Becoming God's Spiritual Person
This chapter will be challenging. The challenge will be to think and to consider on the basis of thought. Transport yourself back to first-century realities. Disregard views based on what someone said. This in no way is an attempt to destroy faith in God and His work. It is in no way a challenge to following the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, it is a challenge to spiritually grow in your confidence in God and His purposes through the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the challenge to center your faith in God, not in your confidence in people.
Some might suggest Christians do the following: (a) Form a group of knowledgeable individuals [like those in Acts 15]. (b) Collect input from all who wish to provide input. (c) Carefully consider everything. (d) Reach an official position on confusing or disputed matters. (e) Demand conformity to the official position held by all obedient believers in Christ who wish to be accepted as Christian believers.
Several are convinced this would be an ultimate and reasonable solution. The individual would be assured he (she) was an approved Christian. Heresy would be destroyed. Regardless of what culture or society one was in, he (she) would be assured (a) there would be conformity in Christian practice, (b) there would be conformity in doctrines accepted, (c) there would be no individual decisions to be made regarding doctrine or practice, and (d) Christians would be alike everywhere. Thus, all problems of diversity would be solved.
Consider a Problem
What is our primary goal? Is the primary issue “our convenience” in pursuing “alikeness”? Is the primary issue God’s purposes expressed in diversity? Is one of God’s important objectives our convenience or His diversity?
Who is the “our”? If one of God’s objectives is Christian convenience, what nation and culture should be selected to be the standard in establishing spiritual conformity? Should the numerical statistics concerning the number of Christians in a nation determine what cultural practices should be the standard? Should the education level of the society determine who is used for the standard? Should the technological advancements of the nation’s population determine the nation who should be the standard? Should money determine what cultural rites should be the standard? What do statistics, educational levels, technology, and money have to do with being spiritual?
Is God bigger than all cultures and social/economic developments? Does He transcend all cultures and societies? Does He have the ability to exist and express Himself in all cultural and social contexts? Do all of those expressions have to be in detailed conformity to be acceptable to Him (not to us)?
Before you form your answers, consider some realities in the first-century world that affected Christian formation. The first-century world had no printing press—that meant there was no widespread use of Bibles, concordances, religious dictionaries, commentaries, or study literature. The process of training preachers did not use printed resources. In fact, there were no Bibles with Old and New Testaments as known today. Scriptures that existed occurred as hand-copied scrolls of Old Testament books (Jewish scriptures).
The New Testament was in the process of being written. A part of Paul’s letters likely was the first to be written. These were written to specific congregations or areas. It cannot be proven when Paul’s letters were collected, or how long it took for them to be collected, or how long it took for the collection to be expanded to include Timothy and Titus.
The gospels likely were written about the time of Paul’s death. The first reference to the collection known today as the New Testament was over 200 years after the first century. Portions of what today is called the New Testament (along with books not in the New Testament) were read and studied in congregations long before that date. Collections of some books—such as the gospels and some of Paul’s letters to congregations—likely occurred as early as the last half of the first century.
The Jews originally considered Christianity (known as “the Way”) as a Jewish reform movement (consider John the Baptist’s emphasis on repentance in Matthew 3:1-9 and Jesus’ emphasis on repentance in Luke 14:25-15:32). Early, Jewish Christians assembled in Jewish synagogues (Acts 9:2) and objected strenuously to the Christian conversion of gentiles who were not Jewish proselytes (read Acts 10; 11:1-3; 13:44-50; and 15:5). Eventually, gentile Christians met in the homes of well-to-do gentile converts instead of Jewish synagogues (reflected by the context of Romans and by the context of statements such as 1 Corinthians 11:17-22).
There was a huge first-century clash among Jewish Christians and gentile Christians about the appropriate way of doing things. At first, not even the apostle Peter grasped God’s acceptance of gentile believers in Christ (consider Acts 10:17-20, 28, 29).
Several first-century Christians learned by hearing, had only what we refer to as the Old Testament to consult as scripture, disagreed about where to meet and what rites to follow, reflected different backgrounds as diverse as Jewish synagogues and idolatry, and had no mechanically printed literature in any form. Still, they were Christians by God’s act. A Jewish Christian did not have to reject Jewish culture and history to be a Christian. A gentile Christian did not have to be a Jewish proselyte to be a Christian. Yet, God accepted and worked in each group in spite of their diversity—read Romans 14:1-15:6 to remind yourself of what God did and can do.
The spiritual conformity many Christians seek is a human concern, not a divine concern. Obviously, God’s concept of unity and our concept of unity are not the same concept. Have you considered all the ways the human Jesus differed from God in Jesus’ affirmation of oneness with God in John 17:21? Oneness was based on “being in,” not on being identical. So it is with us—unity is based on being in Christ in the recognition of what God does through Jesus Christ; it is not based on being identical in all matters.
To illustrate part of our common problem, may we consider three passages which are widely accepted and used to declare God’s distinctiveness? These passages are selected because they are commonly accepted and used. These scriptures individually and collectively declare a commonly accepted truth about God. What is that truth? God is not like humans!
The first is Isaiah 55:8, 9 in the NASV:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
Consider some context thoughts. (a) Judah was in a terrible situation. (b) Things were so bad that there was no course of action possible but to accept the consequences of poor choices and wicked behavior. (c) Isaiah said, “It is not too late to repent. God’s forgiveness and compassion still exist and are available in His pardon.” (d) In an evaluation of their predicament, Judah concluded on the basis of human evaluation that divine pardon was not a possible option. (e) Isaiah said divine pardon was an option because divine character was not determined by human views or actions.
