Christmas is coming and I’m very excited already. I went to the Christmas store at the Carleton Place nursery and officially got myself in the mood. There was free mulled cider, cookies, Christmas music playing in the background… I love the colours and lights and trees and everything. I’m a huge fan of Christmas and though I’m practicing some self-control by not putting up my tree yet, I’ve already busted out a shuffle of my Christmas Music Playlist and have sung along to such wonderful hymns as “Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer” and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”.
And while I love all the colours of Christmas I’m just like anyone else and know that a big part of the season is the exchanging of gifts. I’ve already sent out my list to some key family members, ordered some for people online, and have been talking with grandma about what the kids want.
I was thinking back as to the best Christmas gift I ever received. And while I’ve gotten a lot of cool gifts there was one that stuck out in my mind as the best one. It was 1989, I was 11 years old, and desperately wanted the hottest new item of the season – the one that none of my friends had and which would complete my life so I would never need anything again. I didn’t grow up in a family with a lot of money and this thing would cost a lot. I was cool about it though. I didn’t beg or remind my parents over and over. I just sort of left out a picture of it on the counter, circled it in the Sears catalog and kept turning to that page and leaving it open, and just, like, casually bringing it up naturally in conversation. Nothing annoying.
I absolutely didn’t think I was going to get it – at all. But on Christmas morning, on grandma’s couch, I couldn’t believe when I opened up the box that it was there… a Nintendo GameBoy complete with Super Mario Land and Tetris! The greatest thing I’d ever seen in my life. It was a huge moment and I barely contained myself.
I loved that thing for a long time, got every accessory, and played it constantly – until the Sega Game Gear came out two years later. The Sega Game Gear had something that the GameBoy didn’t – a colour screen. And I was hooked, but I knew that my parents would never get me another game system, especially since the one I had was still great. So what to do?
[This is a painful, regretful memory actually. I get a little misty just talking about it.]
The Game Gear came out in October of 1991 and was $150. The GameBoy, brand new was $100, but I had all the accessories.
So 13 year old me, by myself, without my parent’s knowledge, went down to the only pawn shop in town and sold it to the guy. It was insane. Somehow, between his talking and my idiotic mind, I ended up giving him my GameBoy, all the games, and all the accessories and walking out with something like $40 or $50. I still remember standing outside the store, with the money in my hand, wondering what happened, and wondering where I was going to get the extra $100. I never did. [Ugh, that hurts to share.]
I’m sure you’ve gotten some pretty memorable Christmas gifts, right? Maybe even ones that you, hopefully, still have and cherish to this day? Well, today we are going to open up to 1 Corinthians 12 and read about something that God gives all believers, which the Bible calls “Spiritual Gifts”. So please open up to 1 Corinthians 12 and we’re going to read it together.
As you open I want you to marvel at our giving, generous God. God gives us life and this amazing world to live in – and then we sin and mess it up. And then God gives us His Law to guide us and teach us how to live the best way together – and then we sin and mess ourselves up. And then God sends prophets and teachers and leaders to guide us back to Him – and we don’t listen to them, even going so far as to reject and murder them. And then, even while we were yet dead in our sins, having made ourselves His enemies, God sends His Son to show us how to live, teach us the truth, inaugurate His kingdom, and then take the death and punishment we deserve, having God the Father’s wrath poured out on Himself, exchanging Himself sinners. And then He rose again to conquer death and offers us the free gift of salvation, justification, sanctification, for all who would believe – not for all who would do amazing works, or follow the rules, or perform religious acts – but simply by faith in Jesus as the Risen Saviour.
But the gifts don’t end there. Once we accept Jesus as Lord the gifts keep on coming, and the greatest gift that Christians receive is the presence of the Holy Spirit living in us. Just as God’s presence dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle with Moses, or the Temple in Jerusalem, so now the Spirit of God dwells in everyone who believes(1 Cor 9:19). When His disciples wondered why Jesus would be dying and then leaving them to take His place in Heaven, He said, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7) Jesus said that it is better to have the Holy Spirit inside us than Jesus walking beside us! And He does some amazing things for us.
In John 16 Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will be our Helper, helping us with evangelism, convicting the world of sin, showing us how to be righteous, warning us of spiritual dangers. He helps our minds to see the difference between good and evil, lies and truth, light and darkness. It says that He helps us understand the Bible. It’s not just priests and preachers and scholars that can interpret the Bible, because every believer who is dependent on the Spirit will be taught by Him. In John 14 the Holy Spirit is called the Counsellor who comes alongside us to encourage us, guide us, inspire our good works, and never leave us (Jn 14:16). He binds Christians together with God and each other, causing us to love Him and one another (1 Cor 12:13). He teaches us who Jesus is and helps us to worship and glorify Him (John 15:26, 16:14; 1 Corinthians 12:3).
It is the Holy Spirit that causes us to produce Godly fruit. When we are convicted that we do not love enough, that we are at war within ourselves, that we are too angry, or out of control, Galatians 5:22-23 says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” 
That is a LOT of gifts from God to Christians. And yet, how often are we like me at age 13, taking these awesome gifts and disregarding them, ignoring them, or just callously throwing them away in favour of something else the world has to offer – that just ends up not working out anyway.
1 Corinthians 12
Let’s read though 1 Corinthians 12 together and see what we can learn. We’re going to do a quick study of it because there’s a lot there, and then at the end of this message I’m going to point you at a good resource where you can really dig deeper into it.
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”
First, I want you to notice that Paul wants to make sure that believers are not “uninformed” about Spiritual Gifts – which means it behooves us to put some time into public and private study regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the discovery and use of our spiritual gifts.
There’s a few ways to do this. One is private study of course. Taking it upon yourself to read and study scripture and some good books on this topic. Second is to go to RightNow Media and watch something called “Your Divine Design” by Chip Ingram. I watched a couple of them and they are a great overview. And third, I’m actually going to be working with the leadership team to put together a 36-week leadership training course for the church where one of the things we cover is how to discover and use our Spiritual Gifts.
