The Value of Spiritual Fatherhood

In every age, according to the wisdom of God the Father of us all,1 fatherhood in the family has been highly important in the development of children into responsible adulthood. God Himself instituted that role, and for believers, that role of fatherhood is of great importance in the moral and spiritual realms, as well as for the physical and economic well-being of the children that fathers either bring into the world or adopt as their own. But spiritual fatherhood to those outside of the family circle has great value as well, particularly in the context of the church of God.

Paul the apostle reminded the Corinthian saints of their relationship to himself as sons of a spiritual father, for he had in Christ Jesus begotten them through the gospel. They were much in need of admonition, and in his warnings to them in I Corinthians 4:15, Paul provides them and us with an insight into how much God values fatherhood in this moral or spiritual sense by presenting to them this contrast: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers”. Christian teachers are needful for learning the wonderful truths of Christianity, but those who act for God the Father in the role of a spiritual father to younger believers have a special part to play in the spiritual development of souls in local Christian gatherings.

I have been impressed recently by five scenes in the Bible that bring out different aspects of this kind of fatherhood, in which we can clearly see the benefit and value of this relationship between older and younger saints. For the sake of brevity, we cannot take more than a quick look at each of these, though further meditation on each of these accounts by the reader is recommended.

David experienced failure as a father, and later lamented it. It was no doubt the Lord who put it on his heart to “show the kindness of God” to a much younger man very much outside of David’s family, a lame man of the house of Saul named Mephibosheth. You may read the lovely account in II Samuel 9, which is very often used effectively in the preaching of the gospel. Permit me, however, to make this observation and application, that David was led to reach outside of his family circle to show God’s kindness and a generous hospitality to poor Mephibosheth. We who are older can find here an example to practice in our own settings, that is, to show intentional kindness to our younger brothers and sisters in Christ.

Elisha the man of God had what might be called an “elder brother” relationship with the sons of the prophets in his day, but it seems he had a more tender and fatherly relationship with the young man who served him. In II Kings 6, we find the prophet and his servant surrounded by the hosts of Israel’s enemy, the Syrians. Elisha sees by faith Jehovah’s angelic hosts as horses and chariots of fire covering the mountain, and seeks to comfort the soul of the young man with these words: “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” This young man needed more than just assurance from Elisha that all would be well, appropriate as this encouragement was at that juncture. What he needed was the spiritual eyesight that his master possessed, so as to be able to see for himself that Jehovah had full control of their difficult situation, and immediately that ability to see the hosts of heaven came through Elisha’s prayer. “Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see”, was the simple prayer God used to bestow spiritual eyesight and strengthen a timorous young man’s faith. Spiritual fathers pray, and pray often, for the younger ones under their care, that they might see and enjoy spiritual realities.

Paul had a stated relationship as spiritual father to both Timothy and Titus, though we get the impression that the character of their individual relationships with Paul differed as to level of intimacy, for their personalities and the situations of their ministry differed. Both faced difficulties (all of the younger men in these examples faced difficulties), but Timothy’s timidity in the face of declining faithfulness in the church brought him often to tears. The apostle tenderly sympathizes with him, as one who had shed many tears himself, then exhorts Timothy to have the courage to be unashamed of the testimony of the Lord and of Paul’s situation as a prisoner, and then to be strong in the grace available to him in Christ Jesus.2 A spiritual father enters into the sorrow and difficulties of his progeny, and on that basis is able to foster courage and moral strength.

In Titus, another of Paul’s sons in the faith, there seems to have been more fortitude and even maturity, perhaps both naturally and spiritually. In Paul’s letter to him, fatherly care and responsibility took more of the form of instruction and wise guidance in the face of the opportunistic false teachers and divisive persons found there on the island of Crete.3 These were the difficult situations Titus faced, and sound teaching would be the remedy for the danger these faithless ones represented to the assembly. A spiritual father of any age ought to provide the appropriate godly instruction to those under his care.

The case of the apostle John and Gaius, one of his spiritual children (for John usually writes of children rather than sons), is wrenching to our spiritual sensitivities. We find this account in the very short epistle of III John. Diotrephes held sway over the assembly where Gaius and Demetrius apparently served the Lord Jesus and ministered to others, and John speaks of his religious tyranny in a way that makes clear he believes it to be an evil element among them. That evil called for John’s rebuke and correction after a godly sort. But he commends Gaius for his faithful service to the brethren and to strangers, and recognizes the prosperity or growth in his soul, perhaps facilitated in part by the difficult circumstances God had asked him to minister in. Finally, John encourages Gaius to not imitate the evil he saw around him and in the church, but to imitate what is good, of which John himself was a worthy pattern. Appropriate commendation for faithfulness along with encouragement to positive goodness is another way a spiritual father may foster growth in the souls of his spiritual children.

May this word to the hearts of all of us who are mature Christians be used of our heavenly Father to the end that all of His children, His “sons and daughters bought with blood”,4 be brought along by grace and grow to maturity in their souls by faith.

1 There is an aspect of the fatherhood of God that is universal: Acts 17:29; Eph. 4:6

2 II Timothy 1:3-12; 2:1-3

3 Titus 1:9-14; 3:10

4 Hymn #3 in Hymns for the Little Flock

Claimed by the Love of Jesus

I suppose very few believers on the Lord Jesus Christ would deny in principle that their Savior has rights to them, or has a claim on their lives, by virtue of the amazing love that brought Him down so low as to die on the cross for their sins. But how we answer to the Lord’s claim on us in our daily lives is too often with a lack of devotion and in regrettable failure.

Simon Peter lived, ministered, and then died as a martyr in devotion to the Lord Jesus, and it was the love of his Master that constrained him1 throughout his course as a servant and an apostle of Christ. Let’s consider in a brief meditation a particular incident in Peter’s life that no doubt had a lasting impact on his thought and his activity in the service of his Savior.

