Previously we saw the people of Israel reoccupy the land while under the domination of foreign powers. In the Scriptures listed above we will see the ways God continues the process of forming an all-inclusive community through a dramatic new event in salvation history: the coming of Immanuel (“God with us”).
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In the Gospels God is with us as a man among other human beings in ordinary human relationships. God is now acting in a uniquely direct and personal way through the incarnation–the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This pivotal chapter of history has all the directness and intimacy of God’s presence in the Garden of Eden, but in a physical, human form. Jesus was a child, a teenager, then a craftsman in his community; he was also a respected rabbi among the people. Although he was born an “outsider” (John 1:46) and ministered without any authority from recognized human institutions, it became obvious that there was more to Jesus than could be explained in merely human terms. The kingdom and power of God in him and with him begins to draw others under the influence of the kingdom, which is directly and immediately available to others through him (Luke 16:16). God “anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power,” and “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
In the public square Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of the heavens and teaches how to enter into its life and power. He ministers to all as well as trains selected individuals from among the huge number of people who respond to his person and work. These people, filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, then become Jesus’ continuing embodiment in the Church and go “to all the world”–again, fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham.
The overall effect of Jesus’ presence and teaching is the possibility, for humankind, of a personal knowledge of God and a fellowship of human beings with him that had never been known before. As Jesus says in his great prayer to the Father, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world” (John 17:6). And people’s union with one another through Jesus and the Father is of such a quality, Jesus continues, that “the world may know that you have sent me and loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).
We must never forget, however, that Jesus could only have come when he did, and not before, because humankind had to be prepared for this greatest of all events in holy history. God accomplished this preparation by the ways he had been “with” his people through all the previous centuries and by all that they had lived through. But now “the time is fulfilled,” it is the “fullness of time,” and the One comes who can say, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Mark 1:14; Gal 4:4; John 14:9).
So Jesus deposits on public record, available to all, the most beautiful teachings about God and his world that have ever been given. At the same time he embodies and models this teaching in his own life. With his public death and resurrection, Jesus’ name and face are inscribed on the drama of world history, and ever afterward he becomes the greatest historical figure in the whole of humanity. And by nurturing and cultivating a small group of carefully selected individuals, he initiates a society of God-inhabited people who carry the salvation of God to the ends of the earth. Today, this task is still in progress and waits for each generation to take it up and carry it onward.
During this period covered by the Gospels, the primary mode of God-with-us is Jesus himself. He calls people to be his disciples. To be a disciple means to be a student or apprentice to someone, and Jesus calls his disciples to respond with a seamless faith in him for everything. In this context, discipleship to Jesus means learning to live life as Jesus would. Our need for transformation and character development has found its perfect answer.
We do not pick and choose what we will trust Jesus for. Through Jesus and his death and resurrection we receive life “from above” and the forgiveness of sins. But the very same confidence in Jesus that brings us forgiveness also leads us to receive him as Lord and, therefore, our constant Teacher. We become God-inhabited people who are students of Jesus–lovingly learning from him all that he teaches and forming countless societies of love, truth, and power that continuously spread the light of Christ into the darkness of the world.
So discipleship, or apprenticeship, to Jesus in kingdom living is the basic form of God’s presence with his people in the Gospels. And the distinctive historical entity, Christ’s Church, emerges from this supernaturally sustained relationship. The business of Jesus’ people is apprenticeship to him: we learn to live in the kingdom as if he were living our lives, and to bring others into apprenticeship to him.
But this is not an easy and simple matter. Instead, it is constant warfare. The term, “the Church Militant” (the union of believers on earth) is no joke. The presence and progress of the kingdom of God on earth is the most radical threat that an arrogant, God-alienated humanity faces. So while apprenticeship to Jesus is the basic form of God’s presence with us, its flip side is constant warfare with “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” This is an essential part of spiritual formation, both in the Gospels and afterward (1 John 2:16). It goes hand in hand with discipleship. “Friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4).
The battle between what is of human origin and what is from heaven, which is fully engaged in the Gospels, was already an ancient conflict (Matt 21:25). Sadly, we find that religious institutions are often on the side of human rather than “heaven”: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Luke 13:34; cf. Jer 35:14-15). And since Jesus spoke these words, religion regrettably has presided over the deaths of many who were sent from God. But this is not something we learn to do as apprentices of Jesus Christ.
Extending the People of God to include all of humanity was painful and profound, for it meant that no human cultural form was ultimate–not even a religious form. How shocking are the words, “Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:11-12). Or, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since then the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one is forcing [their] way into it” (Luke 16:16, NASB). Or, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matt 21:43). These words are not spoken to the Jews alone, but to any cultural group that places itself above the active presence of the kingdom of God and the person of Jesus among human beings.
Because of the prominence of the crucifixion in the Gospel story and the bitter battle leading up to it, the widespread acceptance of Jesus by the people of Israel is often overlooked. Indeed, from the human point of view it was precisely the overwhelming popularity of Jesus that led him into the conflict with the “authorities” that ended in his death. The time was indeed ripe for his coming, and there were many among the People of God who recognized him as the Messiah, the Savior of the world–though they did not yet fully understand what that meant.