The second thing I want you to notice here is the contrast of influences we see here. Before you were saved you were “led astray” or “influenced” toward useless, pagan, idolatrous things. He talks about “mute idols”, pointing back to what we talked about during our discussion of eating meat offered to idols, right? That the actual statues of the gods were just mute, stone carvings. But even though the statues were mute, the followers were not. These cultic religions were full of wild displays and all kinds of ecstatic speech where they would claim to have special words from the gods or the afterlife.
Paul acknowledges that this happens and gives the warning again that there are only two teams: Team Jesus and Team Satan, and sometimes they look similar. Both have great influence over their followers. Satan often makes false copies, or imitations, of what God does in order to confuse and tempt people away from the true faith.
But Paul gets down to brass tacks and says, “These pagan idol worshippers are absolutely being influenced by the spiritual realm and have some kind of ‘gift’ from the demons, but they are forgeries of what God gives. How can you know the difference? Because when the Holy Spirit gives a gift to someone it always points them and everyone else to Jesus. All the other influences, the false gifts, the demonic powers, all point people away from Jesus. That’s the litmus test.”
We’ll see that later in the chapter, but that’s an important place to start. We see a lot of gifted people, some with some incredible sorts of power, even spiritual power. How do we tell if it’s from God or from Satan?
The same way we tell whether we have a good compass or not. A good compass always points North. A bad compass wobbles around and points all sorts of other directs. The Holy Spirit always points to directly to Jesus as Saviour, Lord and the focus of our worship. The other powers won’t. They will wobble around and point everywhere else except Jesus. This tells us something important about why we are given these gifts, right? We are given them to point people to Jesus! Not to lift ourselves up, not to build our popularity, not to keep to ourselves, not even to draw people to our church, but to bring glory and praise to Jesus and accomplish the works He has given us to do!
What are the Gifts?
So, the natural next question is “Ok, so what are the gifts?” That’s what Paul covers next. Start in verse 4:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”
That is a lot of different gifts, and it’s not even all of them because he lists more in verse 28, “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” And there’s even more listed in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4.
Now, this study can go deep because each one of these gifts requires some study, right? What does it mean to have the gift of prophecy or miracles or discernment or tongues? What does it mean to have the gift of helping or administrating? And is this even the full list? For example, in the Old Testament Joseph and Daniel are given a gift from the Spirit of God to interpret dreams (Gen 41; Dan 1) and Bezalel is given a spiritual gift to help him make works of art (Exo 31). What about those?
Well, I’m not going to explain every gift because we can study privately, but let’s pull out a few things and see some important points are here.
A Variety of Gifts
First, from 4, notice that there is a “variety” of gifts. One of the problems in the Corinthian church that seems to carry forward today is that people were belittling some of the gifts and only desiring the ones that put on a good show – like tongues. They wanted their church to look like the pagan temples where people were flipping out and speaking in crazy languages, and Paul knew that this sort of thing was not of God.
They didn’t want what the gifts God had given them, but wanted what they had before. They didn’t accept the gift that the Holy Spirit gave them, but complained and wanted something more flashy, more exciting, more interesting.
The Babylon Bee is one of my favourite websites because it gives satirical articles about different things going on in the church and culture. One recent one was entitled, “Unlucky Charismatic Gets Boring Gift Of Hospitality” and part of it said,
“’A man with the ‘really cool’ gift of prophecy reportedly moved throughout the room at Wade’s church and read each member’s aura to determine which spiritual gift the Holy Spirit had granted. Wade grew more and more excited as he approached, but was devastated as he learned he just had the “super lame” gift of hospitality.
‘Ugh, hospitality, are you serious?’ Wade said as the church prophet announced he had detected the Christian virtue as Wade’s supernaturally bestowed talent. ‘I was really pulling for something cool like tongues or healing.’
‘Heck, I’d even take teaching at this point. This sucks,’ a downcast Wade added. At publishing time, Wade had consoled himself by focusing on the fact that he hadn’t gotten something even worse, like giving.”
That’s a perfect example of what was happening then and what happens now. Christians who haven’t learned about the Spiritual Gifts get a little understanding of what they are and then immediately want whatever one gives them the most strokes. They want evangelism so they can be the next Billy Graham, or Teacher or Pastor because they think then they can be a super Christian that everyone looks up to, or healings or miracles or tongues so that everyone can see the power coming out of them.
Do you see the problem there? They are really only concerned about their own glory. And what was the difference between spiritual gifts from Satan and ones from the Holy Spirit? That they point to Jesus. This was the danger that the church was falling into, and that some churches fall into today. The Satanic work of stealing God’s glory.
Look at verses 12-26. This is what they were doing to each other in the church as they disparaged their own gifts and belittled others:
“For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
This is where we get where we call Christians the “Body of Christ”. The Apostle Paul equates the parts of a church to be like the parts of a human body. Sure, there are some upfront parts that everyone sees – eyes, muscles, skin – but there are a lot more parts that people don’t see that are just as important – like our heart, liver, and pancreas.
No part of the body should tell another part of the body they are more or less important. That would be crazy! In the same way, no part of the church should call their own, or any other Christians gift unimportant! This brings division to the body.
We do this all the time in the church. Say someone is an “encourager” or a “helper”. That’s their gift. They love sending notes and cheering people up. Or they love to show up and help do the chores in the church. What do we do with them? “Oh, you’re friendly! You should be in charge of all the greeters! Oh, you’re a good helper, you should be a Deacon!” Hold on! Do they have the gift of leadership? Do they have the gift of administration? Nope. Which is why when they end up being “promoted” they are miserable at it, which makes them miserable, and everyone else miserable. But what happened? We took them out of their gifting and put them somewhere they weren’t meant to be! We took a hand and tried to make it into a mouth. We took a heart and tried to turn it into a pancreas. And it didn’t work.
