What is Worship?


What is worship, actually?

We might respond by saying something like “it’s what we do when we go to church”. “We sing worship songs don’t we? It’s our praising of God when we pray and sing… It’s the band.” For many Christians, the exact definition of what worship actually is may be elusive. We’ve got no temple to go to. No altars any more. So I just bow my head, and you know, be… worshipful!

For modern-day Christians, the category of “worship” is pretty strongly linked with “worship services.” It’s what we do at church. But has it always been this way? The New Testament actually has precious little to say about “worship services”. It’s curious that the NIV inserts a few headings such as “On Covering the Head in Worship” (before 1 Cor 11:2), or “Intelligibility in Worship” (before 1 Cor 14:1), or “Instructions on Worship” (before 1 Tim 2:1) etc. The passages beneath the headings don’t mention the word at all.  So it reveals a way of thinking that “worship” is associated with the activities of the gathered Church in their “worship services”, a term that is itself absent from the New Testament. There seems to be a felt need to find support in the New Testament for our modern day practice and understanding.

So what is “worship” then?

Working Definition

Here is a working definition: Worship is an orientation of the heart that is willingly giving over its desires in order to be aligned with God’s desires. And as such, is not simply confined to times of assembly with other Christians. Rather, it is a base-line allegiance to the idea of becoming like Jesus Christ in thought, word and deed.

We may have to wrestle furiously with our sinful nature to get there. For example, let’s say something happens to you that makes you angry or fearful. It’s real. You felt these things.

Consider Psalm 4:

Know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for Himself; the Lord will hear when I call to Him. Be angry  and do not sin; on your bed, reflect in your heart and be still.  Offer sacrifices in righteousness and trust in the Lord. 

Psalm 4:3–5 (HCSB)

Offering Sacrifices

The Psalmist mentions anger, but does not simply say “don’t be angry”. Rather, when anger comes, do not sin, process it. Reflect. Be still – don’t ride into war. After the reflection, go forward in trust with God. “Offering the sacrifices” should not be taken as performing some kind of penance, but rather an invitation to conduct your overall life righteously, and if you do come to offer a sacrifice, may your heart be already stilled in right relationship with God and with others. Jesus provides a practical example of this in Mt 5:23-24:

So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 5:23–24 (HCSB)

 The overall thrust of this passage is about dealing with anger at the heart level  (Mt 5:21-26), and the specific illustration Jesus chooses is someone in the very act of “worship”. True worship is to align with God’s commands to love one another, and prioritise reconciliation with your brothers and sisters. 

The conventional understanding of worship simply as activities around gifts and altars is completely secondary to the main game of living a life in connection with God that can bring his blessing to others.

Paul quotes this Psalm in Eph 4:26 as he reminds the Ephesian Christians about how they had left their old ways and were in the middle of a renewal process.

Since you put away  lying, Speak the truth, each one to his neighbor,  because we are members of one another. Be angry and do not sin.   Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, and don’t give the Devil an opportunity. The thief must no longer steal. Instead, he must do honest work with his own hands, so that he has something to share  with anyone in need. No foul language is to come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need,  so that it gives grace to those who hear. And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit.  You were sealed by Him  for the day of redemption. All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind  and compassionate  to one another, forgiving  one another, just as God also forgave you  in Christ.

Ephesians 4:22–32 (HCSB)

Renewing your mind

There it is again – Be angry and do not sin. (V26). This needs to  be an observable and material life change. Your kids need to be able to say “Dad doesn’t get angry any more like he used to”. Instead, the old bitter, shouty, slanderous talk is now forgiving, kind and compassionate (v31-32). The swearing is gone (v29). The kids are happily wondering “how did this all happen?”

Well, Dad got renewed in his mind (v32). Thinking differently, believing differently. Yes, that’s great but how? Paul explains:

Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you  to present your bodies as a living sacrifice,  holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed  to this age,  but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,  so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will  of God.

Romans 12:1–2 (HCSB)

Transformation

And so we are back to worship. There is a definite connection between “worship” and “transformation” being discussed here. The true worshipper has been intentionally seeking out the good, pleasing and perfect Will of God with a view to implementing it in their life. So who does that? Who resists the culture of their society (v2) and actively seeks out God’s will? The worshipper does.

Jesus had thoughts on this too. When talking with the Samaritan woman, he was not interested in artefacts of worship such as finding the right mountain to go to, he was looking for true worship.

