Pastor's Blog

I am very sold on the importance of covenant relationship (as opposed to personal relationship) with God.  I see God’s work as more oriented toward the church as group than I do toward me personally.

However, there are times where things have happened in my life – things that seemed to coincidental to be merely coincidence – and I’ve chalked them up to providence and God’s comforting and affirming hand in my life.

One of the most vivid was when were trying to raise money either to purchase the property on which the present chapel sits or for the building itself (the exact detail escapes me).  But the board had set a goal of raising a certain amount by a target date.

We were a week away from the target date and we were still about $12,500 short, so I announced in church that we needed to raise that amount by the following Sunday if we were to move forward with our development plan.  I was very discouraged as that seemed an astronomical amount to raise in a week.  We had been trying to raise the funds for several months and everyone’s resources seemed to have been exhausted.

There was a visitor there on the Sunday that I announced what we needed to reach the goal the following week.  I knew who he was but didn’t know him very well.  He had shown up periodically at our services over the years.  Never seemed to react to the service or the message.  Always sat there with a seemingly cold, straight face.  Never gave any feedback.  Just sat through the service and left immediately when it was over.  Then I wouldn’t see him again for a few years.

This visitor showed up the following week and caught me in the parking lot before the service.  Stern faced, he handed me a little envelope and said, “I want you to read this after church.”  All I could think of was “Oh great.  What did I say to offend THIS guy last week?”  I put the envelope in my pocket.

We were in double services at the time, so I preached both services.  The special offerings that we received trying to reach the $12,500 didn’t even get close to the target.  I think we took in something like $200.  I remember thinking that we were NEVER going to get out of our tiny building. 

In the days of double services, my wife and children would attend the first service and go home.  So I was alone after the second service.  I was disheartened and discouraged.  I got in the car and remembered that the visitor had given me something to read.  I figured it was criticism of the previous week’s message, and since I was already down, reading a little criticism wouldn’t make it much worse.

So I ripped open the envelope…and inside there was a check for $12,500.

It wasn’t a miracle.  The man had heard the need the previous week.  But it was an amazing providence that this particular man was at that service to hear that announcement and that he had the money and decided to give it to a church which he only visited occasionally.  His demeanor had led me to expect a criticism;  instead I received an enormous blessing and an emotional boost. 

I guess any pastor would have been excited to receive such a gift – but it was the way the entire situation unfolded, the way the circumstances molded my emotions, and the way the gift healed the little wound in my heart that made me sense a providence directed pointedly and personally at me.

I don’t expect that to happen every day.  I don’t need it to happen every day.  Just remembering that providence is enough to remind me that God knows my life and my situation and cares about me – even when I’m not experiencing direct and pointed providential intervention.

 

 

Evangelicalism tends to call people to “a personal relationship with Jesus”.
The main concern of the gospel presentation is personal:  your eternal destiny.  Are you going to heaven or hell?  Are you going to ask Jesus to rescue you?
When you pray and ask Jesus to rescue you, the resulting relationship is personal.
So is the resulting “religion”.  Everything is highly individualized.
You have “personal devotions”.  Private Bible reading.  Private prayer.  You can worship Jesus if you want, when you want, and however you want.
Connection with others might be desirable, but it’s optional.  Your relationship with Jesus is personal.  Others aren’t in on it and don’t need to be.  Connection with others, accountability to others, working toward a goal with others – that’s all optional.  If you find it fulfilling – connect with others.  If not – you still have your personal relationship with Jesus and that’s what REALLY matters.

That’s very American because individualism is very American.  But I don’t think these ideas represent at all what Christianity was intended to be.

God always builds a covenant relationship with a group of people.
It is difficult for spiritual growth to take place in isolation from others.
It is not good for man (or woman) to be alone.  (And God said this when he and Adam had a “personal relationship”;  Adam was still seen as being alone and in need of others.)
The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all that you are – but Jesus insisted on connecting a second commandment to it and said that commandment was “like” the first: love your neighbor as you love yourself.
By this will all men know that you are my disciples – if you have love for one another.

Love, by default, requires interaction with other people.

When God created the nation of Israel, He gave them the law – governing how they were to be a good and godly society amidst ancient near eastern culture;  governing not only how they lived toward God but how they lived with respect to one another.  And God wanted to dwell in the midst of them.  He was the center and the core, the hub of life, that directed all other relationships.  It wasn’t optional.  The entire design was oriented to that purpose.

When God created the church, He gave us the new covenant and writes the law on our hearts – not so we can feel spiritual, but so that we can obey and do what is right and be a "right society".  God dwells in OUR midst – not just in MY heart.  It is when the church is gathered that there He is in the midst of US.

The church is not merely a philanthropic organization that raises money for the poor or an institutionalized corporation that produces self-help and child-care products that you purchase and use at your leisure -- a "spirituality mall".  The church, each church, is supposed to be a society in and of itself, a sort of counter-culture standing for the things of God even when the surrounding culture doesn’t.  The church is supposed to be a society bound together by a common commitment to Jesus Christ.  We Christians are related to one another by what we believe.  We are related by commitment to the same truths that come from the one true God.

