The Three Great Priorities of Life - Part 2
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
By John David Hicks
In the last issue of this newsletter, we began a discussion on the Bible’s priorities for your life. Nothing should come before your relationship with God. The purpose of the Christian life is to glorify and enjoy Him. All other priorities come from this first one. You were created for intimate relationship with God, and your Christian life flows out of this relationship. When relationship with God is not your priority, it affects all of your life.
Priority 2: The Body of Believers
The second priority of the Christian life is to the local body of believers, the church. We are to build up one another in love. We were made for divine and human relationship.
What is it about the church that makes it different from any other group of people meeting together? It is the love of God displayed in the hearts and actions of the members as they minister to and care for one another.
Several years ago, football player Steve Thompson suffered an arm injury while playing in Eugene, Oregon. During his time in Eugene recovering from the injury, he met a group of young, energetic Christians in a home. Steve had always professed to be a Christian and attended church, but his new friends seemed to have some-thing in their Christianity he hadn’t discovered.
In a few weeks, Steve announced his retirement from football. Was it the injury? “No,” he said, “it has nothing to do with my physical condition, but with my spiritual condition. In Eugene I met a group of people who were Christian to the core. Until then, I never understood what Christianity really was. These Christians have a depth in their interpersonal relationships I never dreamed possible.”
Steve took a minimum wage job in Eugene so he could live with this group of believers. After a year and a half, he felt led by God to take what he had learned about an in-depth personal relationship with Jesus Christ back to his former football teammates.
After I heard this story, I asked myself, “If Steve Thompson attended my church, would he have discovered that quality of personal relationship? Would he have seen in a few weeks that depth of love and commitment among us? Would he have sacrificed everything—his fame, his fortune—to be identified with us and to learn what real Christianity is all about? There is a difference between having a relationship and being in relationship. The first can be a good or bad relationship; the second is only good!
Would people want what you have spiritually? Would they want to be identified with your church? Would they want what your church has to offer? Does your fellowship draw people by its warmth?
The Family Model
Our theology is monotheistic—we believe there is only one God. But our theology is also Trinitarian—we believe that this God exists in three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It follows then that God Himself is in relationship with the other members of the Trinity. He is in community, in a habitat of love and fellowship. God designed and made people in His own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). Whatever else this may mean, it surely means that we were created to be in relationship.
Genesis 2 quickly moves on to the creation of Eve—someone for the man to be with in a loving, caring rela-tionship. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). So God made someone to share with Adam the joys and trials of life. In relationship, man was not to be alone, and the first family came into being. Although because of the effects of sin, our concept of family sometimes becomes distorted, God created the family to be the basic unit of society. This is where we learn to trust other people, to love others, to share our happiness and joy, and to work together to achieve a common goal. We depend on one another. We need one another.
But, of course, even Adam and Eve had family problems. Jealousy crept in, as it has so many times since. Cain murdered Abel and when questioned about it gave the stunning reply, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” From God’s viewpoint, the answer is obvious. “Of course you are your brother’s keeper.” That is what family is all about.
When you were born, you were not offered a choice of which family you wanted. On the other hand, your family wasn’t offered a choice of whether they wanted you either. Sometimes brothers and sisters can be irritat-ing—even when they are grown up. Aunt Susie has the most grating voice. Uncle John tells the same stories over and over. But we look beyond that, because they are our family. The ties that keep us together are much stronger than the ones pulling us apart.
We are not all part of the same family on a physical level, but in the church, we are all one family in Christ. We share a spiritual birth and are part of the family of God. Just as in the physical family, we don’t get to choose our brothers and sisters. We accept them for who they are—flawed human beings who are trying their best to serve Jesus and appropriate His grace into their lives. Sure, we have our problems and disagreements, but we also share our sorrows and joys, celebrate the good things, and join ourselves to one another in common prayer. The love of Christ binds us together in ties that are sometimes closer than we have with our physical family. Sometimes the church tries to run on “volunteerism,” but a family is based on “shared responsibility.”
These relationships with other Christians should have a high priority. God created you to be in relationship. You were made in the likeness of Christ, totally dependent upon God, and interdependent upon one another. Jesus prayed in John 17:20-21 that all believers would be one, even as He was one with the Father.
Living in Community
The New Testament emphasizes the communal nature of the Christian life—community with God and with other Christians. The spiritual life that is in you and me lives in union with God, like the vine and the branches of John 15. The Christ who is in us calls us to share His life in community with others in an atmosphere of love and fellowship.
God made the Christian life to be lived in community with Him and with other Christians. The church is a family of believers and that is why some churches address each other as brother and sister. Paul, John, and Peter all describe the church as the family and flock of God (Ephesians 3:15, John 10:16, 1 Peter 5:2-4). All who have been born again are alive in Christ and are a part of His body, the church.
Paul compares the church with the physical body, where Christ is the Head and the various members of the church comprise the members of the body. Every member is vital and has its function. Just as the ear doesn’t say to the eye that it isn’t needed, so we all have our own function and depend on one another.
