Editorial – No Need of the Song
Some songs are beautiful, but it’s a pity we need them. Fix your focus and join the irreversible Church!
Which would you rather belong to… a church that sings Turn your eyes upon Jesus – or a church that doesn’t need to? In those early heady days just after Pentecost, it seemed you could catch a glimpse of Jesus of Nazareth on any Jerusalem street. Everyone knew he had died a criminal’s death – but everyone could also see that everything He ‘began to do and to teach’ was still happening. How could this be? Hundreds claimed eyewitness value as they each related their encounters with Him – in the flesh – after his crucifixion. No-one seriously believed the fake news that he had not really died. If the Romans were skilled at anything, it was killing. He had died. And yet…
His followers were amazing. They should have been the most insecure, nervy, reclusive types imaginable, but they gave no hint of their shame – quite the opposite. They actually boasted about Him 24/7! They spoke of Him in the past tense – they were very clear that He was now in heaven – but they lived and loved and laughed as though He were still present. Eyes brimming with kindness and compassion, hands that could touch and heal, confident, gentle voices with time-stopping testimonies that would make you shiver with wonder …and the miracles…! Turn your eyes upon Jesus? They had no need of such a song.
Did these earliest Christians boast an unwavering focus on the Master?
Not at all. They also would need reminding to “fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Heb 3:1) Even Paul and his companions reached a point where they “despaired of life itself” (2 Cor 1:8) and such were his suffering and hardships that Paul had to filter his attention to keep his eyes always facing the finishing line: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14) But… for all the distractions of their awesome trials, they left us a thrilling record of the unstoppable church which walks the earth when her Lord is in full view and the things of earth grow strangely dim in His light.
Consider a ludicrous scenario… assembled are the Prime Minister and his cabinet – even their shadows from across the aisle. COBRA has been convened too (national security issues) …and SAGE (clinical factors relate to recent crowding and social hygiene). A journalist quickly notes “massive interfaith implications” as he scans the religious top brass. This is the most high-powered assembly in living memory. The clerk to this hastily convened Court issues the call: “Bring in the prisoners”… One is immediately struck by the sheer ‘ordinariness’ of the alleged criminals. But for the one-way-system, and the two-metre rule, you might have bumped into them in the supermarket. A mix of men and women (two infants in buggies), wide age profile – the frailest was offered a seat. “Do you know what you have been charged with?”, the Clerk asks their spokesman. “Yes, Ma’am – street preaching, I believe…”
I did warn you that it was laughable… Perhaps – but it’s merely a modern take on the scene painted by Dr Luke in Acts chapter 5. The drama unfolds at verse 17 following the judicial deaths of Ananias and Sapphira whose corrupting presence suddenly morphed into eternal absence when they thought to hoodwink God as well as His people. No surprise then that “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.” (Acts 5:11) Holy fear is a great asset to the Church – it cancels fear of anything or anyone else.
It’s easy to see how national and religious leaders would be plunged into a state of panic. The young church was growing not by ones and twos but by thousands – countless sick people were healed… Even so, unbelievers who clearly respected the apostles were too afraid to join an assembly where the secrets of false hearts could be laid bare – and death could end all pretence. Such was the popular celebrity status of the apostles that superstition began to dog their steps – even their shadows were thought to have healing power!
