I’ve been reading through the book of Acts recently. There’s so much wisdom in this book to learn from as it relates to evangelism, church planting, and the apostolic church the Lord is looking to build! Throughout the book, we see the early church wrestle with different issues that the apostles probably didn’t anticipate when they began Jesus’ mission. One of those issues was the issue of the Law and circumcision.
As the Gospel spread from the Jewish apostles to mixed race Samaritans and then to “unclean” Gentiles, this issue sprang to the forefront. Each of these races now had those among them who believed in Jesus, but did they have to become Jews (be circumcised and follow the Law) in order to follow Jesus? We look back at this question and think of it as something only the early church struggled with, but we struggle with similar issues.
How you ask? When a new believer comes to Christ, what standards do you automatically ask them to adhere to? Do you expect people to stop smoking, cut their hair (or grow their hair out), or stop swearing before you’re willing to accept them as a true part of the church? Then you’re still wrestling with the same question the Paul, Peter, James and the Elders were wrestling with in Acts 15.
See, the issue the early church addressed in Acts 15 goes beyond circumcision. It’s really an attempt by the early church to outline basic lifestyle changes we should teach to new believers. The first church council was trying to define what it looks like for Jesus to live in new disciples who aren’t Jews without putting the new disciples under the yolk of legalism. What was their conclusion? They wrote a letter to all the churches with the following conclusion:
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.
No idolatry. No drinking blood. No sexual immorality. That’s it. This was the line between repentance and a life of sin, between legalism and true religion.
Some today seem to advocate believers can do whatever they want. There is no standard, just the acknowledgement of Jesus as alive and wanting Him to be a part of their lives is enough. Others seem to advocate a long list of do’s and don’ts that seem to make people more of a member of the era a certain denomination was birthed than a follower of Jesus. Neither of these is the answer. They’re just catering to a certain preference to confront or not confront the culture.
If we were able to invite the first century apostles and elders back in time to discuss this issue, I’d believe they’d give us much the same advice: “Let’s not put heavy burdens on people who are coming to Christ. Let’s not make them live up to a code that we still struggle with to this day. But as a sign of their walk with Jesus, teach them to leave behind whatever dead things they used to worship. Let them walk in purity, forsaking sexual relationships outside of a marriage between a man and woman.” From there, discipleship and the Holy Spirit would gradually over time grow the disciples.
What about you? What requirements do you put on new disciples? Do you err on the side of giving them too little or too much instruction? What can we learn from the apostles and the elders?
[Editor’s Note: This is a 23-Day Series exploring different aspects of God’s nature and personality, using Tozer’s “The Knowledge of the Holy” as a discussion starter. You can read the introduction of the series here.]
Holiness is something we don’t even like to talk about any more. In our contemporary understanding of religion, holiness is the creepy old uncle of Christian virtues. Its the one we all understand a little bit but very few of us want to actually talk about or show to others. This obviously comes from decades of church history where legalism was called holiness and we are in an age where people want to be anything but religious. But holiness, as I hope we’ll see, is the farthest thing from legalism. Holiness is the sign of the life of God in the soul of men and this is the reality we all desperately need.
It would be hard for us to get too far into a discussion of God’s holiness without stopping to remember the story of Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet of God. He prophesied the true and accurate word of God for five whole chapters before he had an experience that changed his life forever. He had an encounter with God. In this encounter, Isaiah is taken before the throne of God and sees the Lord. He hears the burning angels around the throne declaring the ultimate holiness of God to one another. And it’s in this ecstatic vision that, though Isaiah had prophesied for five chapters already, he is struck with the sinfulness of his life and particularly the sinfulness of his lips. Isaiah needed a clear vision of God in His holiness before he could truly understand his utter sinfulness. This not only caused an acknowledgement of sin, but also a cleansing and a sending. It utterly changed the direction of Isaiah’s life.
Tozer tries to explain God’s holiness, but it’s obvious that it must come by revelation. It’s not something that a man can just explain. He must see it. So Tozer calls us away from futile activities like imagining the most holy thing you can think of and then taking it up another two or three notches. God’s holiness is not shared with anyone. Neither is there a standard of holiness that God must live up to. Instead, what God does is the definition of holiness. He is holy in whatever He does and what He does becomes our definition of holiness.
And because God is holiness Himself, He has made holiness the “moral standard” of health for the entire universe. God knows that His ways are best and that anything outside of His ways will destroy and degrade man and his environment. This is why the rebellion of mankind tainted the universe and unleashed death and decay. And this is why whenever you see systemic revival of the church and awakening in a society, the environment itself undergoes significant transformation. In order for God to preserve His world, He must actively war against that which harms it and this is why God unleashes wrath against sin on the Earth. “The holiness of God, the wrath of God, and the health of creation are inseparably united.”
Tozer goes on to remind us that God is holy with an infinite holiness that has no degrees. This is a holiness we can never hope to achieve. But there is a relative type of holiness that God calls His people to participate in. It comes through the cross and by God imparting it to us. And though these words may not be popular with society at the moment, God still says to His church “You shall be holy, because I am holy,” (1 Peter 1:15-16). None of us will claim true holiness, but in light of God’s command, we have to soberly set out on a journey to grow into His image.
How do we do this? Tozer has some recommendations: Stare at God. Become utterly fascinated with Him and who is He is in His holiness. We become what we look at. So if we stare at Jesus and worship Him in truth, we will become alive from the inside in a way that makes us holy. We also must hide in Jesus. This means naming and repenting of our sin and committing to have no righteousness outside of Jesus. It’s His blood that cleansed us that is the basis for our holiness. As we do these two things, we also allow the Lord to discipline us so that we can grow in His holiness. These three attitudes change us and transform us into a person that is more like God every day.
Today, I’m burdened. I’m burdened by the fact that so much of the church thinks that God’s holiness is just legalism. I hate that the church thinks that holiness is just old-fashioned and prudish. In reality, God’s holiness is burning, shining brightness and glory. It’s full of life and burns away the cancer of sin that chokes out life in a believer. The most fully alive human beings I have ever met have tasted a little bit of God’s holiness and it has changed them forever.
Friends, we need more Isaiahs. We need more men and women who have had a profound encounter with Jesus and have seen Him in His holiness and glory. One glimpse–just one–will strip away every ounce of needing to be cool or well thought of. It will shift our agenda from our own to His. It will unleash prophets who again will declare the things of God.
It’s not just the world who needs conviction of God’s holiness. Much like Isaiah, the people who need to see God’s holiness is us. We talked for a lot of chapters, friends. But are there things about ourselves and our nation(s) that we can’t even see until we see Jesus in His holiness? We need to begin to ask God for more vision. As we do, we will see real life overwhelm the plastic lives of legalism and sin. We will see more cleansing and more sending.
And that is the need of the hour. The Knowledge of the Holy.
That’s my takeaway today. What’s yours? Leave a comment so we can all grow together!
Day 21: The Holiness of God
Day 22: The Sovereignty of God
Day 23: The Open Secret