Out of this community with other believers and in fellowship with your indwelling Lord, the Holy Spirit flows in your life with love for God and love for your neighbor. Christians are to live for others following the example of Jesus. “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all…. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him” (2 Corinthians 5:14–15). The church is a relational, personal community. Loving one another in community is carried out through your actions—from sharing your possessions to praying for and encouraging one another. Out of worship and fellow-ship in a local church, the community of believers shares a united witness to the world.
Today, many people are looking for a church to attend. Often they want a church that meets their needs, but they don’t want to get involved or make any commitments. But the church doesn’t function that way. It is the family of God. Involvement and commitment are necessary to be a part of any family. Naturally when you are new in a church, it can take time to build trust and feel safe enough to be open, honest, and willing to share with others. But something is wrong if you have been around a long time and not made any friends.
In the book of Acts, community was the basis of everything the first Christians did. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need” (Acts 4:32, 34-35).
The church is important to God. Jesus is its Founder and Head. He gave His life for it. As a Christian, you are a part of His body, the church. Like Jesus, you must love it, protect it, pray for it, and identify with it. Jesus demands a lifestyle of relationships with Him and other Christians.
Intimacy in Small Groups
God never intended for you to live the Christian life by yourself. The New Testament model of the church is a small group of encouraging Christians, ministering to one another. I am convinced that you will not grow as God would have you grow or be as effective as a Christian unless you get involved with an inner circle of Christians, sharing God’s life and love and your faith. A small group is God’s perfect place for working out love in everyday relationships. In the 18th century, John Wesley used these small groups, calling them “class meetings,” and brought about the great Wesleyan revival. These groups change people’s lives.
Growing in the Lord is more than preaching and teaching. Jesus did not give formal, academic lessons to the disciples. Rather, He spent time with them—getting to know them, relaxing with them, sharing with them. Inti-mate sharing and caring builds fellowship.
In that environment individual gifts can cross-pollinate and believers minister to one another. This fellowship is a safe place to step out and risk in faith as you look after the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of each other. By definition, that happens in a small group.
Let me share a few guidelines to make a small group meaningful and alive. Have from four to eight people in the group. More than eight makes close fellowship and open sharing difficult; less than four and your group is just too small. Make a commitment to meet once a week for six months to a year. When you get together, have a time of worship, share the Word together, and have accountability. Pray for one another’s needs and burdens. Encourage one another. The Christian life was never intended to be solitary.
God shares with us His love and His grace through the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we are to share our love and build up one another. Our fellowship with God provides the capacity for real fellowship with each other. How I get along with my brothers and sisters in the church affects how I get along with God. Love is the chief mark of a Christian. The world is not impressed with our church buildings, our meetings, or our scurrying around. It is love that the world is looking for—how do we show love to one another. Do we care enough to get involved with one another in word and deed? God is love, and if He is in your heart, there will be love.
The early church had a quality of life and fellowship that caused outsiders who looked in to say, “Behold, how they love one another.” They saw a degree of love and fellowship that was unlike anything they had seen before.
What must the world think when it sees many in the church quarreling over petty matters? What is attractive about a group of believers that gossips about one another? Why would anyone want to join a fellowship beset by factions and fighting? Satan has worked his hardest to try to destroy the interpersonal relationships that God designed for man. Bitterness and hurts run deep. How do you get out of the swamp of bitterness? Turn your hurts over to God and meditate deeply on Matthew 18:21-35 and Ephesians 4:32.
True Christian love and fellowship were described by Jesus in John 13:35 when He said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” It is not your exemplary life, your faithfulness in devotions, your great faith that matters in the end. What really matters—what shows you are a disciple of Jesus—is the love you have for others, particularly those who are your brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to grow in love toward all believers, working for the unity of the church.
When a lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan. The person in need is your neighbor. It may be that your neighbor has rubbed you the wrong way for years. It may be that your neighbor has wronged you and been cruel. Your neighbor may not have behaved like a neighbor toward you. No matter—if he has a need, he is the one to whom you need to show love. That, says Jesus, is what it means to keep the great commandments—to love God first and to love others as we love ourselves. Do you love and care enough to get involved?
In the church, relationships are the toughest thing you have to deal with. Paul tells us how to deal with problem people in Ephesians 4:2, “Forbearing one another in love.” When you forbear, you accept others as they are without rejection. We want to pick our friends, hoping to avoid troubled people who might bug us. Yet those critics and irritating people that disagree with you may do you more good, if you would just forbear.
Joseph learned this lesson in Egypt. His brothers had treated him cruelly, but he could say that although they meant evil, God used it for good (Genesis 50:20). You may think that the ability to love the unlovable is not within your power. But if you make the decision to love, then God will supply the ability to love through the Holy Spirit.
