I was in the cemetery at my grandmother’s resting place. This particular memorial park was an exclusively flat-stone only grounds, and each stone had a metal vase that you twisted out of the middle of the stone and turned over to display flowers. My aunt had tried to pull it out for Mother’s Day, but it was stuck. I was down on my hands and knees using a pocketknife trying to pry the vase free, it wasn’t budging! I look over and my daughter is on her knees with her hands folded. I asked what she is doing and she responded, “I’m praying that God will help you get the vase unstuck.” Frustrated and very sweaty, I was baffled because I was sure the good Lord had more important things on his plate than helping me turn a vase over…I mean, God doesn’t really work that way does he? When I returned to my car, I was blown away that at the very moment I was working, prying, and feeling defeated by a gravestone, my seven year old was praying.
Sometimes the things we perceive as strengths can become the most restrictive shackles to our faith. I think the ancient story of Adam and Eve still plays out in us…you see, I was reminded in that moment and many others that I have chosen to feast on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moreover, I have studied the Bible and with that understanding comes the “shackle” of trusting myself to define not only if something is good or evil, but if God is likely to act or not act in a given situation. I think there are too many times where my familiarity with God through the Bible allows me to arrogantly move without an element of trust—to serve before prayer, as if God already affirms what I have decided to do.
As I reflect on this type of “faith,” I think it is why I tend to accomplish only the things I am naturally good at doing, never venturing into the unknown, uncomfortable, or uncontrollable. Those ministry opportunities or missions are just too sizable for my skills…it would take more than what I have. I believe that true faith gives LIFE (like the other tree in the garden) and often moves beyond our knowledge, skills, and experience.
Products of a fallen and broken world, I think that all of us come to God with a shackled faith of some sort. And I must admit that I like my shackles because they provide me with a way of understanding faith and they allow me to know that I am growing in faith.
Whenever I ask the question, “Does God really work that way?” I am beginning to see that question as a growth question because it is a direct attack on my knowledge and experience. When I reread the scriptures asking the question, “What does the Bible really say about this?” I see this question as a challenge to my study and the past interpretations. And when I finally take an opportunity to trust God and lean on God, when I find myself on a plane to Africa, having dinner with a stranger, opening up a Bible study, or praying that God would intervene in our heroin crisis…I realize that God is in the process of breaking my shackles and setting me free to trust him more.
We all have shackles, and God calls us anyway. As I think about what it means to live an unshackled faith, I think about the New Creation described at the end of Revelation. I think about all of the brokenness we have, all of the obstacles that make us cry to God to increase our faith, relieve our doubts, and give us greater perseverance. But there is great day coming when our faith will become sight. John says that God will, “…dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
Today we battle our shackles, but we learn to trust God, to believe God, and one day our hope is to be unshackled, face to face with God Almighty, Creator of the unbroken world!
Prayer: Creator God, call us to greater works and allow us the opportunity to trust in You more and more as that great day gets closer and closer. Our desire is to be set free from the shackles that hold us back. I pray that you reveal to me the limits of my faith so that I can identify my shackles and receive healing and wholeness from You. Come Lord Jesus, so that our faith can become sight and our brokenness can be fully restored. Lord God make all things new and that includes me, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Jonathan Woodall serves the GracePointe Church of Christ in Elizabethtown, PA. He is married to Hayley and they have two children. Jonathan spent ten years in campus ministry at Soma Memphis serving the University of Memphis and served as a worship minister at the White Station Church of Christ. Jonathan has a desire to see the church reach the next generation and is particularly drawn to the communication of God’s story through preaching and teaching, especially as it pertains to our contemporary context. Jonathan’s blog can be found at www.jonathanfwoodall.com and the church website is www.gracepointechurchofchrist.org (PS – if you are coming to Hershey, PA for a vacation or whatever, come worship with us!)
