The writing of the last instalment of this series had quite an effect upon me, in that it forced me to take stock of my own walk with God. I realised just how far removed from the accounts about the 2nd century believers, from which I quoted, my own walk has actually become. Talk about challenging.
I have purposed to take a few days to seek God and consider how to continue with this series. After all, it would clearly be wrong to simply say what today’s church are doing wrong if I wasn’t able to offer a practical solution on how to do it right. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that I have one now, but I find that writing out what I feel God has shown me is often the best way for me to understand what I need to do.
The descriptions I came across of the 2nd century believers prompted me to question several things about not so much the way the church teaches discipleship, but rather about the responsibility which I have towards my own discipleship. Even what was written in the three examples which I quoted in Part Nineteen, is so far removed from my own experience that I struggled to believe that it is even possible to live with such surrender to God in this day and age. Of course, I knew within me that God wouldn’t be even showing me these things unless He expected me to aspire to them. I am convinced that God alone can reveal to those whom He chooses the things that they need to know. If that sounds a little vague and ethereal, I apologise. What I am trying to explain is that I can read a passage of scripture or the text from a book which documents, for example, the lives led by 1st and 2nd century Christians, and fail to understand what the text really says. Countless times I can recall thinking I understood what certain things mean, only for the Holy Spirit to reveal their true meaning. This always happens in God’s timing when not only am I ready to listen, but also exactly when I need to hear it.
To empathise the point I am making, I am quite sure that I had read in the past the account of Justin the Martyr from which I quoted. Quite sure. However, the words were just words whenever I read them before. This time, as I typed them onto the page, I actually saw them come alive. I simply understood their meaning. And whilst initially it may have seemed a lifestyle beyond my reach, I am now convinced that regardless of modern life and all its distraction, it is a lifestyle which God requires from all He calls and chooses.
One of the reasons why I went looking for such evidence to that which I quoted was, I believe, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I didn’t know it until perhaps this morning, but I had been wondering about how the almost exclusively Hebrew converts to Yeshua’s Way, managed to maintain their mindset when the Gentiles began to start pouring into the church. I mean, how did they manage to not become influenced by the Greek Hellenistic philosophies? And how did they manage to stand their ground? I had intended on two occasions to write about what happened to the church when the Gentiles started responding to God’s word. However, I now see that I needed to understand that what I had thought had taken place – that is a corruption or mixing of the seed, didn’t happen at all. In fact, rather than being overwhelmed by the influx of the Gentiles, the church became the main influence upon the world around them because they lived their lives exactly as Yeshua, and then His apostles, said they should. Of course, the church did come to a place of corruption, but that didn’t really happen until the rise of Constantine. We shall come onto that later. But, all the evidence from both Christian and contemporary sources clearly show that between AD 30 and AD 300, the true believers and followers of Yeshua were consistent in the way in which they lived.
And that evidence creates a problem for me. If they managed not to be influence by the world, and instead managed to be the influence themselves, why then aren’t we living that way today? More importantly, for me, why aren’t I living that way?
The answer, I am beginning to see, is more obvious than anyone in today’s church would accept as truth. We will come onto what I believe that I am being shown as the practical way in which we can live exactly the kind of lifestyles which the early disciples did in a little while. But first, we need to look at why we don’t live like that now.
This year will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five ‘treaties’ to the doors of the church at Wittenberg, Germany. This single event marks the start of what we call today, the Reformation. As its title suggests, the Reformation, was all about reform. For over 1,000 years the Catholic church had kept the people, the masses, in the dark by ensuring that the Bible wasn’t available to them. Only the priests owned Bibles, and the only language available was Latin. The everyday people had to take the word of the priest for what the Bible said on all subjects. This is why that millennium was known as the Dark Ages. It lacked the illumination of God’s word.
