MESSAGE FOR MARCH 11, 2007
This week we interrupt our series of messages from the prophet Daniel to begin a series laying out what I and the leadership of the church believe is a Biblical vision for our church. In that sense this is, as the bulletin says, a “vision casting” series of messages. Before we move into the specifics of that vision, this morning we want to define this task of vision casting so as to prepare our hearts and our expectations for what is to come in the next several weeks. The reason we must define this task is because establishing a truth-driven vision is significantly different than what we often see in the world and even the church as it relates to vision. Much of the church essentially follows a corporate model for vision casting and often tries to support that model Biblically by using Proverbs 29:18. The King James translation reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” Often the second half of the verse is omitted which says, “but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”
That verse is often used to support the necessity of having “visionary” leadership in the local church that sets a clear direction for your church. Though visionary leadership, when rightly understood, is not unimportant, that use of this verse is not valid. The Hebrew word used for “vision” there in every other usage in the Bible means “a supernatural revelation from God.” This “vision” is the kind we have been studying in Daniel and which God gave to other prophets as well. It is NOT forward-looking leadership. The ESV is more accurate in its translation. It says, “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.” The NIV says, “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint…” This verse actually speaks to the necessity of having God’s word in our lives which, as we obey it keeps us morally restrained. Because there is such misunderstanding of vision in the church, this morning we want to set our expectations and I trust prepare hearts for this series of messages by describing what a truth-driven vision is and broadly what it will require of us individually and as a group. Because this inaccurate understanding of vision in the church is so prevalent today, let me approach this topic by telling you three things a truth-driven vision for ministry in a local church is NOT.
First, a truth-driven vision does not primarily address a local church’s external organization, but its internal spiritual life and resulting fruit. The church, although it is an organization because it is organized and should be run “decently and in order” according to First Corinthians 14:33, is far more than just an organization. That is, it is a living organism. In fact, it is essentially—at its core an organism that is alive with spiritual life supplied by God through the Holy Spirit. It is made up of formerly dead people who have been made alive by God with life through the Spirit. Jesus said in John 10:10 that he came so that we “might have life and have it abundantly.” In the bread of life discourse in John six, Jesus says in verse 63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” So many of the metaphors the New Testament uses to represent the church imply this spiritual life. First Corinthians 12 tells us the church is the body of Christ with living members. First Peter chapter two tells us the church is a spiritual temple made up of living stones.
This is different from the corporate world. Success in the corporate world is typically measured in the company’s capacity to generate increasing and long term profits. In the corporate setting, the measuring rod is not set to gauge spiritual life because the nature of the corporation is not to generate life but profit. If there is no profit, the corporation ultimately fails. Similarly (and sadly), success in some parts of the church is often measured exclusively by whether or not increasing numbers of people are attending church and becoming active in some form of ministry. The hope perhaps is that the increasing numbers of people have spiritual life, but on a functional level that is in many cases not the ultimate goal. It is generating increasing numbers and greater ministry activity. Tragically, spiritual life is not measured as much as increasing attendance, expanding facilities and well funded, outwardly impressive ministries. Those things MAY indicate life, but there are many churches experiencing rapid numerical growth and expanding their ministries, but who have abandoned the truth of the Bible. That tells us that growth in numbers does not always indicate the presence of vital, Spirit-infused life.
That presses us to our second point. That is---truth-driven vision is not man-centered, but is dictated by the nature of God expressed in the gospel. To say it another way—truth driven visions are God-centered, not man-centered. A truth-driven vision is always rooted in the Bible and as we have said many times before, the Bible is not fundamentally a book of stories about people; it is a book about God. The stories are intended to display the character of God and the story that most transparently and comprehensively expresses the character of God is the gospel that relates the account of Christ’s perfect life, sin-atoning death and resurrection to new life.
The fact that a truth-driven vision is God-centered and not man-centered has profound implications for vision casting in the church. The Bible teaches that a person or group of people will never grow beyond their vision of God. We see this negatively in verses about people who worship false gods. One of the tragic consequences of worshipping idols is seen in verses like Psalm 115:8. “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” Psalm 135:18 says the exact same thing about idols, “Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them!” The principle is simply—we become like the god we worship and place our trust in. I think Paul states this truth positively in Second Corinthians chapter three.
