Linked to post for August 23 and the set readings:
Isaiah 51:1-6 — Former exiles hear God’s desire to restore them
Matthew 16:13-20 — Who is Jesus? The answer also defines us
Romans 12:1-8 — A call to see ourselves with Spirit-renewed minds
Who is God? And who am I? The two questions are intertwined. We think we know ourselves, and on a human level, maybe we do. But we cannot know ourselves, spirit, soul and body until we come to know the One who made us. And then we begin to see ourselves as He sees us.
First look at the message
Who are God’s people now? The Jews who had been deported, living under pagan rule and restrictions in Babylon, were allowed to return in dribs and drabs to rebuild. It was their fellowship with God and sense of belonging to Him that needed the most rebuilding — but Isaiah had already spoken God’s encouragement for them. The “Who is God, who are we” theme gains emphasis as the disciples gather at the place where Peter has made His declaration: “You are the Son of the Living God” against a backdrop of pagan idols. The disciples see Jesus for who He is — and He tells Peter and the disciples what their destiny is to be. Following the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, a much wider group of disciples (in Paul’s letter, believers in Rome specifically) are working with the same two questions of who the Lord is in their lives, and who they are in Him. They, like us, have to learn how to live under the lordship of Jesus, and how to interact with each other as spiritually enabled people.
The first story — from memories of exile to new hope with God
Through the prophet Isaiah, God reminds the former exiles, who carry a sense of alienation owing to Israel’s failure to keep the covenant, that they carry the identity of Abraham and Sarah. They are special!
And they are being gathered again, to have fellowship with God. He intends them, not to continue to carry failure, but to be His demonstration of light for the salvation of the nations around.
God is telling them that He sees them differently.
The second story — from artisans to strategic, apostolic gifting
In the second story, from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples are in northern Galilee, a notoriously pagan region of Israel,. They are in a city that is dedicated to the Greek god pan and is full of pagan shrines and symbols, including a huge rock facade used as a location for pagan worship. This is where Jesus says He will will build His church on the rock of Peter’s declaration of the truth of who Jesus is: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
On this basis Jesus confers a particular spiritual authority on Peter, as spokesman for the other disciples, the keys of the kingdom of heaven, which Peter later uses to bring Jews gathered at Pentecost into the kingdom, then Samaritans, and later following his rooftop vision, an even more controversially, a Roman officer and his household. Peter is instrumental in the move to offer fellowship to Christian Gentiles in the early church.
This story is essentially the account of a turning point in the gospels, where Peter comes out with a declaration of a very profound truth. Jesus is not a returned Elijah or Jeremiah or other prophet. He is the foretold Messiah and the Son of the God who is alive and present with them, unlike pagan deities.
This is about Peter and the disciples seeing Jesus for who He is. The counterpoint of that is learning to see themselves as they are seen in heaven. Who is Peter? Simon, the somewhat impulsive Galilee fisherman? Or Peter, the Rock and man of faith, representing all the disciples. They were essential partners in God’s strategic, apostolic plan to extend the kingdom of God. They carried a spiritual authority that God had given them.
God is telling them that He sees them differently.
Third story — diversity of gifts in the body
Paul talks about the spiritual gifts of character which create the diversity of the body of Christ.
He is writing to Christians, to those who have made a choice to honour Jesus, who they know as their Saviour by looking to Him as Lord. They have the post-resurrection experience of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They have met with Jesus and have a sense of being part of his new priesthood.
They know who God is, and are learning to see themselves in terms of being His.
Applying it — us and the Lord and His Church
If we have been on this journey, coming to know God personally through Jesus, we too are learning to see ourselves not just as redeemed, saved people. We are also people with new life and a spiritual dimension, and different spiritual attributes. Paul clearly expects everyone who hears his letter to have a sense of who they are, spiritually, and what their gifts might be.
Taking that into our lives and situations, we should look for the empowered believers… those with speaking skills, the ones who are gifted to get done what needs to be done, those that can take what seems complicated and make it accessible for others, the ones who are the natural coaches and upbuilders, those who are entrusted with a good income that they can use for the fellowship, those who serve through leadership and those who are compassionate and caring.
These are quite broad categories. It’s a good exercise in self-awareness to see where we fit — everybody who belongs to Jesus fits here somewhere. And often others see in us, attributes we may not recognise (or may not be all that aware of) that are valuable in the body.
With over two billion believing Christians, there are a lot of churches across the world. Pause to consider this thought: most of them are not a denomination that we are familiar with.
Some, especially in the “first world” which we know, are busy fund-raising and managing decline. Will they still be around in ten or twenty years?
But others – we may know of some – do have an awareness of the spiritual life and diversity that Paul is describing, and are using it for the kingdom. They often have a different problem: where to put more and more worshippers, and how to repurpose their facilities. How to be good stewards of the tithes that are coming in.
Declining or growing — our choice
We have a choice — to see things (including ourselves) in the old way of the world, not very spiritual and declining. Or to allow the Holy Spirit to do His work of renewal in our minds and thinking. At that point we get a vision, a ‘growing’ kind of vision, that comes from above. We are like Peter — we see something we didn’t see before. What Paul writes begins to makes sense as we start to see ourselves, and our role, and our partnership with God, in the way He sees us.
God is telling us that, in Jesus, He sees us differently.
Link back to readings and Bible study of TLW post for August 23