Let’s not forget that after Jesus brought Lazarus alive from the grave, the same authorities who are now troubled by the massive growth and popularity of the church saw Jesus’ popularity as a matter of national (actually personal) security: “…If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:47-48) Imagine their envious fear. This brand-new Church was ‘Jesus in multiples’ – extraordinary ordinary folks armed to the teeth with divine love and power, “terrible as an army with banners”. The leaders’ worst nightmare had returned – to the power of infinity! Time for another kangaroo court… there has to be a way to stop this kindness pandemic…
My Bible subhead reads ‘The Apostles Arrested and Freed’ – but the narrative (begun in chapter three) says they were re-arrested, freed by an angel to resume preaching then rearrested before being beaten and released with threats. As we would say, these believers were ‘known to the police’. But they were known even more to the ‘unrighteous religious’ who used the temple police and even the Roman occupiers to persecute Jesus and his Church. Their indignation was not in the service of the people, far less of God, as one might expect from a priestly class. No their motive was as base and ignoble as good old-fashioned JEALOUSY: “the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison” (Acts 5:17-18) It was jealousy, not law-keeping that gave the police their remit. Let’s remember this as hostile skies darken above UK Christians today. Too many churches work on the assumption that the best Christian witness is to be law-abiding. It may not always be so. The apostles, in order to serve God’s purpose had to break man’s law. Bishop JC Ryle, ever clear-headed, spelled out our Christian position: “…when a believer feels he should disobey his government, he must be sure it is not because the government has denied him his rights but because it has denied him God’s rights”1
Notice that even God’s messenger did not set them free to go into hiding but to “stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” (Acts 5:20) ‘This Life’ – what a glorious angelic shorthand for the mind-transforming, self-forgetting, love-pursuing, enemy-loving, others-preferring, suffering-embracing, grave-mocking, Jesus-proclaiming new creation that is the Gospel! What’s to hide?
Now we must face questions of our own… Has God changed? Does He ever? Is Jesus Christ no longer the same yesterday, today and forever? Are we indwelt by a cut-down version of the Holy Spirit who comes with courage and boldness (and power) as bolt-on options (not available for delivery to the UK, Europe and the USA)? – or is it we who are cut-down versions of discipleship?
How did the first man and woman become cut-down versions of humanity? Was it not by the subtle strategy of distraction? The Adversary, himself a cut-down version of angelic splendour, seduced them to ‘exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator’ (Romans 1:25). And in that moment, when they shifted their focus from God to themselves they were instantly diminished from lordship over creation to slavery under sin, their own union shattered as they blamed each other. Self-isolation became their ‘new normal’ as the pandemic of sin took hold – they even socially distanced themselves from God! The plague swept through the race, making a murderer of one son and a victim of another. Even creation fell into mourning – and all from a moment’s distraction!
The apostles could not be distracted in those early days, because they were preoccupied – with Jesus: “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Their accusers complained: “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (Acts 5:27) by which they meant “proclaiming in Christ Jesus the resurrection of the dead”. (Acts 4:2) The apostles could not be politically correct because they were holy – you can be one or the other. They did not belong to the state but to God and must, like their Master, be ‘about their Father’s business’. This unswerving focus explains the extraordinary authority of the Church to forget self and resist ungodly dictatorship, to lift the burdens from the oppressed, to release the prisoners of sin and to open blinded eyes to the hope that does not disappoint. A focussed Church is the Bride who has eyes only for her Bridegroom. A focussed Church is under His authority and therefore possesses His authority to challenge evil and fill whole towns with heaven’s light.
On the Day of Pentecost, believers rushed out of the Temple proclaiming the praises of God and, by subsequent word and deed and lifestyle, they never stopped!
Right now, it’s clear that the preoccupation of much of the western church and of many individual Christians is not with Christ but with COVID – they appear to be just as frightened of the pandemic as unbelievers. Let me spell out something about which I fear no future contradiction. At the end of history ‘BC’ will still mean ‘Before Christ’, not ‘Before Coronavirus’! History will not turn on a microbe; it will not be shaped in a petri dish and it will not be redeemed by mass vaccination. History’s crisis has already happened. The decisive event took place when the Master of the Universe, Jesus, the One without whom nothing was made that has been made, humbled Himself, wore our flesh and walked our streets spreading the fragrance of God’s mercy amidst the stench of our pride.
If every Christian today talked as much about Jesus as they talk about COVID, Brexit and the multiple threats to our Christian freedoms these situations might remain unchanged – but the people fretting about them would not! So how do we change our focus? Repentance is the obvious starting point. Learning from the folly of our first parents, it’s clear that we can’t afford the luxury of distraction. Praise is the unassailable preoccupation of the Church. Here’s Horatius Bonar: “Fill Thou my life, O Lord my God, in every part with praise, that my whole being may proclaim Thy being and Thy ways”. Do we see what praise does? It rescues us from our morbid self-preoccupation – making us the temples of the living God we really are and rendering us inhospitable to hell’s subtle infiltrations. You can always Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus – but it’s wiser not to need the song!