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.

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On Spiritual Maturity : The Error of Balaam

In the book of Numbers, four chapters are devoted to the history of a prophet who had a profound impact on God’s people during their conquest of the Promised Land.  This prophet was not a Jewish man, but a seer who dwelt in Pethor: Balaam son of Beor.  In 1967 archeological evidence was discovered with the inscription of “Baalam son of Beor” prophet of “El Shaddai” – the Almighty God as he was known to the Israelites in the days of Moses.  This archeological evidence adds tremendous historic weight this account in the Bible.

Image of wall tiles inscribed by "Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai" found at  Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See  www.bible.ca/archeology/
Image of wall tiles inscribed by “Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai” found at Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See http://www.bible.ca/archeology/

The reason why this account of a foreign prophet speaking to ancient Israel is important to contemporary believers is highlighted by the numerous New Testament references to Balaam.  All of these references of Balaam are warnings: Peter warns the church of false prophets who “have gone astray… in the way of Balaam…” (2 Peter 2:15).  Jude warns of “ungodly people… [who] abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error” (Jude 1:1, 11).  John wrote of those in the church in Pergamum “who hold to the teachings of Balaam.” (Revelations 2:14).  In each of the three texts the prophet Balaam is used as reference or type of ungodly lifestyles and doctrinal error of believers that is condemnable.  But what is this dangerous “error”, “way” or “doctrine”?

Reading through the historic account of Balaam’s dealings with Israel (Numbers 22:1-25:10, 31:8,16), one has to acknowledge his absolute commitment to relay only what God says: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more” (22:18).  Throughout these three chapters he maintains this stance, repeating his commitment to speak only the words of God another five times (22:38;  23:8, 12, 26; 24:13).  In the end, Balaam’s loyalty to prophesy in truth as God revealed cost him his wages which Balak promised (24:11).  Thus Balaam is an accurate prophet, true to delivering God’s message, not yielding to pressure or bribe to speak falsely.

So why the negative connotations with Balaam?  Numbers 25 records a shameful time in Israel’s travels as they camped on the Eastern side of the Jordan river and started living like the Moabite people.  Swaying under the power of cultural seduction to sexual immorality and idol worship, the Israelites came under the wrath of God through as a plague that killed 24’000 Israelites (Numbers 25:1-9).  This moral decay is attributed to Balaam (Numbers 31:16).  Although he was extremely gifted and graced by God to hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, he himself was an immoral man whose way of life was corrupted with sin (“way of Balaam” 2 Peter 2:15; ““error” Jude 1: 11) and his teachings deceptive (Numbers 31:16).  His lifestyle and teachings were not to be followed, admired or trusted.  In fact, Balaam was executed along with the Midianites under the wrath of God (Numbers 31:8).

The first talking ass - Balaam's donkey!
The first talking ass – Balaam’s donkey!

Although his prophesies is shown to be infallible in the text, the author of Numbers includes the humorous account of his journey on the donkey to Balak (Numbers 22:21-38), which is very deliberately inserted to humble this “great prophet”.  For instance, Balaam the great prophet is hired to subdue Israel with words, but he cannot even subdue his donkey with a stick.  He claims to see visions (24:4,17) but can’s see what the donkey sees on three occasions (22:32).  He claims that his prophetic speech is from God (22:38; 23:5, 12, 16), yet the donkey silences him as its mouth is also opened by God (22:28).  Balaam claims to posess knowledge “from the Most High” (24:16) was beaten in verbal exchange with a stupid donkey (22:30) and then has to admit to the angel “I did not know [what the donkey knows]” (22:34).  Although Balaam is on his way to slay a whole nation with his words he has to draw a sword to kill the donkey (22:29); while lamenting lamenting that he had no sword to slay the animal, the donkey sees the drawn sword in the hands of the angel (22:23) right in front of him.  This irony is meant as a lesson in humility – that the great prophet, like any donkey, can see and speak only what God shows him, and that he simply is graced to serve in the purposes of God.  Secondly, this account shows that although the prophet speaks graceful words by God’s Spirit, he is more beastly than his donkey: where the beast is kind to move his master Balaam out of harm’s way three times, the master is beastly in beating the faithful, kind-hearted, willing animal without considering the motive.