The biblical principle of sabbath climaxes in the celebration of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25. In Luke 4:18-19 Jesus describes his mission in terms of bringing Jubilee to the world. So how does our church embody Jubilee?
I learned something as I was studying the biblical teaching of sabbath. Not only was Israel to observe Sabbath every 7th day, but every 7th year was a whole year of Sabbath (Lev 25 1-7). Then after 7 annual Sabbaths (7 x 7) the 50th year brought a Sabbath climax with the celebration of Jubilee.
In the Jubilee year the land not only rested, but debts were to be forgiven, land was to be returned to its original owners, slaves were freed, bankruptcies were discharged. Jubilee was the ultimate sabbath: Rest, restoration, renewal, release.
Strangely, we have no record of Israel ever celebrating Jubilee. This has led some scholars to suggest that this chapter was a later insertion by idealistic scribes. Most scholars however believe it was simply disregarded. One reason for this may be that Jubilee most benefits people on the margins of society. Little incentive exists for the the movers and shakers of society to free slaves and return land they’ve bought and cared for to the original families. It’s simpler just to overlook this part of God’s law.
In Luke 4 Jesus quotes the Jubilee language of Isaiah 61 when announces that he is initiating “the year of the Lord’s favor”. He brings “good news to the poor, freedom, and healing”. Jesus declares that his ministry will most benefit people living on the margins of society. The ultimate Jubilee has arrived.
If Jesus’ mission entailed ushering in Jubilee, and the church follows Jesus, then Jubilee must be part of our message also. How sad if, like Israel, the church also overlooks the climax of sabbath, the celebration of Jubilee.
Here’s some ways we can integrate Jubilee into our churches:
- Does the church proclaim Jubilee when we come together? Do our worship services proclaim Good News to those seeking rest, restoration, renewal and release/freedom? I’ve attended churches that were more concerned with pointing out the errors of other churches and the encroaching threat of the world than proclaiming the jubilant victory of Christ. Entering God’s presence should refresh not depress and the message of those leading worship has a lot of influence in this area.
- Beyond proclamation, do our corporate gatherings facilitate opportunities for people to share their exhaustion, struggles, failures and hurts? This doesn’t have to take place publicly, but can we facilitate it privately? For example, I know some churches that close their worship with an invitation to meet in a specific room with some designated prayer partners in addition to the traditional invitation to come before the church. I’m sure other ideas exist also. The more opportunities we have for people to express their burdens, the more opportunities will exist for the church to practice Jubilee.
- Which newcomers receive the greatest welcome among the assembled church? If Jubilee most benefits those on the margins then the body of Christ should welcome these guests into our midst. Paul described this need in this way “The parts [people] that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.” He recognises that this isn’t natural, because “we think they’re less honorable”, but the church makes the effort and learns to treat them with “special honor”.
- Jubilee should also extend beyond the Sunday assembly. The mission of the church demands proactive action. Ask yourself, “How prominent are the ministries of compassion within your church?” Ministry to the margins often falls under the responsibility of the benevolence ministry. Disregarding the importance of integrating Jubilee into all aspects of church life, the church should regard these ministries of compassion as core ministries not a social obligation every church needs to contribute toward. If the annual review of the benevolence ministry discusses dollars and cents rather than stories of lives touched have probably lost sight of Jubilee.
May each of us experience and spread the rest and freedom that Jesus initiated when he established “the year of the Lord’s favor”.
My list is hardly exhaustive. How do you see churches proclaiming and practicing the values of Jubilee?
- Read Colossians 2:20-3:4 here.
- If you missed Sunday’s sermon (7 November) you can listen to it here.
When I read the verses about Christian liberty that we covered last week, Colossians 2:16-19, I get excited. God finds man made rules as ridiculous and frustrating as I do. But I understand that some of us have witnessed others grasp an inch of liberty and take it a mile. Christian liberty can easily become a dangerous rationalization for sinful behavior. That’s why Paul immediately turns his readers focus back on the big picture.