Key understanding: God’s acts are not determined by human views or human behavior. What God can do is not regulated by human thought or by any human acts that are physically performed. The ways of God are above and beyond human comprehension.
The second is Romans 11:33-36 in the NASV:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
Before making this statement about God, Paul discussed the incredible things God did and continued doing through Jesus Christ. Among those accomplishments were making His people out of groups that had for centuries been enemies (11:28, 29). God could do this without rejecting Israel (11:1, 2). The same grace that did not reject all Israelites when many Israelites made horrible mistakes was the divine grace that accepted gentiles in spite of their horrible mistakes in past centuries (11:6). Just as God blessed gentiles through Jewish faith in God, God would use gentiles as an avenue to bless the Jews (11:11, 12).
This act of God of making His people from both believing Jews and gentiles was declared a “mystery” (11:25). To the Jewish mindset, it was an impossibility (to note how far apart these two groups were, see Acts 13:44-50). The idea of making a single people of God from peoples who were enemies was ridiculous!
Paul’s response to that type of thinking was simple: “You do not know God!” To that, they might say, “Paul, explain yourself! Whatever are you talking about?” Paul’s response to those who confronted him was that God’s wisdom, knowledge, judgments, and ways are beyond the human ability to comprehend or search out. No human has ever or will ever place God in debt! All believing people are in debt to God; God is in debt to no believer. All things exist to glorify Him!
The key understanding: the acts and decisions of God are beyond the comprehension of people. Because something God did seems contradictory to human thinking does not make it unwise, ignorant, unjust, or directionless. Why? God is superior to people!
The third is 1 Corinthians 2:6-8:
Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory . . .
Before he made this statement, Paul talked about how many regarded the horrible execution of Jesus as a foolish act (1:18). He talked about the rejection of God’s actions in Jesus by the physically wise, noble, and powerful (1:26). He talked about not using “acceptable” approaches to proclaim God’s message (2:1-5).
This all happened because God’s actions involved a mystery. In this passage the concept of mystery involved a truth that was not known, could not be discovered, but was now revealed through the One who held the mystery. The mystery was known and declared because of divine revelation, not human discovery.
Note the understandings that must accompany the revelation of the mystery. (a) There are two wisdoms. The first was (is) a wisdom that characterized the thoughts and actions of this world. The second was (is) a wisdom that characterized the thoughts and actions of God. The first wisdom considered the second wisdom to be no wisdom at all, but foolishness. However, the second wisdom was so superior to the first wisdom that it was beyond the comprehension of the first.
(b) If the rulers in the world had comprehended the divine wisdom associated with the existence of Jesus, those rulers would have prevented Jesus’ crucifixion. They allowed Jesus’ unjust death because God’s wisdom was neither known nor understood.
(c) Jesus was not a divine afterthought. God did not scramble to “undo” what people “did” in rebelling against Him. In some way God determined how He would address the problem produced by human rebellion—if it occurred—before He created the world (consider Ephesians 1:4).
The saving of the human being is a cooperative venture that involves both the action of the physical person and the action of God. It is more than a before and after venture with God acting by sending Christ before and people accepting Christ after. It is more than God preparing salvation and people being saved. It involves God being active in preparing salvation, God being active in presenting salvation, and God being active in the lives of those who accept salvation. Salvation is and always has involved an active God—salvation is not merely a human accomplishment produced by human acts as a response to God’s initiatives in Christ.
Salvation in Christ occurred before the New Testament was written. Salvation in Christ occurred before there was mechanical printing. Salvation in Christ occurred when there was an enormous clash between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians. Salvation in Christ occurred when there was the diversity produced by the rites of Jews and the rites of gentiles. Why could salvation in Christ occur in all of this? Salvation in Christ could occur because (a) God’s gift of Jesus Christ was more than adequate for the human need produced by sin and because (b) God is actively involved in saving people who trustingly place their confidence in what God did in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
If you need to remind yourself of what God can do, do some reading.
Read Acts 2:36-40 and note the gift of the Holy Spirit to be received.
Read Acts 5:32 and note God gave the Holy Spirit to those who obeyed Him.
Read Acts 4:29-31
Read Acts 9:1-6
Read Acts 10:17-20
Read Acts 11:18
Read Acts 15:28
Read Acts 16:25-28
Read Acts 18:9, 10
Read Acts 17-21
Read Acts 27:21-25
Read Romans 14:1-15:6
Read 1 Corinthians 8
Read Galatians 1:11, 12
Read Ephesians 1:5-14
Read Philippians 2:12, 13
Read Colossians 1:9-14
Read 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
Read 2 Thessalonians 1:11, 12 and 2:11, 12
Read 2 Timothy 2:8, 9 and 4:16-18
Read Titus 3:4-7
Read Hebrews 2:2-4, 2:18, 4:14-16, 7:25, 12:7-11, and 13:20, 21
Read James 1:5, 17
Read 1 Peter 1:14-17, 2:4-10, 3:17, 4:11, and 5:7, 10
Read 2 Peter 1:11 and 2:9
Read 1 John 1:7, 9; 3:24; 4:4, 12, 13, 16; and 5:10, 16, 20
Read Jude 24, 25
Read Revelation 2:17, 29, and 3:6, 13, 20, 22