I want you to notice something really neat in verses 22-25,
“…the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”
This is a huge part of being in God’s Upside Down Kingdom. Who gets all the glory in worldly kingdoms? The warriors and intellects, right? People that are strong, fast, smart, clever… and everyone else is less important, right? What does the world do with “weak”, and “less honourable” parts like the mentally challenged, sick, hurting, immature, elderly. We hide them. We avoid them. We lock them away. Worse, these days we kill them.
What does this verse say? It says that the weaker parts of the body are “indispensable”. The parts with “less honour” or need to be taken care of, are bestowed greater honour. The parts that require protection we protect.
Think of your own body. There are certain parts we take really good care of, right? We wear eye protection and athletic cups because eyes are really sensitive.
What happens when you poke someone in the belly or get something in your eye? The whole body constricts. The head drops, the elbows and arms come in, the knees come up, the muscles contract, to protect damaged area. When one part of our body gets hurt, the other parts naturally protect it. That’s a picture of what’s supposed to happen in the church.
Some people in the church are designed by God to be the arms, legs, knees, elbows, and muscles. Able to take a beating and keep moving. Other members are designed to be weaker. Not less important, but weaker so they can do a special job. A knee can’t do what an eye can do, right? But when the eye gets hurt? Everything stops, right? The rest of the body surrounds it.
What is a church supposed to do with weak and hurting people? We surround them, help them, protect them, care for them, using our own gifts to serve them. Maybe the knee and the elbow can’t come up with a good plan, but the brain can, and the knee and elbow use their strength to protect. The brain can’t cry out for help, but the mouth can. We all work together.
The whole point is that there are a variety of gifts given by God on purpose. So Paul says, “There aren’t just three gifts meant to bring attention to yourself, there are a whole variety of gifts, and none of them are accidents or unimportant.”
Whatever gift you have, it wasn’t your idea. These gifts are not earned. You didn’t ask for the gift you got. They are not chosen or appointed or voted on by people. It is God alone, the Holy Spirit, who administers the gifts among His people. To reject or call one better or more important than another is a great sin. God controls the gifts, not us. It is the believer’s responsibility to seek God’s guidance, read His word, pray and listen to see which gift God has given you and how God wants you to use it for His purposes!
For the Common Good
And that’s the second point, found in verse 7.
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Paul answers the questions, “Where do the gifts come from?” From the Spiritual Realm. “How can we tell which ones are from the Holy Spirit or a demon?” Because the good ones point to Jesus. “What are the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives?” He says there are a variety and gives examples. Then he answers the question, “What are they for?” They are given by God for the common good of the church.
Incidentally, that’s what Paul means in verse 31 when he says, “But earnestly desire the higher gifts.” We know after some study that he doesn’t mean that some gifts are better than others, right? He just told the church to stop competing with each other and belittling some people because of their gifts. So what does this mean?
The encouragement is to desire gifts that will spread more and love for the common good, not to bring attention to ourselves. It means that instead of desiring gifts that put on a good show and make us look good, to instead earnestly pursue that which would build up the church and glorify God the most. It leads directly into what Paul is going to talk about in chapter 13, that no matter what gifts we have they need to be motivated by and done with love.
Let me conclude with this: Ephesians 2:10 says, Christians are God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Part of those good works are simply the helpful life that all Christians are meant to lead, but it also has to do with the spiritual gifts you have been given. You and I were shaped to serve God and the church. And we won’t feel like we fit until we are working in the place we were designed to be. You will never feel more joy or satisfaction than when you work within your spiritual gifts. And conversely, as long as you are trying to do things you weren’t designed for, jealous of someone else’s gift, or belittling others, you will never feel the satisfaction that comes with serving God with His special gift to you.
So my encouragement to the Christians here is to take some time to further study this passage and discover your spiritual gift, then tell others what it is, and then allow us to help you live it out! Check out that Chip Ingram study called “Your Divine Design”, check out GotQuestions.org and read some more about it, and prepare yourself to do the leadership course we’re starting soon.
Finding and using your gift means you’ll have to say yes to some things and stop doing other things, but that means you’ll be coming more in line with how God created you to live, which is always better. It is God who builds our church, not us. His way is best, not ours. His glory is our highest purpose, not ours. Our task is to simply follow His plan to work together as an effective body.
 Life Application Bible Commentary, 1&2 Corinthians, Pg 169-170
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“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)
Mortification of Sin
We’re jumping in and continuing on from last week, still on the topic of self-discipline and are continuing our discussion of what it means to take following Jesus seriously.
When we become a Christian and start following Jesus we are given an inward drive towards becoming more like Jesus – more holy, more righteous, more loving. “Be holy as I am holy”, God says to His people, and then gives us the help to do that.
We’ve talked before that we don’t do this in order to get saved but out of love and obedience for the One who saved us. We know we’ll never achieve perfection in this life, and that, because of our sinful nature we’re going to keep breaking God’s laws and doing wrong – but now that we are Christian we hate that sinful part of us, because it was sin that has messed up the world, our lives, and is what required Jesus to die on the cross. So we confess those sins every day in prayer, are thankful that God’s grace is so big and that the blood of Jesus covers all our sins past and future so we can be forgiven, and then we ask God for more help, more love, more patience, more kindness, more generosity, more self-control in the coming day to live better. Not just to be a holier than thou Christian prude, but because we’ve seen how sin hurts us, others, and our relationship with God.
That’s how Christians see sin. That’s why we work hard to get rid of the sins in our life – what believers used to call the “mortification of sin”. We work with God to try to mortify, or kill, or subdue, the fleshly, sinful desires inside us that cause so much trouble.
God uses some pretty serious, life and death language when speaking of how we should deal with our sin and practice self-control. Listen to Colossians 3:1-6 says, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these, the wrath of God is coming.”