Yes, when we died with Christ we joined ourselves with him and were able to turn our backs on all the human rules and restrictions. We now answer to God alone. BUT, not only did we die with Christ, we have also been raised with Christ. As a consequence of this, our orientation moves from focusing upon my rights and other earthly priorities. Now, as one raised with Christ I strive to match my life with God’s heavenly values.
Rather than standing around celebrating my freedom in Christ while thumbing my nose at all those poor suckers (both within and outside the church) still captive to human regulations, God calls me to turn my attention away from the food I can now eat and the festivals I can now celebrate. Instead he wants me to focus on heavenly priorities. Essentially in these verses the church is called upon to GROW UP! The whole point of following Christ is to become like Christ, so keep moving forward.
The manner in which we practice our spiritual freedom is a question of maturity. Just because we CAN do something, doesn’t mean we MUST. Maturity helps us decide when and how we SHOULD. WE can trumpet our freedom to not attend a midweek Bible class. But maturity and setting our minds on things above, says we better be doing something productive for the kingdom if we’re not going to be there. We might celebrate our freedom from the Old Testament requirement to give 10% of our income to God. But maturity and setting our minds on things above might actually result in us giving a higher proportion of our income as worship. We might point out that the Bible never says we must read it every day. But maturity and a heart set upon God recognises the benefits of this regular discipline.
Freedom and liberty are core components of the Gospel message. However, people who use these freedoms to practice a minimalist form of Christianity overlook the goal of the Gospel. Liberty gives us the freedom to pursue God. A spiritually mature Christian seeks opportunities to transform their mind and behaviour into the image of God. This is actually a higher expectation than many of the rules we formerly observed. Spiritual freedom is not a MUST thing, it’s a MATURITY thing.
This passage again reminds church leaders that the best spiritual motivation is not legislation, but vision. Reminding people that they have allied themselves with heaven is a greater inspiration than good ideas that have become rules. Church leaders also need to remember the fluidity of maturity. Different people are all at different levels of maturity. The same person can also exhibit different levels of maturity in different areas of their lives. Shepherding maturity means knowing the flock and leading each person toward heaven from their particular starting point. One size does not fit all.
- Can you think of some other examples where God gives us freedom, but maturity raises the bar?
- Have you ever met someone you would describe as having their mind set on things above? What was it about their life that prompts you to describe them that way?
- Do you find it difficult to set different expectations for different people depending upon their spiritual maturity? Eg. if you attend a church work day (or some other event) with a low turnout, how do you think about those who chose not to attend? A. They’re lazy good for nothings B. They’re not real church members C. This church really has a lot of young Christians still learning commitment D. It’s great that all these people are making their family a priority.
- Read Colossians 2:16-23 here.
- If you missed Sunday’s sermon (31 October), you can listen to it here.
Churches across the globe declare the “Freedom in Christ”. We point to the very words of Jesus, such as John 8:36 “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” But as many people today view churches, they see only restrictions, not liberty. When outsiders think of Christianity, they often think of all the issues the church opposes, not freedom.
How the church presents its message to the world raises too many issues to address in one post. Today I want to look at the question of “how does the church practice liberty within the church.” If we can’t practice freedom within the church, there’s no way the world will see freedom when they look at us!
In Colossians 2:16-23 Paul seems to address a problem involving teachers (their background and motivation is uncertain) placing restrictions upon the young Christians. These were not Godly limitations, but man-made regulations. There were apparently two types of false laws:
- Restrictions on celebrations and festivals (2:16 do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day)
- False ceremonial laws concerning holiness (2:21-23 Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!… harsh treatment of the body…)
While the first part of chapter 2 contains the simple message Jesus is all you need. The message of these false teachers is you also need to …. The “therefore” at the start of v16 connects the logic of v16 with Christ’s victory on the cross. “Because of Jesus victory on the cross… don’t let anyone judge you in relation to food or festivals”. In my mind that’s a difficult connection to make. How is the cross related to whether or not the Colossian christians attended the local olympics or ate particular food?
