Who Cares? On Accountability

Who cares about you? Who is looking out for you? Who will notice when your foot slips or your heart faints?

It appears that not many people can answer the questions above. Phycologists are concerned that the social isolation accentuated by the Covid-19 crisis has aggravated the pandemic of loneliness. The Harvard Gazette reported that more than a third of Americans feel lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time”, while more than 61% more young adults experience chronic loneliness. The destructive impact of loneliness on social welfare in Great Britain prompted them to appoint their first Minister of Loneliness in 2018.

This isolation level leaves a great many in our world feeling lonely, vulnerable, depressed and often confused. One must acknowledge the irony of isolation in our technology-driven age. We are the most connected generation ever, yet we are the generation that suffers most from loneliness. We are the most informed generation ever, yet most the confused. We are the most entertained ever, yet the most depressed. We are the generation most committed to security, yet we are the generation most paralysed by anxiety.

Our most profound need is not satisfied by a Facebook “friend”, an Instagram “follower” or a casual chat with a colleague. Our greatest desire is to feel significant and secure in a relationship with someone who cares about us. We long for a friend who sees us for who we are and loves us enough to tell us the truth. We don’s live well alone.

I can’t do it alone

The reputation of the well-respected Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias was decimated by reports of his immoral and unethical secret life.

The reputation of the well-respected Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias was decimated by reports of his immoral and unethical secret life.

Our need for companionship is not only for satisfaction or significance but also for security. We have seen so many admirable leaders derail because their passion either faded or became misdirected. But human vulnerability is not limited to leaders – we all have are keenly aware of our imperfections, which run the risk of derailing our lives. We need help – we need somebody to keep us accountable for what we do and what we pursue.

To stay on track, I must be clear on what is precious to me – those things that I never want to lose. Also, I must be clear on what is perilous to me – those things will destroy my relationships and reputation and derail my career and calling. The stakes are high.

My own experience highlights the lessons in Biblical history: that I am fallible, that I only see in part, and that, indeed, two is better than one. I need help from someone who cares.

A few years after our wedding, my wife shared the necessity of accountability friendships with a group attending a marriage preparation course. Then she said: “The reason why I felt confident to marry Ross was because of his many close-knit friends; if his heart drifts from Christ or me, his friends will call him to account and keep us safe.” I thank God for those friends. However, over the years, we have moved away from Pretoria and now live in different cities worldwide. Although we still love one another, I have discovered that I need to cultivate accountable friendships with men that I see often and share life with so that they can observe and speak into my relationships, purpose and passions.

Help me guard my heart

I’ve discovered that, to keep my life on track and preserve what I hold deer, I need to “guard [my] heart above all else,
    for it determines the course of your life.”
(Proverbs 4:23, NLT). I need to preserve and cultivate my devotion to Christ. I need to intentionally pursue my calling or direction in life. I must actively cultivate and be attentive to the desires of my heart. I must protect and nurture the relationships of those dearest to me. My relationship with Christ, with my family and friends, with my purpose, possessions and passions – these determine the quality and impact of my life.

The friend who cares must help me to guard my heart, for it does determine the course of my life. And these are the questions that I need my friend to ask me.

[A recording of this post can be found here, starting from 50minutes.]

“my friend, ask me if I’m still in Christ?”

The life of the apostle Paul so inspires me.  He was a man with a singular vision who lived his life wholly devoted to Christ. In his letter to the Philippians, he wrote, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21).  He poured out his life like a drink offering in service of his Lord, “having suffered the loss of all things to gain Christ and be found in Him… to know Him… to become like Him.” (Phil. 3:8-10)  

When I was a student, I was drawn into such a passionate pursuit of the Lord by zealous leaders. Fellowship with them ignited my prayer life, stirring a hunger to read my Bible and to witness the new life I received from the Lord boldly.  But this was 20 years ago, and my life is much more demanding and complicated today than it was back then. 

I need someone to regularly ask me, “my friend, do you still seek Him?  Are you still in Christ?” And when I answer him, he needs to test whether my intentions are grounded in simple, everyday actions that prove my devotion.

my friend, ask me if I’m still content?”

The longer I live, the more aware I am of my desires for pleasures, possessions, and recognition. John called these “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” (1 John 2:16)  Similarly, the older I become, the more I hate this sensuality I see in myself, because I see how these unbridled passions destroy lives, families and communities. 

Henry Cloud points out that our course and character are set both by what we love and hate.  We are drawn to the things we love, and we are repelled from the things we hate.  Therefore, he urges, “develop the ability to hate the right things well.”[i] 

When I was a young boy, my dad rushed home to kill a venomous snake spotted in our favourite climbing tree. Because he loved us, he hated what could kill us.  Now, because I love my Lord, my wife and children, my vocation and my community, I choose to hate everything that might destroy my loving relationship with them. 

I want my friend to ask me regularly about the condition of my heart.  I need him to urge me to “be free from covetousness, [and] be content with what I have.” (Hebrews 13:5–6) Because loving the wrong things will ruin not only my life, but also those I love. (1 Timothy 6:10-11)

[i] Henry Cloud, Nine Things A Leader Must Do, Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2006, p. 73-75

my friend, ask me if I’m still on course?”

During tough times we are tempted to look for an easier way.  However, the easier way rarely leads us to a life of significance, security and satisfaction. Endurance holds rewards.

Paul’s grit inspires me. He knew that his journey to Jerusalem would result in beatings and imprisonment.  Nevertheless, he charged forward, saying that he had no regard for his personal welfare, “…if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus…” (Acts 20:24)

I know that I would be tempted to choose the easier way at times, and therefore I need my friend to ask me, “are you still on course?  Are you finishing what the Lord had called you to do?”

my friend, ask me if I’m still connected?

The pace and pressures of life is not kind to our relationships.  Stress tend to numb our senses and close our hearts.  Pete Greig writes that the human soul is wild and shy – like a deer, it only comes out to drink when we become still.[i]  We lose the ability to enjoy meaningful connection unless we intentionally become still with one another.

We can easily assume connection in our hurried life because we share a home, a surname or a church group.  But staying connected and finding joy in fellowship requires intentionality: disconnecting from the outside world and connecting with the one(s) in my presence. 

We can easily pretend to connect with the ones we ought to love.  We choose not to give ourselves or share what we have because of our hardened hearts.  But Paul urges that ” love be without hypocrisy” (Romans 12:9) – “bearing with one another …forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you.” (Colossians 3:12-13).  We have seen how callousness and unforgiveness ruin families, shatter communities and derail a person because of darkened lenses.

I know life’s pressures are hard on my soul.  Therefore, I need my friend to frequently ask me, “are you still connected with your wife, your children and your close community?” 

Find such a friend. Then be such a friend.

[i] Pete greig, How to Pray, Hodder and Stouten, 2021, p35.

Who do you care about?

Who do you really care about? Whose life matters to you? When last have you asked them the questions that determine the course of their life?

Go on! Ask them the heart questions! Ask them about their relationship with God in Christ. Ask them how they relate to the things in this world. Ask them how they relate to their purpose. And ask them about their relationships with those dear to them. Because if you love them, you want to see them flourish in these relationships.

“Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”
He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Genesis 4:9 

Restoring joy

Ask a believer to describe what God is like and you are bound to hear characteristics like “good”, “righteous”, “loving” and “kind”.  Rarely will hear God being described as “joyful” or “happy”, which in itself explains why believers individually and the church as a whole are known for being “good” and even “kind” but rarely “joyful”.

But this is the reason why Old Testament Prophets declared Jesus came into the world: to restore righteousness and joy to the world!  Christ came to remove our sins which separates us from God, the source of Joy and Goodness, and restore our original blissful existence.  As it was in the Garden and Eden, so it will be in the New Creation: a place of rejoicing and gladness, with no more tears, no more suffering, no more death; a dispensation of joy and peace in the presence of God (Revelation 19:7; 21:1-5).  But that joy is not only a promise of our future state – joy is our inheritance even today.

Jesus said we should become like little children to inherit his kingdom.  What characterizes a child? Innocence, trust, and joy.  How can our joy be restored again like that of a little child?


Firstly, we must remind ourselves that our God is called “the happy God” [1 Timothy 1:9-11, J.B. Phillips translation] in whose “presence there is fullness of joy [and] pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11; compare Matthew 25: 21).  His Kingdom is characterized by “righteousness, peace and joy” (Romans 14:7).  He sent his son Jesus to redeem creation from the perpetual “groaning” (Romans 8:32).  Therefore his coming reign was anticipated with rejoicing and gladness (Psalm 97:1), announced as “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:8-11) and he was anointed with the Spirit to “proclaim good news… bind up the broken-hearted… set the oppressed free… proclaim Jubilee… comfort the mourning… pour out the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

harvest table1

Jesus first miracle was all about joy where the wine at a wedding ran out and the host feared that the festivity will end prematurely.  Jesus instructed six ceremonial pots (in excess of 750 liters in total) to be filled, which he turned into the best quality of wine. This sign was recorded by John (2:1-11) as a prophetic statement: the best joy this world can offer will run out, but the joy Christ brings is the best (superior quality) and will not run out (superior quantity).

And indeed it is so!  Jesus’s miracles resulted in joy-filled exclamations of praise to God.  His parables about repentance and conversion tells that both the man who happened to find the treasure in the field and the merchant who sought and found the pearl of greatest price in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that…[field/ pearl].” (Matthew 13:44-46)  His motive for teaching his disciples was so “that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11) and likewise prayed “that they may have My joy made full in themselves” (John 17:13).

The early church was genuinely known for their joyfulness, in spite of physical, economic and social oppressing resulting from intense persecution.  Luke records that “the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 13:52)  How was it possible?  The reason is clear: fellowship with our joyful God lets us share in his joy.  That’s what Nehemiah meant to say to the mourning people gathered at the rebuilt temple: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10) – our strength to endure comes from drawing near to God and sharing in his joy.  As we abide in the Lord the fruit of joy is produced by his Spirit in us (John 15:4; Galatians 5:22; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).  It is “in His presence” that we share in his “fullness of joy”, and “at his right hand” that we enjoy his “eternal pleasures”. (Psalm 16:11)


Joy is the natural response to feeling loved.

Secondly, joy is the natural response to loving affection and security. Just look at couples in affectionate embrace, or at children when they are playing with their loving parents. Joy flows freely from a heart that experiences loving attention and affection, that feels secure in loving acceptance and that is valued by loving appraisal.  That’s why a fresh revelation of the love of God makes a heart overflow in joy – even in spite of difficult times.  Look again at the prophet’s revelation of God’s love in Zephaniah 3:17  “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.  He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”  This “rejoicing over you” pictures our God dancing freely and wildly about us because of his abundant love for us.  The natural response to this generous and uninhibited love is joyfulness.



Thirdly, joy flows freely from a healthy heart – one that is care-free, generous and innocent. In the book of Proverbs there are so many cautions to the preservation against temporal temptations, of which Proverbs 4:23 is perhaps best known: “Guard your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.

Some of the biggest enemies of joy in the human heart include cares and anxiety, bitterness and resentment, guilt and shame.  These things defile an innocent, pure heart and impedes its ability to feel deeply and rejoice freely.

  • A CARE-FREE HEART HAS NO WORRIES. Worries and anxieties is one of the surest ways to drain the joy and peace we experience in this life.  That’s why Jesus repeatedly cautioned the crowds to “not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34) and “worries… choke” the life produced in us by God (Mark 4:19).  Jesus’ answer is simple: don’t worry – know that God your Father loves you and cares for you; trust in his provision and protection (Matthew 6:32)!  So do as Peter instruct: “cast all your cares on the Lord, for he cares for you!” (1 Peter 5:7) and soon you will be able to testify with David “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.” (Psalm 94:19).
  • A GENEROUS HEART HOLDS NO GRUDGES. You only have one heart.  You cannot be a wellspring of joy and yet harbor unforgiveness in your heart; you cannot produce sweet joy from a heart with a “root of bitterness” in it (refer Hebrews 12:15). Unforgiveness leads to bitterness and resentment which defiles your whole life and poison’s every relationship. Forgive and see how joy from God and peace fills your whole heart and lifts the heaviness of your shoulders.
  • AN INNOCENT HEART HAS NO REGRETS. David hid his sin and avoided the Lord because of the guilt of bloodshed and shame of adultery which condemned his consciousness and impeded his confidence before God.  But when Nathan the prophet confronted him with a Word from the Lord, and the sickness of his baby drove him to seek the grace of God, David approached God to petition forgiveness and save his child.  He prayed “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:10-12)  Don’t let the burden of failure and sin keep you from sharing in God and his joy.  That is why Christ died!

The other day as I prayed about regaining joy these words rolled off my cheek in a prayer.  It is so silly to become so serious, strong and independent.  May you never stop playing and laughing, and may God’s joy always overflow in your heart, flood your home and fill your world!




I hid and you sought,

I jumped and you caught

We wrestled and fought for hours on end!

Daddy, will you play with me again?


We had cars and planes,

Built robots and cranes

We played with our trains until the Lego came.

Dad, will you play with me again?


You gave my first cycle

And taught me to swim

You couched me rugby and cheered my first win.

Father, can we play like that again?


I left home and became a man

The cares piled up as work began

As our playing stopped my joy ran out.

Lord, will you teach me how to play again?

Ross, April 2016

5 Truths On Spiritual Growth

Too often the idea of spiritual growth is presented so disconnect from real life.  Not so in the Bible!

The Colossian church struggled with sensuality[i]  in a city renowned for its perversion.  Paul, writing from a Roman prison, was encouraging the Colossian church to grow in godliness amidst the immoral climate of the city in which they themselves once walked.[ii]  From within the congregation there were two theories as to who one overcomes these worldly lusts.  The first group argued that one inhibit and control the bodily desires through rigorous regulations and rituals (asceticism), and the second group reasoned that one cannot and need not overcome it – one simply needs to allow the earthly flesh to go its course since it has not importance or influence on your renewed spirit (Gnosticism).  Paul renounced the foolishness of both these arguments, stating that no bodily denial or imprisonment has power to overcome sinful urges[iii]  and that God will certainly judge sinfulness, so don’t fall back into that life.[iv] The answer is to deliberately grow in holiness and renounce sensuality. [v]

Although the whole letter to the Colossians leaves us with profoundly practical truths about spiritual growth, these three verses contain very helpful truths on Spiritual growth.

