When I was little (probably fifth or sixth grade) I remember being given some Pokemon cards. We didn’t have “Pokemon Go.” I started to really like playing this card game. My brother and I would sneak these cards into our house and play in secret because we were not allowed to play with them. One day my mom was looking for us and discovered that we had been sneaking these objects of sin and wickedness into the house. My brother and I had broken my mom’s law and we received the consequences of our action.
Upon being discovered breaking my mom’s law, there are a couple of ways I could respond. I could apologize, repent, and correct my action so that I could honor my mom; or I could ask for a reward because I worked so hard playing this game that my mom had outlawed in her house. The second option, here, would be nonsensical! It would be ridiculous for me to say, “I don’t really think this thing is wrong. This is how I want to live my life. This is what I think will make me successful. Since I am working so hard to play this game that you have outlawed, I expect a reward!” If anything, saying something to this effect would have earned me a greater punishment in my mom’s household. We laugh together at this though. The devastating reality is that in most local churches, this is the very thing that people who refer to themselves as God’s children are doing.
As we have discovered this month, God has given a very particular structure for His people. First, we are to pursue holiness. Second, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, not showing favoritism or slandering one another. Third, we are to consecrate certain individuals to devote themselves to the preaching/teaching ministry of the church. This structure is more relational than methodological.
In large part, I seem to observe the organizational church living in contradiction to this relational structure.
- Instead of coming together in the grace of Christ, which has already been given, and pursuing holiness together, there are so many “Christians” who presume that all of their beliefs and convictions are already correct, that they know enough, and that they serve as judge regarding whether or not people are living the right way. We are more concerned with preserving and promoting our own image than with being conformed more to the image of God. We are more concerned with the programs offered than with genuine relational discipleship. In order to pursue holiness, we must presume that we are not yet holy (not yet conformed to the image of Christ).
- Instead of loving our neighbors as ourselves, we always seem to find something to complain about. We always try to get our way. We, ironically, do everything we can to push people away from us or distance ourselves from other members of the community of faith.
- Instead of consecrating certain individuals from within the church to dedicate their time to pastoring and teaching, the organizational church has hired for itself professionals to be the church on its behalf.
When we observe our own lives and the life of the local church today, do we find that we expect a reward for disobedience, or that our goal is holiness together as we trust our Lord with all of the results?
Leviticus 26:1-13 HCSB
“Do not make idols for yourselves, set up a carved image or sacred pillar for yourselves, or place a sculpted stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am Yahweh your God. You must keep My Sabbaths and revere My sanctuary; I am Yahweh.
“If you follow My statutes and faithfully observe My commands, I will give you rain at the right time, and the land will yield its produce, and the trees of the field will bear their fruit. Your threshing will continue until grape harvest, and the grape harvest will continue until sowing time; you will have plenty of food to eat and live securely in your land. I will give peace to the land, and you will lie down with nothing to frighten you. I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword will pass through your land. You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall before you by the sword. Five of you will pursue 100, and 100 of you will pursue 10,000; your enemies will fall before you by the sword.
“I will turn to you, make you fruitful and multiply you, and confirm My covenant with you. You will eat the old grain of the previous year and will clear out the old to make room for the new. I will place My residence among you, and I will not reject you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be My people. I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, so that you would no longer be their slaves. I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to live in freedom.
God’s promise then
There are two types of promises that God makes to His people throughout Scripture. One is an unconditional promise. Such is the promise of salvation. Salvation is not given if we are able to meet a certain set of conditions. We were bought with the blood of Christ. He met the conditions of the Law for us by fulfilling the whole Law (even suffering its consequence). Therefore, those who believe in Christ receive salvation even though they have could not meet the conditions of the Law. Salvation is given by grace, through faith. This is an unconditional promise from God.
There are also conditional promises that God makes to His people. These conditional promises are easy to recognize because they always have an “if, then” format. In this case, God promises the nation of Israel before they go into the promised land (the land of Canaan) that if the nation obeys Him, they will experience a level of material prosperity and success as a nation. The promise includes a great harvest, plenty for the people, an increase in numbers, safety, military success, and an overflow of provision.
Here, we must notice the context of the promise, else we might be in danger of falling into the heresy of the prosperity gospel of our day. This promise was made to a nation before Christ’s sacrifice. It was not made to people on an individual level. When we think about prosperity in this world, we think about it understanding that it is never promised to the individual. The prosperity of the individual Christ-follower is reserved in its fullness for the eternal age, where each one will receive his or her reward according to obedience. While we are here, we are not to seek material prosperity in this way. It keeps us from Christ. When we do experience prosperity, it is to be given to Christ.