Jesus told her, “Believe Me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans  worship what you do not know. We worship what we do know, because salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and is now here,  when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship Him. God is spirit,  and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

John 4:21–24 (HCSB)

It’s non-physical, this true worship. It’s spiritual. It’s about what is inside you, how your heart is oriented, what is the core thing that drives you? What basis are you making your decisions on? What’s your code? Jesus is saying that if it is not based on God’s revealed truth, it’s not worship at all, no matter what you believe about anything.

Then there are things we can learn from the antithesis of God-worship – idol worship.

Idol Worship

He makes a god or his idol with the rest of it. He bows down to it and worships; He prays to it,  “Save me, for you are my god.” Such people  do not comprehend and cannot understand, for He has shut their eyes  so they cannot see, and their minds so they cannot understand. No one reflects, no one has the perception or insight to say, “I burned half of it in the fire, I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and ate. I will make something detestable  with the rest of it, and I will bow down to a block of wood.” He feeds on  ashes. His deceived mind has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself, or say, “Isn’t there a lie in my right hand?” 

Isaiah 44:17–20 (HCSB)

Isaiah clearly is not up to speed on concepts such as “don’t make fun of people’s religious practices!” What he is saying is:

A closed mind + no reflection = no worship.

The idol worshippers Isaiah are remarking on have a belief system, but it is a false belief system, a lie in fact. A belief system so ridiculous it is worthy of prophetic satire. Jesus says true worshippers worship in truth. Not in lies.

Israel’s continual coupling with the idols of the people living around them is a massive theme in the Hebrew Bible. Before even setting foot into the promised land, God warned them “you must purge the land of all this stuff because it is going to entrap you” (Deut 7:1-6, 16). True worshippers do whatever it takes to purge the idols from their land.

If they don’t then this is what can happen:

The idols of the nations are of silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear; indeed, there is no breath in their mouths. Those who make them are just like them, as are all who trust in them. 

Psalm 135:15–18 (HCSB)

The new you

If you make an idol, you will end up being just like the idol. You become like the object of your worship. In the case of a mute and deaf physical idol, all shiny on the outside, you lose your voice, your ability to listen, and ultimately life animation itself, the poet says. 

And so it is back to the idea of “worship” and “transformation”. Idol-worshippers can be transformed too – they become like their lifeless worship object. On the other hand, faithful God-worshippers transform because they are ridding their heart-land from the ensnaring idols that have replaced God in that part of their lives. And so pride becomes humility, greed becomes generosity, hatred becomes love, harshness becomes gentleness and so on. You become Christ-like. Your life dispenses God’s grace to others around you. You are bringing God’s kingdom saltiness, light and love to those who live, work and play near you and with you.

Meetings


So what is the place and function of meetings of the body then? Paul tells the Corinthians to at least be organised about it! And the purpose is to build up the church:

What then is the conclusion, brothers? Whenever you come together, each one  has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, another language, or an interpretation.  All things must be done for edification.

1 Corinthians 14:26 (HCSB)

Mentioned here are the reciting of a psalm (possibly a hymn (NIV)), and various types of instruction. They prayed (1 Cor 11;4, Acts 1:14, 2:42, 4:31). The early church met together every day in the temple courts (Acts 2:46), but broke bread back at home (Acts 2:46). They praised God (Acts 2:47). There was a lot of apostolic teaching happening as they assembled in the temple courts (Acts 4:33, 5:25-28). In fact, the primary activity we can observe in the meetings of the church in the New Testament is instruction (eg Acts 11:36, 13:15). This makes sense as it was the only way a predominantly illiterate church that did not possess personal copies of Scripture could ever be taught.

In parallel with that, the early Christians were thought of as being worshippers of God. For example: 

While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack against Paul and brought him to the judge’s bench.  “This man,” they said, “persuades people to worship God contrary to the law!” 

Acts 18:12–13 (HCSB)

Conclusion

Worship then is not so much what you do in a meeting, but it’s how you live. It’s more like breathing than participating in any set-piece activity. It’s a constant heart orientation. A true and positive, bi-directional partnership between man and God. Initiated by God and responded to transformationally by man. This…. Is your true and proper worship.

The Good News

Jesus came talking about a message of “Good News”. So, what is this good news? Many people have looked into Christianity hoping to find it, but have found it didn’t seem to live up to the advertising. It didn’t feel like good news, sometimes it didn’t even sound like good news, and even the people talking about it didn’t seem that happy either.

But perhaps we haven’t heard it right. That’s what I am are trying to do here – taking a fresh look at what Jesus was actually saying in the gospels. We will park our western post-reformation theological outlook for a while and see if it gets us somewhere.

