People dont like to be uncomfortable. For many of us change is quite uncomfortable. For us religious people who have walked with God for a long time this is a real danger. We can easily become trapped in our own traditions and religious behaviors and lose track of God and His heart entirely. God wants us to walk in a vibrant relationship with Him where we understand His heart and long to please Him, even if it makes us very uncomfortable. When God changes gears in order to reach more people He will let us know and He trusts us to be willing to follow Him rather than our traditions. Lets look to the Book of Acts and see how the religious respond to such a shift and compare it with those who are God Seekers.
Stephen is a man fully surrendered to God. Luke, the author of Acts, says he is full of wisdom and of the Holy Spiritso much so that he is used by God to perform signs and miracles. One day Stephen has a conversation with some Jews and it descends into an argument. They are incensed that he is not more supportive of the Temple and the Law of Moses. As a result of this argument they drag Stephen before the religious court.
Lets pick up the story at Acts 7:1, Are these accusations true? Stephen launches into a defense using 1,500 years of Israels history. He takes quite a while so I will summarize.
1) God is seeking the whole earthall humanity. God is not limited to Israel.
2) People worshipped Godeven the patriarchsoutside of Israel and long before the Temple was built. God is not contained in the Temple.
3) God has sent the Messiah, but you refused to listen to Him just as you refused all of Gods messengers throughout Israels history! God came in the flesh and you did not receive Him.
Verse 51Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit?
For this message they kill him.
Compare this reaction to a messenger of God with the same message just a few chapters over. Cornelius, a Roman officer, is told by an angelic messenger to get Peter to come and preach to him (Ac 10:1-4). Peter also gets a message from God, which he initially resists, but finally consents to cooperate with. Peter travels to Cornelius house and we pick up the story there.
Acts 10:25-29 Peter preaches his message (vs44-48).
These who are not religious open up to relationship with God passionately! In effect, preach to us Peter we want God.
Note the contrast Stephen has preached to the church religious, they resisted and he got killed. Peter preached to God-seekers, and he is received. Indeed God Himself is received and they are baptized in the Holy Spirit.
Soon after Peter preaches to these Gentiles the religious people find out about it. They are not at all happy about it. God belongs to us and they are not like us, they must become like us before they can be acceptable. Peter launches a defense.
Acts 15:6-9 God accepted them. Therefore, we must not fight Him.
The religious Jews were really struggling. Christians have really struggled with this issue as well (e.g. Roman Catholics & Latin, Pentecostals & Christianese).
Religion is often a desire for structure and control. This is not necessarily wrong, unless we are attempting to control God, or we have allowed our religious structures to become more important to us than following Gods heart.
Religion in the negative sense of the word is a set of dos and donts whereby we appease God so He is not mad at us or we attempt to earn a reward from Him by performing in certain religious ways. In short, we attempt to control God. That is a very poor substitute for a loving trust based relationship. But the fact is religion can be an idol, just like the Temple had become for the Jews, a false god that lulls us to sleep, with a form of righteousness but without the substance of a relationship with God.
Basic Truths about God and Us
1) God created you and me for relationship with Him (Ge 3:8-9).
2) Our rebellion has separated us from God, but He is intent on reconciling (Ro 5:8).
3) The entire Bible is about His pursuit of us (Rev 21:3).
All of our church habits and structures must be built with this in mind. If the structures are no longer serving these purposes of God, then He will ask us to let them go. If we refuse He will go around us and continue with His work of reconciliation.
How can we, who are just as prone to religion as the Jews, continue to be God-seekers like Cornelius?
1) Do acknowledge our need for Him and His ways. Even if His ways contradict what we want. Idols, even religious ones, give us what we want but not what we need. The problem is we dont know what we need!!! Example: Forgiveness is one of Gods highest values and yet it really grates on us. We really struggle to extend this to people who have harmed us.
2) Do turn away from any idols in our lives. Dont live for pleasure, security, ease
or even religion. Instead seek Him. Remember King David when confronted by Nathan with his adultery and murder. He, unlike these religious leaders, allowed God to rebuke Him, and Nathan lived. King David was called a man after Gods own heart.
I too am a messenger. There are some others in this congregation who are trustworthy messengers. We would really like to help each one grow into maturity. When we point out an idolDONT KILL THE MESSENGER! We are trying to help you. We will be gentle and kind if possible. But please listen.
3) Dont be satisfied with safe in the box religion. God is about bigger things. He is reconciling humanity to Himself. Following God is messy but its also exciting!
4) Do become a Temple of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit. His death and resurrection combined with our repentance have made our hearts the kind of Temple God longs to inhabitjust like Cornelius and his household (Acts 10).
5) Dont let our relationship with the Holy Spirit get cold. Relationship is not static. It is dynamic, always in motion. As such we must feed it and tend it, if we want it to grow. Thats why we go to church and worship and pray and have devotional time with Him and pray in the Spirit so we can be, and feel Him, close.