What do Christians believe? Well that depends on enumerable variations on a theme. The source material is supposed to be biblical, but that is up for much debate. Within our popular culture discussions, Christianity has become like the word balance. Everyone says they are trying to live a balanced life, but no one really knows where balance exists. One man’s measured response is another man’s lunatic expression.
For some, Christianity is a synonym for democracy and free market capitalism, for others, Christianity is a philosophy rooted in wise teachings and morally edifying stories. Some see Christianity as doctrinal distinctives or political perspectives, while others view Christianity as a confession of faith or a life of unique behaviors, values and expressions. For some, Christianity is synonymous with hypocrisy, for others, it is an expression of spiritual integrity. Some emphasize Christianity as grace, others highlight holy living. For many, Christianity is an amalgamation of all, some or possibly none of the above.
Clearly or confusingly, I am oversimplifying as I’m not that interested in spending the time necessary to express a nuanced perspective of every person who claims the name of Christ. As for me, I’ve spent much of my life trying to figure out what most distinguishes Christians from the rest of the people on the face of the earth. In other words, what is the distinguishing characteristic that sets Christians apart from other faith or lack of faith expressions. Is it theology, is it political perspective, is it our culture? What identifies the Christian, other than claiming the word Christian?
As a Christian, I identify the Bible as a key bit of source material for the expression and logic of my faith. When I examine both the Old and New Testament, I find a consistent demarkation that sets God’s chosen people off from the rest of the people on the face of the earth. God’s interaction with Moses and the children of Israel best exemplifies this biblical theme.
In the Exodus story, God leads the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery through the use of signs, wonders and plagues. Once freed from Egyptian captivity, the Israelites find themselves wandering in the wilderness with a very limited sense of direction and purpose. They know they have been set free from captivity and are heading towards a promised land, but they have little knowledge of how they shall behave as they move towards their new land of promise.
To deal with this dilemma, God communes with Moses on the holy hill of Mount Sinai. While Moses communes with God at the top of the mountain, the Israelites rebel against God at the bottom. Which is not only terribly sad, but also terrible ironic. At the same time God is instructing Moses on how the Israelites are to abide with Him, the Israelites are rebelling against the few commandments they have already received. When Moses comes down from the mountain with the ten commandments as well as elaborate instruction for the building of the Ark, Tabernacle and priesthood, he is confronted with chaos in the camp of God. While Moses was away with God, the Israelites had formed and erected a golden calf idol to image their rescuing God.
The Bible says that God was greatly displeased with the “stiff-necked” rebellion of his chosen people. Within this golden calf crisis, we experience one of God’s great arguments with Moses. In this argument we see both the heart of God and the purpose of humankind. In response to Israel’s rebellion, God makes Himself clear:
“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Exod. 33:1-3).
God informs Moses that He will provide Israel with a promised land, but not His presence. The thought of Israel moving ahead without God’s abiding presence is too much for Moses to bear. For Moses, the presence of God is, and will be, the defining characteristic of God’s chosen people. Moses’ response makes this clear:
“Moses said to the LORD, ‘See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.’ And he (God) said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ And he (Moses) said to him, ‘If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?’ And the LORD said to Moses, ‘This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name'” (Exod. 33:12-17).
Moses understood the presence of God to be the ultimate factor that distinguished God’s chosen people from the rest of the people on the face of the earth. More important than the blessings, more important than the promises, more important than the holy commandments and the righteous edicts was the presence of God. For Moses, a promised land was more than a destination, it was a relationship rooted in the abiding presence of God.
It is no surprise that Moses wore a veil over his face to honor the presence of God. Moses desired that his authority would not come from the strength of his words or the logic of his edicts. Rather, he desired for the nation to see God’s glory on his face. When Moses met with God, his face would radiate and reflect God’s glory. When Moses entered back into the camp, with the holy words of God, he made sure to remind the Israelites that the words were accompanied by glory. Each time Moses removed the veil to speak God’s holy words, the people where confronted with Moses’ authority. It is God’s presence, God’s glory from beginning to end that gives Moses the necessary authority to lead a “stiff-necked” people.
In the New Testament, we gain an increased understanding of the importance of abiding in God’s presence. We learn through the words and actions of Jesus and His disciples that authority and power go far beyond words or proper orthodoxy. Rather, God’s Kingdom advances when God is present. God’s authority is established when individuals make room for the abiding presence of God.
Before Jesus goes to the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, He speaks with His disciples about how the Kingdom will advance once He is glorified. His words demonstrate the authority that is rooted in abiding with God.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:15-21).
Jesus promises the disciples that they will not be left as orphans. God will not abandon them with just future promises or present commandments. Instead, He will be in them and with them through the power of the Holy Spirit. More than just walking alongside God, God will abide in His creation. After the ascension, the Holy Spirit will be poured into the hearts of all flesh who call upon the name of Jesus. Sons and daughters, male and female, young and old will all have access to the abiding presence of God. It is this abiding presence that distinguishes the New Testament church from the rest of the people on the face of the earth (Acts 2).
Jesus’ promise is clear, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him…These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:23-26).
Jesus promised His disciples that God would make His home with anyone who loved Him. This is not a promise concerning heaven, rather it is the present reality of every Christian who has become a new creation in Christ. Through the cross of Jesus, our sins have been forgiven and the righteousness of God has been established in our hearts. Not only have we been made righteous, but we have become temples of the most holy Lord where God abides in us and with us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
As Paul says to the Corinthian church, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19).