“To [the saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I labor, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” (Colossians 1:27-29)

  1. Spiritual growth does not earn favor with God



The gentiles in the Colossian church were saved and blessed with the indwelling Spirit of Christ because “God [has] chosen” them, because God “has qualified (them) to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints” (1:12).  God loved and favored these gentile Christians in spite of their struggle with sensuality.  Later, as he encourages them to grow in godliness, he reminds them that – even before they grow spiritually – they are already “God’s chosen, holy and beloved” (3:12).

This is true for you too: you have already been made “accepted in the beloved” [vi] regardless of their lack or level of spiritual growth.  No amount of spiritual growth or weakness will increase or decrease God’s loving favor on your life.  You are loved and favored because God had chosen you and qualified you.

  1. Spiritual growth has a clear goal


Paul’s ambition for the struggling Colossian church was clear: to “present everyone mature in Christ” (1:28). In the sister-letter Ephesians Paul phrased this truth bolder to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). Every member ought to grow up into the image of Christ himself.  For that we have been predestined[vii]; and that is the purpose of our times in the presence of the Lord[viii].    Although Paul never used the word disciple in his writings, we are not surprised that he chooses another word conveying this truth as the overarching goal of the Christian life[ix].  So according to Paul, spiritual growth has a clear goal: the imitation of Christ himself: to emulate his lifestyle and represent his character.

This demystifies spiritual growth completely.  The goal of Spiritual growth is a person – to emulate and resemble Jesus Christ himself.  And this is a life-long process to “grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”. [x]

  1. Spiritual growth requires deliberate effort


Paul did not assume that spiritual growth happens automatically, but rather through his “proclaim(ation)… warning… teaching… wisdom… labor… struggle(s)… energy” (1:28-29).  Spiritual growth requires deliberate effort – as everything else in life.  Later in this letter Paul instructs these Colossians to overcome their weaknesses to sensual temptations by deliberate actions: “set your heart on things above” (3:1), “set your mind on things above” (3:2), “put to death what is sensual” (3:5), “put off anger…” (3:8) and “put on… compassion” etc (3:12-14).   Peter likewise instructs the Roman church to “make every effort to add to your faith courage…” etc.[xi]  We grow as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”.[xii]

Real spiritual growth does not happen automatically.  It is not reserved for a select few.  It does not come by means of some special revelation nor academic learning alone, but by “exercising yourself in godliness” [xiii] – by deliberate acts of spiritual disciplines as we seek to know God, his will and seek to emulate him in a community of believers.

  1. Spiritual growth is God’s work


Christian spiritual growth is not another selfish self-help practice aimed to “be a better you!”  Spiritual growth happens by means of God’s renewal.  Even Paul’s labors are accredited to God’s as he works “with all his energy that he powerfully works” (1:29).  Even as he encourages the churches to “work out your salvation” he qualifies that “it is God who works in you, giving the desire and ability to fulfill his will.” [xiv]

Spiritual growth is God’s work.  We will do good to remind ourselves that when we were dead in our sin, God made us alive.  God revives and continues to renew us into the image of His Son.  And therefore every time “we behold him, we are being transformed into the image of his Son”[xv] – God does the work of renewal; we need to present ourselves to him and his grace.

  1. Spiritual growth is teamwork


Spiritual growth is not a solo mission.  God works through others to shape, encourage and renew us.  Paul boldly asserted his role in the renewal and regeneration of the Colossian congregation by means of his prayers (1:9-12), preaching, admonishing and teaching (1:28-29) and instructions (3:1-14, etc).  Elsewhere he encourages the church to follow his example in life and godliness as a means of spiritual growth,[xvi] “to encourage one another and build one another up” [xvii] and in another place he mentions that his spiritual warfare on their behalf enhances their growth in godliness. [xviii]  We grow up within caring and loving relationships.

Spiritual growth is teamwork; ironically our concern and effort for another’s spiritual growth makes us grow in godliness.  Therefore we ought to always consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.” [xix] In other words, the express reason for our assembly is to deliberately edify and encourage others to excel in godliness and good works.  We grow because of other Christians’ input.

Thus, Paul teaches spiritual growth is the quest to know and represent Jesus Christ our Savior, in response to God’s loving favor and powerful enablement, by means of deliberate effort within a community of believers.  It is something we desire, we respond to, we assist in and we celebrate, and something which only reaches its climax “we he appears”. [xx]

So, how have you grown? What’s next for you? And who is helping you?



[i] Colossians 2:22-23

[ii] Colossians 3:5-7

[iii] Colossians 2:23

[iv] Colossians 3:5-6

[v] Colossians 3:1-17

[vi] Ephesians 1:6

[vii] Romans 8:28

[viii] 2 Corinthians 3:18

[ix] 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; Ephesians 5:1-2; 1 Corinthians 11:1; cf Philippians 4:9

[x] 2 Peter 3:18

[xi] 2 Peter 1:5-8

[xii] Philippians 2:12

[xiii] 1 Timothy 4:7

[xiv] Philippians 2:12-13

[xv] 2 Corinthians 3:18

[xvi] Philippians 4:9-121

[xvii] Thessalonians 5:11

[xviii] 2 Corinthians 10:1-6

[xix] Hebrews 10:24

[xx] 1 John 3:2

Church membership – who cares!?

“I’m attending this church (for now) – who cares about a name on a list?”

Formal church membership seem foreign and even impersonal to our current generation of passionate Christ-followers.  “To sign on the dotted line” seem so far removed from the deep spiritual relationships that our generation yearn for.  When conversation move away from passionate participation towards paper partnerships attendees become skeptical and scatter.  There is a general suspicion of anything formal or contractual.  And not without reason!

Off course we must note that the contemporary wariness of church membership is not only due to the fallible history of the Church; our generation holds a general resentment towards institutions and a skepticism in leadership at large.  It seems as though the bigger the institution, the more structured a partnership or the longer a commitment is, the greater our generation will stay clear of involvement.  This growing resentment towards institutions is also the reason for couples – even increasingly Christians – who do not see a need to get married formally.

So we dislike big, structured, impersonal and organized – we like small, intimate, personal, and organic.  We associate authentic spiritual life with small and intimate.  But a quick read of the New Testament reveals that the early church was big, very structured, and organized – yet very personal.  And it seems clear that membership in the early church was normative – in fact, the New Testament seem to associate Christianity with formal church membership.  Consider the following points.

  1. Accountability assumes membership

In the intimate setting where Paul greeted the elders of the Ephesian churches for good, he exhorted them to “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” (Acts 20:28).  Paul’s instruction to “care for the church of God” implied a very specific group of blood-bought believers whom the elders knew and had to protect against “savage wolves…with destructive heresies” (see verse 29).

Peter’s letter to a group of scattered congregations gave a similar instruction to elders who ought to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you… those in your charge” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  These elders had to oversee and lead by example “those in their charge” – a very specific group of people allotted to them by God.  Each elder had to watch over the members in his flock.  This was a clearly defined group of believers, i.e. members in a congregation.

