In 2013, nearly ten years ago, I wrote this article for Relevant about the church. In light of our “Reset” series and Ruth Carver’s recent message, I think this article is still as pertinent as ever. It begins this way, but you can read the entire article here.
In 2011 the largest denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, announced the results of a survey showing a significant decline in baptisms and church membership. Ed Stetzer, a missioligist and researcher with Lifeway Research, commented at the time: “This is not a blip. This is a trend. And the trend is one of decline.”
In the very same year, across the Atlantic, a report on the Church of England highlighted the challenges it was facing: aging congregations, faltering clergy recruitment and waning attendance. While church leaders used words like “crisis” and “time bomb,” the report predicted the church would likely be extinct within 20 years.
More recently, the Pew Research Center released a study on the state of religion in the United States entitled “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” The study brings into focus the increasing growth rate of those who do not identify with any religion at all. Nearly one-fifth of the U.S. adult population—and one-third of those under the age of 30—identify in this way; an increase from 15 percent just 5 years earlier.
For many people, these are signs that the church is, if not already dead, steadily moving toward the grave. And many have been calling for followers of Jesus to return to the original vision for our faith.
I have lived within the inner workings of the church for the past 15 years, and I will be one the first to agree with many who point out that the Church is full of brokenness.
When you stand on the inside of the church, you see the good, the bad and the ugly. I have been disheartened by the hypocrisy within the leadership of churches. I have experienced disillusionment when it seems like the church is more about ‘nickels and noses’ then it is about real life transformation. To be even more honest, I have seen my own failings and weaknesses as a supposed leader and wondered if this thing called church is truly real or worth it. There are times when I have wanted to give up on the church and ministry altogether.
But I’m not ready to sound the death toll for the Church. Here’s a story to tell you why.
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
This past weekend at Eastbrook I preached about our belief in the resurrection of the body (“I believe in the resurrection of the body”), emphasizing different implications of that belief, from the historical resurrection of Jesus to our future resurrection at Christ’s return. However, the last phrase of Galatians 2:20—”The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”—highlights the resurrection impact on our lives now.
If we have been crucified with Christ and transformed by the resurrection life of Christ, then our daily, bodily living should reflect that change. Although Jesus came to bring God’s truth, Christianity it is not an abstract philosophy, but rather an embodied approach to living. We cannot walk toward heaven while living like hell. Instead, our life in the body must increasingly display the present, dynamic life of Christ.
While calling the Corinthian believers to repentance from sin and idolatry, the Apostle Paul declares the human body of the Christian to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s exclamation at the end of this challenge is a moving description of our embodied discipleship: “you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:20). What does honoring God in our bodies mean other than letting God’s presence pervade our bodies and God’s ways be preeminent ins how we daily live in our bodies? Our physical life—eating and drinking, work and rest, affection and sexuality, speaking and acting—must all honor God.
“Faith in Christ” is the theme of Galatians, permeating the entire letter. The word ‘faith’ or derivations of it appear over 20 times in this brief letter. In a sense, the entire letter is an exposition by the Apostle Paul of the prophet Habakkuk’s words: “the righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11). But this faith is not an abstracted faith but a faith rooted in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, who saved us through His body given and His blood poured out for us. Because of His sufficient work, our faith is now lived out in the body. Our spirituality as Christians is embodied.
Portions of Western Christianity have developed a fundamental divorce between body and spirit. The easiest thing to blame is the Enlightenment, but it seems like this challenge runs all the way back to the early church. The Apostle John wrote his epistles in part to combat an early form of gnosticism that claimed Jesus did not really come in a body. These early gnostics appear to have downplayed the body and creation in favor of an abstracted spirituality. Today a sort of neo-gnosticism has arisen within Western Christianity, where the body is either devalued through a skewed asceticism or overvalued with a materialistic hedonism.