In the last chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus appears to some of His disciples after they had gone fishing at Peter’s suggestion. This chapter of the Bible seems to have as a primary purpose a lesson in the ways of the Lord in restoring His own after failure. In this case, Peter was in need of restoration in the presence of his brethren after so publicly failing the Lord by denying Him in the courtyard of the high priest while Jesus was on trial there.2 The Lord had appeared to Simon after His resurrection, no doubt to assure him of His own unwavering love for the faltering disciple and to restore his soul privately.3 But Peter needed more to prepare him for his path of service.

I hardly need to mention the way the Lord Jesus showed His love to Peter throughout His ministry here, by claiming him in naming him “Cephas” in John 1, by healing his mother-in-law in Matthew 8, by saving him from the waves in Matthew 14, by entrusting him with the keys of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 16, and by giving him a glimpse of kingdom glory with a few others at His glorious transfiguration in Matthew 17. Other examples could be cited. Notice the touching manner in which Jesus looked on Peter after his denials; someone has described it as a “look of wounded love”, moving Peter to repentance, the requisite first step in the restoration of the soul. But Peter needed yet one more session with his Master to cement in his conscious mind how real was the Lord’s love for him, and therefore how real Christ’s claim on his devotion.

Jesus in His restoring grace probes Peter’s heart three times, with three different emphases, in John 21:15-23. The perfection of the Lord’s dealings with His own, as evidenced here, warrants much more attention than a brief essay, but we believe that Peter’s heart was not only touched but fully sounded in the matter of his failure. Little doubt remained that the Lord Jesus had already planned out Peter’s future, both concerning his ministry of feeding Christ’s sheep and lambs, and concerning Peter’s eventual involuntary departure via the article of death.

But Peter’s mind needed a final word from the Lord on that occasion, so as to focus his thoughts on what the Lord Jesus could rightfully claim from him going forward into a future where temporal danger lay for all of the disciples. John clearly enjoyed the special love of the Lord Jesus, and we can perceive that because John refers to himself multiple times, including at this juncture, as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. Now Peter is a little too interested in what would become of John, asking: “Lord, what about this man?” And the answer of the Lord Jesus is exquisite in its tone of tender correction, as well as in its suitability to the hearts of each of His disciples ever since: “If I will that he abide until I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou Me.”

Only true, unselfish love can make such a demand or claim upon the soul. The Lord Jesus Christ is eminently worthy to be followed, worthy of the devotion of all those whom He has redeemed with His precious blood, and whom He loves to the end,4 to the uttermost. Peter received and understood that gracious message of the deeply personal love of his Savior for him, and we can by faith enjoy it and apply it in each of our redeemed souls. May Peter’s courage and devotion to His Lord and Master inspire each of us to the same.

1 II Corinthians 5:14 2 Luke 22:54-62 3 Luke 24:34 4 John 13:1

Warfare in the Spiritual Realm

“Nothing can, nor ever will, take the place of earnestness in prayer: if we are to have God with us, we must pray. It is marked by perfect calmness . . . For our own souls it is so helpful, because prayer is the expression of entire dependencebut at the same time, confidence in God . . . Constant dependence is the constant expression of faith in God; the soul goes to God with God’s affairs; we realize how much they are our own. The blessed Lord has gone down into the dust of death. Satan’s power was exercised to the fullest, but it was all broken. He comes up again and sits at the right hand of God, takes His people, whom He has completely delivered from the hand of Satan, and uses them for conflict against him — the instruments of His service in the world. A wondrously blessed place if we only knew how to hold it — blessed to be made the Lord’s host against Satan. The more you are in the forefront of the battle, the more you will be exposed to the fiery darts. The more you bear testimony to God’s thoughts, God’s mind, the place the saints have in God’s mind, the more you will be the object of Satan’s attacks. You will necessarily be exposed to more snares and dangers than those who lag behind, and there is no place where dependence is more needed and felt.”

The excerpt above on the necessity and benefit of prayer is from a lecture by J N Darby on Ephesians 6:10-20, entitled “Canaan and the Armour of God”. I have attempted a narration of this encouraging address (below), as it has been both a challenge and a blessing to my soul.

Canaan and the Armour of God

The text of Darby’s lecture may be found at this link:

Work Out Your Own Salvation

The apostle Paul’s exhortation to his beloved Philippian brethren to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling1 is sometimes misunderstood. It seems prudent to clarify here at the beginning of this post that the salvation referenced here is not a salvation of the soul, and that it does not teach what might be called a “lordship salvation”. Nor does it really refer to some sort of “outworking” in practical experience by a saved soul. In this admonition, Paul expresses his deep desire that the saints gathered in Philippi would put forth the collective effort required to save or preserve the assembly and its united testimony through, or perhaps above, the difficulties by which their adversaries were working in order to trouble them. Meanwhile, God was working in them the desire and the ability equal to this work of corporate self-preservation, if we may call it that.

In chapter 1 of this epistle, verses 27 and 28, we read the expressed desire of the apostle that there would be oneness in spirit and in soul, and as to physical laboring also, with respect to the high claim of the propagation of the gospel of Christ. He wanted to see with his own eyes, or at least hear about, their collective continuance in unity in the carrying out of the work of the gospel. But there were adversaries, those who opposed that work, as there will always be when Christians seek to honor God and to carry on in testimony for the Lord Jesus. I suggest that these adversaries may have been spiritual beings just as well as human beings. We know that our proper warfare as believers in Christ is against “principalities, against authorities, against the universal lords of this darkness, against spiritual power of wickedness in the heavenlies”2 — in other words, again demonic forces in the spiritual realm.