So, because sin is so serious, a believer engages in a process called sanctification. To sanctify something means to set it apart for special use, to be made holy. Grandma’s special china collection is sanctified by the fact that it is cleaned and then kept carefully in a china cabinet. Your favourite hockey card is sanctified by you taking it from the collection, putting it into a special protective case, and then mounting it on the wall. You are sanctified by Jesus as you are taken from the enemy camp into his kingdom, from death to life, from slave to sin to freedom in Christ, and made one of His special people.
If you remember way back in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 it told us, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
We cannot be righteous without Jesus. We can’t redeem ourselves. And we cannot purify or sanctify ourselves without Jesus. The Gospel of Christ tells us the consequences of our sins – death, hell, pain, suffering, fear, addiction, brokenness. It tells us that Jesus has come to save us from all that by taking the penalty for sin upon Himself, wiping out its effects by taking God’s wrath against sin for us, dying on the cross, and then rising again to show that He has destroyed sin’s power – and then invites us to follow Him. This is what it means to be born again. When we are chosen by God and accept His invitation we are immediately sanctified. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice made it so that all our sins are perfectly dealt with and if we died today we would be with Jesus forever.
But at the same time, while we still live on earth we continue to deal with the echo effects of sin all around us. So, while we are perfectly clean in God’s eyes, perfectly accepted, perfectly redeemed, we also enter the process of sanctification in order to become more like Jesus every day. We use a lot of different phrases to describe this today. We talk about growing in God or becoming spiritually mature, but whatever we call it, part of that process is the mortification, or killing, of the sinful parts of ourselves that affect our daily walk in this world. We will never become perfect, but we continue to struggle against and work towards holiness. We “put to death therefore what is earthly in [us]…”
Going Through the Motions
Now, just like today, some of the people in the Corinthian church thought that since they professed faith in Jesus, went to church, and joined in the Lord’s Supper, they could then live however they wanted. Remember the context of eating meat offered to idols and causing those around them to stumble in their faith by going against their consciences. They figured that since they were Christians, they could do whatever they wanted! Paul wanted them to be absolutely clear that wasn’t true, it was a false belief, and so he used multiple examples
This still happens today. Young people who have gone to church their whole life are especially in danger of this way of thinking. They have gone to church for as long as they can remember, can quote verses from the Bible, serve in a couple places each week, go to Youth Group or Small Group, they can answer some Bible Trivia questions and take communion each month… so they figure they’re good. They’re covered.
The Bible says, be careful. There’s a big difference between saving faith and merely going through the motions of a believer. Of course, this isn’t just about youth. I’ve seen this at all ages. People who attend sometimes, do a little volunteer work, and say they believe… maybe they even had a tearful conversion at a summer camp or walked down an aisle at a crusade – but they’re not engaged in the daily battle against sin. And they’re not just disengaged, they don’t actually care.
This is most acute when the young person turns 18 and moves out or goes off to college or starts a job and is getting paid and is then given the freedom of an adult. Suddenly it becomes clear that their faith is extremely thin, they haven’t been working on their sanctification at all, and within a short time, they are in real trouble. They weren’t Christians, they were merely covered by the grace of their Christian parents.
It wasn’t they that decided not to look at pornography, it was the fact that it wasn’t available in the house. It wasn’t they that decided not to waste hours on the internet and video games, it was their parent’s rules and schedules. It wasn’t they that decided to watch their tongue, it was the peer pressure from their Christian friends. It wasn’t they that decided reading the Bible. going to church, being cautious about friendships, and the rest was important, it was enforced in by house rules.
And when they get that first taste of freedom from those rules, their true level of sanctification really shows. Soon they are addicted, indebted, depressed, lethargic, have turned their back on the church, and have just enough understanding of God to blame and resent Him for all their problems. Again, I don’t want to pick on just young people, I’ve seen this in seniors too, where the only thing that kept them from blowing up their life was external pressure, not internal sanctification.
This too is all over scripture. The wheat and the chaff, the good seeds and bad, parable of the sower, the sheep and the goats, wolves in sheep’s clothing, whitewashed tombs, play actors (Matt. 3:12; 13:1-30; 5:15; 25:31-46; 23:25-27) are all phrases where Jesus talks about people that look like Christians to everyone else but are not really saved. These people talk about God, come to church, and receive the blessings of being a Christian without ever turning away from sin and towards Jesus.
Think of it like a strong smell. Coffee shops have a distinct smell. So do hockey and curling rinks. So does a workout gym or the Body Shop store. You’ve probably had that experience when someone comes home from a night out and you can tell exactly where they’ve been just by the smell, right? They walk by and immediately you just what they’ve been doing because they carry the smell with them. My wife used to work at a place where she always came back smelling of bagels. She’d have to change her clothes and wash her hair before it would come out. I had the same problem when I worked at the pulp mill. I always came home smelling of black liquor, which is basically the waste product from turning trees into pulp. It smells a lot worse than bagels and there were times I would have to strip down right in the doorway and leave my clothes in the garage rather than bring them in the house.
In the same way, a non-believer who comes to church and hangs around Christians can pick up their smell – their lifestyle choices, their joy, kindness, high morals, honesty, etc. but not actually have faith in Jesus at all. They can even stay so long they start to believe they are Christians without actually giving their life to Jesus.