But this is not what we find in Scripture, which instead points to a fundamental continuity between body and spirit. The Jewish concept of nephesh, which is sometimes translated soul, refers to the totality of the person: body, mind, heart, and spirit. The early Gospel writers made it absolutely clear that when Jesus rose from the dead, He did so physically. He was alive in a resurrection body not as some disembodied spirit. John even goes so far as to show Jesus eating fish with His disciples after the resurrection. Paul elaborates on this when writing about Christians’ future experience of resurrection bodies. He says that just as Christ is the “first fruits” of the resurrection, so we will be raised anew with resurrection bodies when He returns (1 Corinthians 15:20). In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul’s letters are often structured around divine truth (first half) and application to real, embodied living (second half).
Thus, if Christian spiritual is fundamentally embodied, then the way we steward our bodies and physical resources, such as generosity versus hoarding and our physical care of our bodies, is spiritual. If Christian spirituality is embodied, then the food and drink we take in has spiritual significance, not only for communion, but also in relation to nutrition (see Paul’s discussion of food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 10). If we truly want to live our faith out in our bodies, then the physical actions of worship and devotion, such as kneeling, raising hands, fasting, and even the physicality of the space for worship, hold spiritual significance. If our bodies and creation are important for the kingdom, then the way we care for the created world has spiritual meaning. If the life we live in the body is for the glory of God, then the physical needs of the sick, the poor, and the needy have spiritual meaning beyond just keeping someone alive to share the gospel with them. If our discipleship is implicitly embodied, then we are not simply trying to save people for heaven, but equipping people to live embodied on earth for God’s glory until the dawning of the new heaven and new earth.
So, let me ask us a few questions for reflection:
Do we believe in the value and spiritual significance of your body?
Do our lives of faith reflect that bodily spiritual significance or a disembodied spiritualism?
How do you think we can live a life of worship of the true Creator God in our physical bodies?
Lord, thank you for buying me at a price. May my bodily life reflect my relationship with You. Thank You, Jesus, for Your faithfulness to the Father that gives me new birth. Help me to live each day full of faith in You, my living Savior.
In Scripture there are three commonly used images for the Holy Spirit. These symbols of the Holy Spirit’s presence help us understand who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does.
The Holy Spirit is Like Wind The first of these images is wind. We read about this on the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. (Acts 2:1-2)
As the believers gathered together in obedience to Jesus’ command to wait for the Holy Spirit to come, they first of all encounter the wind or breath of God. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word ruach is translated as breath, wind, or spirit. This is the word used in Genesis 1:2, where we read of God’s creative work in creation: “and the Spirit [ruach] of God was hovering over the waters.” Again, ruach is describes God’s intimate creation of humanity in Genesis 2:7 where we read: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath [ruach] of life and the man became a living being.” The Holy Spirit is the basic breath of life – the spirit – that animates all creation and human beings.
Beyond bringing natural life, the Holy Spirit also brings spiritual life amidst humanity’s spiritual death caused by sin and ruptured relationship with God. In Ezekiel 37:6, Ezekiel the prophet preaches to a valley of dry bones, representing the spiritually dead people of God. It is God’s breath and wind that invigorates this mass of death into a living army of God. This image likely lingers behind Jesus’ memorable words to Nicodemus: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The Holy Spirit is like wind breathing divine life into us, spiritually restoring us with God through Jesus Christ. In Acts 2, when the violent wind rushes into the house where the disciples were gathered on Pentecost day, we see that the Holy Spirit is coming in fulfillment of prophecy to breathe God’s divine life back into humanity.
The Holy Spirit is Like Fire Secondly, the Holy Spirit is often symbolized as fire. Return with me to Acts 2:
They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:3-4)
Throughout Scripture, fire is a symbol of the presence of God. When Moses knelt at the burning bush (Exodus 3) or Elijah battled the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18), God’s powerful and holy presence is accompanied by fire. Fire is a symbol of God’s leading presence, such as when God led His people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Fire also conveys God’s purifying presence, best known through the prophet Isaiah’s striking vision of God where a fiery coal taken from the heavenly altar serves to purify Isaiah’s lips (Isaiah 6). Fire also symbolizes God’s passionate presence, seeking after people. After receiving a message from God, the prophet Jeremiah heard these words, “I will make my words in your mouth a fire” (Jeremiah 5:14). Later on, Jeremiah exclaimed, “His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones” (20:9)
When the Holy Spirit comes upon the early disciples of Jesus in Acts 2 in the form of tongues of fire, He is kindling His presence within His people. That indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit brings divine guidance, holiness, and passion into the lives of Jesus’ disciples.
