There appears to be a growing consensus among true believers that the church has some serious problems. Of course, this consensus exists mainly outside of the modern church. Today’s church can be guilty of suffering a blindness towards self-examination. It is much easier not to rock the boat you are in. I have spoken at length about some of the issues within churches previously in various posts on this site. I confess to being no expert; I simply talk from my own experience of churches. But, it is all very well for me to point out the problems, except that unless I have a solution, they remain just that – a problem.
I was watching a sermon by a guy called Francis Chan recently. If I am honest, I don’t usually hold a great deal of stock in these Californian types, especially those with giant megachurches. However, I was aware that Francis Chan had had some kind of epiphany in recent years regarding what we do in church after comparing it to what the New Testament says about what church should like. It was his epiphany that interested me, because I too have had an epiphany about the state of the modern church. I was not, and will never be, in the position that Chan was in – in charge of a megachurch. I was just a tiny cog in the workings of much smaller affairs. But the epiphany remained the same – how can we expect God to act in our churches, or even answer our prayers, when what we have created is so far removed from the book of Acts?
For almost three years I have pursued the matter prayerfully. I have researched various theories. I have read many ‘blueprints‘ or formulas for how church should be, but I am still no closer to a practical answer. However, it was in the watching of the aforementioned sermon by Francis Chan, that I finally realised why.
The sermon in question is entitled “If Jesus was the pastor of your church, you probably wouldn’t go there.” (find it here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=havd_RVXOEM), and in it Chan explains the dilemma he had regarding his epiphany over the state of the church. He said that once he realised just what a state things had got into, he simply didn’t know where to start. It is a sentiment I have felt many times over the past few years. I’d be praying to God and asking Him how do we do this? How do we put things right? Where do we even begin?
And whilst the answers to these questions have alluded me ever since, this week I have started to see something of the obvious answer in God’s word. Let me explain.
When Y’shua (Jesus’ Hebrew name) began His earthly ministry, His message was exclusively to God’s people, Isra’el. Any ministry to the Goyim (the Gentiles – everyone else) didn’t commence until after the calling of the apostle Paul. With that in mind, I have been looking again at the way in which Y’shua began His ministry, and in particular, what He said.
If you just look at the Sermon on the Mount (to start with) you will see that He was talking to Hebrews about the state they had got themselves into with regard to their relationship with God. Throughout the history of the nation of Isra’el you can see a pattern very clearly, which involved the people rebelling against God and following false religion; being judged by God because of their unfaithfulness; when confronted with punishment, usually at the hands of another nation, they would cry out to God; in His great mercy He would hear their cries; they would then repent of their unfaithfulness; and finally, God would restore them. This cycle repeated itself over and over again from the time of leaving Egypt onwards.
When Y’shua came and began His ministry, the Hebrews were miles from God. They were suffering at the hands of Roman occupation. There were no longer any prophets to hear and speak out God’s message. In fact, there had been silence from God for over 400 years.
During that time, the Hebrews had taken God’s word, His Torah, and made a great deal more out of it than had been intended. They created additional rules, known as the Oral Traditions (later called Mishnah), which were virtually impossible to keep. The Pharisees and Sadducees were two sects of Hebrew religious culture who, despite having opposing doctrine, had dominated the people with rules and burdens that could not be attained. The Hebrews had come to believe that righteousness could only be achieved through the observance of their rules, despite the Bible teaching that righteousness comes through faith in God.
Y’shua came, primarily, to attack their rules. You will notice in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5 through 7) that Y’shua frequently started a sentence with phrases like ‘you have heard it said‘. Each time He did this, He was referring to one of the manmade rules that had been tagged onto God’s Law. Each time He said that, He continued with ‘but I say to you‘, in which He would steer them back to the true meaning of the Law. The Spirit of the Law, as opposed to the Letter of the Law. Y’shua was showing them all, in a very straightforward manner, that what they were being taught by the religious teachers was simply not what God had taught to Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness when the Law was imparted to them.
But, as with all of the rebellions of the Hebrews, the people had stopped listening to God and had allowed themselves to be steered off course – this time not by the false idols of paganism, as they had before, but by the false religion of Judaism. This time, God didn’t send another prophet, such as Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah to warn them…He sent His own Son, the prophet whom Moses had foreshadowed and prophesied in Deuteronomy chapter 18.
Engrained into all of Y’shua’s teaching was the message of repentance. In Hebrew, the word He would have spoken literally means to ‘turn back to God‘. It was the same message that they had heard throughout their history, every time they had got themselves into trouble after being unfaithful to God. Every time they cried out God sent a prophet to show them the way back. Just read through the Old Testament, it is there in every instance of the Hebrews straying from God’s path.
Only, in sending Y’shua, His only Son, God was trying to convince them once, and for all, to follow His ways, and not their ways. Of course, we know that they rejected Y’shua’s message. They failed to see that Y’shua was sent by God. They failed to repent, and the message was then told to the Goyim, who did believe. God knew that this would happen. It was all part of His plan to reconcile all men to Himself. He knew that there will come a time, at the end, when the spiritual eyes and ears of the Hebrews would be opened once again to His message, and that they will turn back to Him.