Israel and Us
Let’s turn back to our passage. As we saw last week Paul used himself as an example of spiritual maturity and self-denial, but now he goes the other way and uses Israel as an example of spiritual immaturity. “The perfect example of believing the false notion that one can be saved and then live a faithless, God-less life can be seen in what happened to the Jews’ ancestors in the wilderness…” He phrases this as a warning, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
These were people who were saved by God as Christians are. They had multiple, manifold, manifest spiritual blessings. Miracles galore. Their story is every Christian’s story. They were rescued at a great cost from an oppressor, delivered from death by the blood of the lamb, redeemed from slavery, and given a new life. They were guided by God’s presence, given direction in the wilderness and darkness of life. They had a law-giver and spiritual leader to follow, just as we do in Jesus. As they trusted in God their enemies fell before them and behind them. And all along, they were given daily provision to sustain their bodies and souls. Every day they saw a new act of God’s love for them. Paul then drives the point home reminding them that Jesus is God and was the one protecting and providing for the Israelites, just like He does for us!
A People Overthrown by God
But now look at verse 5, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” This should give us all great pause. God worked miracles, set them free from slavery, and provided for them along the way – but their hearts were not with Him. They were like the young person living with Christian parents, or the citizen living in a civil country. They had the blessings of being a child of God, surrounded by the smell, but their hearts were not with Him.
The word “most” is a pretty big understatement since out of the thousands that left Israel, only two were allowed into the Promised Land! The rest were left to wander and die in the wilderness. They were people of God, who saw God’s miracles, but died in faithlessness.
So, what happened? It is the same story from the beginning of Genesis all the way to the end. They didn’t have faith, they didn’t believe what God had said, they didn’t trust in God alone for their salvation. That’s what God desires. The path of Salvation is fairly simple. It means trusting that what God says is true and believing that His way is the only way.
It was like that for Adam and Eve, many stories of the Israelites in the Old Testament, the Pharisees and Judas in the New. God’s message was clear, they chose not to believe it, and were therefore condemned and “overthrown” by God.
In verse 6 we read, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” Sometimes people wonder why we have the Old Testament when we have the New, or what value there is in the Old Testament. It’s ancient, full of difficult things to read, and the New Testament seems so much nicer.
This verse tells us one reason why. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is immutable, unchangeable. The God who wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah, killed everyone in the flood, and instituted blood sacrifices as the only way to appease His wrath against sin is the same God who came to earth as a baby, wept over Jerusalem, died on the cross, and taught us to love our neighbours. The Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible, the Apostle’s Bible, and the first church’s Bible, and was perfectly sufficient for teaching about faith, salvation and life. The Old Testament doesn’t tell a different story, but gives us the beginning of the story and we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t study it. Paul says that the stories we read of the Israelites and how God dealt with them are examples for us that we should learn from.
So what are we to learn? There are four main sins that are highlighted. Let’s read together, and notice how serious these warnings are. Starting in verse 7: “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
The temptations the ancient Israelites went through are the same as we go through today, and the sins they commit that separate them from God are the same too. The stories of the Bible are there to instruct us, warn us, encourage us, and teach us about ourselves and God. So I’m going to ask you to do a little digging in your soul to see if these are represented there.
The first mentioned is idolatry, which references the story of the Golden Calf when Moses went up to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and while he was there Aaron and the rest of the Israelites crafted an idol to worship in place of God. It wasn’t that they were simply tempted to put their faith somewhere else, it was that they actively chose to reject Yahweh, formed a false god of their own, and then “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play”, meaning they copied in the cultural, pagan festivals they saw around them.
They did, essentially what I’ve been talking about with young people and cultural Christians. While Moses was away they threw all their beliefs out the window and then worshipped, feasted, drank and danced the way they always wanted to, showing what was really going on in their hearts.
We do the same today as we turn away from God and put our faith and trust in things of our own design – money, insurance, diet, human authorities, or when we dabble with pagan things like horoscopes or superstitions. We can make money, comfort, food, or sex our idol as we turn to it to save us from pain, guilt, shame, fear. Remember the context of the Corinthian church eating food offered to idols and realize that Paul was also speaking of Israel’s example of eating, drinking and partying like unbelievers, throwing off God’s standards and doing whatever they felt they wanted to do regardless of how it affected themselves or anyone else.
If you want to know what idols you have in your life, ask yourself: what you do and what do you reach for when you hit a crisis hits or when you want to celebrate?
The second temptation for the Israelites was sexual immorality. Pornography, lustful thoughts, wandering eyes, sexual fantasy, adultery, and the rest. For them, this was tied to their idol worship. They used the golden calf and worshipping false gods as an excuse to sin sexually. Once they had crafted a god of their own, or borrowed one from a neighbouring nation, they worshipped it as the unbelievers did – which included sexual sins. As we’ve already learned, this was a huge temptation in Corinth, but just as much in ancient Israel.
The further you wander from God, the more you believe what the world believes and act like the world acts, the easier it is to fall for the temptation toward sexual sin. We’ve already talked a lot about that so I won’t belabour the point, but notice God’s punishment here. You might think, “Well, that’s back in the olden days, God doesn’t do that now!”
Listen to the words of Jesus in Revelation 21:5-8, at the end of the Bible: “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty, I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.’”
You may think Jesus is the warm and cuddly version of God that doesn’t care about sin, lets everyone do what they want, and lets everyone into heaven, but I assure you, He’s the same as He was with the Israelites. He may wait on the punishment, but I assure you that your faith is revealed in your actions and though you may not take your sin seriously, but Jesus sure does.
Does that mean a Christian who sins sexually can lose their salvation? No. As we said before, the difference is sanctification. The difference is that you hate that sin and want to be rid of it. Do you?
The third temptation was put Christ to the test. What does that mean? It means questioning God’s reliability. It’s when we declare God unreliable and then force or demand that He proves himself to us. The Israelites “put Christ to the test” as they told Moses that God and him don’t know what they are doing, that they would surely die of hunger and thirst, that life was better under slavery, that God was holding out on them, refusing to give them their favourite foods, and ultimately that God wasn’t strong enough to defeat their enemies. Over and over they said that God had left them and demanded more and more miracles. (Numb 21, Exo 17)
The Pharisees “put Christ to the test” too. Even though they had heard of and even witnessed multiple miracles, they continued to bring false charges against Jesus, tried to trick Jesus into making mistakes, and then demanding Jesus prove Himself with more miracles (Mark 8:11, Matthew 12:38-39). They even did it as He hung on the cross.
