are carefully following the direction or script written by some author, whether it is a live production or movie. When the play ends, the actors return to their true and normal lives. No one attending the theater production will criticize them for discarding their lines and their costumes when the “play” ends. Everyone knows the meaning of theater.
One of the first signs that a church is discarding the Bible is how it treats the public reading of Scripture. The Apostle Paul, in an interesting set of instructions to his young associate, Timothy, gave him a series of warnings. He wrote to Timothy that, “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God. . . .” (I Timothy 3:15).
Two verses later, he continued: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars . . . They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods . . . For everything God created is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
“If you point these things out to the (people), you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.” (I Timothy 4:1-6)
The Apostle was warning Timothy and giving specific instructions about the content of his preaching. What was to be his frame of reference? How could he be sure that he stayed on track? Paul declared, “Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” (I Timothy 4:11-13).
Notice the bridge the Apostle constructed between reading and preaching and teaching the Scriptures and the kind of life he was to live. Paul instructed Timothy, “What you read, preach and teach from Scripture is not theater! Scripture is not to be treated as a script, as part of a Sunday morning performance, put aside like a costume at the end of the play.”
Paul was stressing to Timothy, “The Word is to be the foundation and the essence of your preaching and teaching and living.” In effect, Paul declared that to be faithful to God’s call to ministry, we must make much of God’s Word—in our speaking and in our living. Devoting ourselves “to the public reading of Scripture” will keep us on track as ministers of “the church of the living God”–the Church of the Firstborn. This was a significant admonition.
How did the Apostle Paul ever come up with such instructions? Could it be that he had talked things over with another apostle, Peter, and perhaps Luke? We remember in his second letter to Timothy, Paul said, “Only Luke is with me.” (II Timothy 4:11; both Luke and Mark are mentioned). What had they told him? Let’s check.
Luke wrote, “(Jesus) went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach
good news to the poor . . .’
“. . . and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled
in your hearing.’ ” (Luke 4:16-18, 21)
You may recall, these verses immediately followed Luke’s recording of Jesus’ temptation, where Jesus rejected Satan’s attack by using Scripture. To Jesus, the Scriptures were a vital, indispensable part of His life. He testified that they were seeing the Scriptures come alive in His life. He, the living Word, could not live without God’s Word. He could not preach without God’s Word. Nor could he die without it; “Later, knowing that all was now completed and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:28-30).
Not only do the gospel writers record Jesus’ use of Scripture, they and the New Testament church followed His example. About Paul, Luke wrote, “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.” (Acts 17:2). To Timothy, Paul affirmed his own practice. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (II Timothy 3:16, 17).
How is it at your church? Have the Scriptures become an occasion for performance? Is it just part of the liturgy, the “entertainment package” of the service? Or does it carry the awe, reverence and place accorded to it by the early church as directed by the Lord of the Church and confirmed by the Holy Spirit? What do we do with God’s Word after the service is concluded? Is it the most important or the most neglected book we possess? (See II Kings 22:11-13; 23:1-3).
Prayer As Programming
In the Church of the Firstborn, along with the Scriptures, prayer was elevated to a high position. Notice what the Apostles in Jerusalem thought about prayer as a part of their lives and work. They were on the verge of being trapped into the administration and management processes of the early church. As important as those functions might have been, as leaders of the church they had a higher priority. They said, “Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:3, 4).
How unlike a well-known evangelical church leader who announced during a public meeting he was going to devote himself to prayer—when he retired. Is prayer something we leave to the “old people” of the church or until we retire? That is neither what the Apostles believed nor how they lived.
Neither is prayer something pleasant to keep in the Sunday morning service—as long as it is short (and woe to the person who runs over the allotted thirty-eight seconds!) It is not part of a script used for a “transition” to another part of the program. Prayer is consistently presented in Scripture as direct communication between God and us. When it becomes just another piece of the program, it has been discarded. When that happens, the church has become the Church of Modernity.
To become the Church of the Firstborn, something must first take place in the lives of individuals, church leaders and the church in general. It is a principle that was most difficult for Jesus’ disciples to comprehend—they were very slow to get it.
As He neared the time of the cross, Jesus explained it again to His disciples. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.” (John 12:23-26).
Jesus, the Living Word, said He would be “glorified” by His death. Because of what followed His death, He was able to offer eternal life to all who followed Him.