In a section of the chapter that contrasts the glory of the Old Mosaic covenant with the “far surpassing glory” of the New Covenant—what Paul calls “the ministry of condemnation” versus “the ministry of righteousness,” He says this in verse 18. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Implicit in that seems to be the truth that we are transformed into the image we behold. That means that the parameters or boundaries of our spiritual potential as individuals and as a church are shaped by what we genuinely believe in our hearts about God. For instance, if your God is only marginally holy, instead of the infinitely holy, sin hating, at times--wrath-giving God of the Bible, then at the end of the day you will be unwilling to follow any vision that calls you to live more separate, sanctified lives reflecting the holy character of God. Your limited, unbiblical vision of God will stifle your willingness to follow a Biblical vision for Christ’s church.
If your understanding of the sovereignty of God is anything less that than he is absolutely sovereign with all things under his control, even though you may say “amen” to a vision that calls people to express radical trust in God, the fact is—your God may not be big enough to trust for radical things. Your unbelief, springing from your inadequate view of God’s sovereignty will cause you to be unwilling for instance, to quit your demanding, high paying job for one that pays less, but allows you to spend more time in ministry. You may not even be in a position to even hear God tell you that you need to tell your teenager she will have to limit her extra-curricular activities because they cut into the family’s time for Christian community. If your God is BIG, you can by God’s grace trust him for big things. Finally, if you have not genuinely internalized the truth that God is loving on a grand, Biblical scale—loving enough to send his only Son to the cross to crush him on your behalf, but is instead much more bland in his disposition toward you, then you will be unwilling to seriously consider a call to the kind of sacrifices implicit in loving others in the kind of Christian community we will see in a moment from the book of Acts.
That leads to our third point. That is—The success of a truth driven ministry is not measured fundamentally in numbers, but in the health of Christ’s living body, the church. Success for an organism is always the same, health. A successful organism is a healthy organism. Like any organism, if the church is healthy it will reproduce and grow. More life will be generated inwardly in increasing personal holiness and genuinely loving Christian community. Outwardly, spiritual life and health will be manifest in the addition of new converts because healthy organisms grow. Paul assumes growth will occur in First Corinthians 3:6 where he says of the church, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
Jesus calls this growth “fruit.” He says in Matthew chapter seven, “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” In the context, Jesus is speaking of false prophets, but the principle of fruitfulness should certainly be applied to local churches as well. Local churches that are unhealthy can no more consistently produce saints that are genuinely growing in holiness and zeal for God and love for others, than a diseased apple tree can consistently produce prize-winning apples. Likewise, churches that are healthy will produce fruitful disciples who will increasingly reflect the character of Christ and bring unsaved people to Christ.
What does a fruitful church ministry look like more specifically in the Bible? There are probably several texts we could use an illustration of spiritual life and health but perhaps the best is Acts 2:42-47. We will return here later in the series, but let’s briefly mention it here. Luke here gives us something of a slice of life from the very early church. He writes, “And they [the church]devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
The fruit Luke lists here includes—frequent instruction from the Scriptures from the apostles, a heartfelt devotion to prayer, a sense of God’s presence when they met together that elicited genuine awe from them, miraculous signs and wonders accomplished through the apostles. There was also a radical, intense sense of community among the believers that was marked by the selling and communal sharing of property with the profits being distributed to anyone in need. The saints daily attended worship in the temple and daily celebrated the Lord’s Supper in their homes with one another. They were demonstrably grateful people, receiving their food with glad and generous hearts. They were a dynamic, worshipping community and were looked upon by those outside the church with respect and admiration. Finally, every day people were coming to Christ. Luke pictures here a comprehensively fruitful ministry—on all fronts—worship, the sense of the presence of God, their almost complete indifference to the things of this world and their great love for God which was seen in their deep, clearly observable love for each other. The magnetic character of their fellowship caused the church to swell with new converts daily coming to Christ. Jesus was powerfully at work among them producing fruit by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Broadly speaking, how do we apply those verses to our own local church setting? It would be a mistake in response to these verses for instance to institute a church-wide ministry of meeting every day in each other’s homes for food and Christ-centered fellowship. That would be dead on arrival. That’s simply mandating an external indicator of health. That would be like stapling healthy apples onto unhealthy apple trees. Jesus tells us that the presence of fruit in a person or a local church is a symptom of something else that he speaks of in John chapter 15. He says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Fruit doesn’t come because a church decides to make an external, organizational change, but is produced by changed hearts that come as a result of abiding in Christ. “Abiding” simply means to remain dependent upon Christ—not veering from his word—moment by moment living out the belief that he is the source of your life and fruit and therefore making it your life’s and our church’s ambition to remain consistently dependent upon Christ.