Regardless of the nature of the opposition, Paul encouraged the saints to be “not frightened in anything by the opposers, which is to them a demonstration of destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God”. Courage in the face of human or spiritual opposition leaves a testimony to those adversaries that their end is certain destruction. At the same time, the courage of faith exercised by the godly gives testimony in the church itself that God is going to bring about a salvation or preservation for His own in spite of the difficulties they face.

The church of God is experiencing more difficulties in the Western world than it has for centuries. Some of those difficulties are brought on by secularism’s increasing hostility to the moral principles of the word of God. In addition to this gradual increase of intolerance toward Christianity, there is the unexpected new reality that civil authorities are imposing a patchwork of changing regulations for meeting together, in response to this year’s coronavirus epidemic that has affected much of the world. As a result of these abnormal impositions, difficulties have arisen among Christians of different backgrounds, personalities, and latent inclinations, and our adversary the devil is using these differences to foment disunity wherever he is given that opportunity.

In the second chapter of this epistle, we find Paul using the perfect example of the Lord Jesus, who humbled Himself, going down, down, down, and becoming obedient to the death of the cross. This mind ought to be in us as His followers, and were it indeed so, much distress among Christians would fade away. But the Spirit of God goes further than simply recounting the perfect earthly pathway of the Lord Jesus for our observation and imitation. We find here also one of the most majestic portions in all of the word of God — a brief but brilliant accounting of the glorious result of Christ’s humiliation and obedience, that is, His exaltation by God. Christ Jesus received from Him “a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

An appreciation of Jesus’ exaltation after His voluntary humiliation ought to provide members of His body with the inclination and the motivation to make every effort to effect their own preservation through difficult situations. He is worthy of it! And then we find, immediately after the exhortation to work out a salvation together, that God even provides the desire and the ability to please Him through our work. “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” How could it be otherwise?

God sets before our eyes “the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow”3 as an encouragement to our hearts to not give up, nor to throw up our hands and say “it’s no use”. The preservation of the testimony of the Lord in the assembly of God is an effort worthy of our desire and diligence as those redeemed to God by Christ and baptized by the Spirit into one body. Our Lord Jesus Christ will make it all worthwhile for us in the end, at His judgment seat, and then at His side during His glorious reign, because our imperfect endeavors at keeping the unity of the Spirit4 and pleasing God will finally and fully redound to the glory of God.

1 Philippians 2:12-13

2 Ephesians 6:12, Darby translation

3 I Peter 1:11

4 Ephesians 4:3

Inviting Guest Contributors

Recently, a brother contacted me to ask if I would be open to a guest piece on a particular subject. I told him that I was happy to entertain that suggestion, and looked forward to what he might contribute. While that didn’t materialize, it started me thinking that there may be others whom the Lord is prompting to share what is on their heart by means of the written word.

If that is something you have an interest in, and you believe the Lord is guiding you in the matter, I would invite you to contact me either by means of the comment section below, or by using my contact information on the About page of this website by clicking here. Feel free to inquire as to the merit of a particular subject prior to writing, or then simply submit for review an article already prepared for publishing.

Contributions should contain 500 – 1500 words and may or not reference current events, but must in any case be based firmly on the word of God, referencing the scriptures with appropriate frequency. Editorial decisions will be made by myself in conference with the contributor, while seeking to be guided by the word of God and prayer.

To God be the glory,

John Kulp

Confidence In God By Faith

One chapter of the Bible that had real meaning for me as a teenager was the 91st Psalm. Other passages that were more doctrinal in nature took hold of my soul and directed my steps in a more definite manner a few years later, but this wonderful Psalm helped lay a foundation for a young person’s confidence in God and His sovereign goodness and faithfulness. I’m certain it has done so for countless others.

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee . . . Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways . . . Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him . . .

Now it is true that Psalm 91 applies most directly to the Messiah as the perfect, dependent Man. But we who know God in this age can learn from this portion what true confidence is, by faith in Him who has fully revealed His name to us as Father, by His Son Jesus, our Savior and Deliverer. J. N. Darby gave these insightful comments on it: “Faith thus, in its confession of His name, makes [that name] its refuge and strong tower, and moreover trusts in it: a great thing, for no power of evil, no cause of distress can be anything to upset the mind, if the Lord be looked to and trusted in. [Faith] has here the promise of ever watchful and protecting care. This is true whatever outward evil may come. As we see in Luke 21:16-18, the Lord says some of them should be put to death, but not a hair of their head should perish — they were all counted. Providential power is all at God’s disposal.”

It is likely that the three Hebrew children who stood before King Nebuchadnezzar had in their souls the enjoyment of this psalm. What was their answer to the king of Babylon when given the ultimatum of bowing to the golden image or else suffering the furnace of fire? “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thy hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image that thou hast set up” (Daniel 3:16-18). Their confidence in Jehovah’s ability to preserve and deliver them had not wavered once on those occasions where we see them in connection with Daniel, nor did they falter here when he was absent. Whether or not they would avoid or survive the fire, the confidence of these outstanding young men was in the One who would most certainly bring them through to a “better resurrection”. That final outcome is what so many others have looked forward to by faith, some of whom are referenced in that magnificent eleventh chapter of Hebrews, where we have recorded for the encouragement of our faith the triumphs and rewards of full confidence in God.

The disciples of the Lord Jesus (in contrast to those faithful ones “of whom the world was not worthy”) occupied a place at a point in time that could only be considered as privileged far above anything experienced by men up until that time in history. Even Adam in the garden did not have the Son of God walking with him in bodily form, communing with him, and personally seeing to his every need, like the twelve friends of Jesus had.1 But on more than one occasion, the disciples forgot just who was with them in the boat when the storm arose and the sea threatened. In Mark 4:37-41, their trust in their Master reached such a low ebb that they began to doubt His care of them. “Carest Thou not that we perish?” was their cry to Jesus who, taking his rest on a pillow, had always perfect confidence in the One who had already answered that confidence in the psalm referenced above: “Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him.” They feared and doubted; He trusted God absolutely.