Once the printing press had been invented, God started to raise up the people whom He chose to start translating the Bible into the everyday languages of the people, instead of a language which only the clergy were permitted to learn. The result was always going to bring about a time of reform. That much was inevitable. And it was also inevitable that men like Luther were going to be raised up by God in order to lead that reform. You will notice with God that whilst priests and kings are generally separated for God’s work by way of blood or family, prophets are not. God chooses prophets entirely upon their ability to speak His words out faithfully and to be obedient in doing so. Martin Luther can easily be likened to the prophet Elijah in that God raised him up just at the right time and for a specific purpose. Both were called by God to be catalysts – agents of change. We have no antecedence for Elijah and little is known of Luther before God stirred his spirit. Luther’s Ahab and Jezebel were the Pope and his unholy marriage to the false goddess, Mary. The story of Luther and the rise of the Reform movement read like chapters from the book of Kings, such was the diabolical way in which the church responded. But change had to come. God had spoken reform and Luther responded.
Today, we look back at the Reformation as a triumph for man, but I seriously wonder if God does. True reform would have seen the church get back to where it was in the 1st and 2nd centuries, before Constantine merged church and state together for his own political ambitions. There is evidence that the reform did take hold for a while. However, within a generation, much was the same that it had ever been. It is true that the reform section didn’t practice what the Catholic church did, but they failed to grasp the opportunity fully to tear down the edifices, the high places of Catholicism, in order to clear the way for Yeshua to be crowned king in their hearts. In a way, as is so often the case when new denominations are formed, the reformed church just ended up being a slightly different copy of the original which they despised. When God orders reform, we have to go a real long way to satisfy His standards. The compromises which were made back then in the 16th century prevented true reform. Whilst I have no doubt that it was God who raised up those involved in the reform, I seriously doubt that many of them were prepared to go the distance He required them to go. Their fear was perhaps that if you don’t know where to stop, then the baby could well get thrown out with the bath water.
It seems clear today that the model, the ideal, which they should have been working towards, should have been that of the early church. However, whilst that may have been God’s instruction and even their intention, what men wants often gets in the way.
We only have to look to the Old Testament to see the way in which God raised up people to carry out His reforms in the past. There were several reforming kings from the house of Judah, but only one who appeared to satisfy God’s high standards. Hezekiah, of whom I have written of often, is the single king whom achieved the reforms which God had desired. His story is so important as a message for all believers that it is included in three books of the Old Testament. When God tells the message three times, you can be sure He wants us to take note. I have spoken at length before of the subject of Hezekiah in the posts Courage Under Fire and Before Revival, Reform, so I won’t go into that again here except to say that reform begins in our heart. Each of us, on a personal basis. We have to find a way to walk with God as He wants. Not as we want. I think we neglect to understand that God now lives within the hearts of all believers. It is easy not to take that principle seriously, but it is nonetheless true. If it wasn’t, why else would Paul have written on the subject. God lives within us. That means that there isn’t a moment of our lives where God isn’t present.
Now, it would be easy to fall into all the doctrinal theology of how this all actually works and give the hyper-intellectual Calvinistic view of salvation, but I am aware that there is a problem with such thinking. In fact, it could be that the very reason why reform never really took hold was because of men trying to understand and quantify salvation in the first place, instead of being child-like in our approach and just believing.
For the past year or so I have been trying to look again at the Bible from a Hebrew perspective. This has meant I have done a great deal of research into the way that the Hebrew scholars handled and discussed the word of God. What becomes overwhelmingly apparent to anyone who cares to look into this is that the Hebrews tended to try to intellectualise the things of God. They have dissected very single letter of every single word of the Tanakh, looking for the answers. They have spent centuries and centuries speculating on different theories about God and how He works. And all He wanted them to do was to trust Him. I think that the church is guilty of the same offence.
The church, ever since the 4th century, has tried to document and intellectualise the things of God. Men can’t help doing this. We are built to question things in this way. But we have failed to see that all it serves to do is to hinder our own walk with God. We take the simplicity out of it, and we add in theories and doctrinal perspectives. We think it shows us to be spiritual, but it actually shows us to be little more than show-offs. Yeshua said to the teachers of the Law and the Scribes of His day that they searched the Scriptures thinking that eternal life is found in them, but they failed to see Yeshua, whom the Scriptures spoke about (John 5:39). I think that is a good description of what we have become as the church – we are obsessed with understanding or intellectualising something which only requires a little faith and nothing more. We have theories and doctrines on every subject from baptism to the rapture, and yet still fail to recognise that God lives within us.