This has been my own journey. Four decades or so of evangelical and restoration views. But then I tipped the Lego box over, and have now started to put the pieces back in one at a time. So welcome to the blog, and I hope we can get to know each other and learn something transformative here in our own walks with God.

Andrew Kitchen

Matthew 10:5-8 Jesus sends out the disciples

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

Phase II

At this point in Jesus’ ministry he had been teaching and healing publicly for some time, and was known by the public at large and was certainly also on the radar of the religious leaders. His disciples had been with him long enough to have learned some things about the way of the kingdom, and now Jesus was inaugurating phase II of his strategy.

In the preceding passage (Mt 9:35-38), we learn that Jesus although working very hard (Mt 9:35) was not able to meet all the needs he would have liked (Mt 9:36). Time for intern assignments for his disciples!

At that point in time they were to proclaim the message of the kingdom to the Jews only. Nothing against Samaritans and Gentiles mind you, (Jesus ministered to them as well), but just at this juncture, the disciples were still new at this, and probably best off sticking with the culture they can most naturally relate to, and perhaps were less likely to be hostile to (Mt Lk 9:51-56) at that point in their spiritual lives. Also, the beachhead among the Jews was still being established. Ministry to the Samaritans and Gentiles would come in time (Acts 1:8).

The Message

And their message? “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Twenty-first century Christians need to pause and engage with that. Note how different it is to the typical evangelical message of “Jesus will save you from your sins”. It’s a completely different approach. Contemplate what the “kingdom of heaven” is all about and investigate that, rather than heading down a sin/salvation rabbit hole on the first day in spiritual kindergarten.

This is the same message that Jesus (and John) had already been preaching. The very first words out of Jesus’ mouth in his public ministry were “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near (Mt 4:17).” Not “Repent, so that you don’t go to hell when you die.” See the difference?

Matthew 13:10-17

Then the disciples  came up and asked Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” He answered them, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know,  but it has not been given to them. For whoever has, more will be given to him, and he will have more than enough. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.  For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see,  and hearing they do not listen or understand.  Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: You will listen and listen, yet never understand; and you will look and look, yet never perceive.

For this people’s heart has grown callous; their ears are hard of hearing,and they have shut their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyesand hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn back—and I would cure them

“But your eyes are blessed  because they do see, and your ears because they do hear!  For I assure you: Many prophets and righteous people longed to see the things you see yet didn’t see them; to hear the things you hear yet didn’t hear them.

Teaching style

“Your teaching style is different, Jesus. You tell these stories. None of the other rabbis do that. Why do you do it?” That’s essentially what his disciples are asking in this passage. “What’s the parable thing all about?”

Jesus explains that he has been crafting his preaching style as a response to the reality of the varying degrees of receptivity to be found in the hearts of men. Quoting Isaiah 6, he describes the phenomenon of the calloused heart. A heart that has reached the point of being impervious to new truth due its long history of rejecting it. By now, the excuses, finely crafted apologetics and other forms of self-talk easily deflect any new claim for attention. “No more new information please. We are closed.” is written on the sign outside the shopfront of these hearts.

Secrets of the kingdom

And so, while giving them his best shot with a memorable and pointed story Jesus does not attempt to ever forcibly pry open such a heart. There are plenty of others around who are willing to hear about “the secrets of the kingdom” and he will invest his time with them.

So, what are these “secrets of the kingdom” then, and just how secret are they? Well, Jesus is clearly in the process of revealing them (Mt 13:11) to all of those who want to listen and learn. The sentry’s challenge question is “Do you really want to come in” and the password is “Yes”. The things of the kingdom are indeed secrets but not inaccessible ones.

Jesus has just taught the parable of the sower. The secret here? Receive the words of Jesus. Allow the seed to grow. Nurture it. Make room for it in your life. We are not talking any next-level super-secret Q-drop stuff here. Other secrets? The first will be last. Blessed are the meek. The greatest among you will be your servant. The Gentiles are going to be part of this…. Hello?… are you still there?… the line’s breaking up… can you still hear me?

Matthew 12:25-28

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

Group Dynamics
There is a lesson in the dynamics of group culture to observe here about how people in different groups process and respond in different ways to the same event. The event was a clear, irrefutable and public healing  of a blind and mute man by Jesus. Profoundly life-changing for the man. Amazing and thought-provoking for the people. Deeply threatening for the Pharisees.