How did the Lord Jesus answer His worried disciples? He who always met every occasion and every difficulty with perfect evenness in Himself and wisdom toward others responded to them in a manner that may sound almost harsh to our ears, for we are prone to make allowances for fear and doubt in our own minds. “Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?” To their credit, if we may say so, the disciples did not resort to defensiveness, nor even to embarrassment or shame. Rather, their doubtful fear of perishing was quickly replaced with a godly fear of wonder and admiration at the almighty power and faithful care of this One whom even the winds and seas obeyed.2

How forgetful at times are those with the highest privileges and the closest ties to the Lord Jesus! As Christians who live now while He is in the glory, we have benefits and blessings that the disciples did not, including “another Comforter” (the Holy Spirit) to assume the place for us that Jesus had among the twelve. We have life and incorruptibility brought to light by the gospel, and we are saved in hope of eternal life, “which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began.”3 In light of all this and more, we ought to view each trial and every danger we face as an opportunity to reflect upon our Lord’s abiding care and love for us, and to place our entire confidence in God our Savior and in Christ Jesus, our hope.

His love, in time past, forbids me to think
He’ll leave me at last in trouble to sink:
Each sweet Ebenezer I have in review
Confirms His good pleasure to help me quite through.

John Newton, 1779

1 Luke 22:35; Mark 8:14-21

2 Compare Matthew 8:27, Mark 4:41, and Luke 8:25.

3 II Timothy 1:10; Romans 8:24; Titus 1:2; I Timothy 1:1

Getting a New Heart

You might ask why a “new heart” would be worth getting, or what is even meant by such an unusual expression. Heart transplants are not uncommon in this era of advanced medical procedures, but I suppose you understand that what I mean in raising the subject of getting a new heart has nothing to do with our physical selves. Rather, it is a moral or spiritual change that is in view here.

Men have always been responsible to their Creator God, responsible to obey Him without question or reservation for self. But from the very first temptation of the woman in the Garden of Eden, because of which both the woman and the man transgressed, all mankind has been shown to incline toward self-interest and away from their entirely good, faithful, and wise God. Adam and Eve distrusted God, and turned away after what tasted good as food, looked good to the eyes, and promised to be good for the mind. So began the long slide of the human race into departure from and rebellion against the God and Father of all.1

Jehovah gave Israel the Law by Moses in order to test what was in man’s heart, what were his affections and desires, and they who were placed (willingly) under the Law promptly broke it, and continued to do so. When God sent prophets to bring them back to Himself by means of warnings and pleadings, it mostly fell on deaf ears, and on hearts that were hard as stone. We might observe that Ezekiel in particular gets to the very heart of the matter of Israel’s departure and rebellion at the very end of Judah’s history under the kings. He puts on them, by the word of the Lord, the responsibility for making themselves “a new heart and a new spirit”, while casting away their transgressions, so that they would be kept from a moral death under His righteous judgment (Ezekiel 18:30-32).

Did the house of Israel (Judah in particular) heed Jehovah’s pleadings at that late hour? No, they did not, and so they were destroyed as a nation, who once were meant to be head of the nations, and punished for many years before God in mercy brought a small remnant back to Immanuel’s land.2 Then, when Immanuel (Jesus the Christ) arrived there centuries later, He was rejected by those who occupied that place, the Jewish people and their leaders.

“He came unto His own, and His own received Him not”, is the testimony of St. John at the very beginning of his gospel (John 1:11). When given every advantage, to the point even of having their Messiah among them in the character of “God with us”, they failed to hear Jehovah’s long-standing appeal to make themselves a new heart. Such a new heart would have received His Servant Jesus from the beginning of His manifestation to Israel by John the Baptist (John 1:31). Therefore, all was lost to them on the ground of their responsibility, and their hearts remained “deceitful above all things, and incurable.”3

We have established, I trust, that all men under responsibility to God have not only sinned against, departed from, and rebelled against their Maker, but they have also rejected or despised the One whom He sent to be their Savior. That One, Jesus, after it is testified that He knew what was in the heart of man, plainly tells Nicodemus that a radical change had to occur in the hearts of His people before they could enter, or even see by faith, the kingdom of God that He represented.4 No doubt Nicodemus should have understood the Lord’s reference (by allusion) to the prophet Ezekiel’s figure of the stony heart5 and its incurable character, which must be replaced by a living and reponsive heart of flesh that is completely new! But Nicodemus and others who were teachers in Israel had apparently lost this understanding long ago. Meanwhile, their hard and unbelieving hearts looked for signs, but refused in any case to believe, when miracles were so plentiful and obvious during Jesus’ ministry of mercy and grace.

Notice that Jesus does not tell Nicodemus nor the Jews to cause themselves to be born again, nor to make themselves a new heart. He does not put on them that responsibility, for by then it had become manifest that this would just not happen on that ground, on the principle of responsibility. A teacher in Israel should have understood by Ezekiel’s prophetic writings (in chapters 11 and 36), that Jehovah would replace their stony hearts with a new heart of flesh, wholly by means of and on the principle of sovereign grace. God will surely fulfill His promise and bring about this change unilaterally in a coming day when He gathers His earthly people out of all countries, and brings them into their own land. Jesus in John 3:1-15 simply laid out the necessary condition upon which any soul, at any time in history, would be able to look by faith upon Him lifted up on the cross, receiving the testimony of God; He does not address the responsibility nor the initiative for the change of heart that results in such a faith.