The most sobering and challenging verse on this for me personally is Hebrews 13:17 where the apostle writes that leaders have to “keep watch over [their follower’s] souls, as those who will have to give an account.”  The elders of a local church must watch over and account for the members in that congregation before God, implying a relationship of accountability and entrustment – i.e. willing membership.

  1. Leadership assumes membership

Hebrews 13:17 also assumes that the congregation knows who their leaders are whom they ought to “obey” and “submit to” – the relationships were clearly defined.   So too Paul’s instruction to in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 shows that New Testament congregations had formal membership and leadership: there was something like a “those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord” who deserves respect.

  1. Church discipline and assumes membership

Jesus’ instruction to his disciples on how to regulate sensitive matters in church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17) assumes membership: if an offensive act from a fellow believer is not settled in loving confrontation with witnesses present, that person can be brought “to the church” – a clearly defined group of believers who knows this trespassing brother.  As in Jesus’ instruction, Paul instructs that the last resort of church discipline is for a congregation to excommunicate the sinning brother who now is “inside the church” to henceforth be with “those outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13) – from that moment he is regarded as “an unbeliever” (Matthew 8:17). This act of disassociation, writes John Piper, is not only a clear indication that membership was normative in the early church, but moreover it proves that church membership really means something.  It is a blood-bough, desirable and beneficial privilege for all believers.

  1. “One body” assumes membership

The term “member” for someone being part of a congregation was coined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 in his metaphorical description of the church as the living, interdepend body of Christ, where all the persons in this congregation are “members of the body” (v12).  He argues that a believer cannot say I do not belong to the body” (v15) – it is abnormal for the members to relate tangentially to the rest of the body; it is wrong and unhealthy for a person to not be built on or planted in a local congregation where life is received and given through the sharing of Christ Himself.  Membership was normative in the New Testament; every believer in the Early Church belonged to a local congregation.  Just like the Church globally is the Body of Christ, so too the local church is an expression of the Universal Church.

  1. “Known by your love” assumes membership

Ultimately, Jesus desires for the church to be known by your love for one another” (John 13:35) is only possible within the confines of a clearly defined congregation.  As this love is visibly discerned by outsiders, it reasons that relationships of church members must over time consistently witness acts of   generosity, forgiveness, affection, affirmation and shared life – not mere acts of kindness to passer-by’s.  The visible love among church members is the ultimate witness of our allegiance to Christ (John 13:34-35) and the reality of Christ among us (John 17:21).

Bringing it home

If you hear someone say “church membership – who cares?!” tell that person it is the most fitting question you can ask; membership is all about “who cares for you!”  Church membership is about entrusting someone appointed by God to watch over your soul and care for your needs – someone who must give an account to God for the health of your soul.  Church membership is about committing yourself to a community of believers for mutual accountability and edification – to discipline and be disciplined, to support and be supported, to encourage and be encouraged as you continue to grow in the character of Christ.  Church membership is the environment where we can securely live in vulnerability and mutual care, where love flows freely in generosity and forgiveness, affirmation and affection, radical acceptance and kind correction.  It is in church membership where the life and love of Christ flows and is displayed to the world.

So where do you belong?  Who should give an account for your soul?

How do I grow from here? – phases in discipleship

Building a tower

The famous “pit” of the incomplete Chicago Spire

I am always surprised at my impatience every time I pass a construction site where “nothing seems to happen” for weeks on end – sometime even for months. When the foundation is being laid it might easily look to the ignorant onlooker as if there is no work being done because – everything above ground looks the same!  We tend to think that because I can’t see any development on the surface, no progress is being made.  But that’s not the truth.  We all know that constructive growth happens in progressive phases.

An artists representation of the completed Chicago Spire tower.

So too with discipleship – our growth in Christ happens in phases.  And – like in our sky-scraper example – the strength and longevity of our spiritual health depends on the quality of its foundation.  When the necessary foundation phases are not laid down properly, the disciple will lack endurance and vitality in their spiritual life.

Phases in discipleship

One of the most helpful research studies on the various phases in discipleship was done by the Willow Creek Association in 2007.  After an extensive study of over 200 churches and 80’000 members, Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson identified a framework of four phases where church-attendees found themselves in their relationship with Christ.[1]  This framework ranges from those who have a basic belief in God, but seek surety regarding Christ’s person and role in their lives (exploring Christ), through attendees who are growing in relationship with Christ (grounded) and feeling close to Christ (maturity) in daily communion with him, to believers who see their relationship with Christ as the central most important aspect of their lives (leadership).  After identifying these phases, the researchers identified three “growth-movements” and sought to identify the spiritual catalysts that most likely caused spiritual growth to the next phase of a disciple’s relationship with Christ.  These catalysts were grouped as (i) spiritual beliefs and attitudes, (ii) organized church activities, (iii) personal spiritual practices and (iv) spiritual activities with others (i.e. activities not organized by local congregation).

Adapted from WillowcCreek REVEAL study 2007
Adapted from WillowcCreek REVEAL study 2007

The graph above is adapted from this REVEAL study, showing four phases in discipleship with the catalysts they found most likely to produce spiritual growth in a disciple within that phase. Below is a summery of the findings as illustrated in the graph above.

  1. After conversion, during the grounding phase in discipleship, the two agents that contribute the most to the disciple’s growth in Christ are Biblical Teaching (growing in knowledge and attitudes) and participation in church activities (like Foundation classes, Bible school, small group and weekend services); these two groups of activities causes the most spiritual growth within this phase of discipleship growth.
  2. During and after the initial grounding in Christ, the two factors contributing the most to the disciple’s growth in Christ are firstly personal devotional disciplines, and secondly a lifestyle of witnessing, where the disciple shares his/her faith with others. (It is important to note stress again that devotional disciplines must be demonstrated – the habits are best acquired through participation and demonstration; so also with witnessing). No further growth in Christ will occur without a lifestyle of devotional disciplines; the disciple must become a self-feeder to grow in spiritual maturity – just like a baby that needs to learn to feed itself.
  3. The last significant growth phase, where a disciple grows from maturity to leadership, happens as the disciple acts on his/her own conviction or initiative and takes responsibility for a church-related ministry or activity, or even the care of some younger disciples. Just as a boy grows from a baby dependent on others, through maturity as he cares for himself, into a the young man who cares for his own family, so the disciple must grow to become one who takes ownership and responsibility for the spiritual well-being of others in some form.  Without this step, mature believers tend to become discontent, frustrated and tend to disengage from faith or move to another ministry, because they are not “fed” in church any more.  If they do find a place to serve faithfully and see the impact it has on others, these members will continue to grow and inspire others to partner with the church in a similar manner. Along with this “initiative” the disciple also needs to grow in understanding and response to the Lordship of Jesus over his/her personal life.  The study shows that, in this stage of the disciple’s life, he/she needs little from the local church to grow apart from encouragement and opportunities of engagement in full participation in Christian service. [2]

Greg Hawkins comments’ on the results of the study is indeed noteworthy…increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities [read “church programs”] does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does not predict whether they love God more or they love people more.” [3]  This is a very important conclusion: each disciple should be personally coached, given what he or she needs within their own walk with God.  One cannot give a one-size fits all program for every disciple – one must consider the phase of the disciple and coach them within in their current challenges.