And, I can hear you say, what has all this to do with what we were talking about at the start? Quite a lot really.
The consensus I mentioned at the start, whilst not as widespread as I would like it to be, is nevertheless growing. The people of God have read their Bibles and found that what it says in there is so unlike the day to day experience of the average churchgoer that they have started to cry out to God.
If you just look at all the rules and laws that modern churches have in place, very few of them have any solid scriptural foundation. Just like the Oral Traditions that the Hebrews forged, and continue with to this day. The modern church has built its own rules. It has decided it knows what God wants. Churches are almost franchises today, run by businessmen and women on worldly business models. Everything that is going on in modern churches is so far removed from the model Y’shua left us and what we see recorded in the book of Acts, that it leaves me wondering how is what we have today any different at all from what Y’shua confronted in Jerusalem back in the first century? Man made rules over the Spirit of the Law. Our churches have rules on membership; tithing; who can play instruments; who can and can’t give out bread and wine; who can and can’t preach; rotas for serving tea; blah, blah, blah. None of which can be found in the New Testament. None of it. Take some time to think of how many things that just simply don’t appear in scripture that we have made into traditions. How are any of these things any different from what Y’shua attacked when He pleaded with the Hebrews to return to God’s ways?
Now, if the premise is accepted that the church have gone astray somewhere along the line, which of course would explain a great deal of things, such there being a distinct lack of signs and wonders, not to mention that there are now almost 40,000 different denominations under the umbrella of Christianity (yes, that’s right…40,000!), and you can start to see that we are in a very similar position to the Hebrews.
No wonder the likes of Francis Chan are wondering where to start.
Well, here’s the real encouraging aspect of this. No need to wonder. The Bible tells us clearly. We need to repent.
Of course, in the history of the Hebrews, their own repentance was always preceded with the conviction of their shortcomings. This conviction always came about as the result of a prophet revealing it to them. Y’shua, the Last Prophet, is currently away preparing to return. In His stead, He has left the Holy Spirit to convict us of our shortcomings. It is to the Holy Spirit to whom we must turn, if we are to survive.
Before that, let me tell you what I saw this week as a result of looking at how God works with His people.
The Hebrews were down in Egypt, in slavery, when they began to call out to God for deliverance. God raised Moses up to lead them out of the house of bondage of Egypt. In the desert, He renewed His covenant with them and gave them the Law. The Law was given for their own safe keeping and protection. He also gave them a hope for the future. This was the Promised Land, a place that they could call their own. This was both a physical place – in the land of Canaan, and a spiritual one – in the world to come. Many of those to whom this Promised Land was revealed never made it there, including Moses.
The journey itself was difficult -forty long years in the wilderness to walk a distance that should have only taken two weeks. During the journey, despite having God close at hand, the Hebrews never knew anything but the current step. They never knew where exactly they were heading each and every time they packed up their tents and began marching again. Each step that God revealed to them was the step that they were on. Even when God was giving them laws about the future temple, He didn’t reveal where that would be. His purpose was to teach them to trust Him completely.
Sadly, the modern church doesn’t want to do this. The church would like to think that it knows the mind of God and where He is leading us. But the reality is that we aren’t being led by God, only by man. God never changes. He doesn’t reveal the next step until we have mastered the current step. He might tell us the final destination – for us it is also the Promsied Land, but that is only to provide for hope, which is the thing that keeps us going.
The next step for the church is yet to be revealed. The current step is one of conviction and repentance. The Holy Spirit is clearly raising up people to show the church that there are things wrong with what we have made. It is as manmade as the Oral Traditions of the Pharisees. Once the conviction arrives and we turn back to God’s ways, He will be there, ready to lead us, a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, to the next stage on our spiritual journey towards the Promised Land. I think it is also very prudent to remember that the church is Christ’s, and that He will build it (Matthew 16:18). We should also note that if what James refers to in Acts chapter 15, regarding David’s fallen tent, is about the church, then there too we see that it is God who carries out the work. I think the church, whilst willing to change if convicted, still has a problem with letting God do the work. We are never really sure how this works. We often never wait for Him to start His work. We have a tendency to want to do the work ourselves. What God tells us is that unless He builds the house, we all labour in vain (Psalm 127:1).
Until the Holy Spirit convicts us, there is no point in the church making any plans. As a whole, we need to start seeking the Holy Spirit to reveal to us the collective wrongs. I am sure that individuals keep very short accounts with God, and repent regularly. But I am talking about the church as a whole. We are so unlike the church which Y’shua established, that only arrogance prevents us from seeing the problems.
The Promised Land beckons. Even Moses, because of His unbelief and disobedience, fell in the wilderness before the Hebrews crossed the Jordan into Canaan. We need to make sure that our own unfaithfulness doesn’t mean the same for us.
Never mind the next step. Let’s get this first one sorted out. When we do, God will be happy to lead us as far as the next one.