Even when God has provided the opportunities and raised the men up for true reformation, within a generation, we had deconstructed it all into a pile of worthless theories and ideas. Then we manage to turn these ideas and theories into law and make a new false religion out of it.
I had a conversation with someone yesterday who is convinced that there are many good things in the church today, that not everything needs reform. Their argument was that Paul didn’t mind people’s motives for preaching about Christ, just as long as Christ was preached (Philippians 1:15-18). I think that we need to keep such statements in context. Otherwise, a verse like that could be used to justify the very existence of the Catholic church. My challenge to anyone who thinks that is the case, would be to write down the things about the church which are good, and to write next to them the Scriptural basis for their inclusion in a post-reform church. I suspect there actually won’t be much on that particular list.
My question has always been ‘what is the difference between then and now?’. It has taken me a long time to get there, but I am finally starting to see. We have built up so much man-made doctrine that we can no longer see the simple basic principles of living life according to the way which Yeshua taught us to. We have this insane need to explain everything and each time we start to explain something which we are not meant to understand, we run the risk that we give many an excuse for not believing. Like the Hebrews who believed that breaking down everything God had said and explaining it all would make them righteous, the church has, for centuries practiced the same. It has produced the exact opposite of its intended result. Expository preaching explains word for word the gospel but blinds people to the way in which we should live. It promotes self-knowledge over faith. Today people align themselves with different theological schools of thought, whether it be Baptists or Calvinist or Lutheran. In doing so we miss the point. Surely this is exactly what Paul was warning of in his first letter to the church at Corinth when some claimed to follow Apollos and others Cephas and others still Paul (1st Corinthians 3). Surely, the sole purpose of being made into disciples is to follow the Rabbi, that is Yeshua?
We have removed the spirit from the things of God by intellectualising it all. We need to get back to some simple principles which Yeshua taught and His apostles empathised. We all know these principles but we have allowed professional clergy to reduce them all to words and concepts which serve only to build up the preachers who preach them. It doesn’t take much thinking about to realise the full extent of how we have effectively over-engineered everything. The irony is that the moment you start to write the things of God down, you lose the sentiment. And, because it’s written down, we can’t help thinking that it is law.
If I turn and look at the bookshelf to my left, I see probably around one hundred books all offering advice about the Christian walk. In the main, they are little more than each author’s own personal experience of their walk with God. Whilst such accounts may make interesting reading for some, they cannot be transferred to another de facto. What I write on this blog is merely my own experience. None of it can be used as a formula. God simply doesn’t work like that. If He did, if it was one-size-fits-all He would have written out the rules very carefully for us to follow. But what He did was, in the person of Yeshua, show us what following Him should look like. His relationship with each of us is different and totally unique. So, one man’s book, or one man’s blog can’t be anything other than an account of their experience. There can be lessons we can learn from others, but the reality is that the human race doesn’t tend to learn from the mistakes of others, because if we did we wouldn’t have continued to make the same mistakes over and over again. We learn from our own mistakes. And that is exactly the method God uses to teach us about how to do things His way. Just because I read a book about how a particular preacher found his way to a deep walk with God, doesn’t mean that if I do what he did, that I can experience the same. How could it? If it was all just about how we behave, then it would be easy.
The only way a book on walking with God can be of any use at all is if it serves to teach how to follow Yeshua in a practical way. It’s the same with sermons. We don’t need endless teaching on what the Greek language says about the words it uses for love. We need practical teaching on how to follow Yeshua – on how to be good disciples. There is nothing else that matters. And I speak of one who has regularly tried to over-complicate what should be so simple. I am going to endeavour to put that right. I’m in danger of making what I do here obsolete.
I want to try and explain what I mean without making it complicated, so please bear with me.