The text says that the people, the general local population, Jewish, but non-aligned with any particular religious group were simply “astonished”, and rightly so; it was a miraculous event, outside  experiential norms. It got them thinking, and reaching into their knowledge of Scripture for a possible explanation.

Ezekiel 34:16 speaks of how God will shepherd his sheep with justice: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy.” and links this promise of a shepherd to a prince of the line of David (Ezk 34:25). Just prior to this healing Matthew has editorially linked Jesus’ healings with Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of God’s chosen servant (Mt 12:18-21). He is using this whole episode to really underline the point.

And so the wheels are turning in the minds of the people. “Could this be the guy? That’s really cool.”

The gathered Pharisees had a different response. This Jesus fellow was not one of their group. He didn’t do the same things they did, in fact he seemed to deliberately flaunt their long-established traditions. He didn’t look at things the same way they did. He wasn’t one of them. And, now that he is stepping onto their religious lawn, he just has to be stopped. Turning to page one of the playbook, it reads “Discredit”.  And so the talking points that went out that day said to say: “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons”. Subtext: he is not from God (like we are), he is with the opposition (the devil).

Think about it people

Jesus didn’t even have to break a sweat to dismantle their argument, just by asking the “so how would this actually work?” question. He gives them a few options to go forward with, none of them comfortable. Option 1 – your claim defies simple logic (Satan throwing himself out?, oh come on!). Option 2 – Don’t your guys do the same thing? Or is not really about casting out demons but about one of you? Or Option 3 – Jesus credits them with being able to throw out demons, but no one in the group has ever actually  managed to do it.

And the most uncomfortable of all? The truth. “If I am working with the Spirit of God, then the kingdom has come upon you” ie. “You are wrong, and no one is coming to you for your permission”.

Now, if you are used to being one of the ones in charge in a religious group, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. Maybe too bitter for some. This dynamic still plays out today. The “keepers of the truth” have their own mini-kingdoms where they rule with unassailable power. Occasionally, someone steps on their lawn by exhibiting a life of living actual kingdom participation. The ranks must close, and the discrediting must start in a desperate effort to preserve the identity of the group.

Choice

There is a choice still available though and some may take it. Nicodemus was one such as this, he was able to see that God was working through Jesus (Jn 3:2), although he still struggled to fit Jesus’ teaching into his paradigms. The very teacher of Israel needed to be born again.

Matthew 9:35-38

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Jesus went to the towns and to the villages, that’s what proclaimers do. He went to “their synagogues”. Jesus did not have a temple complex of his own that was the centre of his ministry, he went to theirs instead. Now, think about how churches operate these days. A very typical paradigm is that the group has a building which is the base of operations, and people come from near and far to attend events there. And then every few years they might start another one in another town. You come to us, not we go to you. You come to our space, not we come to yours. It’s quite a different picture of ministry, is it not.

Imagine the village conversation after Jesus left town. “What did you think of that then?” Mary asks her friend Hannah. “Lot better than normal synagogue, and my husband John’s arthritis has just disappeared. I hope he’s coming back soon.”

Harassed and Helpless
Jesus’ message of good news was like music to the ears of the “harassed and helpless”. His gospel met their need, so hence the interest of the crowds that formed. No doubt there was a lot of plain old curiosity that swelled the numbers, the level of competition for interesting goings-on in regional first century Galilee villages not being that high. Nevertheless, the people came – in their droves.

Jesus modelled compassion. He acted on comprehension of needs. He didn’t see the people as a heaving unwell crowd so much as a bewildered, stumbling mass of confused directionless sheep. The text says Jesus had compassion on them after having healed their every disease and sickness. Jesus saw a deeper need. There should be shepherds here. Jesus’ compassion was connected with the subsequent acts of solving the harvest field worker shortage problem. This was not a one-man job anymore.

Transition

This is a transition point for Jesus. It’s time for the next phase. Others need to learn how to do this. Time to get the disciples involved. “Disciples – can you see the harvest field? Do you see the need? Pray for workers. Pray for yourselves”- Jesus is saying.

 

So, Kingdom. The good news is the good news of the kingdom. The good news that is about the Kingdom or the good news that belongs to and is rooted in the kingdom? When you understand what the Kingdom is all about you can hear the good news that goes along with it. And in this case, part of that good news is that Jesus wants to provide great shepherds to take care of his sheep. You’ll know you are seeing the kingdom of Jesus when you see good shepherds looking after Jesus’ sheep.