Satan “put Christ to the test” in the wilderness as he tempted Jesus to work miracles for wrong reasons – even tempting Jesus to force God Father to prove His love and prove Jesus’ was special by jumping off the top of the temple!
Have you done this? Atheists love this game. They love mocking Christians and telling God to dance for them, write in the sky, do a crazy sign, and then claiming God doesn’t exist when He refuses to play their game. Do you do this? Do you ever tell God that you’ll believe or obey if He’ll do something for you? Do you ever put yourself in a situation where God has to act just so you can see if He’s real? Do you ever question if God is good or His ways are right, and then deny Him when things don’t go your way? The Bible is clear that is a very serious sin.
Jesus responds, “An evil and adulterious generation seeks for a sign…” Jesus never rebukes or corrects people who are genuinely seeking Him out of need, but He also knows when people are coming with wrong motives.
And the fourth temptation was what is here called “grumbling”. Grumbling isn’t simply talking to God about tough things in your life that you don’t like. God wants us to bring our frustrations, concerns, worries and all the rest to Him. Grumbling is akin to complaining. It’s that low-level murmer in the heart where you keep telling yourself how horrible your life is, how it’s out of control, how the universe is out to get you, that God isn’t helping, nothing is right, there’s not enough money, time, energy, health, or anything else. Your friends aren’t really that good, your house isn’t right, your technology isn’t good enough, your spouse isn’t good enough, your life is too hard, too hot, too cold, too noisy, too quiet… murmur murmer grumble grumble complain complain.
This one is very difficult for me and one of my greatest temptations. I’m a child of discontent and have a very critical heart. I know this about myself and I have to be very careful about it. Why? Because grumbling is spiritually destructive and debilitating. It shows a lack of faith in God, a belief that He is unloving towards you. It’s a lack of contentedness and shows a misunderstanding of grace. It is the belief that you inherently deserve more than you have and God is unfairly holding out on you. It destroys your worship, your prayer life, your relationships, and your witness to others. A grumbling spirit leads to fighting with others, and envy, jealousy, covetousness. (James 4:1-3) “I hate that person. Their life is better than my life, their job is better, the have more of what I want…. And I hate God too for not giving me what they have.” There’s a big difference between complaining to God and complaining about God. Job complained to God but didn’t sin. Israel complained about God and did sin.
What about you? Are you a grumbler?
This section ends with, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
God is faithful. He is for you. He wants your sanctification and wants you to be more holy, because more holiness leads to more joy. He wants your spiritual success and knows what you need in order to grow. He knows your breaking points. Your temptations are not unique to you and he has given you scripture, fellow believers, and the Holy Spirit within you to help you understand them and get through it. And, when you are faced with the burden of temptation, God promises two things: a way out of the temptation, and the strength to endure it. The escape may not be immediate, but He promises that if you trust Him, lean on Him, ask Him, then you will have the strength to endure the temptation and mortify that sin within you – and then grow stronger in faith and in sanctification.
 Life Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians, Pg 135.
We do a data dump of the best resources for every stage of the Christian life. Whether you are a new believer, have some years in the church, or are a longtime elder, you’ll find something to challenge you!
Pilgrim Theology – Michael Horton
ESV Study Bible
NIV Life Application Study Bible
Reformation Study Bible
John MacArthur Study Bible
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (Abridged and in Modern English) by Tony Lane & Hilary Osborne
Podcast: The Briefing by Albert Mohler
Podcast: Mortification of Spin
Podcast: Renewing Your Mind by RC Sproul
Vodcast: Look at the Book by John Piper
40 Questions About Interpreting The Bible by Robert Plummer
Knowing God by JI Packer
Core Christianity by Michael Horton
Gospel and Kingdom by Graham Goldsworthy
What Is a Healthy Church Member? by Thabiti Anyabwile
The Peacemaker by Ken Sande
The Hour that Changes the World by Dick Eastman
Podcast: The Whitehorse Inn by Michael Horton
Preachers: Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther, Martin Lloyd Jones, RC Sproul, John MacArthur, John Piper…
Biographies: Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, Confessions of St Augustine, William Tyndale, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, D. Martin Lloyd Jones.
Ligonier Ministries Resources: Tabletalk Magazine, “Connect”
The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World by Stephen Nichols
Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
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When we become Christians we enter into a new family called the Church of Jesus Christ. When we put our faith in Jesus, God takes us out from under the condemnation we find under His Law grants us forgiveness through Jesus, and then makes us a part of His Kingdom.
All believers, everywhere are part of the Kingdom of God, the Body of Christ, the Universal Church both living here and in heaven. If you are a Christian you are part of God’s family. The church expresses itself in two ways, the universal church and the local church – and Christians are meant to be a part of both, committing themselves to a local, Christian church. And as part of God’s family, one way you express your love for your Heavenly Father, is to be with His church. And I’m talking about more than just the commands we read. In scripture it says that one of the ways we know we are saved is because our heart changes towards other believers. It says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” (1 John 3:14)
Growing Christians want to be with fellow believers – backslidden and sinning Christians tend to run away from fellow believers. Those that are working on their sins tend to want to sit under good teaching and share their struggles with others. Those who are full of the unrepentant sins of unforgiveness, bitterness, pride, or greed tend to avoid other believers, avoid coming under the leadership of elders, or try to split up and start their own churches. A Christian full of hate, shame or ungodly fear will find excuses to avoid church and other believers. Growing, humble Christians do the hard, sacrificial work of seeking unity and mutual love.
I love the local church, especially this one. This is a really, really good church. There is much love, care, interest, honesty and joy here. It breaks my heart that more people aren’t part of a good, healthy church, because it is the number one way in the world that God chooses to do His will.