The Holy Spirit is Like Water Thirdly, the Holy Spirit is symbolized as water. Earlier in the book of Acts, just before His ascension, Jesus says to His disciples:
For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:5)
βαπτίζω (baptizo) means literally to immerse, and so Jesus is telling His followers that they will be washed or submerged in the Holy Spirit just as they would be with water in baptism. The Apostle Peter echoes this later, after the Pentecost arrival of the Holy Spirit, when he preaches with reference to the words of the prophet Joel, saying, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17).
The Holy Spirit is like water poured into our lives from God. This reminds us of the Genesis account of Creation where the Spirit of God hovered over the primordial waters of the cosmos that were still formless and void. The primordial deep was met with God’s Spirit to bring life in beauty, form, and ongoing creativity.
This image of the Holy Spirit as water may also call to mind two episodes from Jesus’ life and ministry. The first is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman by the well in John 4. Moving from the earthly waters of Jacob’s well, Jesus says:
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)
The second episode occurs when Jesus is at a great Jewish festival, the feast of tabernacles, in John 7. Speaking in the midst of a crowd, Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” John the Evangelist follows Jesus’ words immediately with this explanatory statement: “By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believe in him were later to receive” (John 7:37b-39). The Holy Spirit is like water that brings life to our souls and cleanses our dry and thirsty world.
These three images – wind, fire, water – help us understand who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does. If the church wants to live and thrive, we must seek to live by the Holy Spirit, who breathes life into us, who sets us ablaze with God’s power, and revives us with waters of life.
This past weekend at Eastbrook Church, Will Branch continued our series on the Apostles’ Creed by exploring one of the later segments of the second article of the creed: “He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” It was a wonderful message, and I strongly encourage you to listen to or watch it. I wanted to carry that theme over into this week on my blog a bit more by talking further about why Jesus’ ascension matters.
I believe the ascension is one of the most-neglected aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus. Forty days after His resurrection, after appearing many times to the disciples, Jesus ascended into heaven with the Father (Luke 24:49-51; Mark 16:19; Acts 1:3-10). The ascension of Jesus is significant for many reasons, but let me draw attention to three reasons why the ascension matters:
after His ascension Jesus is enthroned with the Father
after His ascension Jesus intercedes for us
after His ascension Jesus will return
The Ascension Confirms the Enthronement of Jesus
When the Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus “ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” we are being told that Jesus is enthroned as King in His ascension. When Jesus ascends from earth, the disciples witness of Jesus taken into the heavenly realm where God dwells: “he left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). Stephen’s vision of the heavenly realm before his martyrdom expands this even further: “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).
With these two visions of Jesus’ ascension and the reality on the other side of it, we find in Jesus’ ascension the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
Jesus often referenced this passage in relation to Himself. With the ascension we see that Jesus not only enters heaven, the place where God lives and operates, but receives His appropriate enthronement at the right hand of God in an unshakable kingdom. This is echoed in further New Testament pictures of the heavenly scenes of worship:
“To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21).
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13).
The ascension of Jesus reminds us not only that God’s kingdom been inaugurated with the incarnation of Jesus, but also confirms that Jesus’ throne is established at the Father’s right hand until He returns at the consummation of His kingdom in the new heaven and new earth. We know even now that Jesus reigns as King, no matter what happens around us.
The Ascension Affirms Jesus’ Eternal Intercession on Our Behalf Before the Father
Forty days after completion of His work in the Cross and the Resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven to rule as King at the Father’s right hand. His sacrifice was a once-for-all event (Hebrews 9:24-28) that secured His place as the unique mediator between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2:5).