Abiding is a lifestyle of trusting Christ and the basis of my trust for Christ is the love-based relationship he established through his sacrificial love on the cross. He showed his love for me by dying for me—he called me into a relationship with him rooted in that love—the love expressed supremely through the gospel. As I regularly rehearse and meditate on the glory of that message, I am liberated and motivated to remain dependent upon him or abide in him. To move from the ground up, the cross of Christ and the message of the gospel is the foundation and that truth brings me into a love-based relationship with Christ. From that love based relationship, I am liberated to remain dependent upon or abide in him. That results in what Jesus calls fruit.
That means that everything we do individually and corporately must be rooted in an ongoing and increasing awareness of the gospel of Christ. As we saw in First Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance [that is, it is foundational to everything else] what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” Because the message of the cross is the foundation, that means that if there are no regular and repeated times of serious reflection on the glory of the cross then there will be no vibrant awareness of the love relationship. If there is no vibrant awareness of the love relationship, then there will be no abiding or ongoing dependence upon Christ. If there is no abiding, there will be no fruit. If there is no fruit, there will be no glory to God and no joy for us. That’s how spiritual fruit is produced in a person and a local church. The question is—how does an individual believer or local church produce the kind of spiritual fruit we saw in Acts 2:42-47? One place we find the answer is in the teaching of John the Baptist as he was addressing a fruitless group of Bible-believing, religious Jews. He says in Luke 3:8, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”
John the Baptist says that “fruits” (same word Jesus uses) are born out of repentance. If you genuinely repent, you will bear fruit. How does an individual or local church that is not producing fruit as seen in Acts 2:42-47 see that kind of fruit emerge? Repentance. John tells these Pharisees that they will never change, never bear fruit by looking at the externals of their life—in their case, their genetic connection to Abraham. God does not produce spiritual fruit in your life or this church based on who your ancestors are, or how long you have been a member of a church, or how much money you have, or how gifted your preacher is, or even how much knowledge of the Bible you may have in your head. Acts 2:42-47 kind of fruit is borne in individuals and churches out of repentance. As individual believers and churches look into the mirror of God’s word in texts like Acts 2:42-47 and see that we are woefully, dreadfully falling short of the Biblical standard of health in areas like outreach and community with other believers and corporate worship and in response, fall on our faces in God-given repentance, then true heart change occurs and spiritual fruit results.
Think about how this basic Biblical truth on the necessity of repentance impacts how you cast and implement
a truth-driven vision. First, it makes it ultimately dependent upon
God. If God does not stir people’s hearts, this will simply not happen
This is why prayer is so central, so utterly indispensable to this time of vision casting. Second Timothy 2:25 tells us that repentance is a gift. Paul tells Timothy how to handle those who oppose him in the hope that “…God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” We must as a church exert ourselves in prayer that God would grant us repentance and a radical willingness to examine our hearts in the coming weeks and admit that our greatest challenge is not financial or organizational, but is manifest in the fact that when we read Acts 2:42-47, our response is not to cry out in anguish of heart, “God, oh God, why don’t we see that kind of spiritual life in the church today?” but is more like, “Wow, what a great time that must have been!”
of changes necessary for
this morning is not to scare anyone. Truthfully, I believe God has
set the stage and is leading
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