It’s fine to sit at home and listen to sermons or chat with people online, but miracles happen when people choose to get off the couch and spend time with their fellow believers on Sunday and during the week.
I haven’t always loved the church. I grew up in a church and didn’t know any other way, but when I was sent to my first year of post-secondary school at age 17, I didn’t bother going to church. And as a result, it wasn’t long before started suffering with loneliness, depression, anxiety, and fear. I sat alone the basement of my rented home, avoided people, didn’t make any friends, didn’t go to school, lost touch with God, and felt like garbage.
I’m convinced that if I would have gone to church, it would have been different. In fact, I know that’s true because since then I have attended church and, when facing trials and pain, I have been ministered to, held accountable, corrected, befriended, and pointed to Jesus.
This was because there were people in the church that were taking the words of Jesus seriously. Their hearts were full of love for Him and others and they were willing to step into my life and help me. They listened to the voice of God inside them and obeyed, and my life is better because of their obedience.
I want to start this morning, and this year, by reading our church membership covenant, which outlines a lot of ways that we have agreed to help each other here. This is the document that every person who is a voting member of this church has agreed to. If you’re not sure if you are a member, then you probably aren’t, because it requires baptism, meetings, and voting. It’s quite a commitment. Let me read it to you:
The Membership Covenant
Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.
We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this Church in knowledge, piety and godly living; to promote its spirituality in sustaining its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrine; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the Church, its work against sin and injustice in the world, the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel throughout all nations.
We agree to promote family worship and maintain private devotions; to educate our children in the teaching and practice of our faith; and to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances. We strive to walk circumspectly in the world, to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all idle talk, backbiting and unrighteous anger; to practice temperance in all things; and to be zealous in all our efforts to advance the Kingdom of our Saviour.
We agree to strive to walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We covenant to watch over one another in brotherly love, to remember each other in prayer, to aid each other in sickness and distress, to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy in speech, to be slow to take offence, always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the commandments of our Saviour.
Arguments Against Church Covenant
This morning I want to take a look at why it’s important that we have a membership covenant because it’s not without some controversy. There are a lot of people out there that see a church membership covenant as unbiblical. They see it as a way of saying the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God are not enough – that somehow we need a human document, a new “man-made law” to tell people how to behave. And they are right in being concerned.
A lot of abuse has occurred as a result of human documents that go beyond what scripture says. It is from these sorts of documents that we get things like abuse of power, public shunning, excommunication, and all manner of strange cultish practices that manipulate and exploit people.
In true cults you’ll see some horrible things they have to agree to like giving up your money, family and friends, and agreeing to all manner of abusive punishments. But churches aren’t immune to extreme things in their covenants. Even today in some Baptist churches you’ll read things like “no drinking, no smoking, no gambling, no dancing, no R rated movies”. You’ll see punishments for missing church, not tithing, or not following through on areas of service. And a lot of that not only smacks of legalism, but even cultism, and it is certainly unbiblical.
The letter to the Galatians is written to people who were confused about this kind of thing. Teachers had come through to the church and taught that Christians needed to follow the Law of Moses and Jewish traditions in order to be truly saved. (Gal 3:1-14)
This is something the Bible is completely against. Scripture is clear that we are saved by grace through faith, not by anything we can do. It says in 2:21, “…if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:19-21)
In other words, the very thought that keeping some sort of human law can make you saved, or keep you saved, or get you more saved, in effect, nullifies the work of Jesus on the cross. It’s like saying, “Jesus only died for some of my sins, I have to do the rest. I need to do extra works to make up for what Jesus didn’t do. I need to be extra good because Jesus wasn’t good enough.” What a terrible, ungodly way to live that is, and the scriptures are dead-set against it. Jesus had a lot to say to the Pharisees who cared more about their rules and traditions more than the word of God. He calls it “vain worship”. (Matthew 15:7-9)
And so, rightly, some Christians really shy away from anything that even smacks of that way of thinking.
1. A Set of Standards
That being said, there is certainly a place for covenants between people in this world. The legal world uses them all the time as ways to make sure people follow through on their promises. If you buy a house or car, you’ll sign a legal document. At the bottom of your receipt from many stores you’ll find their return policy. A lot of employers, sports organizations and social clubs make contracts with “moral clauses” which dictate what kind of behaviour is expected of the employee, player, or member even when they are not at work.
One example is in the NHL’s “standard player contract”, which is set by the Players Association and cannot be modified, there is a “morality clause” that states a player must “conduct himself on and off the rink according to the highest standards of honesty, morality, fair play and sportsmanship and refrain from conduct detrimental to the best interest of the Club, the League, or professional hockey generally.”
There have been more than a few players suspended and even terminated from their teams, not because of anything they’ve done during the game, but because of things they have said or done off the ice. Perhaps one of the most famous was when Sean Avery made a rude comment about his ex-girlfriends and was then suspended and kicked off his team.
But what about a church? Just because lots of people in the world do it, doesn’t necessarily make it appropriate for Christians. Well, one reason that these companies and organizations put dress and morality codes into their contracts is because they want to emphasize the importance of making sure the public image of the group is represented by its members.
If we use Christianese terms, a church would do it to promote Christlikeness and avoid hypocrisy. There is a great importance in making sure who we say we are, who we identify with, and how we live, are all in alignment. We need to practice what we preach.
- James 1:26 says, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”
- 1 John 5:2-3a says, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.”
- When Jesus was talking to those Pharisees He called them “hypocrites” saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…” (Matthew 15:8)
- When Jesus is teaching us how to tell a good teacher from a bad teacher, His answer is, “… you will recognize them by their fruits.”, meaning their deeds. (Matthew 7:16)
- He says later that we can know what is in a person’s heart by their words, “…out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” (Matthew 12:34-35)
The Bible is clear that how we live matters a great deal. If we profess to be a Christian, but our life doesn’t change, then that likely means that we don’t really have the faith we say we do. If we say we have repented from our sin and want to follow God, but continue to look the same, sound the same, do the same things, enjoy commit the same sins and refuse to submit our lives to God, then we shouldn’t take much comfort in our faith, because it’s not real.