Mt 8:5-13 Faith of the Centurion

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

Centurion in town

A centurion comes up to Jesus when he walks into town  – a Roman gentile, emblematic of the hated occupying force… How’s this going to go? Will Jesus respond to his request? What about the politics of this?

There is a simple exchange – “Lord, my servant lies at home paralysed, suffering terribly.” Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

This is all about human need and connection. The centurion cares about his servant’s terrible condition and is looking for a solution. Jesus connects and responds with an offer of help. No politics  here.

What follows is an amazing twist. This “outsider” centurion has an incredible insight into how faith is supposed to work. So much so that Jesus says he is in a class of his own in the faith department – take that, religious establishment!

It’s almost as if the centurion has invented some language here. “Come”. “Go”. All simple. This is how it works. Jesus picks up on this language and says “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.”

Subjects of the Kingdom

Let’s unpack a bit more. Jesus says “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven”. He is talking about people coming (there’s that language again) from far away places to take their place in the kingdom. These people are not the traditional or ethnic expected invitees – the Jews. These people are from the nations, I.e. the Gentiles, from outside. Could it be that this what is foreshadowed in verses such as Isa 43:5-8, 59:11 and Ps 107:2-3?

Yet the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, to a place of darkness, sorrow and regret. So who exactly are these subjects of the kingdom and why are they cast out? Kingdom language is common in the Bible. There is a king, a realm, and the subjects. Through the history of the people of Israel, kingdoms were quite fluid. More than once a kingdom was transferred from one king to another (1 Sam 28:17, 2 Sam 3:10, Lam 2:2, Dan 2:39). The Old Testament also speaks of a coming new kingdom (Isa 32:1, Isa 9:6-7) and, spoiler alert, Jesus is the new king.

Weeping and Gnashing

Now, what is this “weeping and gnashing of teeth” all about? In the NIV version of the  New Testament, the word “gnashing” appears seven times , of which six are in Matthew. It’s a favourite phrase of his (Mt 8:12,m13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30). Luke also it (Lk 13:28) and there are many parallels there to this passage:

There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. (Lk 13:28-30).

All of the references associate teeth-gnashing with weeping, and most of them with being outside in the darkness. There is obviously a well-known reference being invoked here. First of all, what exactly is “gnashing”? Gnashing is grinding. You are grinding your teeth out of anger, not out of agony. See Acts 7:54. You’re upset. See also Ps 112 where the faith of the righteous is compared with the vexed teeth-gnashing of the wicked.

In ancient times banquets were usually held at night in well-lit rooms. If you were excluded, you were said to be cast into the “outer darkness of the night”. Orientals didn’t even like to sleep without the light on, so being stuck outside in the dark was a terrifying prospect.

Faith class 

So what is Jesus saying here? He wants to get the attention of his people, the Jews. It’s almost like he is having the gentile Centurion stand up in the front of the classroom.

Class, listen up. See Andronicus here, this is what faith looks like. Pay attention class. If you want to graduate, learn it like he has. The fact that your fathers are old boys of the school doesn’t count. Thank you Andronicus, you can sit down now”.

Listen up, indeed. This kingdom is for people who want to follow the king, not the hereditary land-owners. The rules have changed, faith in the king is the new currency.

Rethinking Evangelism

 


The Message

There was this guy who appeared one day who started preaching a message he called “the good news”. A lot of people heard, some became followers, and then he got killed by the Romans.

The message lived on through His followers over the next several decades, and spread throughout the whole Mediterranean world, despite significant opposition at times.

Today, Christians still preach a message. But is it the same one that the first guy taught? Or has it become hopelessly syncretised with culture and politics? Or has it been systematised and simplified (ie dumbed down) for efficient consumption and replication? So, the question is, how is evangelism going in the twenty-first century and does it need a rethink?

Growth Parables, Growth Paradigms

There are two short parables in Matthew’s gospel that show Jesus’ thinking about how the kingdom of heaven grows.

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Mt 13:32-33).

 So how does the kingdom of heaven grow exactly? How can we evangelise in the most effective way in our churches? What are the best programs, resources and techniques? Answer: none of the above.

There is some seed. It gets planted. And then we wait. Or you can use yeast!

That’s it. We plant the seed. The good news of the gospel, the way of God’s kingdom. And we let it do its work. We don’t coerce. Or manipulate. Or trap. Or scare people. It’s good news, remember? Things like “blessed are the poor in spirit”, or “the meek shall inherit the earth”. That’s the way Jesus started out.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19)

There it is again, that “good news”. Freedom sounds good. Getting your sight back sounds good. Freedom from oppression sounds good – certainly a lot better than “you’re lost and you’re going to hell” which has become the essential locus of evangelism in the evangelical world.