Most important, Jesus’ teaching was effectively put on public record for the entire world. He was “lifted up,” and all kinds and classes of people were “drawn to him” (see John 12:32)—and still are. A suitable group of apprentices was formed, then transformed, and then molded (by the coming of the Spirit upon them soon after Jesus ascended into the heavens) into a self-replicating force for world revolution “to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). These ordinary people–with no earthly kingdom, but with divine power–became his witnesses “unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8, KJV; cf. Acts 10:1-11:18).
Blessings and Benefits for Our Formation
At last it becomes absolutely clear what “spiritual formation” is all about: disciples are to teach “them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). Obedience means to bring the inner person into such a transformed condition that the deeds of Christ naturally arise out of it. It is not to focus on the actions themselves, for that way leads to deadly legalism, and surely we have had enough of that already. Instead, Christian spiritual formation focuses on becoming a “good tree” with the full assurance that “no good tree bears bad fruit” (Luke 6:43). The end result of such a process is a natural and “automatic” obedience to Christ and his way.
In a word, spiritual formation is “Christlikeness” from the inside out. It is this end to which God has been working since the beginning. Christlikeness does, in fact, create the all-inclusive community that genuinely unites us and knits us together as one. It is the wholeness and holiness for which, by nature, the human heart hungers, and which is displayed among the people of God through the fruit and the gifts of the Spirit. Qualified and powerful “ambassadors for Christ,” we live here and now as “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which [we] shine like stars in the world” (2 Cor. 5:20; Phil. 2:15).
Limits and Liabilities for Our Formation
The primary limitations of this form of God-with-us are twofold. First, social conditions shaped expectations in a manner that prevented many people from being able to receive Jesus as “Messiah.” In the minds of nearly everyone the Messiah would bring a kind of radical political reform and restoration of national identity that was flatly incompatible with the realities of God’s kingdom and the central teachings of Jesus. This prevented a correct understanding and reception of that kingdom, and made the personal presence of Jesus, though extremely powerful and convincing, also confusing and enigmatic, even to his closest followers. Neither Jesus’ behavior nor his teaching could be understood within the cultural assumptions at the time he lived; and to step outside those assumptions was almost impossible, even for the most well-intentioned hearers. Further mediation was needed.
Jesus, of course, understood all this, and provision was made for a correct understanding to develop, as the resurrection, Pentecost, and the story of the Church unfolds in the book of Acts and continues to unfold up to this very day.
The second limitation is the fact that “the Spirit was not yet given” (John 7:39, NASB). The death and departure of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit upon the disciples was, in point of fact, a liberation of Christ from the self-imposed limitations of the divine presence in the individual life of a Jewish rabbi (Phil 2:5-8). With this liberation the person of Christ became free to move with the word of the gospel of the kingdom throughout the inner life of the disciples and about the world at large (e.g., Acts 6:7; 19:20; 2 Tim 2:9; John 14:15-26; Col 3:16). But the Gospels do not provide the final and ultimately perfect way God will dwell in his people, as Acts, the Letters, and Revelation vividly reveal. History’s work is not yet complete.
Insights and Instructions for Our Formation
What can we learn from this stage of God-with-us? First, the physical world, including the human body, is beautiful, powerful, and holy under God. The physical world is the dwelling place of spiritual life–and of God himself, when he became enfleshed in Jesus Christ. The physical world mediates the presence of God-with-us in many ways, but above all as the place where we learn to live in union with the kingdom of God. We seek and find the kingdom of God, first, in Jesus himself, but then in every detail of ordinary life (Matt 6:33). The character of Jesus descends upon our body as we progress in spiritual formation, and it–that is, our body–becomes the bearer and showplace of the fruit of the Spirit.
Second, God’s coming in the person of Jesus Christ, from the babe and the carpenter to the cross and the resurrection, was totally unexpected and incomprehensible to human ways of thinking. This reminds us that God can never be tamed or domesticated. In fact, we need to be immediately suspicious of proposals and arrangements that make perfect human sense. In human history and in individual lives, God is always entering at unexpected times and in unexpected ways: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (Isa 55:8). God’s revelation of his thoughts and ways in the person of the Nazarene carpenter-turned-rabbi sets for all time the boundaries of his thoughts and ways. But much still must be done before his people can fully enter into that revelation.
Finally, our discipleship is fully incarnational at all times, not just in religious moments. Inner Christlikeness does not just include our religious rituals and moral character. These are fundamental, to be sure, but real inner Christlikeness makes every act of family, business, and community a time of learning how to live our life as Jesus would live it. Remember, for all but the last few years Jesus’ life was in domestic contexts much like our own. Under his tutelage we learn how to make heavenly friends by managing, under God, “mammon.” Being faithful in the “very little” trains us for being faithful “in much,” in “the true riches” that God possesses and will place in our charge when he knows we are ready (Luke 16:9-12). In the beginning, we were placed in a garden and were, in God’s power, to take care of it. Our “garden” today may take many forms, but we are to be responsible where we are for what God has made. We are privileged to work under God’s direction and power in everything we do (Col 3:17). Could this be our eternal destiny as well?