All must be on the ground of pure grace, for man under responsibility has so utterly failed. God can only work with and in a new heart, a heart that is alive and responsive, to bring about conformity to His Son. “Another heart”, like the one King Saul acquired,6 is a temporary change, and of a different order entirely than the heart-change to which Ezekiel testifies. Saul perished an ungodly man on the mountains of Gilboa, though early in his life he seemed to exhibit the very best of man put under responsibility. But it was not enough, could never be enough, to reach the standard of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

It is that glory — Christ’s glory — that will be manifested in us and to us in that coming day when He will be glorified in all them that believe.7 And all the glory redounding to Christ in that day will not have been because we met some standard of responsibility to do or become anything, for it can only be because of His amazing grace.

1 Genesis 3, 4, 6, 11, & 13:13, etc.; Romans 1:18-32; Acts 17:24-31; Ephesians 4:6

2 Isaiah 8:8; Matthew 1:23

3 Jeremiah 17:9 (JND New Translation)

4 John 2:23 – 3:15

5 Ezekiel 11:19 & 36:26

6 I Samuel 10:9

7 John 17:22; Romans 8:18-21; II Thessalonians 1:10; I Peter 1:6-11

A New Normal for Worship?

There is an element in Western society that is moving to bring about lasting changes to the way humans interact, ostensibly for the peace of mind and protection of the public. The coronavirus epidemic that has affected much of the world seems to be acting as a catalyst for the desired transition to a “new normal” for social interaction, travel, and public gatherings.

Here is an example of the thinking that has lately been expressed in the public domain by those in a position to bring about, or at least to significantly influence, such societal changes:

The question now is, how are we going to reinvent ourselves as a human species? “We will not go back to what life was like before January of this year,” Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, said this week in releasing updated COVID-19 prognostications. Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu also summoned our post-pandemic future in a briefing, saying testing is just one layer of the health safety net needed to “arrive at the new normal.”

(National Post, May 2, 2020)

And for a more recent example of this new order thinking:

“We don’t believe there’s a green light that says go back to the way things were.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom, August, 2020

We wouldn’t want to spend much time speculating about what some would like to see in a “new normal” in the broader society, but here are a few possibilities, all of which have either been proposed or are being practiced somewhere: using elbow bumps rather than handshakes when greeting others, working and holding meetings virtually rather than in person, expanding the use of plexiglass barriers, perpetuating government mandates for wearing face coverings inside and even outside, developing a robust surveillance regime made possible by technological advances, requiring health documentation for travel or employment, and expecting citizens to report neighbors for not conforming to the requirements of these completely new societal norms. Many people may already be resigned to these new ideas being implemented and continued on into the indefinite future, to the extent they believe them to be instrumental in maintaining safety and avoiding risk. I would suggest that there is an attractive moralistic component to much of this desire for change, and that it originates in a humanistic world view.

Perhaps some of you have been considering and praying about how this impetus for change to a permanent new normal in the broader society might affect Christian gatherings and worship, or whether it should have an effect. I suppose that most of us understand and accept that the specter of a worldwide contagion, along with the way the governments and the media of the world responded to it, legitimately gave pause to church-goers who wanted to be kept safe from a potentially deadly viral infection. Consequently, all over the world changes were made quickly to the order and manner of worship services and church meetings, either on the advice or at the demand of authorities.

Christianity in its belief and practice places high value on openness and brotherly intimacy, or closeness, perhaps more so than most other belief systems in the world. God did not intend that the church should exist on earth without this ethic of closeness and interpersonal vulnerability. Some measure of risk to ourselves is unavoidable in everyday life, and it is inherent in any effort made by faith to gather and interact as Christians for the glory of God.

Let’s look at some of the practices of the early church, long before there was a concept of health risk being attached to the normal behaviors of saints. They met together indoors in close quarters, often in their homes, perhaps in groups of 50 to 100.1 They ate together at what they called “love-feasts”.2 Christians who were in fellowship with each other passed the broken bread and the cup of wine during the Lord’s supper, for that symbolized the communion of the body and blood of Christ.3 They greeted each other warmly with embraces or kisses of love.4 They extended their right hands to each other, or laid hands on others, at times as a sign of fellowship, and other times in healing the sick.5 It required close physical proximity to baptize those who made confessions of faith, individually or as households, and when the occasion called for it, elders anointed the sick with oil in the name of the Lord.6 It was customary to wash the feet of other saints after walking a distance for a visit.7 “Social distancing” is a new paradigm by which we might be expected to modify these long-practiced brotherly behaviors, so we ought to very carefully examine the validity of the reasoning behind it in the light of God’s word.

There are other scriptural practices common among Christians that have seen changes or restrictions during this trying period. Singing heartily to the Lord and for the encouragement of each other8 has been the blessed pattern among believers for thousands of years, long predating the Christian era, but a concern about a viral spread during singing has brought with it inhibitions or prohibitions against the practice. Gathering for worship with open faces was no doubt the accepted practice among spiritually cleansed worshipers,9 in keeping with the encouragement to come boldly into the heavenly sanctuary, but worshiping with face coverings is now encouraged or mandated in some places. And although the apostles and other saints in even the earliest days of the church traveled from one locale to another for the work of the Lord, and to have fellowship with other gatherings of believers,10 a new travel restriction paradigm has been introduced that may be used again in the future to limit the movement of Christians for fellowship or service.

All of this is not to discount the need for Christians to use wisdom and discretion during times of crisis or pestilence, given the cumulative knowledge base applying to the matter at hand. We ought to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16) in all of our interactions, and may the Lord Jesus give us the grace to carry on in the manner in which He enjoined His disciples when He charged them with traveling the land with the gospel of the kingdom.

