Following years in Bible College, I found myself invited to become the pastor of a Free Evangelical Church, and as I set my course for major change I was drawn to such scriptures as Ezra and Nehemiah and the prophets who endorsed, encouraged and exhorted those men and their companions.
I notice that Israel, which had formerly celebrated the presence of God not only on their wilderness journey, but also particularly in the Jerusalem Temple, had been finally exiled through their disobedience. Ezra and Nehemiah represented restoration figures. They wanted to see the city of God rebuilt and the house of God restored. They were prepared to make the long and costly journey to re-establish Zion.
Nehemiah was heartbroken when he heard that Jerusalem’s walls were down and its gates burned. Anybody could walk in and out. All distinctiveness was gone. It was open country. The glory of Zion, as described in David’s psalms, was lost. Nehemiah burned with passion to rebuild the city. He and Ezra longed to see the Temple freshly established. Urged on by Haggai and Zechariah, they went about their task with the promise from God that the glory of this latter house would far surpass the glory of the former.
Such scriptures profoundly affected me. I wanted to see not simply a personal enjoyment of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I wanted to see a glorious church. I wanted to see the city of God reborn.
Of course, Nehemiah and Ezra and their fellow countrymen were not simply facing the problem of architecture and a physical building programme. The nation had been in exile in Babylon, away from God’s presence. God had finally judged them, as the prophets had repeatedly warned them that He would.
Exile was the ultimate judgment. Just as Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, so Israel was ejected from the Promised Land of blessing and God’s presence. Psalm 137 tells us that by the waters of Babylon they sat down and wept when they remembered Zion. Their captors mocked them, inviting them to entertain them with some of Zion’s favourite songs. But they mourned, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1–4).
As we began to welcome the presence of the Holy Spirit, and one by one a congregation of believers became filled with the Holy Spirit, our church life was transformed. Our worship became full of God’s presence and virtually unrecognizable compared with what we had previously experienced. The presence of the Holy Spirit changed everything, not only in the life of each individual but in our corporate experience. As we more and more felt the presence of God, we began to understand that we were fully accepted sons by grace.
Later, a rediscovery of the doctrines of grace underlined our acceptance and set us completely free. We could wholeheartedly identify with Psalm 126:1: “When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting.” Yes, we found that we could laugh and shout in the house of God. We were coming out of a kind of exile back into the presence of God, and discovering that for freedom Christ had set us free in His wonderful presence.
The gospel in Word and power
Paul described his apostolic ministry as bringing about “the obedience of the Gentiles” (Romans 15:18). Nations locked in disobedience would be confronted with his call to return to God and to be “obedient from the heart to that form of teaching” which he brought (Romans 6:17). Paul was incredibly effective in his task. He impacted great cities steeped in pagan cultures and established strong, outgoing churches. For example, the Thessalonians turned “from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9) as a result of his ministry. How did he enjoy such incredible success? When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he commended them for their faith and reminded them that his gospel had come to them not in word only, but in power and in the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
The gospel comes in word. It is good news that has to be understood. You don’t just catch Christianity like catching influenza; nor do you simply attend exciting meetings, hoping simply to get caught up in the euphoria. Philip’s first question to the Ethiopian was not, “Do you feel it?” but, “Do you understand?” Jesus said that the unfruitful pathway in his parable represented those who did not understand the word. The Thessalonians, in contrast, received the word “not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). They understood it, believed it, respected it and found that it “performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
So fundamental was the spread of the word in the New Testament church, that Luke described the growth of the church in these terms: “The word of God kept on spreading” (Acts 6:7); “The word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied” (Acts 12:24); “So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (Acts 19:20) (all italics mine). Luke could have said that the churches multiplied, or the number of disciples grew, but on these occasions he spoke about the ever-increasing impact of the word of God. The whole world has been lied to and it is the church’s responsibility to bring the truth to it.
The apostles regarded preaching as crucial. They filled Jerusalem with their doctrine. When forbidden to speak any more, they pleaded for boldness to open their mouths. When blessed with numerical success and the growing practical problems associated with that success, they insisted that others looked after practical matters. They were determined to give themselves to the word of God. Even after His resurrection, fully equipped with a body that could appear and disappear at will, Jesus did not overwhelm His disciples with supernatural tricks, but, opening the Scriptures, “explained to them the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). This was consistent with His earlier ministry, during which “He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).
Copyright. Used by permission of Monarch Books.