The church is supposed to be a society that wants God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, and it is supposed to be the society that strives to do that now – in preparation for the society that heaven will one day be.

We are supposed to be committed to Christ – and to the group.  God works on the individuals in the group through the interactions and functions of the group.  Luncheons and picnics and Sunday school programs and AWANA and worship teams aren’t just functions and events in themselves.  Each one is an opportunity for differing people to work together – and more importantly, to learn how to work together – to learn how to be patient with and put up with people who are different from you, who do things differently than you do, who have different expectations and understandings.  The interaction is supposed to broaden us if we are too narrow and focus us if we are too broad.  We influence and build each other -- and we are open to being influenced and built as well as building and influencing.

This is what love does and it is how the "believing society", the Bride, is formed.  The Spirit of the loving husband, Jesus, flows from Him and through the connections of the body of the Bride.  As her members grow in love, he is “sanctifying her” – teaching her, showing her, making her holy – “so that he might [eventually] present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, so that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5.26-27).  This is why He gave himself for her (Ephesians 5.25)!

When you remove yourself from this connection to others – when you refuse to connect, when you disconnect, when you quit, when you give up – thinking that’s acceptable because all that matters is your personal relationship with Jesus – you remove yourself from the locus where He does all of his work.

If you cut your finger off, it doesn’t grow.  It dies.  For me, that illustrates the importance of covenant relationship.  For thirty-plus years of ministry I have been trying to convey this concept.  I have found it an almost insurmountable task to overcome the idea of personal relationship with Jesus.  Evangelical is thoroughly American, and American culture is thoroughly individualized – and just seems to struggle with the idea of being a church rather than going to a church. 

Many of my other ideals I have abandoned or altered for the sake of connection with other people.  But this ideal – covenant relationship -- is so much the core of the biblical message that I cannot bring myself to let it go.  We won’t reach it in this life, but I will fight to see as much of it as possible realized until my dying day.

Some people think I don’t believe you can have “personal experiences” with Jesus.  I don’t deny that you can.  I’m only saying that (a) a relationship with God through Christ is built, not on personal experiences with the person of Jesus but on a personal commitment of faith to the Christ presented in the gospel message and (b) one’s personal experience has little meaning apart from whatever personal benefit one derives from it. 

God’s “relationship” with humanity is depicted more regularly as a relationship with a group of people.  In the OT, God related to Israel.  The constant refrain through the Scriptures is “I will be your God and you will be My people.”  Likewise, in the NT, the relationship is between Christ and the Church.  Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.

It’s not that each Christian individually is the bride of Christ.  WE ALL TOGETHER are the Bride of Christ.  Individually we are depicted as body parts of the Bride;  none of us alone, in isolation, is the Bride.  So I don’t say that I love my wife’s gall bladder.  I love my wife -- ­as a whole person.  The parts are loved as I love the whole.  The same is true of God relating to His people.

Some protest that the Bible depicts God’s relationship as a marriage, and what relationship could be more personal than that? 

But that is a modern view of marriage being read back into the Bible.  Though there certainly could have been personal aspects to marriage in both the ancient near East and the Roman world, marriage itself was more like a contractual agreement that clarified the legitimacy of children and rights to inheritance.  Arranged marriages worked more like a contract.  Feelings had little to do with it.  You kept your part of the bargain because it was your responsibility, your obligation, and your duty to do so.  Having romantic feelings for your partner was irrelevant.  If there were warm feelings – well, so much the better for you!  But warm feelings weren’t required to make the marriage a legitimate marriage – or even a good marriage.

Perhaps our failure to understand this truth is why marriage is so damaged an institution today?  We build everything on our feelings – our inner experiences.  People feel romantic and have sex, enjoy it, and move in together.  Nothing obligates them to stay together.  They do so if they feel like it, or until they tire of each other or until they develop feelings for someone else.  Then they move out, often leaving behind not only a broken heart – but broken children – who are then passed around to be cared for as though they are finger foods on an appetizer tray.  We live by our feelings and experiences – our ever undulating and transient romantic feelings – and I think we’ve lost something precious in doing so, something that is more solid and stable when the role is given to a sense of responsibility and dutiful obligation.

When God depicts His relationship with Israel and Christ’s with the Church, it’s depicted as a marriage covenant – a contractual agreement in which God promises to provide certain benefits and prescribes certain behaviors and His people as a body agree to love, honor, and obey Him.  The obedience demonstrates the love and honor.  Failure to obey is a failure to love and honor. 

“And by this we know that we have come to know him – if we keep his commandments.  Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” (1 John 2.3-5a)

In the Old Testament God gives the nation of Israel the law.  That’s the covenant relationship.  The history of Israel is a history of violation of that covenant and those violations – even non-sexual violations like mistreating orphans and widows -- are depicted by the prophets as the nation’s fornication, adultery, and prostitution.  She cheated on her covenant partner.

So God made a new covenant (Jeremiah 31.31-32).  Hebrews says it is a new and better covenant with new and better promises, not so individuals will have experiences that make them feel loved and special, but so that they – as a people – would be made more obedient.

“And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36.27)

Obedience to God’s terms is what is important in a relationship with God.  All the mystical experiences in the world mean nothing without obedience.

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