• What relationships in God’s kingdom look like
This week we’re talking about kingdom relationships. This article is based on The Living Word Bible Study for February 20.
Around the 4th to 5th centuries, something vitally important in the Early church began to be lost.
Before that time, churches were comprised of believers who met informally, in different houses across the city and the gospel was experienced among them as they shared life, shared words of Scripture and more recent instruction and gospel accounts, as they worshipped and prayed.
These all had a new relationship with God. They shared a relationship with Jesus. And they shared a sense of the Holy Spirit leading them and teaching them. And flowing out of their trusting the Lord for what He had done for them, they trusted each other as they shared their lives.
But now a change took place across the Roman EmpireIt appeared to be a welcome change — an end to the persecution that had seen many Christians executed. Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the religion of the empire and following the Edict of Milan in 313, there was freedom of worship in the Roman Empire. The fast growth of the Christian church now became very rapid — and it was an organisational problem.
So, in Roman fashion, the church took on a structure. To exercise somer control over what was taught, a professional leadership emerged, worship was formalised on a common pattern and meetings became bigger and were held in separate buildings (the Romans were used to temples, processions, a raised dias and magistrates in robes of office). Now, instead of the stories about Jesus and the teaching of the apostles being shared and experienced by all there was teaching by only approved teachers in the Sunday “service of worship’.
What was this vital element that was lost?
It was the practice of relationships of love, caring for one another, encouraging one another from the Word, and helping each other deal with sin.
What do we call this? It is fellowship. And this week we’re talking about where it comes from — these special relationships that flourish in God’s kingdom, inspired by the Holy Spirit. The roots of this are deep as we will see as we go back into Genesis and hear part of Joseph’s story — no mention of the Holy Spirit but plenty of evidence of Him! And the teaching about this kind of mutual, relational love is foundational, and we hear it from the Master Himself laying those foundations, as He sets out His values and shows how they are different from our common human experience.
But let’s set the scene with some verses from Psalm 37 which challenge us to trust God and to wait for Him to show His way, rather than hasty and angry reactions when things go wrong.
Setting the scene
1-2 Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
3 Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
4 Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.
5-6 Commit your way to the Lord; trust in Him and He will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.
7 Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.
8 Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret — it leads only to evil.
9 For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.
10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.
39 The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; He is their stronghold in time of trouble.
40 The Lord helps them and delivers them; He delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in Him.
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
Joseph forgives and is reconciled
And we start by coming into the high point of Joseph’s story when he shows the highest awareness of God being with him. To recap briefly, he had had a difficult start as a slave, and after a false accusation a condemned prisoner. However, God’s providence brought him to the attention of the Pharaoh who had been disturbed by a graphic dream. Joseph, summoned from prison, humbly offers an interpretation of the dream, a warning to store grain to last through a long famine. He is quickly elevated to become the king’s right-hand man. But in this part of the story, once again he faces his past and the jealous brothers who sold him into servitude. His brothers, desperate to survive the famine, come to buy grain. Can he see beyond the pain and the rejection, to God’s ultimate purpose? Joseph, who is now a powerful lord, gently reveals himself to the fearful travellers:
3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.
4-5 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.
6-7 ”For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no ploughing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
8 “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.
9-11 ”Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay. You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me — you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have. I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute.’”
15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.
Joseph’s example shows us how having a clear focus on God’s plan and purpose makes possible His unconditional forgiveness — leading to reconciliation. Forgiveness is one of the hardest things we are called to do. Reconciliation is one of the most unnatural things were are expected to do, but it is always where God leads.
Joseph, in God’s strength rather than his own, was able to put the cruel treatment of his brothers behind him, and with spiritual eyes, to discern God’s greater plan.
Love others with God’s love
Jesus hints at the same, bigger, kingdom picture that He opens up to us. Here He is teaching the foundational values that characterise people who are truly in covenant with God — He calls them “children of the Most High” — who are able to show God to others by loving beyond human nature with God’s love:
27-29 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.
30-31 ”Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32-34 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.
35-36 ”But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37-38 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
In the New Testament there is a constructive tension between Jesus’ demonstration and teaching — what we should do — and the church in the power of the Holy Spirit being instructed how to do it. If we treat the gospel accounts as being the final and most authoritative word (in some churches the gospel is read last and people are asked to stand), then we are left with legalism. This is what we must do. But we are left without the essential help we need to ‘be it’ rather than just trying to ‘do it’.
The teaching of the New Testament letters is a record of encouraging churches of people who were all familiar with the empowering of the Holy Spirit. They were people who had a grasp of being new creations in Jesus. The Holy Spirit could enable them to be like Jesus in a way they would never achieve in their own strength. And neither can we!
Here Paul talks about the “natural” flesh and blood person but urges also the understanding of the “spiritual” person who is “of heaven”. The first perishes after its limited lifespan, but the second endures for eternity, and will at the last time receive a new spiritual body.
Raised a spiritual body
35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?”
36-38 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as He has determined, and to each kind of seed He gives its own body.
42-44 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
45-47 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven.
48-49 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.
50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
As spiritual people we can live above the limitations we experience in the natural. The two realms are different — but connected. As born-again, spiritual people we inhabit the natural realm but we also live in the spiritual realm of the new man, the new creation and the life of the Holy Spirit.
So we have a choice. Either we lean towards the abrasive, judgmental ways of the natural and unspiritual person, or we lean towards the relational, loving and graciously forgiving ways of the heavenly, spiritual person — taking our lead from Jesus Himself.
Joseph was supernaturally enabled to live above his human instinct, and come to forgive those who had so cruelly rejected him and told him into slavery.
Jesus taught that we should do to others as we would have them do to us but even go beyond that, showing love to those who position themselves as enemies and converting insults and curses by our relational generosity. He reminds us that this is a spiritual transaction — so we rely on the help and the enabling of the Holy Spirit as He would teach later — and what we give out is what will come back to us in some shape or form. The Jesus kind of love is sacrificial and if the giving has been costly to us, we can be sure that our Father, seeing this, will give back to us in His abundantly generous way, just as Jesus told us.