Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Your Christ Is Too Small by Frank Viola

Frank Viola has become one of my favorite authors as of late...I may have mentioned that before but it certainly bears repeating if so. The following article is absolutly wonderful and I think for many of us it is very applicable and timely. May it bless you as much as it has blessed me.

The promise of the New Covenant is this: ‚‘I will put My laws into their minds, I will write them upon their hearts. I will be their God and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach every one his fellow-citizen, and everyone his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.’‛1 ‚All shall know Me‛ . . . this is the beating heart of God. I’ll be blunt: Either you and I can know God intimately, or the gospel is a sham. One of the rewards of our Lord’s suffering is that we all shall know Him . . . ‚from the least to the greatest.‛
1 Hebrews 8:10-11. 2 1 Corinthians 12:1ff. 3 2 Corinthians 5:16-17.
Living in organic Body life for many years has taught me the reality of a major teaching in the New Testament. Namely, the Lord dwells in all of us, and He is a speaking God. But the primary vehicle He uses as His mouthpiece is His Body.2 Therefore, you and I will never know Christ deeply or intimately unless we are in a community of believers where each member is free to open their mouths and speak. We learn Christ by being membered with other believers. I’m not talking about the Sunday morning church service that most of us grew up with where one or two members of the Body have the freedom to speak to everyone else. I’m speaking of a community of believers where each member is free to share Christ with one another.
The truth is that we can’t fully know Christ as an individual. We know Him fully through the new creation. That is, we know Him through His Body.3 This understanding changed everything for me. Throughout my years of living in church life, I began to understand that my brothers and sisters in Christ were parts of Christ, and I learned to listen to my Lord through them. I also discovered that the Lord is constantly speaking. And He speaks through His own people even at times when they are unaware of it. If this is true . . . and I assure you it is . . . then how well we know the Lord depends on how connected we are to the other parts of His Body.
(This principle would also include what Christ has revealed to members of His Body in the past. Therefore, whenever I hear Christians make the claim that ‚99.9% of all I read is the Bible,‛ I cringe. Every person I’ve met who made that claim was grossly
imbalanced. And for good reason. Rightly understanding the Bible requires an interpretive community.) My journey into Body life taught me that the Christian life, in its core essence, is living by another life. It’s living by Christ. But it’s not simply living only by the Lord who indwells me. It’s also living by the Lord who indwells my Christian brothers and sisters. I live by the Lord who is in me, and I live by the Lord who is in my fellow brethren (in whom Christ also dwells). God has designed it that way. Consequently, if we will know our Lord deeply, we must be connected to other members of the Body of Christ in a concrete way. And it doesn’t hurt at all to include in that mix exposure to the great teachers of the past whom God has gifted to reveal Christ to His church. Throughout my Christian life, I’ve met believers who had their own private walk with the Lord. They never knew Christian community, yet they had an extremely strong devotional life. Every person who fit that bill, in my experience at least, was lopsided in some arena of their lives. The reason? They didn’t avail themselves of the balancing of the Body. No Christian is wired to live an individualistic Christian life. Without Christian community, we cannot grow normally in the spiritual life. We were designed to live with other Christians and receive their spiritual portion. If you doubt this, please read 1 Corinthians 12 with this possibility in mind. Even so, there’s another lesson I learned which seems to be a little known fact about how the Lord operates. I personally believe it’s God’s way of dealing with the spirit of elitism which He dislikes so much. When we first meet the Lord, He makes Himself quite irresistible to us. He wins us over with His charm. He conquers our heart with His unconditional love. He draws us near by His passion. And we fall in love. If we come into a higher vision of His purpose, we get connected with other believers. We then begin to know Him together; we pursue Him corporately. (Regrettably, many Christians never know this experience.) But there is a danger in receiving a greater revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ, one that moves from shallow waters into the depths. It’s the peril of allowing our first seeing of Christ to shape the way we recognize Him for the rest of our lives! (Please read that sentence again.) I’m going to make this shockingly pointed: The Lord Jesus Christ always ends up coming to us in ways that make it easy for us to reject Him. If we are pressing on to know the Lord, He will eventually come to us in a way that makes it easy for us to ignore Him, dismiss Him, and even reject Him. I’ve watched this happen repeatedly among Christian groups that felt they had a corner on knowing the Lord.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). Do you recall the
way He came into the earth? Consider the situation. For centuries, Israel had waited for a political Messiah. They expected Him to break the yoke of Roman bondage and liberate God’s people from Roman oppression. But how did the Messiah make His entrance into the world? He came in a way that made it easy for His own people to reject Him. He entered this planet as a frail baby, born in a feeding house for animals. The King of the universe was born as a weak human being in the ill-starred town of Bethlehem, in the midst of the stain and stench of animal manure. And His parents? A needy Jewish couple. There He was. The promised Messiah who was expected to overthrow the mighty Roman empire and set Israel free from Gentile oppression. Interestingly, none of the Bible scholars who had the Old Testament memorized and knew the prophecies about the Messiah’s coming were present at Christ’s birth. The only people who were present were those who were led to the stable by revelation. All of them happened to be shepherds and pagan astrologers, not Bible scholars.