There should be little surprise that the number one catalyst that provokes spiritual growth in a disciple is the Bible (studying, reflection, and the belief of its accuracy and authority). [4]  [I might add that helping people study it is the also the most neglected in contemporary church discipleship programs].

The Bible – still the most influential catalyst for spiritual growth.

Hybels refers to this as “the wake-up call of my adult life,”[5] since the church spent all their efforts and resources in developing programs to produce disciples, yet now he knows that that all they should have done was teach people “to take responsibility to become ‘self-feeders’… …how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.” [6]

This study has brought a new perspective to contemporary discipleship models: where in the past the commonly held notion was that greater participation in church activities (or discipleship activities) ensured spiritual growth (becoming like Christ), the result of this study indicates that church programs only initiate the discipleship process by grounding converts in their faith, but continuing in these programs will probably not lead to maturity in Christ.  The more mature a disciple grows, the less significant will a church program be on that person’s spiritual growth into Christ.[7]

Consider the maturity

Therefore, in summary, their reveal study concludes that the journey through discipleship has distinguishable phases: after conversion the young disciple needs to be grounded in the faith through instruction in doctrine and shown how to abide in Christ through the basic disciplines. During this phase instruction into basic truth and settling into a habitual life of personal devotion is important. Thereafter the disciple matures in character through training in the Christian lifestyle through observation and emulation of modeled behavior.  In this phase participation in fellowship and practices such as service and witnessing are important. In the last phase leaders are trained through delegation and participation in the discipleship process of others, and later through commissioning or deployment.  During this last phase mentorship and shared responsibility, with coaching in skills and character shaping is the focus.

Thus, to encourage growth towards maturity in Christ, a disciple should be helped firstly to be faithful in attending fellowship and bible study (such as church celebration, small groups, Bible School, etc).  Secondly, the apprentice needs to be coached in devotional disciplines in meeting with God faithfully.  Thirdly, as he/she grows in relationship with Christ, the disciple should grow in confidence in serving and taking initiative as the need arises or the Lord directs, so that his/her love for God may find expression in serving others.

So what should you do to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18)?  What is your next goal?


[1] Hawkins, Parkinson, REVEAL: Follow Me, p20-21.

[2] Ibid, p78.

[3] Hawkins G., from video results of study: http://revealnow.com/storyid=48 [Accessed 12 March 2011]

[4] Ibid, p105.

[5] Hybels B., from video response to results: http://revealnow.com/storyid=49 [Accessed 12 March 2011].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Spiritual Life Survey Results Revealed, Willow Magazine, Issue 3 2007, http://www.willicreek.com/wcanews/issue.asp?id=WNI32007  [Accessed 12 March 2011]

Don’t tell me, show me! – the process of discipleship

Ken Blanchard, who spent years developing his famous Situational Leadership Model[1] and devoted his life to advising secular leaders on how to lead and grow healthy organisations. The leadership model he developed draws focusses on the required leadership style and approach based on the maturity of the followers.

Ken Blanchard came to Christ late in his life and found it remarkable to see how church leaders fail at this, especially since his model of leadership agrees so much with Jesus’ model for discipleship. [2]


He notes that church leaders tend to instruct (“say”) their members on how to live and what must be done, and then commission them to do it (“send”).  But – as we see everywhere – the cognitive download in itself rarely leads to fruitful life transformation of these members, not even mentioning a lack of societal reform.  This class-room approach rarely ever works.  He explains that church leaders frequently make the mistake to assume that after instruction, a disciple has both the ability and confidence to execute what has been instructed.

Ken Blanchard illustrates how Jesus’ model of discipleship – which mirrors his own model – equips the disciple with the necessary knowledge, skill and experience to ensure that both the disciple and his leader are confident in the capacity and confident to do what is required.

Therefore, after instruction, a disciple needs to observe (“see”) in practice what he has been taught, then have the freedom to try what is being taught in a safe coaching (“support”) environment, before being commissioned (“send”) to live it out, as illustrated in the adapted model below.


Even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveal how Jesus discipled his followers along this model: a period of primarily instruction as in Luke 5-8 (“say”), where after His disciples were “with Him” (Mark 3:14) to see his life example and ministry (“show”).  After this Jesus sent out his disciples on short term mission outreaches, with coaching and feedback as in Luke 9-10 (“support”), and eventually he commissioning them in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-20 (“send”). The Great Commission only happened after the disciples had proper instruction, a period of observation, and ample time to gain confidence in participation under the guidance and coaching of Jesus.

This Great Commission of Christ also implies this model of discipleship when He said “make disciples” through conversion (“baptizing”), instruction (“teaching”) and training, as the command states (“teaching them [how] to obey my commands”); the focus is on training and coaching more than instruction. Leaders should not merely relay the commands of Christ, but rather teach them how to obey Jesus’ commands.

This model is extremely important. Whether you instruct a disciple in devotional disciplines (such as Bible study, prayer and fasting, witnessing and discipling), skills (such as teamwork, teaching and preaching, healing and deliverance, conflict resolution), or character (such as integrity, compassion, kindness, humility, self-control), the process of discipleship is the same.

To enable a disciple to fully grow in the imitation of Christ, the teacher needs to say what must be done, be shown what that looks like in practice, be supported in participation, and only then be sent to do it in confidence.


[1] Blanchard K., (Ed) Segil L., Goldsmith M., and Belasco J.A., Partnering: The New Face of Leadership, (New York: AMACOM, 2003), p59-71.

[2] Lecture relayed by Randy Pope during a “Discovery Bible School” of Perimeter Church, 2010 found online.

So what are we busy with? – the aim of discipleship

The Spaghetti-Marshmallow lesson

Sadly, lessons are better learnt though personal mistakes, so there is a certain group activity that I love to start with which teaches a very memorable lesson.  I’d hand each small group a big pack of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti, give them 15 minutes and instruct them to build the highest, freestanding tower they can, and to add some pressure I throw in a prize for the winning team.

A recent group doing quite well with their spaghetti-marshmallow towers.
A recent group doing quite well with their spaghetti-marshmallow towers.

Without fail the teams jump in and start building by sticking marshmallows to the ends of spaghetti sticks.  The towers usually look very crooked and rarely stand by themselves.  What is the lesson they learn? Without a clearly communicated goal even our enthusiastic efforts fail – passion is not enough.


This is spaghetti tower lesson is quite a generic life principle, but I often use it to help us reconsider our thoughts and efforts regarding discipleship.  What are we busy with now, and why are we doing this?  This is exactly Bill Hull’s point when he writes believers “engage in the process with no regard or the product” – we are often busy with “discipleship activities” without considering what we ought to achieve through it.

The aim of discipleship

So what is the aim or goal of discipleship?  Jesus made it quite clear when he said “A disciple is not above his teacher, but when he is fully trained will be like his teacher(Mark 6:40).  The aim of discipleship is for the disciple to become like his master through teaching and training.