Godliness and our culture

Although Balaam had the ability to speak God’s words accurately, he had lead a whole nation astray.  His life serves as a warning that accurate spiritual discernment without holy living (from a godly character) is dangerous.  What was this ungodliness?  Balaam’s error (2 Peter 2:15) or Balaam’s way (Jude 1:11) simply refers to his lifestyle of cultural acceptance.  Although being a gifted prophet Balaam lived as the Midianites did, and that lead to the corruption of God’s holy people as they followed his “way” and “erred” in his footsteps.  His love for sensual pleasure made him prone towards greed, sexual immorality and cultural festivity surrounding the worship of other gods, plus his independence lead to rebellion.  (See 2 Peter 2:2-14; Jude 1:1, 6-11; Psalm 106:28; Revelation 2:14).

no_rules
The doctrine of Balaam: everything goes! No consequences!

The doctrine of Balaam (Revelation 2:14) teaches that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their lifestyle.  So by his example and by his teachings the great prophet Balaam deceived God’s people into a lifestyle of sexual immorality and the worship of Baal of Peor.  As a result, many died under the wrath of God, never reaching the Promised Land (Jude 1:5).  Still today Balaam’s dualism (distinguishing spiritual holiness from moral life) is taught in many places (associated with Gnosticism in the early church and extreme grace teachings).  Apart from formal teaching, the way of Balaam is engrained in our spiritual DNA by the example of our contemporary church culture where Sundays is God’s day, and the rest of the week we live good lives, but find pleasure and security as the rest of society does.

Balaam is not the only example of this fallacy in Scripture.  Samson, the mighty deliverer of Israel was like him: a man empowered by the Spirit of God to lead and deliver Israel, yet always seduced and enticed by his worldly passions and made ineffective. (Judges 14-16)  Giving in to the seduction of sensual sins enslaves God’s people and brings shame to his Name.

In contrast to Balaam and Samson, Daniel and his friends stand out as examples of godliness amidst a crooked world.  Daniel chapter three records how Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image that everyone in his kingdom had to bow down to whenever the music played. The image was not an image of a particular god, but rather represented the religious culture of the day.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the image, and was persevered by God in the fire.  Their refusal to succumb to the cultural pressure in faithfulness to the One True God stands as an example to every believer in our present-day materialistic, promiscuous culture feeling pressures us to conform.

How do we respond?

Considering the the error of Balaam, I find three ways to respond to this in pursuit of spiritual maturity.

  1. Review your definition of “Spiritual Maturity”

The reference to Balaam in Peter’s second epistle pertains to false prophets among the first readers, thus spiritually gifted leaders. This is worth mentioning.  Peter appeals to his readers to note the ungodly fruit of these spiritually gifted ministers, and therefore not following their example of sensuality and rebellion.  Peter looked at the character and behavior of these gifted leaders and was not easily mesmerized by their prophetic ability.  After all, Jesus taught him that a person is “known by [his] fruit” (Matthew 12:33).

Peter needed to write this to the growing young church, since the charismatic gift of prophets is very appealing to especially young believers.  And the display of spiritual gifts is easily taken as signs of spiritual maturity. It is the will of God that we grow up (Ephesians 4:11ff), but how do you define maturity? That is why these warnings by Jesus and his apostles are so strong and clear.  So re-evaluate your view of spiritual maturity: Who do you admire?  Who do you want to follow after?  Consider their character – are they known by their love? What can you learn from their marriage and family relationships, their work ethic and how they manage money?

Take stock of your life spiritually.
Take stock of your life spiritually.
  1. Take stock of your own life.

In Jude and Revelations the warning to individuals walking in the error or teachings of Balaam is merely to wrong belief of individuals in their congregations of those in their midst.  Balaam is the image of a spiritually gifted man with the lust of sensual pleasures that are lead by his passions through this life like waves thrown around by their earthly desires (Jude 1:12-14).  Take an honest view of your life your own life, with special reference to you your passions and desires.  Are you leaving it unchecked?  What are you doing about it?  And who are you accountable to about it?

  1. Grow in godliness.

Our aim remains to be conformed to the image of Christ Jesus and to help form others into that image (Romans 8:29; Colossians 2:28-29).  Be purposeful about it.  How have you grown in godliness in the last year, and in which area do you need to grow now?  Are you growing in the will of God?  What does the Lord say, and what will you do to grow in that area of Christ-likeness.  Again, and who knows about that?

While closing with growth in Christ-likeness, remember these words of Paul: “Continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, giving you the desire and ability for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  Continue, don’t stagnate in your pursuit of Christ-likeness.  Work it out yourself, don’t expect it to automatic or someone else’s job.  As you grow in Christ-likeness you also will grow to emulate the Christ – the Anointed One (Acts 10:38).  Earnestly desire spiritual gifts but let the motive be love (1 Corinthians 12:31).

And work with God – it is he that works in you, leading your through your desires and gracing your with the power needed to grow in Christ-likeness.  Don’t stop!  Work joyfully with the grace God gives.