When He grew up, He ate and drank in their presence, and He taught in their streets.4 He was unassumingly modest . . . of humble origin. A mere carpenter. The son of a carpenter.
4 Luke 13:26. 5 Luke 7:34. 6 This is what the Greek text says. See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 741-743.
He grew up in the despised city of Nazareth, fraternizing with the despised and oppressed. But more startling, He befriended sinners.5 As such, the people of God didn’t recognize Him. Why? Because He came in a way that made it easy for them to reject Him. And what about the disciples? Read the story again. Jesus continued to break out of their expectations. He couldn’t be pinned down, figured out, or boxed in. The Twelve were constantly confounded by Him. His teachings were offensive. His actions scandalous. His reactions baffling. The greatest offense of all was the cross. It offended everyone—both Jew and Gentile. The only crown the promised Messiah-King would accept was a crown of thorns. Look at Him again. A suffering Messiah . . . a defeated King . . . boy, it’s easy to reject Him. This finds us all of out, doesn’t it? One of the Lord’s most faithful disciples teaches us this principle well. Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the resurrected Christ. Do you remember what she did as soon as she recognized Him? She grabbed Him, and she wouldn’t stop clinging to Him.
Jesus responded saying, ‚Stop clinging to me.‛6 Why did Jesus tell Mary to stop
clinging to Him? Because He had somewhere to go. He was on the move. Jesus was poised to go to Galilee to see the other disciples and then to ascend to His Father. Note the principle: He was moving forward, but she was clinging to Him. Jesus was in effect saying to her: ‚Mary, stop holding on to me. There’s a new way to know me that’s different from what you’ve experienced thus far. Let me go for I must move on.‛ Do you remember the disciples who walked on the road to Emmaus? Their hopes were shattered by the Lord’s horrible death. Suddenly, the Resurrected Christ began walking beside them, yet their eyes were blinded from recognizing Him. When He engaged in the very simple gesture of breaking bread (something He had done frequently before them), their eyes were opened. Then He quickly disappeared from their sight. These stories hold a critical insight. You cannot cling to the Christ that you know today. He will vanish from your midst. Jesus Christ is an elusive Lover. Seeking Him is a progressive engagement that never ends. He doesn’t dance to our music. He doesn’t sing to our tune. Perhaps He will in the beginning when He woos us to Himself; but that season will eventually end. And just when you think you’ve laid hold of Him, He will slip out of your grasp. He will appear to us as a stranger. But upon second glance, we’ll soon discover that He’s no stranger at all. Emmaus will be repeated in our lives. We all wish to cling to the Lord that we know now. We all wish to hold on to the Christ that has been revealed to us today. But mark my words: He will come to us in a way that we do not expect . . . through people who we’re prone to ignore and inclined to write off. Perhaps they don’t talk our religious language. Perhaps they don’t use our vocabulary. Perhaps they don’t share our jargon nor parrot our religious idioms. And so we cling fast to the Lord that we recognize . . . only receiving those who talk our language, use our jargon, and employ our catch phrases . . . and all along we end up turning the Lord Jesus Christ away. I have watched this happen repeatedly. Both among Christians who gather in traditional churches as well as those who gather outside of them. What, then, does our Lord do when we fail to receive Him when He comes to us in an unexpected way? He moves on. And the revelation that we have of Him ceases to grow. I’ve seen churches and movements stop dead-in-the-water, living off of a revelation of Christ that was delivered to them twenty or thirty years ago. And they never got beyond it.