I believe Paul’s saying that they should focus on the big issues, not the small ones. If they attend a local festival or eat or avoid particular food as an act of worship to a false deity, obviously there’s a problem. Or if the festival involves sinful acts such as sexual immorality or drunkenness they should avoid those activities. But if they participate as a non-sinful, cultural event then they shouldn’t let anyone judge them, as they’re doing nothing wrong.
I’ve seen many Christians struggle with this idea in relation to Western cultural celebrations that have religious origins: eg. Easter, Christmas, and Halloween. In this passage Paul clearly states that participation in these events should be a matter of liberty, not judgment.
Liberty is also the answer for the second issue. When people impose spiritual disciplines as necessities they impinge upon the individuals spiritual freedom. It’s very easy for these expectations to evolve. When a mature Christian finds that certain practices or habits help his or her spiritual growth they begin to share their experience with others as helpful advice. Over time, helpful advice becomes an expectation, and finally an essential element of mature faith.
Churches as a whole can fall into this trap. The church starts a new small group ministry and a significant number of people find it beneficial to their spiritual growth. They begin recommending the groups to others. Over time they look down their noses at those who don’t attend as insincere about their faith. Eventually, small group membership becomes an expectation for all members and finally, only the “lukewarm” members don’t attend. Perhaps there’s some truth in this, but it’s terribly unfair to the couple who use the “small group time” to visit their elderly aunt in the nursing home each week! In any case, the church needs to remind itself that it’s an issue of freedom, not of judgment.
Liberty can scare people. “If we let people know they don’t have to do something or act in a particular way, maybe they won’t do it!!” Liberty means letting people behave like immature Christians. Liberty means we can’t control the actions of others based upon the way we like things done. Liberty means others don’t have to do what I think is the right thing for me to do. Liberty means people might fall away from the church because they have the freedom not to participate. Liberty seems to remove expectations from people.
For some of these thoughts the answer is “Yes”, for others it’s “Yes, but…”. Liberty means that church leaders shouldn’t motivate the church by making edicts. Rather, we have to motivate members by building up their relationship with Christ. We can’t demand that members attend small groups, or participate in congregational fasting. In Colossians Paul seeks to motivate these young Christians by reminding them who Christ is and what he’s done for them. Likewise church leaders motivate by highlighting the big picture and pointing the body toward the head. We motivate people by sharing how these activities will help them reach the goal of oneness with God, and yes, some of them might still say “no thanks” to particular events. They have that liberty.
The final point to make is just to say that liberty works both ways. While some people may use liberty to opt out of certain events, we all have the liberty to practice our faith in a way that is meaningful to us. If one chooses to fast, or raise hands in worship or… then others shouldn’t judge those practices. They have that liberty.
Okay, there’s a lot to think about there. Please share your thoughts on this important issue. Maybe these questions will prompt your response…
- How do you feel about Paul elevating the importance of Christ’s victory on the cross above the cultural practices and spiritual disciplines practiced by the church?
- How do you decide whether something is an issue of liberty?
- Do you find the idea of freedom in the church to be scary or exciting?
- Have you witnessed a church that facilitates freedom or eliminates it? What did it look like?
- Read Isaiah 61 here and Luke 4:16-21 here and Luke 7:22 here.
- If you missed Sunday’s sermon (4 July), you can listen to it here.
- Follow the rest of this discussion here.
This week’s thesis is, The Church of Christ must adopt the Mission of Christ.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
At his baptism, Jesus received an anointing of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit commissioned him and sent him into the world with the tasks he describes in this passage. Luke places this quote early in Jesus’ ministry so that it can function as a mission statement for the months and years to come.