It is interesting to note that the word “disciple” occurs only in the four gospels and a few times in the book of acts – nowhere else is this word in the New Testament.  It is indeed interesting, since Jesus’ core message was that of discipleship in the Kingdom of God.  The apostles used the word “imitation” through instruction and copying of modelled behavior as in his letter to the Ephesians: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians5:2).  [See also 1 Corinthians 4:17 and 1 Corinthians 4:17; 1Thessalonians 1:6-7; Philippians 4:9].

Both the concepts of discipleship and imitation therefore require deliberate effort to imitate someone’ life.  Thus the success of the disciple or imitator’s efforts rest on the clarity of the image or life they ought to copy.  The better you know the person you ought to imitate, the more likely you will resemble the master.

If discipleship is a life devoted to imitate Jesus, then the success of your discipleship activities rests on the clarity of your image of Jesus.


Walk as Jesus Walked

The Apostles teach us that our conformity to the image of Jesus Christ our Lord is our past purpose (Romans 8:29), present process (2 Corinthians 3:18) and future promise (1 John 3:2).  This requires deliberate intent, as the apostle John writes “Whoever says he abides in [Jesus] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 John 2:6).

But what is the image of Jesus we ought to imitate?  What does the New Testament reveal of the character of Jesus?  The authors of the New Testament explicitly instruct disciples to imitate Jesus’ humility and obedience (Philippians 2:5-7) and meekness or gentle self-control (Matthew 11:29), servitude (John 13:14-15), selfless love (Ephesians 5:1-2; John 13:34), patience or longsuffering (1 Peter 2:21),  kindness and forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32), as well as His missional intent (John 20:21) and ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).  In less explicit imitation language the apostles instructed disciples of Jesus to grow godly characters that are compassionate (Colossians 3:12), confident (2 Timothy 1:6-7), hopeful and peaceful (Romans 15:13).

But the Gospel writes records that Jesus also deliberately taught the disciples skills, including teaching, preaching, healing and deliverance (Matthew 10:8), discipling others (Matthew 28:19; see also 2 Timothy 2:2 and Titus 2:3), pastoral care (Matthew 25:36), teamwork and cross-cultural ministry (Luke 10:1).  The New Testament writers also dictate that disciples need grow in witnessing to unbelievers (1 Peter 3:15) and skills ministry skills such as facilitating and use of spiritual gifts in a meeting.

The disciples are to shape their lives by the disciplines modelled in Jesus’ life, including a devotion to prayer and studying and memorizing Scripture, a life of thanks, praise and worship, a commitment to fellowship, selfless serving and giving (see especially Matthew 20:28), and witnessing.  Jesus also modelled the need for times of fasting, solitude, silence and rest (or sabbath).  [I don’t see a need to “proof-text” these habits visible in Jesus’ life].

In the New Testament the apostles also highlighted the need for the disciplines of accountability and confession (James 5:16 and 1 John 1:7-9).

Lastly, in pursuit as imitators of Jesus (and also in our efforts to make disciples) we need to ask what are the most essential truths and beliefs a disciple of Jesus must hold onto?  Obviously this question has been asked through the ages, even within the first century.  From that question the Apostle’s Creed was formed, which new converts had to confess as their “oath of allegiance to Jesus their Lord” (from where we get the word sacrament) at their baptism.  This creed is a mere 110 words, containing the most essential doctrines of the Christian faith. The central part (about 70 words) centers on our belief of the person and work of Christ.  Although the doctrines contained in the creed is global in scale, I suggest that there are four doctrines I find necessary to teach in discipling contemporary Christians: Church and mission, Stewardship, Identity in Christ and Biblical sexuality.  Depending on your immediate context these four doctrines might be adjusted, although I suspect these issues are universally challenged by our contemporary culture today.

Profile of a Mature Disciple of Jesus

This leaves us with the following summary of a Profile of a Mature Disciple – a clear goal of what a disciple of Jesus ought to know and believe (head), live like (habits), skills he/she must master (hands) and what his/her character should grow to (heart).

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
one holy Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Church and mission | Stewardship | Identity in Christ | Biblical sexuality
Prayer Use Bible in ministry Compassion
Fasting Witnessing Kindness, mercy
Fellowship Healing, deliverance Humility, Selflessness
Bible study, mediation Use spiritual gifts Meekness, gentleness
Thanks, praise, worship Discern God’s voice Patience, faithfulness
Accountability, confession Teamwork, Delegation Confidence
Serving, giving Cross cultural ministry Joyfulness
Witnessing Pastoring others Hopefulness
Solitude, silence Discipling others Obedience
Sabbath (rest) Facilitation Peace

I find this profile very useful in my own pursuit of Christ-likeness, as well as the relationships with fellow believers with whom I walk a close road.  It helps me to “consider how we can stir one-another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24-25) as we meet to pursue Christ together.

On target
Discipleship requires a clear goal.

Deliberate effort and clear goal

Paul said that the culmination of his life efforts was to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28-29).  This maturity thus comes with deliberate effort towards a clear goal.  Not as though we can earn our salvation!  We simply respond to the graceful promptings of God’s Spirit as he writes elsewhere “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

So, how have you grown into the image of God?  And where will you respond to His promptings to continue to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”? (2 Peter 3:18)

A life of power – the need for discipleship

Power to win

The 1995 Rugby World Cup was in my matric year, which meant it was a good year for high school rugby.  I don’t know boys passed their exams during that season because all I can account for during that time was playing rugby with my friends, watching rugby highlights on the TV, listening to rugby commentary in the car and when there were no rugby broadcasts we’d play 1995 World Cup Rugby computer game.  It was an exhilarating few months from the build-up to the final, and what a final it was!  South Africa vs New Zealand, 80 minutes of extraordinary hard rugby turned to 100 minutes because by end of normal the teams were tied at 12 points each.  It seemed as though the the Webb Ellis Cup trophy would be shared by these two teams for the next four years until Joel Stransky received the ball from a scrum, and under tremendous pressured kicked a perfect drop goal from just outside New Zealand’s 22m line.  What a great victory he secured for South Africa! [see the video below]

But, oh! how this victory destroyed rugby in every school for the rest of the season…  Every match looked like a kicking competition.  I don’t think we even broke into a sweat in some games.  It doesn’t matter what position a player was supposed to play – every boy who got hold of the ball would attempt at a drop-goal.  Needless to say there were nearly no successful attempts.   Why could I or my school friends not execute a successful drop kick under pressure like Joel Stransky?  The answer is quite simple: we did not live the disciplined life he lived – on and off the rugby field.  We did not devote our lives to the hours of practice and mental preparation he did.  Those hours, amounting to years of preparation, paid off in those crucial seconds, because his gained power to perform when it was needed.

Power to break

On some Saturday mornings me and my brothers would watch a broadcast of Judo or Taekwon-Do championships where athletes scream and break bricks with their fists, kick through thick planks and smash concrete with their foreheads. [See example video below].

Carefully studying their methods and moves we’d get psyched and try it ourselves in our own back yard.  We’d find some bricks and planks, stand exactly like them, remind one another to “focus our energy”, scream and … crack our fists, sprain our toes and bruise our foreheads.  Although we copied their moves, screams and facial expressions as closely as possible we seemed to lack their power.