For almost three centuries, the people whom God called to Himself, managed to live the way Yeshua showed them how to. Then it was somehow forgotten, probably not totally – there is always a remnant with God. When it was remembered again, knowledge was the coin of the realm, and so the things of God were rationalised and explained. But some things can never be explained or rationalised. The Reformation provided us with the perfect opportunity to get back on the right track, but we didn’t. And there were many whom God called after the Reformation, right up until the present day who tried to get us back to the Narrow Path, but, for one reason or another, we ended up tied up in either ritual or doctrine. The believers of the first and second centuries managed to live without written rules and doctrines. They lived freely. They understood what it was to worship in spirit and in truth. And they managed to understand by simply believing what they had been told, living their lives according to what they had been told, and telling others how to do the same. The moment we start to write things down and explain our perspective and expect other people to follow what we say, then we have failed to keep the simplicity of the gospel. There is no manual for this way of life. It requires a child-like approach. We need to accept that the Spirit of God dwells in those whom He calls to Himself. He is there all of the time. There is nothing which we do, say, or think that He doesn’t know about. And, if we can remember that He is always with us, then we are more aware of sin. If we are more aware of sin, we are less likely to continue sinning.
I don’t want you to think that every Christian book you own was a complete waste of time for the author or, indeed for the reader. God uses the words of others to speak to us all of the time. If we are prepared to listen. I picked up a book from my shelf this week which turned out to be both very useful, in a practical way, and served as a reminder of something I had forgotten.
When I was younger, I was different from who I am now. No suprise there. We are all different. But, when I was younger, a relative new believer, I thought in a different way than I tend to do today. The book I read reminded me of how I used to think before cynicism crept it to my life. Back then I simply believed what the gospel said and got on and did it. There was no debate. There was no need to consult with anyone. It was clear and simple and I just did what it said. Sometimes that came from the reading of what Yeshua said. Sometimes it came by way of helpful advice from an elder. I just took it all at face value. The result was that I saw things differently. I saw God in everything. God showed me this week that not only do I need to get back to that way of thinking, but also, it is a great deal easier to do than I might think. Of course, if I could manage to write down some practical advice for doing so, that would really be quite useful, wouldn’t it? Well, I’m going to try.
I have long advocated having a discipline in your life as a believer. I have spent years telling people that they should start the day with God; spend some time first thing praying and reading. That way you will be set up for the day. But, when I think back to how I was twenty odd years ago, I did start the day like that, but I also continued throughout the day in the same manner. I included God in everything I did, no matter what it was. I learned to pray constantly at all times, in every situation, however trivial it seemed. Whatever I was doing I did it as if I was doing it as an act of service to God Himself. Whether it was the washing up or doing the gardening, I did it all for Him. I felt and knew His presence much of the time. It was only when I stopped, when I took my eyes from God, that I fell.
Now, you don’t need Scripture to know that this is exactly the way in which Yeshua taught His disciples to be. You know all there is to know that this is how He wants all of us to live. For me, it starts here, in me. I have had to start all over again; to learn this practice from scratch. I have the massive advantage now of understanding the pitfalls which I will face, but I know how to overcome them. The truth is simple, always simple. We don’t need doctrine or denomination or ritual or anything else for that matter, we just need to acknowledge that if you are a true believer, called by God, you have the Spirit of Christ living in you. He is never going to let you go or forsake you, so you might as well get used to including Him in everything you do. Do you know what happened to me back then when I did? I changed. I stopped doing the things which I constantly found myself having to repent from. I learned to see others as He sees them. I allowed my faith to grow; to be nourished. I learned to trust in the hope I had. And I learned what it is to love, as He loves me.
I have to learn these things again. It won’t be easy, but neither will it be complicated. It just requires practice and determination. That is how we learn to overcome. After a while, all the practice, means it becomes second nature to us. Perhaps first nature. We just do it naturally, without consciously having to do so.
We don’t need books on financial freedom or spiritual depression. We just need to remember that He lives in us.
Forget everything you have ever been taught and learn to speak constantly to the living God who dwells inside of you. Learn to experience His presence. The more you communicate with Him, the more you will know His will in your life. It takes dedication, but we have been bought at a price and we owe Him our dedication, if nothing else. He is the way, and He lives in us. Try it and see.