Worth knowing that the “eu” part in the εὐαγγελίζω (euangelizo) means “good” (think eulogy, euphemism, even euphonium etc). So, if you want to share the good news make sure it’s actually good.

Fun fact, in Roman times, the euangelion was a political announcement. The king, or the emperor is coming to your town, or has ascended to the throne. Jesus employed this device as he brought the message of a new king, a new kingdom and a new way of life.

The problem for many of us though is that we just can’t get out of a “lost/saved/we have to convert you to our church” paradigm when we think about the euangelion. Yes, this is why Jesus died, and sin is a massive problem, but this formulation of the gospel misses key parts of the overall story.


Conversion Engineering

The enemy of Jesus-style evangelism is industrialised big-church evangelism, engineered to garner those “decisions”. From the sawdust trails of the Great Awakenings, to the Billy Sundays, to the Billy Grahams, to the Bill Brights, packaged, decision-oriented programs, meetings, tracts, TV shows and so forth have all revolved around creating sufficient angst for the individual that can only be resolved by whatever analgesic act the “evangelist” is touting – a walk down that trail, a seat on that bench, a coming forward, a prayer, even a baptism. The long-term stats on these conversions really aren’t that impressive, but is it any wonder? You would never make a life-long marriage commitment after a one-hour date, so why should a life-long commitment to following Jesus, possibly involving the enduring of persecution be thought to be possible after a one-hour sermon? Jesus just didn’t seem to operate that way.

Many groups set growth goals and make various plans to try to achieve those goals. This approach can be quite deeply ingrained in our personal and corporate church cultures. On the surface this looks OK – vision and planning are good things, right? However, there are traps that get armed in this process.

Trap #1: Ministry Imbalance

In the time of Ezekiel, God made it clear to the shepherds of Israel how He would go about looking after his sheep:

I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Ezk. 34:16).

 Yes, God is concerned for the lost, it’s the first group on his list. But not the only group. There are strays to find, the injured to bind up, the weak to be strengthened.

Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry unrolled the Isaiah scroll and picked out the passage we mentioned earlier:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lk 4:18, Isa 61:1,2).

 Good news + freedom for prisoners + healing + recovery + freedom of the oppressed = Jesus’ ministry.

If Jesus preached that today, he would be accused by some of having a “woke” agenda! Point is that the gospel is for people both inside and outside the group. However, when evangelism is highly prioritised then those inside sheep get neglected.

Now what about what happens after happy conversion day… Are we as organised, intentional and serious about the ongoing spiritual formation and growth and needs of the new babe-in-Christ as we are in the initial acquisition process? Maturing takes time, nurturing, encouragement, intentionality, love and effort. To ignore this is shameful. To prioritise conversion over retention is the heart of Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:18-23).

Trap #2: Unhealthy numerical focus

There is something that is just so alluring about numbers. Be it a bank account savings balance, social media follower count, or church growth statistics. We can draw graphs, make projections, and can feel that little glow of satisfaction as the numbers creep up. We like to know the numbers. King David fell into this trap.

So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, “Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.”

But Joab replied to the king, “May the LORD your God multiply the troops a hundred times over and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?” (2 Sam 24:2-3)

 Joab felt something was off, and he was the general of the army they were counting – you’d think he’d want to know! David got his census done anyway and received the report. But then we are told that:

David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, LORD, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.” (2 Sam 24:10).

That episode cost 70,000 lives (2 Sam 24:15). David saw his error saying:

I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall on me and my family. (2 Sam 24:17).

 Finally, David remembered his roots, and what the heart of a true shepherd should really look like. It was wrong for David to count the people because they were not his to count  (cf Ex 30:12).

Numbers have always had a depersonalising way about them, be it an actuarial statistic or a concentration camp tattoo. We give names to our children, not numbers. Jesus only worked with a few. Paul didn’t same to care that much either about the size of the crowd (1 Cor 1:16), but what they had in common was a simple desire to simply preach the message of the kingdom.