The writer to the Hebrews builds upon these truths to help us understand Jesus’ role in the presence of God not only as King but as eternal intercessor: “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Some may envision this as Jesus forever bowed in prayer for us, but the picture is richer than that. Jesus stands in the presence of the Living God simultaneously as our Advocate and High Priest and Sacrificial Lamb before the Father. His eternal sacrifice is eternally effective and eternally offered before God on our behalf (Hebrews 1:3; 7:25; 8:1). Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension, there is no one and nothing that can condemn us before God (Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1).
Even more, since Jesus’ stands in the presence of God, His effective advocacy on our behalf transcends geography and time. Jesus is not limited by time and space as He was in the incarnation. Now, as He stands in the presence of God, He hears and answers our prayers no matter when or where we lift them. In fact, we can always “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15–16).
As fully God, Jesus the Son intercedes before the Father with authority as King, yet as fully man, Jesus the Son intercedes before the Father with empathy and understanding of our circumstances as the New Adam. We can be encouraged that the death and resurrection of Jesus’ are always effective on our behalf because Jesus has ascended as Eternal King and Mediator. And let us always know that the grace of God flows abundantly through Christ to us when we reach out to Him in prayer.
The Ascension Points to Jesus’ Eventual Return in Glory
After Jesus’ ascension, two heavenly beings, or angels, speak to the disciples: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Throughout the New Testament, many writers tell us that there will come a day when Jesus will return to establish His kingdom fully “here on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Five things we know about Jesus’ return from Scripture are:
Jesus, the Ascended King, will return in glory, bringing the fullness of God’s kingdom and righteousness that will lead into the establishment of the new heaven and the new earth. Just as He ascended to the Father’s right hand after His resurrection from death, so Jesus will descend as King to usher in a new heaven and new earth. As His people, we will enjoy that new heaven and new earth, secure in God’s final judgment because Jesus intercedes for us as the once-for-all Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The ascension of Jesus becomes a source of hope and encouragement for us because it draws our attention to His eventual return and the consummation of all God’s purposes and plans. Let us persevere in light of the resurrection and ascension until the day of His coming or when we see Him face-to-face, whichever arrives first.
Here is a post I wrote in January 2018 whenI made a shift in our worship service order where Eastbrook began reciting the Apostles’ Creed on the first weekend of each month before participating in communion. As a non-denominational church, we are not alone in rarely reciting creeds. However, here is my apology (in the Classical sense of a well-reasoned reply or thought-out response) for regular recitation of the creed together in corporate worship.
One of the most important ways we announce that we are living by a different story is to rehearse – to say again and again – to declare – that our story is something other than the story of this earth.
There is a word for that in Christian practice and history: an affirmation of faith or declaration in a creed. So, I am going to have us do something different as a church here at Eastbrook. I want to have us regularly declare that we are living by a different story. When we gather on the first weekend of every month and celebrate the communion meal, I want us to take a stand together around the truth of the gospel revealed in Jesus Christ. I want us to announce to a listening world that Jesus is Lord and we are living for God’s good life and no other counter claims.
The Apostles Creed is the most widely used and consistently affirmed summary statements of faith within the global church of Jesus Christ. Although its exact origins cannot be traced, the Apostles Creed in its present form is first found in a document from c. 750. The basic concepts and structure of the Apostles Creed is found as early as c. 340 in what is known as the Old Roman Creed. “Teachers as varied as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Luther have held the Apostles’ Creed remains the best condensed statement of Christian faith and the most reliable way to learn the heart of faith.”
The Apostles Creed echoes the Holy Trinity in its written structure and follows the flow of the biblical narrative. While originally used to instruct candidates for baptism, the creed eventually became part of the service of worship during times of Christological controversy. The creed, whether the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed, usually follows the sermon as a responsive affirmation of faith. In many services, this leads into a time of prayer, whether the Lord’s Prayer or the prayers of the people, before participation in communion. This was true even in the early church worship services of the third and fourth centuries: “they recited the Creed before the Lord’s Prayer as a preparation for communion.”