One of the most beautiful things to behold is a newly baptized brother or sister coming to make the things of God’s Truth their way of life. The daily reading of the Bible becomes a habit, firmly embedded in the daily routine of life; contact with other believers by letter or meeting means that slowly, the convert’s social network becomes focused on other Christians rather than on the world. As a result, worldly friendships and habits slowly fade away; prayer becomes a regular part of life, before meals, morning and evening; slowly, there is the courage to preach the Gospel to others. In particular, a way of thinking develops that is centred upon the Father and His Son, which subconsciously gives priority to their things rather than those of this life. As the Preacher concludes, the life of keeping the commandments of God becomes “the whole man” (Ecc. 12:13). These changes are the natural outcome of the new focus. They simply happen, as a way of life develops that is based around spiritual things. Sadly, not all who are baptized make this change; their belief continues to consist, as it did at baptism, of accepting the truth of certain correct propositions about doctrine, but somehow the things of the Spirit fail to take over. And for all of us, we can find ourselves not living the spirit of the Christian life, but rather seeing our relationship with God in terms of certain specific actions or beliefs which we have done and feel comfortable having done…and nothing more. The fabric of our daily lives and thinking can be sadly unaffected by the high things to which we are called, so that our religion becomes a matter of external action rather than the possession of a spirit of life from which all our devotion naturally and joyfully springs.
There’s no doubt that the Gospel must be a way of life, not certain actions like prayer, attendance of meetings and the breaking of bread which we religiously perform at certain times. God essentially seeks the heart, the unshareable self, to be given to Him: “my son, give me thine heart” (Prov. 23:26). The word ‘spirit’ is used in different senses in different contexts. It can mean the thinking and consciousness, and yet also ‘power’. Yet these things are linked, in that as a man thinks and feels and desires in his heart, so he is (Prov. 23:7). Our physical actions, the way we uses our ‘power’, are a reflection of our inner spirit. Likewise, the Spirit of God is God in action, God showing His power, and yet in its expression it articulates the inner mind and characteristics of God. Thus tasting the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit was tasting God’s word, in that the miracles expressed the essential truths of God’s inner spirit as expressed in His word (Heb. 6:4,5). The miraculous gifts expressed God’s will (Heb. 2:3), as His word does. God is His Spirit in the sense that all He does and speaks is an expression of His essential spirit. The Jews and Samaritans had the idea that all they needed to do was to occasionally visit a place of worship in order to have a relationship with Him. The Lord, as His manner was, cut right across this by saying that as God is Spirit, so the true worshippers would worship Him in Spirit. If we believe that God is Spirit, if all He does and says constantly expresses His Spirit, then our lives likewise must be of non-stop worship, not through going occasionally into a temple or ecclesial meeting, but in living a spirit of life that worships Him in every situation (Jn. 4:20-24).
The New Testament develops this theme of ‘living in the spirit’. We can often understand ‘spirit’ in the NT to mean the dominant desire, the way of life, the essential intention, the ambience of a man’s life. The idea of life in the Spirit is often placed in opposition to that of living under a legal code. We are asked to live a way of life, rather than mere obedience to a certain number of specific propositions. And yet whilst we are free from legal codes, we aren’t free to do as we like. We are under “the law of the spirit” (Rom. 8:2), “the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21). The law of Christ isn’t only His specific teaching, but the person of the real, historical Jesus. This is the standard of appeal which should mould the spirit of our lives. We must live “according to Christ” (Rom. 15:5; Col. 2:8), and the character of Jesus is the basis of Paul’s appeals to us to live a spiritual life (Rom. 15:3,7,8; 1 Cor. 11:1; Eph. 5:2,25; Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Thess. 1:6). We should live “quietly”, and we are exhorted to do this “by our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 3:12). Our imagination of who He was and how He would have lived must be our pattern. We are in this sense in the grip of a personality cult based upon Him. If we understand ‘the law of Christ’ in the same sense as ‘the law of Moses’ then we have missed the crucial message that is in Christ; we have merely exchanged one legal code for another. His is a spirit of grace which specifically, legally demands nothing and yet by the same token demands our all. And so in all our living and thinking, we must constantly be asking ‘What would Jesus do? Is this the way of God’s Spirit? Is this how the law of love teaches me to act? ’. To live the life of the Spirit, to construct in daily living an ambience of spiritual life, is therefore a binding law. Living according to the spirit / mind / example of Jesus will mean that we naturally find the answers to some of the practical dilemnas which may arise in our lives. Thus we read that when Paul tried to go to preach in Bithynia “the spirit of Jesus suffered them not” (Acts 16:7 RV). Could it not be that the spirit of Jesus, a life lived after His pattern, compelled them to (let’s imagine) go to visit a sick child and this meant they missed the transport leaving for Bithynia?
We may make ‘laws’ to help us keep this ‘spirit’, e.g:
- I will get up 40 minutes earlier than usual to do my Bible readings. So I set my alarm clock at 5:30 a.m.
- I won’t have a television because if I do I’ll watch things I know I shouldn’t; I’m so weak. And I feel it will influence my general spirit of life.
- I won’t listen to certain types of music. The empty words, the suggestive lyrics, will lead me to think that way too.
- I will try to remember something of Jesus every half hour.