God’s promise for prosperity in this world was given to a nation and was conditional upon the obedience of that nation. Salvation is given by grace. Individual rewards are reserved in Heaven. There is, though, a prosperity for the community, meant to glorify God’s name and not the names of people.
God’s promise now
Just like everything we have discovered in our current study of Leviticus, this promise has a direct parallel in the New Testament for the church. God does not change! Since we are still in the context of a sinful world, there is still need for a promise like this. One thing is different for us, now. Christ has given Himself on the cross. The Holy Spirit indwells those who have believed in Christ. In principle, God’s promise remains; though the outpouring of this promise looks different in our context. To explore the promise that God has for His people today, we turn to John 15:1-17:
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vineyard keeper. Every branch in Me that does not produce fruit He removes, and He prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me. If anyone does not remain in Me, he is thrown aside like a branch and he withers. They gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be My disciples.
“As the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you. Remain in My love. If you keep My commands you will remain in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commands and remain in His love.
“I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you slaves anymore, because a slave doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from My Father. You did not choose Me, but I chose you. I appointed you that you should go out and produce fruit and that your fruit should remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give you. This is what I command you: Love one another.
There are a few parallels that I hope to draw out for us:
- Jesus addresses his disciples as a community. The branches together represent Christ’s church.
- Christ states that obedient branches will produce fruit. He does not say, “Perhaps you might see fruit if you work hard enough…” This is a promise from Christ. If we remain in His word and in His instruction, then we will see fruit. The obvious fruit that Christ mentions in this text is that we will grow in love and unity. If we read John 4:31-38 before we get to John 15 (it makes sense that we would read John 4 first, right?), and look at the story of the samaritans coming to know Christ surrounding this passage, then we understand that doing God’s will also results in seeing others come to Christ. In fact we can read it together:
In the meantime the disciples kept urging Him, “ Rabbi, eat something.”
But He said, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”
The disciples said to one another, “Could someone have brought Him something to eat?”
“My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to finish His work,” Jesus told them. “Don’t you say, ‘There are still four more months, then comes the harvest’? Listen to what I’m telling you: Open your eyes and look at the fields, for they are ready for harvest. The reaper is already receiving pay and gathering fruit for eternal life, so the sower and reaper can rejoice together. For in this case the saying is true: ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap what you didn’t labor for; others have labored, and you have benefited from their labor” (John 4:21-28 HCSB, emphasis added).
- It is impossible for the branches to bear any fruit unless they remain in Christ (in His word and His instruction). Those who do not remain in His word and instruction will lose their places as fruit-bearers.
The church’s obedience to Christ brings about prosperity in and through the church. It is Christ who produces fruit through His people. It is not the people who develop a plan, attract others to a building, and somehow get to see legitimate fruit. When we do this, we misunderstand the very basic work of our Lord. He is the vine. We are merely His branches.
An honest look at the church
What I want to do is pull everything together from the last four months.
In Genesis, chapters 1-2, we discovered that God purpose for people is two-fold. It is to multiply and fill the earth with God’s image, bringing glory to God. This involves discipleship and evangelism (which go hand-in-hand and are inseparable). We also discovered that people were designed to cultivate the earth for God’s glory.
In Exodus 19, we discovered that God desires to have a kingdom of priests. As He builds His kingdom, He wants all of His people to have a place in His work. God first delivers people, then calls them to pursue holiness.
In Leviticus 19 and 21, we discovered that God structures His people a certain way relationally in order to provide the framework for the pursuit of holiness. We see every aspect of this relational structure mirrored for us in the New Testament. God’s structure for His people actually enables us to be a kingdom of priests rather than just having priests in the kingdom. It provides a context in which we can actually fill the earth with God’s image and cultivate the earth for God’s glory. If we ignore God’s structure, what we say is that we don’t want any part in God’s purpose or plan for our lives as individuals or as a local church.
We desperately need to think deeply about our own circumstance. When we look at our lives and at our church, do we see the fruit that Christ describes in John 15? Do we witness ourselves growing in love and unity? Do we see that people are coming to know Christ through us and through this local church? If we do not, then there is a major problem. This problem cannot be fixed by asking what we need to do to bring people in. It cannot be fixed by starting another ministry. It cannot be fixed by mirroring the culture. Since it is Christ alone who brings genuine fruit, the only way we can be fruit-bearers is if we remain in His word and His instruction. The conditional promise is this: If we remain in His word and instruction, we will produce much fruit.
We, therefore, strive to live according to our God-given purpose (to fill the earth and cultivate it for God’s glory). We recognize that it is God who has first delivered us by grace. We always try to structure our community of faith according to the structure God has given, not according to our tradition, preference, or culture. Our aim, here, is to honor and glorify God, not people. Let us never make this church thing about us, break God’s house rules, and still expect a reward.