Some of these tasks he accomplishes literally but others he only ever fulfills figuratively. Jesus certainly preached good news to the poor, and healed the blind. But Jesus didn’t go to any gaols and lobby for the release of prisoners. We must understand that while this mission statement has a literal application, there’s also a spiritual undertone to each of these points
The Church of Christ (along with many other churches) has often emphasised the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-18. (One reason churches of Christ emphasise this passage, in addition to its inherent importance as the last words of Christ, is because of the central role it gives baptism.) Both accounts stress the continued presence of Christ, the importance of teaching, and the importance of belief and baptism. Matthew summarises the process by instructing the apostles to “make disciples”.
While the Great Commission must retain a position of utmost urgency within the church, we should not regard it as our only commission. The only methodology it describes of convincing people to believe and be baptised is limited to preaching and teaching. However, the church can learn much from the example of Jesus in addition to his words. Therefore, The Church of Christ must adopt the Mission of Jesus which Luke lays out in 4:16-21.
As Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 (and perhaps 58), he provides insight into both his methodology and content. On a literal level Jesus spends a lot of time with the poorer members of society, he does heal the blind and other diseases, and he proclaims the inbreaking of the kingdom of God.
From a spiritual perspective Jesus’ message of good news provides freedom for those in spiritual bondage (whether to demons or sinful lifestyles). He provides freedom and hope for those who see only hopelessness. Of course, he could also offer spiritual freedom to those who were literally slaves and prisoners.
Christians who, like Jesus, receive an anointing with the Holy Spirit at baptism have also been sent into the world with a message of good news. We are baptised, not just to be saved, but also to be sent. Our message then is not just “Repent and be baptised”, but a message of forgiveness, hope and freedom. If we adopt Jesus’ mission statement then The Church of Christ will ensure it cares for the poor, the sick and the prisoners, while not ignoring those better off members of society. We will reach out to those in bondage with the consequences of sin, addictions, and hurtful habits. Jesus preached a message of eternal consequence, but he also met people where he found them.
July 4, American Independence Day, fell upon a Sunday this year. So as I preached on this topic I concentrated on the message of freedom. I suggested that while the Good News of forgiveness through Christ frees us all from sin and the consequences of sin, many of us (perhaps even most, or all of us) also experience freedom in a practical, short term way. I asked the congregation to answer the question “What freedom has God given you?” Here are the responses:
- Free to see every day as a good day and to see God as central in all of my life.
- Freed from guilt.
- The freedom to go forward.
- God freed me from myself! He freed me from selfishness – to realize that I am not my own because Christ bought me with His blood that he shed upon the cross. (1 Cor. 6:20)
- Freedom from worry about tomorrow.
- The freedom to experience and share his love.
- I’ve been freed from a task-driven life to enjoy the relationships God has given me.
- Mostly freedom from sin, but also: Freedom to choose; freedom from doubt, fear, & insecurity.
- God’s freedom healed me from self-doubt. I know that his love and grace directly touches me. I am free from legalism and know that God is not waiting around the corner for me to do something wrong, which I will do. He created me, loves me and has set me free. Someday through his grace I’ll take my place with Him.
- Freedom from a perennial, neverending feeling of guilt. Of not being “good enough”. Guilt comes when I fail God but leaves when I ask for grace. Thank-you Father!
- Freed from worry about things like excess possessions and status.
- I have received freedom from Loneliness – God gave me wonderful friends. Complacency – He gives me opportunities to grow spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. Inadequacy – my value comes from Christ, and I am “good enough” because of His love. Feeling lost and without a purpose.
- God gives me freedom from despair over guilt and has give me purpose and hope, as well as a desire for more understanding of His will.
- Freedom to join a church where I can grow spiritually and find the purpose of my being.
I hope you find the experiences of others encouraging for you. Please leave a comment and encourage someone else.
- How have you experienced freedom in Christ?
- Do you agree with the statement “We are baptised, not just to be saved, but also to be sent.“?