Why?  Because we did not live their lives.  We had their “form” but not their “power” – the power that stems from a disciplined, devoted life.

Power to survive

The best contemporary image for discipleship I have discovered is from the new movie Karate Kid .  In the 2010 version the young Dre (Jaden Smith) runs from some mean boys who know Kung Fu but is saved by Mr. Han (Jackie Chang), a master at Kun Fu.  [see the video below]

Afterwards Dre asks Mr. Han to teach him Kun Fu.  Mr. Han reluctantly agrees but instructs Dre to do seemingly meaningless exercises that has nothing to do with self-defense.  But seeing as the young Dre was only interested in learning to fight, he ignorantly rebels after hours of mundane exercises and starts walking out.  Mr Han calls him back and gives him the lesson of his life, showing him how the “pointless activities” of “jacket on / jacket off” and “pick the jacket up” was preparation for self-defense.  He concludes with the powerful life-lesson that “Kung Fu lives in everything you do… everything is Kung Fu.” [see the video below]

As a pastor I have had so many people over the years who come for counsel and prayer to gain power over something – smoking, pornography, anxiety, depression, obsessive thoughts.  Or to “fix a marriage”.    I’ve been at conferences where some big ministers invited people to “sow money now” that they may prosper.  Others invite people to come for impartation that they may gain a specific spiritual power.  These people sound like the ignorant, young Dre who simply wanted to be shown how to fight and overcome his enemies without living the life his King Fu master lived.  But like Mr. Hun I have come to understand that the power to reign in this life comes from the daily devotions and disciplined self-denial in everything we do, as we really live lives devoted to Jesus.  Everything we do is discipleship.

A need for deliberate discipleship

Have you ever met old Christians – genuine believers – who practically grew up in church, yet when you spend some time with them quickly discover they are staunch racists, or stingy and greedy, or habitually rude, bitter, or anxious?  And you think: how is it possible that a person can be a believer your whole life and after 60 years of going to church that person does not resemble the gracious, merciful, loving Jesus whom he or she follows?

Paul was referring to this hypocrisy when he wrote “In the last days there will be people… having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:1,5).  In other words people who fake godliness – who act as though they are kind at heart when they are among believers, but in reality they are rude and demeaning, or act as though they are at peace with others but they harbor unforgiveness an bitterness in their hearts.

Spiritual growth does not happen automatically and does not stem from a “secret key” – it requires a deliberate intent (2 Peter 3:18) and disciplined effort (2 Peter 1:5-8) of spiritual practices through which we deny ourselves (1 Corinthians 9:27), transform our mind (Romans 12:2) and character as we come face-to-face with Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18), exercising ourselves unto godliness (1 Timothy 4:7), into the image of Christ Himself (Romans 8:29).

We need to remind ourselves every so often that the word disciple is derived from the word discipline; a disciple lives in the power of his master to the degree that he imitates the disciplines of his master.

In the next posts we will look more into the goals and means of discipleship.

Is there more to rest than sleep?

Our culture is marked by incessant business and cluttering communication; we are generally overworked and overloaded with information.  Both our work schedules and social calendars are jam-packed, leaving us drained on Fridays and tired on Mondays.  It is ironic that, although we are constantly engaged in events, surrounded by people and always in contact with hoards of “friends” on social media platforms, loneliness and the feeling of isolation are also on the increase according to leading newspapers.[1]  Thus our never-ending business leave us tired and lonely.


Evidently the need to rest is not only for social or recreational purposes: a lack of rest has many known health-related consequences, including heart disease, headaches, depression, diabetes, and obesity, decreased mental alertness resulting in poor memory, lower creativity and delayed reaction, and even death – overwork is a cause for at least 1000 death per year in Japan, and 2007 saw more than 2200 work-related suicides, mostly attributed to overwork.[2]

In light of this I find Jesus’ words very logical and refreshing:  “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27).  God instituted resting days and seasons in the Israelite calendar that mandated rest for everyone, because everyone needs a regular break that refreshes, rejuvenates and restores.  These resting days were ceremonial laws in the Old Testament, and although New Testament believers are not mandated to keep these resting days sacred, we learn a lot from how and why these holy days (from where we get the word “holidays”) were instituted “for man”.[3]

What then do we learn about our need for Sabbath from the ceremonial culture instituted by God in the Jewish nation?

A need for reflection


“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the 7th day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the 7th day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the 7th day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”  (Genesis 2:1-3)

The creation account in Genesis concludes God’s creative work with the creation of man.  After creation God appointed man as governor and keeper of the earth, but the first thing man had to do was rest.  Imagine this!  Here we have Adam and Eve created in perfection – no sin, no ageing, no sickness, no tiredness (they have not even lived a full day!) and they had to observe a resting day!  What “rest” did they need to observe?  A rest of reflection that takes off the pressure of responsibility: God is in control.  The rest which the psalmist refers to when he writes “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).  Resting in the knowledge that God was busy before I arrived here, and God does not need me – he simply invites me into what He has been doing.  Likewise we rest and breathe out when we reflect on this truth: it does not all depend on me.[4]

The institution of the Sabbath day in Israel’s law, before they enter the promised land, had the same intent: “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)  The command to rest is so that the Israelites remember that they were not slaves who live from their labour, but rather that God saved them from that lifestyle.  Their rest was for reflection – to know that they are not left to themselves – God takes care of them.   The Sabbath was a weekly reminder that life does not only depend on my effort, but that God cares for me.

A need for relationships

In the Israelite calendar, every 7th day is holy to commemorate the deliverance from Egypt, the forming of their nation under and by God.  Yet in addition to the weekly ray of rest seven other feasts are prescribed, namely the Feast of Harvest, Feast of Trumpets, Feast of Pentecost, Passover Feast, Feast of Booths (tents), Feast of Lights, and the Day of Atonement.[5]  These feasts were grouped together over three periods during the year considering the agrarian calendar, allowing for longer time spent together in traveling as well as festivity.  God calls these sabbaths were “holy gatherings” (Leviticus 23:3), annual celebrations of God’s faithfulness in deliverance and provision.  Thus the intent was that the inhabitants would leave their homes and everyday dealings and travel together as families and friends to Jerusalem for the festivities.  The Passover feast was unique in that it had to be celebrated with the family around a meal (reminder of God’s deliverance from Egypt).  But whether at home around a meal or in Jerusalem in festivity around the temple, there feasts had in common that were times where people gathered together in celebration of life in relationship with God.   There was a regular coming together and celebrating relationship, and a constant affirmation of identity and belonging.


And this was the intent of the resting seasons.  We primarily find our identities in our work (what we do) and who we relate to (family and friends).[6]  When you meet someone you typically ask “What do you do?”, then “Are you married? Tell me about your family!” or “do you know [John Little]?”  We find our identities in what we do and who we closely relate to; we are known by our work, our family and our friends.