Trap #3: Measurement Pride

Apart from a few verses in the beginning of Acts there are no hard numbers in the New Testament about church growth. Three thousand on the day of Pentecost is a remarkable figure (Acts 2:41), so remarkable that the glory can really only go to God. The Lord really was adding to their number (Acts 2:47), and the Jerusalem church grew to a size of 5000 men, plus presumably a lot of women as well (Acts 4:4). But then the reporting of numbers stop. The point has been made – God was with them spectacularly. No more reports on congregation size, just accounts of the amazing things happening as the Holy Spirit conducted proceedings. If Paul boasted at all it was in his weaknesses. He refuse to boast the way the world boasts (2 Cor 11:18). “You want numbers – I’ll give you numbers… 39 lashes 5 times, 3 times beaten with rods, stoned once, 3 shipwrecks, 24 hours in the open sea” (2 Cor 11:24-25). Paul goes to great lengths to make this point in 2 Corinthians, he is not going to do business the way the world does, or the way the false apostles do. No, he lived the way of suffering, of service, of distress, of weakness. No measurement pride here.

Perhaps we are incapable of resisting the lure of the counting of souls to our account? We can say that “God added” x people to our group, but why are we saying it?

Trap #4: Stifling of Creativity

Finally, one problem with programmatic evangelistic methods is that they tend to stifle and quench creativity. Are we still doing the same old things evangelistically we did twenty or thirty years ago? Is everybody in the group doing the exact same evangelistic tasks? Well, the culture has driven right past us in the fast lane. They aren’t listening to the same old approaches anymore. What are they listening to? What are they attracted to? What do they need? Are we listening? Do we even know? Do we think about it? Paul was good at this. He had to be – three different audiences in Acts 17 alone. The Thessalonians were not the Bereans. He preached Messiah to the Jews (Acts 17:3) and an unknown God to the Athenians (Acts 17:22-25). He did his research too (Acts 17:23).

In case we have missed it, “church” is kind-of “on the nose”in many quarters these days, so invitations to come along there may not work that well any more. But perhaps ears prick up when you talk about a radical “equality” rather than a hierarchy. That has currency in the culture. Or show regard for the marginalised and get involved in a community project. Concern about justice issues, human rights and so forth. These sorts of things are totally consistent with the gospel and could be a path-way worth exploring evangelistically. Not to mention that people don’t need too much convincing that the world is in a bit of a mess and are ready for some good news. Go on! Shape that message! Love is always good. The meekness and gentleness of Christ as an antidote to a “muscular’’, “strongman”, “toxic” style of leadership. Oh, and don’t be all judgy (Rom 2:1-3, Mt 7:1-5). There are many possibilities.

The Slow Way

What if we were to simply and intentionally live out what we read in the Sermon on the Mount in our interactions with others. To actually love people, serve them, be compassionate, be there. And then one day the opportunity will arise for some deeper discussion. And if the person doesn’t respond, well you just keep on loving, serving and being compassionate, and maybe things will be different in a couple of years. There will be opportunities to open the Scriptures with people to meet  needs as they arise. Living life with people means there will be needs that can be ministered to. That does seem to be the way Jesus did it. There are probably a lot more  “living water” conversations (Jn 4:1-24) than “warn and plead opportunities”.  (Acts 2:40).

Paul gets the idea also:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor 3:5-9)

Paul seems to be genuinely comfortable with the idea that he is just a simple co-worker. A seed-planter. A God-partner who is happy to pass the ball. He is convinced that it is God who makes those seeds grow. The thing about seeds is that there is no quick pay-off. You put them in the ground, and you have nothing to show for it but dirt under your fingernails for quite a while. One day there is a sprout, but you better keep on watering it because full-grown mustard trees can take quite a few years (Mt 13:32).

What if you were able to come up with a setting in which you could share and discuss in your day the things Jesus taught that revolutionised the religion of his day? And you did it for a year, with absolutely no “conversion agenda”, but instead just focussed on teaching the good news and allowing the Holy Spirit to do his work? What would that look like a year down the track? Chances are a lot of the poor, imprisoned and blind people would stop by. History tells us that Jesus’ way draws people. They get to listen. They get to figure out in community with others how this all applies to them. They get to engage, to think, to wrestle. That is going to lead to a deeper engagement with the Scriptures and changes in the heart. Then one day, “So what do I need to do?” moments can arise. People do think about these things (Lk 13:23, Acts 8:26-39, Acts 16:30).

This may all seem terribly inefficient and oh-so-slow. But isn’t that how seeds grow? Much better to start slowly, plant those seeds and allow God to cause the growth. Build relationships and intentionally nurture, than to have a “big push” with boast-able numbers only to lose many of those “converts’’ a few months later.