But I am convinced that we err if we entertain the proposition that scientific advances and modern medical knowledge might render obsolete any of the practices of the early church, so that health risks might be avoided. We ought to expect that these scriptural practices be resumed according to what was the normal pattern in the past, as soon as faith and confidence in our all-sufficient, sovereign God allows for it. Indeed, meeting as Christians ought always to be a matter of faith, rather than merely a tradition or a habit or a calculation of risk versus reward. Christian brethren, let us not submit to the idea of a “new normal” for worship and fellowship. It is Christ’s body that we are members of, and His claims with respect to our gatherings and our interaction as that “one body” ought to take preeminence. Should we not then consciously begin with His pattern in view and impressed upon our consciences, even when obliged to consider the matter of risk to ourselves and to our fellowmen?

It is needful that we encourage each other to trust in the God who by His Spirit formed the church almost 2,000 years ago, giving to those early saints by means of the apostles many practices and instructions that established a timeless “normal”. If first-century Jewish hygiene, based on the Law of Moses, was compatible with the close social interaction that these practices assumed and even depended upon, who are we to question the wisdom of the Spirit of God who directed the apostles in the establishment of these practices? Knowing a little of the faithfulness of our God, I am very doubtful that an early church practice will be found at last to be unhealthful among Christians who seek to carry them on by faith, in the absence of manifestly symptomatic disease.11 But I am confident that the Lord Jesus Christ will honor believers who give His claims, and the apostles’ teaching on worship and fellowship, their rightful place by faith, while being guided by wisdom from above.

1 Acts 2;46; 20:7-11; Philemon 2; Mark 6:40

2 Jude 12

3 Luke 22:14-20; I Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:20-26

4 Acts 20:36-37; I Peter 5:14

5 Galatians 2:9; I Timothy 4:14; 5:22; Acts 28:8

6 Acts 8:38; James 5:14

7 I Timothy 5:10; Luke 7:44

8 Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16

9 II Corinthians 3:18; Hebrews 10:19-22

10 Acts 18:18 – 19:1

11 See Leviticus 13:38-46; Leviticus 15

Have You Been With Jesus?

Christians have the blessed hope of being “with Christ”, should the worst come upon us that man can think of: death.  Paul wrote that phrase in Philippians 1:23, while contemplating the possibility of his death, and what a comfort those few verses are to saints!  Death opens the door for us to be “with Christ, which is far better”.

In using the title “Christ”, as in the phrase “with Christ”, we are put in mind of our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ as our Redeemer and our glorified Head in the heavens. We can be certain that death, should we experience it, will beyond any shadow of doubt bring His redeemed ones to Himself. 

And then there is this phrase: “with the Lord”.  Paul writes this in I Thessalonians 4, as he gives that revelation of the rapture of living believers, along with the resurrection of the saints who have died. “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with [the dead in Christ] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

When we speak of being “with the Lord”, the title given there — “Lord” — is in view of Him being “Lord of all” in a coming day of His power. He will soon return for His own, to take us to the Father’s house, and then He will return with us to reign over the earth as “King of kings and Lord of lords”.¹   The thought of being “forever with the Lord” implies and looks forward to the truth of our coming back to reign with Him.  Paul assured the Thessalonians, and by extension all believers, of that blessed truth of the Lord Jesus Christ being glorified over all in heaven and earth, and we glorified with Him.

But there is another meaningful phrase that’s found a few times in the New Testament, and it is: “with Jesus”. In this expression, we have the idea of Jesus walking among men, and of His disciples following Him, for they were known by others to have been “with Jesus”. When we consider Him as “Jesus” in His walk through this world, we remember that He called disciples to walk with Him by enjoining them in this way: “Follow Me!” And now that Jesus is gone from the earth and seated in the heavens, we have that wonderful word in Hebrews 12, exhorting us to “run with endurance the race that lies before us, looking stedfastly on Jesus the leader and completer of faith”. That man Jesus, who completed perfectly the path of faith in this scene, is eminently worthy of being followed by us as we pass through this life.

In Matthew 26:51, while Jesus was being arrested, we read that “one of them that were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest’s, and smote off his ear.” We know from John’s gospel that this was Simon Peter. He was in a favored place, being there with Jesus. Peter had been with Jesus for more than three years, and had heard His teaching on turning the other cheek, and on how it was the will of the Father that the Son would lay down His life for His own for the glory of God. But being under the sound of Jesus’ teaching doesn’t necessarily make a difference in our lives and in our actions, until the Spirit of God makes it good to our hearts and consciences. Perhaps Peter had a real emotional desire to defend his Master. But the Lord Jesus had to rebuke Peter for that activity of the flesh. We need rebuke for acting in the flesh sometimes as well, for letting emotion rather than faith direct our action.

Then a little later in verse 69, while Jesus was on trial before the high priest, we find Peter in the courtyard warming himself by the fire. He has been observed being “with Jesus” by one of several individuals there, and this one was a young girl. Maybe she had seen him out in the streets with Jesus at an earlier time, and it had made an impression on her. But Peter wasn’t very close to Jesus at this time, and it is only in being close to the Lord that we can be kept from denying or disobeying Him.  Being with Jesus at an earlier time in our lives will not guarantee that we will be faithful to Him when trials come. Peter learned that the hard way after the third denial, and he went out and wept bitterly. Peter was the Lord’s, and Jesus had Peter in His hand so that he couldn’t utterly fall away.  But we need to be near to Him, companying with Him on the path of faith daily, in order to live for His glory.