As Moses’ authority was rooted in the abiding presence of God, our authority has been confirmed by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. However, unlike Moses’ fading glory, “…we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). In other words, our glory does not fade! In the New Testament era the presence of God goes with us. God’s presence is both on the top of the holy mountain and in the camp at the base of the hill. Immersed in God’s presence, we radiate a Kingdom rooted in God’s abiding glory. Through the work of the cross, Jesus has made a way for us to abide with God. When we enter into the new birth of salvation, we are brought into a new home of abiding with God. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).
Too often, we present faith as the acceptance of a doctrine or theological distinctive, rather than the embrace of an eternal relationship. We are sometimes more concerned with right thinking than we are with right abiding. With this in mind, I’d like you to consider the condition of your relationship with Jesus. Or more specifically, what does your spiritual house look like? That home God has provided for you, that place of abiding with your creator, what does it look like?
Early on in my ministry as a pastor, I often found myself frustrated with my ministry effectiveness. I felt like I was failing in my calling to be a fruitful minister of the gospel. Certain times felt worse than others, such as when I attended my denomination’s yearly gatherings. Although the events were meant to strengthen my faith and calling, I frequently became discouraged as I compared my meager fruit to the superstars of faith that invariably inhabited the conference schedule. Hearing success story after success story did not create the intended result of inspiration. Instead, I usually felt discouraged and even discarded, as if I had been passed by when it came to a ministry anointing.
At one conference, I felt particularly desperate for a word of encouragement. In fact, I came to the three day gathering determined that I would hear something from God that would help me with my current ministry assignment. By the final meeting of the final day, I realized I had not encountered one speaker strong enough to lift me out of my ministry pit. As the final closing prayer of the conference was finished, I sat alone three rows from the back of the auditorium, with my head down in what might have seemed like prayer or desperation to the casual observer. As I sat there with my eyes closed, I resolved that I was not going to get up or open my eyes until God gave me a word.
It was at this moment God gave me a clear picture that radically changed much of my ministry motivation. While my eyes were closed, I saw a clear picture of myself running down a long, straight dirt road in the middle of what seemed to be an abandoned field and farm. There was an old run down, two story farm house about a quarter mile in front of me. As far as I could see, there was nothing surrounding the house but barren fields. There were no other houses or neighbors in sight. As I ran down this straight road toward the dilapidated farm house, the sun was slowly setting and the sky was beginning to darken. I was frantic in my pace, desperate to get home before night fell. As I reached the house, I ran up onto the porch, opened the screen door and headed directly upstairs without looking to my right or left. At the top of the stairs, I opened the door to the first room on the right. In the corner of that room sat a small, spring bed with a tiny white mattress. I jumped in the bed, pulled the covers over my eyes, and immediately went to sleep. At that point, the vision ended.
After receiving the vision, I remained at my seat in the back of the conference room, with my eyes closed. I asked God to explain what I had just seen. His words were clear and direct. “That is your Spiritual house, Doug. Your Spiritual house is in ruins and you are afraid to be home. You spend all day working in other people’s houses and fields, only to end the day in your own house confused and afraid. I don’t want you to waste your time hiding in other people’s houses. I want you to spend time with me, in the home I prepared for you. The home where you and I can only abide.”
As I prayed, I began to see how so much of my religious life was rooted in avoiding intimacy with God. I loved to preach in front of people or talk with friends and family about God, but I was genuinely afraid to be alone with God. I didn’t know how to abide with Him in the depths of my heart. I didn’t know how to bring Him into the broken areas of my existence. So instead of working on my own Spiritual house, I had developed a spiritual life, full of religious activity. It was good activity, worthy activity, but none of it could take the place of intimacy with God.
Finally, after confronting the reality of my Spiritual house, I asked God what I needed to do. His words were simple, “Come downstairs and find me.” My mind went back to the vision. I saw myself get up out of the bed and slowly walk downstairs toward the front door. I opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch. The sun had not yet set. In fact, it seemed rather bright. I looked to my right, and there I saw my Savior sitting on the porch swing. Jesus was sitting there waiting for me. I immediately knew that He had been waiting for me every single day of my life.
I walked over and reached out my hand. He grabbed my hand and I led Him through my front door. I asked Him where we should start, it all seemed so run down. He looked to the left, at the first room in the house and said, “Why not start here.”
God was gracious enough to remind me of my inheritance. He let me know that my faith was more than a journey, more than a testimony and far more than a calling. Rather, through the cross, God had given me eternal, abiding relationship with my heavenly Father. In Jesus, I am more than just saved, I am home! I abide with God and God abides with me.
As a pastor, I certainly have theological principles that guide my behavior and practices. However, ultimately I am keenly aware of my theological limitations. Everyone has an opinion, some seem wiser than others. No matter how pristine my theology, it is still unable to embrace and love a troubled soul. This is why I keep coming back to the power of God’s presence. Ultimately, it is my sincere belief that people will only change when they encounter the resurrected presence of Christ. It is my sincere goal to live a life that somehow reflects, emanates and makes room for the abiding presence of God. As best I know how, I am trying to live a life that makes room for the presence of God. In other words, I’m learning how to abide in my Father’s house.