This, in fact, is the very root of denominationalism and Christian movements. It works like this. A group of Christians see an important aspect of Christ. That insight usually comes from a servant of the Lord whom God has raised up to restore a certain
spiritual truth to His church. The group is captured by it. Even changed by it. And they stand on the earth to promote and express it. But then, subtlety, they build a circle around it. And then a castle . . . and then a wall . . . and then they enshrine it. And when someone else comes in contact with them with another aspect of Christ to share, they blow it off with monumental disinterest. Why? Because it’s different from the original sighting of the Lord that they have received. In effect, the group refuses to have fellowship with other Christians who are not like them. Please don’t misunderstand. Fellowship is not having a meal with somebody. Fellowship is mutual participation and exchange. It’s a two-way street. If you and I have fellowship, that means that I receive what the Lord has given you and you receive what the Lord has given me. And we are both enriched. That’s fellowship. Allow me to confess: If I only fellowshipped with those whose beliefs were the same as mine and their understanding of the Lord was the same as mine, then I couldn’t have fellowship with myself ten years ago! Fifteen years ago I would have had to excommunicate myself from the Kingdom of God! Jesus Christ is richer, larger, and more glorious than any of us could ever imagine. And He comes to us in ways that make it tempting to reject Him.
When Peter, James, and John saw the transfigured Lord on the holy mountain, Peter wanted to build a tabernacle for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and remain on the mountain to enjoy the encounter. But God would not allow it.7 There is something in our fallen nature that, like Peter, wishes to build a monument around a spiritual encounter with God and remain there. But the Lord will not have it. He will always break free from our frail attempts to pin Him down, box Him up, and hold Him in place. And He does so by coming to us in new and unexpected ways. ***** Many Christians fear diversity. We all love unity, but we tend toward uniformity. This tendency is most clearly seen in denominationalism. But it exists vibrantly outside of denominational lines as well. Diversity, however, is part of the nature of the Body of Christ. It’s also woven into the universe. Look at creation. Look at your physical body. Look at the unseen Trinity who brought both into existence. What do you find? Particularity with unity. Diversity with harmony. Point: Diversity is a sign of fullness. Therefore, diversity should be embraced and not feared or rejected.
7 Matthew 17:1-4. 6
Yet few things so test the human heart as does diversity. In the early years of my experience in organic church life, some of the brothers in the church held to a teaching that made ‚exercising faith‛ the central emphasis of the gospel. Their zeal for ‚living by faith‛ was not hidden by any means. It was proclaimed quite loudly. These brothers sought to persuade everyone else in the church to embrace their emphasis. And they were unhappy with any other insight or emphasis that didn’t directly relate to theirs. These men had made their particular insight into ‚faith‛ the whole ball of wax. And they wanted everyone else to conform to it. It was during those days that I learned that zealously emphasizing any particular truth, no matter how valid, and trying to persuade everyone else to embrace it was a money-back guarantee for a church split. If I feel that the Lord has given me a particular insight into an important truth, I should not try to coerce everyone else to embrace it with the same zeal that I do. An organic church should be free in this matter. Every believer is at liberty to embrace and share his or her understanding of Christ. However, an organic church will only grow when its members learn how to incorporate one another’s insights into their overall understanding of the Lord.
Until our Lord returns, we will all continue to ‚see in a mirror darkly.‛8 Consequently, a church ought to learn the fine art of weaving together the varied experiences and insights that each member brings to it. Those experiences and insights will be diverse. But they are what make up the Body of Christ. And as long as they don’t take away from the gospel, they ought to be embraced.
8 1 Corinthians 13:12. 9 James 4:7a; Romans 8:28. 10 James 4:7b; 1 Peter 5:8-9.
Sometimes these experiences and insights will constitute a paradox. That is, they will appear to stand in contradiction to one another. For instance, some in the church may emphasize the sovereignty of God in all things. They will remind the church that all difficulties which come into our lives have first passed through the hands of God before they got to us. Therefore, they are for our good, and we ought to ‚submit to God‛ through them.9
Others may emphasize that we are in a spiritual warfare, and that we have an enemy who will attack us through the circumstances of life. In such cases, the Lord wishes for us to ‚resist the devil‛ so that he will flee from us.10 So on the one hand, we should submit. But on the other, we should resist. Both are true. And both must be held in tension.
Throughout the years, I have come to see that the great bulk of Divine truth is paradoxical. For that reason, I have learned to live in the presence of spiritual
contradiction. So much so that I can take a nap in the face of it. But there is something more. With every new seeing of the Lord, there is the temptation to become proud of that new seeing. There seems to be a subtle arrogance that seeks to seep into the human heart when one experiences a deeper experience or understanding of Christ.