“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7). God put us into an earthly family, and our family’s acceptance is so important. Paul says when you know you are accepted by Christ, you should accept others, especially your brothers and sisters. Of course they are not per-fect, but we need to see them as fellow travelers, working to appropriate grace into their lives. We receive and love one another because we are a part of a family and are loved by God.
Jesus’ prayer that we may be one (John 17) was answered on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell. Like the early church, may we accept Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, the rich and the poor, the strong Chris-tians and the weak ones. From widely differing backgrounds, Christians love and accept one another. When you accept someone, you will take him into your home as well as into your heart. You will share meals and activi-ties. As part of the family of God, you love and accept your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Unity in the Church
Along with love, the distinguishing characteristic of the church should be unity. It is the responsibility of every church member to guard the unity of the Spirit and not be divisive. Division, conflict, and lack of harmony take a devastating toll on the fellowship. In Ephesians 4, after Paul admonishes Christians to bear with one another, he says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Have you ever noticed how people tend to divide others into groups of “like me” and “not like me”? The Jews have a term for all those who are not Jews—they are Gentiles. The Greeks called the non-Greeks barbarians. Today we have Americans and foreigners. But in the church, all these distinctions should disappear. There are no distinctions between Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian, male and female, slave and free. We are all one in Christ Jesus.
It is so easy to become critical of what is going on in the church. We don’t like the music; they don’t sing the old hymns anymore. The pastor doesn’t do calling. The new carpet color is just too red. The list can go on and on. Not everything is going to go the way you think it should. Remember that God gave us all different personalities and preferences so we could be a balance to one another. Don’t let these differences become a means of destroying the unity of the church. Keep your focus on the things that really matter. Make it a habit to encourage, rather than criticize, fellow believers.
When God reveals a problem or an issue to a person, first and foremost it is for the purpose of prayer, not gossip. It’s His assignment for me to keep on praying for His will to be done in this area, and if in the process of praying He leads me to take other steps (see Matthew 18 and the article on problem solving), then I must be obedient, but never say or do anything that will tear at the fabric of unity in the body. Out of your relationships with God and man, your faith grows.
God has placed each of us in His body, the church, where He wills. Every member of our physical bodies is inter-related, and each member of the body interdependent on one another. No member of the body can function correctly unless it is in a healthy relationship with all the other members of the body. So it is with the church. The Holy Spirit ministers His gifts through us to an interdependent body, making the body of Christ, the church, whole, healthy, and active.
The Christian who never gets together with other believers to pray, share, and serve is not obedient to God. He is out of God’s will, however vocal his testimony may be. When you belong to Jesus, you belong to others in Jesus. It’s the family of God. Unity is only possible because we all have the common life of God and because we want to do the will of God. As the body of Christ, the church is an organism; it has life in it. It functions and moves by the Holy Spirit. As God works in each of our lives, we minister to one another.
A Canadian pastor shared with me a story that shows what it means to be a member of the body of Christ. Many of his church members were Russian immigrants who had left their country to escape religious persecu-tion. Most had left behind many family members and friends.
Meanwhile, in Russia, Stalin had taken whole towns, uprooted the residents, and moved them to labor camps in northern Siberia. The Christians in these labor camps were united and deeply committed to one another.
A Russian immigrant in Canada learned that his sister Olga was in a labor camp. After five years of negotia-tions with the Russian government, he finally arranged for Olga to visit Canada—provided her ticket was for a round trip.
When she arrived in Canada, Olga could not imagine how people could have so much in abundance. In the labor camp, she lived in a single room 6 feet by 10 feet, without heat, where winter temperatures fell to 50 de-grees below zero. Her only furniture was a stool, a basin, and a bed with straw bedding. Her food was the bare minimum required to sustain life.
As the time neared for Olga’s return to her homeland, her relatives were sure she would choose to defect. When she asked, “Is everything in order for me to go back to Russia,” they were shocked. “You are not thinking of going back to the labor camp, are you?” they asked.
Olga said to her family, “In this country you have everything a person can dream of. You are busy from morning until night with your things. You have very little time for each other. In Russia, we don’t have any-thing. But in Russia we have each other. And we live for each other. I want to go back to my brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Steve Thompson, the football player, and Olga have little in common. But a group of loving Christians so touched their lives that both were willing to forsake everything for the sake of fellowship with their special brothers and sisters. They were hungry for the continuing relationship with God and with others.
If you have not made this commitment, it may be difficult to imagine the kind of relationship that Steve and Olga had with fellow believers in Jesus Christ. Material things, fame, and fortune amounted to nothing. Only the relationship is important, and it means everything.
Jesus gave His life for the church, and it is His will that the church be a loving, unified group reaching out to show love to all. May the church give us a unique quality of life—the life that comes from the relationship between Jesus Christ and His followers.
Is the body of Christ, the church, a priority with you? Will you recommit yourself to a community of believers? Will you get together weekly in a small group or with a friend? Will you look for ways in which you can make your fellowship more warm and loving? END