But the performance-culture at work places stress on us to always do more, because the underlying philosophy is “you are what you do, and therefore you are worth what you contribute”.   At work what we do gets celebrated and rewarded, yet at home showing up gets celebrated and rewarded.  “You are family therefore you are worth much.”  It is so easy to fall into the trap of valuing yourself based on you responsibilities and contribution at work.  And this is the intended of rest family/friendship holiday seasons: when the work gets left out of the picture for a season and I find my identity and value in whom I associate with and my relationship with God (referring to the seven feasts of Israel), where I am not valued for my work contribution but for my relating with them.

These seasons of rest are essential for families to bond hearts around festivity and relaxation.  We know that incessant business and work-related stress decreases intimacy in marriage and families, and also friendships.  Thus stopping everything and spending time with loved ones is essential to build and maintain these heart-connections, which in turn re-enforces identity and belonging in the individual –vital for growing children.

A need for refreshing and restoration

These holiday times in the Israelite calendar served as a refreshing as well – a break that not only allowed for reflection and relationships, but also for refreshing of the soul and spirit.  But at times unplanned or unscheduled breaks from the vocational arena might be necessary to restore what was lost or drained from work fatigue or some intense episode.

Memories are made and transferred through songs and poems,  painting or sculptures.
Memories are made and transferred through songs and poems, painting or sculptures.

A practical example for such a need comes from the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles (Acts 13-14).  They have travelled quite a distance to the Galatian churches, had times of intense preaching and ministry with signs and miracles with success, followed by intense discipleship.  Yet they were also violently resisted and even stoned.  The closing words in this missionary account read as follows: “From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had completed. Now when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them…   So they stayed there a long time with the disciples.” (Act 14:26-28)  Paul and Barnabas were set apart for missionary work, but after their intense and eventful first trip they were drained, and needed refreshing, so they stayed with their home church and did not go out again for a long time until they were ready for another trip.  They knew that “the sabbath was made for man”.

Even in Jesus’ ministry we see him taking time out to withdraw frequently, sometimes to rest with his disciples, sometimes to rest by himself. On two noteworthy occasions Jesus withdrew for a season to refresh and restore himself after particularly intense episodes: once after the execution of his cousin John the Baptist (Matthew 14:12-13) and another time after intense resistance when the Jews sought to kill him (John 10:39-40).  We can learn from this: after an intense working schedule or even an intense spiritual or emotional experience we need a lengthy break within a loving community to refresh our spirits and souls.

There are times, however, when a “Sabbath year” [7] or a prolonged season of rest might be necessary.  This might be true in the case where the need is for restoration or rejuvenation, as Israel had to refrain from sowing and ploughing for a year, because the ground needed to rest and be restored.   The reason might be due to loss or trauma which left deep emotional wounds, perhaps recovery from sickness or simply burnout due to overwork, or even recovery of a man who fell in sin, but the idea is that a longer season of recovery is needed.  The idea of restoration in the Scriptures is frequently coupled with “waiting on God”, since a work of recreation is commonly needed, and God alone can restore that which is no more.  The petition during these times is as Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations 5:21 “Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.”

A promise of reward

The last Sabbath I would like to highlight from Scripture is the Eternal Sabbath that we will celebrate together when the Lord will take us into the eternal Promised Land when He returns. Hebrews 4:9-11 speaks of that promised rest:

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”

The promise of reward gives the strength to press on.
The promise of reward gives the strength to press on.

The chapter in its entirety makes it clear that the author exhorts the recipients to not depart from Christ as Mediator, but to keep the faith amidst severe persecution, because the reward is worth it: eternal rest with God!  That is the Final Sabbath everyone in Christ will enjoy – one that is given as a reward for perseverance in faith during this life.  Every other sabbath in this life is a picture[8] of the rest believers will enjoy with Christ in eternity.

How do we respond?

How do we respond to Jesus words “The Sabbath was made for man”?  There are at least four ways: firstly, there is a need to stop all our work dealings weekly in deliberate declaration and reflection that it all does not depend on me – to remind oneself that God is in control.  We need to acknowledge that God is at work and has been before I came onto the scene.  Therefore I do not carry all the responsibility, nor do I have all the answers.  This is really difficult for us; frequently taking a sabbath is in itself a declaration of trust that God success or provision does not depend on us alone, but our trust is in God.

Take those family holidays!
Take those family holidays!

Secondly we take holidays – time with friends and family deliberately aimed at building relationships in times of laughter.  We do it because we believe Jesus when He said we need that relational time.  It is a time of bonding hearts, a time of laughter and festivity.  We find our rest in relationships as we realize again that my value is not determined by my performance but by my acceptance in relationship.  Holiday times with friends and families refreshes as it bonds hearts, strengthening identity and belonging.  These holidays are important for ourselves, but even more so for the children and the lonely people.  Holidays are not just for fun.

Thirdly we acknowledge that there are times we may need to step aside from the vocational arena for a while to recuperate after a particularly draining project or intensely emotional event.  These sabbath seasons are meant to refresh and restore our spirits and souls.  Our egos may stand in the way, since resting many times are associated with weakness, or our fear of lack the lack of provision tomorrow.  But the epidemic proportions with which anxiety and depression are diagnosed is a strong indication that these sabbath seasons were indeed “made for man” – we need them to function well.

Fourthly, in resting times we make time to reflect on the Eternal Sabbath – that life on earth is temporal, and soon Jesus will return to judge all people and to test our works, and only the weighty things will remain.[9]  Much of our work is vanity, as the writer of Ecclesiastes laments.[10]   So reflecting on our eternity brings proper perspective to our time spent on earth.  This reflection has the power to reveal the motives for our incessant business.  The pursuit of riches and comfort in this life is vanity, since all will be dissolved with fire.  However, our relationships, obedience and faithfulness, kind deeds, prayer, witnessing for Christ and building into God’s people – these things have eternal value and eternal rewards.[11]  Although God instituted work, our work must find a proper place in our lives.  Reflecting on our life in eternity helps to bring proper balance and removes undue work-pressures.

So, how will you respond to Jesus’ words “The Sabbath was made for man”?


[1] Merz T., Young people are lonely, The Telegraph, 5 August 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html; Pantry L., Yorkshire Post, 5 August 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html, Gill N., Loneliness: a silent plague, The Guardian, 20 July 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html

[2] Harden B., Japan’s Killer Work Ethic, Washington Post Foreign Service, July 13, 2008, Available online http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/12/AR2008071201630.html

[3] Note that the Sabbath we discuss is not the ceremonial law instituted for the Jews as weekly memorial of their deliverance from Egypt (refer to Exodus 31:13) – Christians are not obliged to celebrate a weekly “ceremonial holy day” (refer Colossians 2:16-17).  We however learn a lot from God’s answer to our need for rest, for as mentioned above “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  In this article “Sabbath” implies resting time, not the observation of specific ceremonial calendar dates.

[4] Giglio L., I am not but I know I Am, (Multnomah Books, Colorado Springs), 2012, chapter 1.

[5] See Leviticus 23.

[6] Stanley A., When work and family collide, (Multnomah books, Colorado Springs), 2011, p20.

[7] Every 7th year in the Jewish calendar was a year of rest – for both the soil and the farming community.  See Leviticus 25:4.

[8] Colossians 2:16-17

[9] See 1 Corinthians 3:13-15

[10] Ecclesiastes 2:23; 4:4.

[11] See Revelations 22:11-12