Let me be clear. There is nothing more opposite of the Spirit of Jesus Christ than the spirit of pride and arrogance. A famous saying goes like this: It’s possible to be ‚pure as angels and as proud as devils.‛ I disagree. If you’re proud, you’re not pure. For God resists the proud.11 We find Christ in only one issue—poverty. ‚Blessed are the poor in spirit,‛ were our Lord’s words. A spirit of poverty says, ‚I need to know Him more. I don’t have the corner on Him. I am a child in this business. I’m still in school. I’m still learning. I haven’t arrived.‛
11 1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6. 12 Stephen Kaung was a co-worker to the late Watchman Nee. Stephen has been a tremendous influence on my life and ministry.
One of the greatest lessons that Stephen Kaung 12 taught me by his life was the critical importance of remaining humble in the face of the greatest unveiling of Christ. He once brought a message in 1995 that deeply impacted me. He told the story of God’s work in China under Watchman Nee. The stories he told about the work were no less than remarkable. Organic churches were planted all over China in this work. Droves of young people came to the Lord. They touched the glory of God and experienced the Body of Christ in a marvelous way. Most of the traditional churches in China didn’t like these new churches. In fact, they felt threatened by them. Watchman Nee was tagged a ‚sheep-stealer‛ because people who were dying on the vine in the traditional church were joining his work in mass numbers. As Stephen told the story, he stopped and began to weep. He said, ‚But something happened. Pride came over us. Because we had received a deep revelation of the Lord, we felt that we were special. We felt that we were better than other Christians. No longer did we talk about being part of the church, we started saying that we were the church in the city.‛ Stephen went on to say that God let this go on for a while, but eventually, He took His hand off the work. And in Stephen’s opinion, He allowed it to be scattered.
I remember having a conversation with him sometime afterwards. He very simply quoted the Scriptures to me: ‚God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble‛ . .
. ‚Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God and He will lift you up.‛13 Those words possessed thunder and lighting for me. I asked him, ‚Brother Stephen, how does a group of Christians find the Lord in the depths and avoid thinking to themselves that they are special?‛ His reply was simple: ‚Only God can do that . . . our part is to humble ourselves under His mighty hand and He will lift us up.‛ Here’s a prayer to pray. Whenever you see the Lord in a way that steals your breath, that’s the time to turn to Him and say, ‚Lord, let me not lose touch. Keep my feet on the ground and cause me to always remember that I am no better than any other Christian.‛
13 1 Peter 5:5-6. 14 2 Corinthians 12:7. 15 Acts 20:27. 16 For details, see Frank Viola, The Untold Story of the New Testament Church (Shippensburg: Destiny Image, 2004). 17 Revelation 2:1-4.
For it is in times of great revelation that we need the humility of Christ the most. Recall Paul’s thorn in the flesh. God put the thorn into his life to keep his feet on the ground in the face of extraordinary spiritual revelation.14
I have often reflected on the church in Ephesus. Paul lived in Ephesus for three years raising up a church. By his own testimony, he proclaimed ‚the whole counsel of God‛ to the saints.15 Paul unveiled to the Ephesian believers the vision of God’s eternal purpose for three years. He uncorked the mystery of God to them.
Paul held meetings every day for five hours a day in a facility called the school of Tyrannus where he declared Christ and trained young workers.16 Timothy, Titus, and six other men were present as his apprentices. I’m sure those young apprentices ministered to the Ephesian church as well. After Paul was put in prison, Timothy moved to Ephesus and ministered to the church there for a number of years. Some years later, the beloved disciple John ended up in Ephesus. Apollos, who was ‚mighty in the Scriptures,‛ also spent time in Ephesus. So perhaps the church benefited from his ministry also.
Point: The church in Ephesus received the deepest and highest revelation of Christ through choice servants of God—Paul, John, Timothy, Titus, Apollos, etc. And yet, as the New Testament closes, we discover that the church in Ephesus was corrected by the Lord for leaving its first love.17 What happened? If experience has taught me anything, I would speculate that they simply stopped pursuing Him. They got stuck. They clung to the Christ that they had been given by the greatest servants of God, and they stopped there. To put it another way, their Christ was too small.
How well can you know the Lord? You can know Him in proportion to the poverty
that is within your heart. ‚Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus said.‛18 The opposite of that statement is what the Laodicean church said of herself: ‚I am rich and have need of nothing!‛19 A sure mark of spiritual poverty is a wide heart. If you have a narrow heart, you will only recognize Christ through some of His people. And you will be blinded to find Him through others. Jesus Christ is a lot larger than what most of us have thought, and He works through a lot more people than we would expect. So to put it in a question, is your Christ too small?

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