But then, when we go from the gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest and trial, His death, and His resurrection, and read on to Acts chapter 4, we see a remarkable change of scene. On the day of Pentecost, the foretold coming of the Spirit of God baptizes and fills the apostles with power, and they begin with boldness to preach Jesus as the exalted Christ. Thousands are added to the newly-formed assembly of God, and signs and wonders are done by Peter and the other apostles as a testimony to the power of God, and to the gospel.  One miracle in particular, the healing of the lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, gives occasion for Peter and John to preach Jesus to a multitude on Solomon’s porch. The envious rulers of the Jews laid hands on them and put them in jail overnight, but only after another 5,000 believed.

The next day, Peter and John were called to account for their message of the resurrection of this Jesus whom they were preaching. When asked by what power, and under the authority of what name, they were preaching to the people, Peter took the lead and gave an eloquent and powerful answer that confounded the rulers. Luke records what those rulers thought of the two apostles, who were by no means learned men. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.”  This was the same Peter of whom it had been remarked during his earlier failures that he was “with Jesus”, now testifying with power in the face of the same opposition to his Lord, the opposition of the power of darkness.2 And what a testimony! such that it prompted their enemies and detractors admit that there was an intelligence and a power in them that could not be explained by their education or pedigree, but that was the result of having been with the very Man whom those Jewish leaders had delivered up to be crucified!

Those rulers recognized in the apostles the result of being with Jesus. The Holy Spirit recalled to the apostles’ minds the words of Jesus which they had heard from Him during His ministry, and they spoke with godly confidence and plainness in the power of the Spirit that which Jesus had taught them from the holy scriptures.

Dear Christian brothers and sisters, is it plain to others that we have been with Jesus?  Are we exercised in our minds and committed in our hearts to continue in the path of faith with Jesus on a daily basis, by the Spirit, so that not only our words, but also our ways, give abundant evidence that we are in communion with Him, following His steps?3  How prone we are to wander, but it ought to be our hearts’ desire to continue to learn from His gracious words and ways. May our Lord Jesus Christ be glorified in us, and may it be clear that our spirits have been “with Jesus”.

1   Acts 10:36; Romans 14:6-11; Revelation 19:16

2 Luke 22:53

3 I Peter 2:21

Faith and Civil Obedience

There is little disagreement among those who esteem the Bible as the very word of God that it teaches the responsibility of Christians to be in subjection to civil authorities that are instituted by God for the benefit of men in a fallen world.  It is a far-reaching injunction, affecting many aspects of our lives, particularly under more authoritarian (and therefore less libertarian) governments. But there is a limit to the obedience that a man or woman of faith is bound to render to earthly authorities, and the concept of some such theoretical limitation is also almost universally agreed upon by serious Christians.

It is this tension of the sometimes-conflicting responsibilities of being subject to civil authorities on the one hand, and to obey and fear God on the other, that takes real exercise of faith before the Lord, and patience and understanding among believers. As always, in matters of Christian faith and practice, it is best to begin with the scriptures, and then to ask God for wisdom from above to apply them to the situations He brings into our path through this world.  Listed here are most of the pertinent New Testament texts:

Be in subjection therefore to every human institution for the Lord’s sake; whether to the king as supreme, or to rulers as sent by him, for vengeance on evildoers, and praise to them that do well. Because so is the will of God, that by well-doing ye put to silence the ignorance of senseless men; as free, and not as having liberty as a cloak of malice, but as God’s bondmen. Shew honour to all, love the brotherhood, fear God, honour the king. (I Peter 2:13-17)

Let every soul be subject to the authorities that are above him. For there is no authority except from God; and those that exist are set up by God. So that he that sets himself in opposition to the authority resists the ordinance of God; and they who thus resist shall bring sentence of guilt on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to a good work, but to an evil one. Dost thou desire then not to be afraid of the authority? practise what is good, and thou shalt have praise from it; for it is God’s minister to thee for good. But if thou practisest evil, fear; for it bears not the sword in vain; for it is God’s minister, an avenger for wrath to him that does evil. Wherefore it is necessary to be subject, not only on account of wrath, but also on account of conscience. For on this account ye pay tribute also; for they are God’s officers, attending continually on this very thing. Render to all their dues: to whom tribute is due, tribute; to whom custom, custom; to whom fear, fear; to whom honour, honour. (Romans 13:1-7)

Put them in mind to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient to rule, to be ready to do every good work.  (Titus 3:1)

And having called them, they charged them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answering said to them, If it be righteous before God to listen to you rather than to God, judge ye; for as for us we cannot refrain from speaking of the things which we have seen and heard. But they, having further threatened them, let them go, finding no way how they might punish them, on account of the people, because all glorified God for what had taken place.  (Acts 4:18-21)

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:27-29)

Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not? . . . And [Jesus] said to them, Pay therefore what is Caesar’s to Caesar, and what is God’s to God. (Luke 20:22-25)

(All quotations above are from J. N. Darby’s New Translation of the Bible.)

We sometimes hear this conflict of competing responsibilities solved abstractly in this way: “Christians must obey civil authorities unless doing so would cause you to sin.”  But I do not believe this brief statement sufficiently captures either the essence of the conflict or all that issues from the attempt to frame it that simply. This is especially true if we are thinking of the verb “to sin” in the way people normally think of it — as committing an act of disobedience or rebellion against God.  But even with the definition of sinning broadened to include acts of omission or failure to obey a command of God, I believe it is still possible to miss the spirit of what it means to give “what is God’s to God.”