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe we have wonderful news to share and that we need to share it. But I believe our real goal is to creatively make the gospel attractive (Tit 2:10) and form Christ in people (Gal 4:19), understanding that it is God who makes the seeds grow. Constantly reevaluating, rethinking, reshaping our presentation of the gospel for our particular cultural moment.

Matthew 11:11-15

From The Kingdom series.

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Mt 11:11-15)

John in Jail

We are talking about John the Baptist – Jesus’ cousin and ministry fore-runner, who is now on death row for daring to call out the most powerful guy in the land over his relationship with his brother’s wife Herodias. We know how that ends – head on a platter stuff (Mt 14:1-12).

Now John was getting reports of what Jesus was doing, and it seems they didn’t quite tally with the picture John had of what the Messiah would be doing (Mt 11:2). We are not told exactly what John was concerned about, but we are privy to Jesus’ reply.

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Mt 11:4-6).

Jesus is quoting Isaiah. There are a few candidates:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,

(Isaiah 61:1-3)


Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.

(Isa 35:4-6)

Seeing the Kingdom

Jesus is reminding John of what this coming kingdom was all about. And preaching (proclaiming the good news) and healing (the blind, the lame, the deaf, the lepers, even the dead) are all part of the job! And of course this is what Jesus had been doing (Mt 9:35, Mt 10:1, 11:1). Don’t be mistaken John! This king wants to heal, wants to comfort, wants to free. This is the picture of the kingdom you need to have.

And perhaps Jesus is steadying John’s knees a little bit too. ‘Don’t stumble over this John”. “Don’t let your idea of God’s Kingdom prevent you from seeing and participating in the actual Kingdom” is the idea.

Are you listening?

Jesus had an important message about John for his hearers. Paraphrasing: “He was the return of Elijah you know.” (Mal 4:5-6, Mt 11:13-15). And, “Listen up! – are you really listening people? John was the wild-man prophet calling you to repentance and you didn’t listen to him – you called him a demon. (Mt 11:18). I came singing a different tune, eating with you, drinking with you and you didn’t listen to me either! I got called a glutton and a drunkard. So it’s not about our ministry style, it’s about your willingness to listen, to reflect, to repent. Are you really listening at all? The miracles are to show you what God is really like and to get your attention – don’t miss it.”

Least in the Kingdom

Now verse 11 and 12 are interesting.

 … whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
(Mt 11:11)
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.
(Mt. 11:12)

What is Jesus saying here? Was John not in the kingdom and now you can be? Or, is being the least in the kingdom the right seat to want to sit in, no matter who you are? This is the way of Jesus – the first will be last, and the last will be first. In his Kingdom, the reputation system is upside down. If you have worldly corporate eyes you are not going to get it.

Violence!

Verse 12 sounds like a negative – violence is never good right? But other translations of the Greek word βιάζω (Biazo) choose  the sense of “forceful” rather than “violence”. Some have preached that as a positive- i.e. the kingdom is forcefully advancing, the idea being to be someone who is strong and  forceful in how you go about that ministry work. This interpretation does not chime at all well with the clear and consistent New Testament teaching about the requirement for gentleness in the character of church leaders and everybody else besides (Mt 11:29, 2 Cor 10:1, Gal 5:23, Eph 4:2, Col 3:12,1 Tim 3:3, 1 Tim 6:11,  Tit 3:2, 1 Pet 3:15). Either way, there is a very strong current flowing here. And what are they doing? ἁρπάζω (harpazo) – laying hold of the kingdom, taking it by force or advancing it? Destroying it or building it?

Context might give us a clue. Jesus is addressing the crowd about John. He is positive about the Baptist – saying that he is in a very small club – he’s an actual prophet. He was one of the greats alright. But now he’s in jail. So how do we view John as a result of that? Has he lost credibility because he is doing time? 

Perhaps Jesus is saying the actual kingdom of God is being subjected to the raids of violent non-kingdom people (like Herod) for their violent non-kingdom purposes? John was not one to dress up and live in a nice palace (like Herod), and now his life is on the line because of his kingdom convictions.

Violent political activity was a feature of the times. The zealots (one of whom became a disciple of Jesus [Mt 10:4] and who never seemed to lose his nickname! [Acts 1:13]), were a group who responded to Roman occupation through the use of military force and covert action. They would be called a terrorist group today, or at the very least dagger-armed assassins. Again, violence is not the way of the kingdom that Jesus is bringing.

Wrap-up

The question for you, crowd, is this: Who are you going to listen to? Whose message will you be willing to accept? Are you prepared to endure the actions of violent kingdom-raiders in order to bring my kind of kingdom to the world?