A good church covenant gives reminders of some of the ways the Bible tells us that our lives are supposed to change in order to line up with our new faith. It is not a list of dos and don’ts that change with culture and are meant to micromanage people’s behaviour, but a general document meant to give an outline of what a godly life looks like. When we sign a church membership covenant, we are saying that we agree to seek to live by not a bunch of man-made, but the standards of what the Bible says.
You might think, why can’t we just say, “Why can’t we all just agree to do what the Bible says?” Well, we are. The covenant is a summary of some of those things. It’s not exhaustive, but is a general outline that makes it easier for everyone to look at and understand, but leaves room for individual differences.
A good church covenant should be general enough that every believer could sign it, regardless of their work, family, or cultural situation. Whether you are a farmer or an astronaut, have children or don’t, are a young, single man, or a widowed, senior citizen, the covenant should be something you can agree to. It tells everyone who reads it what kind of ethics we believe in. Just as our Statement of Faith tells people what we believe, our Membership Covenant tells them how we live.
So, the first thing a good church covenant does is give a brief summary of the sorts of standards that God has set for His people. The second thing it does is allow us to obey the command to hold each other accountable.
A lot of people inside and outside the church can quote Matthew 7:1, even though they don’t know it comes from there. It says, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Some can even go a bit further: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” And they stop there thinking that it says that no one is allowed to call out anyone else on their issues. We use it as a defense against anyone getting into our business and an excuse not to have to deal with anyone else’s. But we need to keep reading!
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)
Is Jesus telling us to ignore each other and never make a judgement as to the rightness or wrongness a person’s choices? No. It says, “Be careful how you judge! Don’t be a hypocrite. Examine yourself so that when you go to your brother or sister who is in error you will see clearly enough to help them.”
Let me lay down a few more scriptures about the importance of judging others and holding each other accountable, just so we can understand this better:
- Galatians 6:1-2 says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” How can we restore someone caught in sin unless we make the judgement that they are sinning? How can we rescue them if we don’t get involved? How can we each other’s burdens, if we don’t judge them to be burdonsome?
- James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” The Bible says we should share our sins with one another so we can pray for help and be healed. We can’t do that if we ignore one another six-and-a-half days a week.
Here’s some from the positive side:
- 1 Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up….”
- Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”
- Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Each of these are encouragements to get proactive. It’s not just about waiting for someone to mess up so we can fix them, but proactively encouraging, sharpening, and stirring each other up as we meet together regularly. “Hey, are you reading your bible? Are you praying? How’s your marriage? Are you resting? Are you working hard? Are you serving others? What are your needs? I’m learning this about myself, or God, or my family, and it has helped me; let me tell you about it.”
How about: “Hey man, you’re thinking some wrong things about God and we need to work on that.” Or “You haven’t been to church in a while, and you’re not giving or serving, and that’s not spiritual healthy – God’s Word says you need to come back.” Or “Hey, you are stealing – not doing your taxes honestly, taking cable from the neighbours, illegally copying music or movies, ripping people off – and God’s Word says you need to stop.”
The second thing a good membership covenant do is give us permission to each other accountable.
3. Church Discipline
These two things together, standards and accountability, give the church a way to engage in what we call “church discipline”.
God has given a governing structure to His church and calls some people to be leaders and elders who are meant to be examples, protectors, overseers and teachers to their fellow believers. Many churches call them “elders”, but they are also called “bishops” or “presbyters” or “pastors”. To become one means meeting a long list of biblical qualifications (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9) and taking on the very difficult task of shepherding a group of people.
In Ephesians 4:11-14 it says that God,
“…gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”
In Acts 20:28-30 Paul tells the Ephesian elders,
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
In 1 Peter 5:2-3 the elders are told to
“…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
On that note of being “subject to the elders”, Hebrews 13:17 tells Christians to
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
You see, it’s a two-way street. The elders of the church are given the responsibility to live exemplary lives worthy of imitation and stick close to Jesus. With the grace God gives them they are to protect and guard the church from false teachers, false practices, and spiritual dangers, knowing that will be held to account for how they lead.
But, unlike the laws of Israel, a Christian elder has no physical influence – no police force, no military, no weapons – with which to do their job. The history of the church is replete with examples of elders who got this terribly wrong.
The only way for elders to do what God has asked of us is for those who are part of the church, who have committed themselves to worshipping, serving, giving, and caring for a local body of believers, to accept that discipline willingly. Becoming a member and agreeing to the membership covenant is a way of giving permission to the elders to do that.
It might sound harsh, but it is intended to be a wake-up call for someone whose heart is growing far from God, who is falling for dangerous temptations, is filling with bitterness, is creating a split in the congregation, or whose soul is in danger.
Signing the membership covenant allows the elders to follow the scriptures which tell us to get involved in these sorts of issues. Just so you know I’m not making this up, I want you to see it in scripture.
- Matthew 18:17 Jesus says that if you have a problem with someone and it’s not getting any better, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
- 1 Timothy 5:20 tells elders, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”
- Titus 3:10 tells elders, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him…”
And there’s more.
Of course we can’t bar the doors, tie them to a chair, or lock them up. The whole point is that we trust in God’s power, not our own. Agreeing to a membership covenant not only allows each person in the church to hold each other to account, but gives permission to the elders to do church discipline if they must.
That’s enough for one day. Let me conclude with this: At our church, one tool we use to try to help each other follow God is our membership covenant. Is it perfect? No. Is it biblical, God honouring and helpful? Yes, I believe so. And I think it’s something we should be looking at more often so we can grow closer to God and each other, and more closely follow His word.