Let us consider a couple of examples.  Very often in the history of the church of God, Christians have been forbidden to meet together for worship, teaching, and prayer. Now, few among us would consider it a sin for a believer, if forbidden by government fiat from meeting with other Christians, to stay at home and worship God the Father and the Son in the safety of his private room.  But at the same time, many of us would appreciate the faith that would risk arrest and punishment so that Christ might be honored in having saints gathered around Himself, unto His name (Matthew 18:20).  Our consciences, when instructed in the claims of God upon us, discern instinctively that this is doing nothing other than rendering to God what is God’s, for Christ must in all things have preeminence. God never intended that His church should meet, break bread, sing, or be taught, at the dispensation or pleasure of a king or governor, although as individual believers we are to be subject.  However, “being subject” does not imply unqualified obedience;¹ rather, it refers to the conscious attitude of ranking or placing oneself under another in a God-given authority structure.

What would faith do when singing praises to God is forbidden?  Surely it is not a sin to cease singing for a time.  The godly once refrained from singing the songs demanded of them by their tormentors while consciously under the judgment of God in a strange land (Psalm 137).  But we enjoy beautiful English hymnody with lines like this:  “He justly claims a song from thee”, and “the Savior’s love demands our song”, and again, “Should we refuse our songs to raise, the stones might tell our shame abroad.”  Paul and Silas sang praises at midnight when it was perhaps annoying to others and risky for themselves in that Philippian jail (Acts 16:25), for they enjoyed in their souls the same spirit of praise that moved these hymn writers. It is recorded that Anabaptist martyrs of the 16th century lost their tongues before they lost their lives at the burning stake for their boldness in singing during the hour of their deepest distress.

Let these examples of faith temper our understanding of what it means to “obey God rather than men”. Peter and John answered thus when commanded not to be teaching in the name of Jesus, after also having given this testimony as our example:  “We cannot refrain from speaking of the things which we have seen and heard.”  Later it was Paul who exhorted the saints to continue “speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and chanting with your heart to the Lord”, and to be “teaching and admonishing one another, in psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to God” (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).

The examples we have looked at should not be seen as exactly transferable to the present circumstances. But what then should be the response of faith in a day when civil authorities proscribe certain activities long valued by saints, and which are patterned by the holy scriptures as the normal corporate answer of the body of Christ to His claims? I suggest that it is not so simple as asking whether a certain rule or regulation would cause you to sin.  This is the time and place where the exercise of faith is needed in a special way among Christians in the West.  There is no legal answer that will suffice to satisfy the situation here, or to solve the dilemma. Some may by faith and in good conscience do as Daniel did in Medo-Persia long ago, who, knowing full well the prohibition on worshiping the God of heaven, “kneeled on his knees three times a day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime” (Daniel 6:10).

Others may seek wisdom from God to direct their steps and have their faith exercised in a more cautious or incremental manner.  We find differing exercises of faith and courage among the faithful in the Bible, and even among Paul’s compatriots. Saints have differing levels of natural boldness or timidity as well, but each of us answers to one Lord. “Each of us shall give an account concerning himself to God” (Romans 14:12).  We ought to have expanded hearts toward each other as members of the body of Christ, and especially during times of difficulty and distress, rather than using a narrow or legal framework to evaluate the moves or motives of others (II Corinthians 6:11-13).

I want to consider yet how faith might act in a foreseeable future, if the Lord Jesus does not come soon to take His own out of this increasingly evil world. Have you thought about how you might respond by faith under a creeping authoritarianism?  I realize that some Christians do not see current restrictions and possible future epidemic mitigation tactics as anything but a reasonable response to a dire situation. I hope they are correct that things will soon return to “normal” and remain that way until the Lord comes.

What if Satan, with thousands of years of experience and a desperation due to the shortness of his time (Revelation 12:12) — what if he might be slowly but steadily getting Western Christians used to giving up their liberty to worship God (collectively, for now), under the guise of legitimate public health concerns? What if liberties are further encroached upon when a vaccine is produced and all are ordered to receive it under pain of house arrest or something akin to it? We might submit to such mandates simply to avoid the government’s “wrath”², with conscience unaffected.  But how should we respond if political will or bureaucratic momentum catch up to the existing technology for imposing tracking devices or chips in order to keep citizens “safe” from disease, or perhaps at some point from psychological harm (read: Bible teaching)? What if you become responsible by law for reporting your neighbor’s “antisocial” activities? What if your child is denied a Christian education in a private school or homeschool because of political maneuvering in the context of fear, and your faith prompts you to reject the state’s agenda of indoctrination? A year ago, it would have seemed strange to most Christians in North America to be asking these questions, but now they can be found in news reports as that which society will be facing in the future.  There is nothing but God’s restraining goodness that can slow the insidious progression of an authoritarian technocracy that could, in our lifetimes, serve to put to the test the faith of every true saint of God.

At some point along the short or long slide into authoritarian rule (in which evil will increasingly be called good and good, evil), people of faith will find it necessary to decline to comply with the mandates or restrictions that impinge upon the practice of their faith, as have millions of Christians throughout history outside of our narrow frame of reference that is 19th and 20th century Western civil society. And our outlook must not be limited by present experience; we must look ahead and prepare our minds by faith for what may come, and be determined in our hearts to practice what would be due to Christ, should we face incrementally more restrictive circumstances.

Dear Christian brother and sister, I wish not to appear lawless, divisive, or dramatic, but rather, I hope to encourage faith and faithfulness in view of difficult times to come. Whatever our individual perception of how quickly things will develop toward the turmoil and panic and despotism we know must come to pass at some point (for it is plainly foretold in the book of the Revelation), let us each be stirred up to have Christ Jesus our Hope before us as the Morning Star rising in our hearts.³  At the same time, let us begin to consider these words of the Lord to His little flock: “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man” (Luke 21:36).


¹    Different words are used to give the respective senses of “to be subject” (hupotasso) and “to obey” (hupakouo), even as the subjection of the wife to her husband differs from the obedience called for by a child to his parents, or of Christ’s obedience.

²    Romans 13:5

³    I Timothy 1:1; II Peter 1:19