These kind of ‘laws’ to govern a way of life aren’t altogether bad. Our nature is such that we need them. But we can’t impose them on others, neither must we think that by doing these things we have therefore achieved spirituality. We make them to help us create an ambience of spiritual life. Our overall way of life, rather than specific acts of righteousness, is what can be the motive force in overcoming the flesh. Through the spirit- the spiritual way of life- we mortify the flesh (Rom. 8:13). Through the Spirit we keep the truth (2 Tim. 1:14). This doesn’t mean that somehow God’s Spirit power in a miraculous sense makes us hold on. What it surely means is that if we live the Spiritual way of life, this will of itself enable us to keep walking in the true way. It’s not that the temptations won’t arise; but our way of life will be such that they no longer have so much power. The temptation to go drinking with the village boys on Friday night is so much less if every Friday, as part of your way of life, you go to study the Bible with someone. The spirit way of life changes us into the image of Christ progressively (2 Cor. 3:17,18); if we can make the Truth our overall way of life, we will be on an upward spiral of change. If we have the spirit within us, i.e. a spiritual mind, then the spirit of Christ will dwell within us, we will thereby be able to comprehend His love, and be filled again with the spirit…(Eph. 3:16-18 cp. 1 Cor. 3:16). Such is the upward spiral of spirituality that is possible for those who devote themselves to being spiritually minded.
The spiritual life renews (Tit. 3:5), giving us that newness of life, that ongoing baptism and resurrection experience, which Rom. 6:4 promises. This way of life, as it develops, creates its own mometum for further change. If we walk in the spirit (another way of describing the spiritual ‘way of life’) we will not fulfil the lust of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). The Galatians found that their flesh lusted against the spirit to the extent that they just couldn’t do the things they knew they should- because they were not led of the spirit, they were still under law (Gal. 5:18). They didn’t have a spiritual way of life, instead they were just trying to keep certain specific commandments, and they found they just couldn’t live a victorious spiritual life. They didn’t give their hearts to the things of the Truth, and so their spirit couldn’t give rise to love, joy, peace, patience- the fruits of the spiritual life.
The key question is: how to get the spiritual mind in the first place? The words of God are spirit (Jn. 6:63). Daily, systematic contact with the mind of God through the study of His word is absolutely essential. We must read, and allow the things of God’s spirit to enter us. For this is the engine that powers you in the upward spiral of which we have spoken. You get to the point where you can’t lay your weary head down each night until you have ‘done your readings’. They are, truly, our daily bread. And don’t just read, but absorb the spirit, the ambience, which comes from them. You don’t need to be ‘getting points’ from every verse or chapter you read. Just absorb the ambience of God’s ways and being.
If we have God’s spirit within us, we will keep in step with His spirit (Gal. 5:25 Gk.). Our spirit bears witness with God’s Spirit- we know that our way of life is in harmony with Him, our spirit is His, and thereby we know that we are His children and united with the eternal life and now eternal spirit of His Son (Rom. 8:16). The way of life we live in Christ is an eternal life, an eternal spirit; in this sense we are living the eternal life, the life we will eternally live. This is how crucially important it is to be living the truth as a way of life. Go through your life and see how you can construct this ambience within it. To do so, you may need to root a lot of things out. What sort of novels (if any) are you reading? What do you watch? What do you let influence your mind and mould your perceptions? Do you find yourself walking around humming the words of some mindless song? Is it really wise to have the radio playing all the time, the television flickering from morning till evening? Can’t we put some posters or verses on our walls, in our bedrooms, bathrooms…? Can we be bold enough to quit reading and watching anything that is not spiritual? How involved do we get in the conversations of those we mix with in the world? How often in the daily round are we thinking of Christ as a person, as our Lord, King, Master, Captain, Bridegroom…? How often do we meditate on what we read and learnt yesterday from God’s word? These are the things that ultimately, in the final, final analysis, are worth their weight in gold. The Lord taught that if our right hand offend, we must cut it off (Mt. 5:30). The right hand was a Hebrew idiom for the power, the thinking, the dominant desire of a man. If it’s all taking us the wrong way, we must cut it off- and cast it from us, with no regrets about what we have given up.
The spirit of which we have spoken must be seen in our collective way of life too, and must affect, e.g., how we run our meetings. There is no Bible verse that teaches we must avoid wearing outrageous clothing, or that we mustn’t get up in the middle of an exhortation and go for a walk, or turn round and start a conversation about the weather with the sister sitting behind us, or that we must take very noisy children out of the meeting. And neither should we seek to define all these things in rules, lest we return to Pharisaism. Once we define, we will be tempted to build hedges round the law, and hedges round them, until we feel we can’t move or think without upsetting somebody. But on the other hand, we are under “the law of the spirit”. We want to create an ambience in our meetings which gives glory to the Father and His Son, which inspires spirituality and sustained concentration upon them and their words. We ach must act with that law in mind. All the law, every possible type of legislation, is comprehended in the one simple law of loving our neighbour (Rom. 13:9). We aren’t free to do, dress or speak just as we like; the law of love binds heavy upon us. The things of God’s Kingdom don’t revolve so much around laws (e.g. about what we should eat and drink) but around “righteosuness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). It is attitudes which are important rather than specific acts of obedience. There is a fellowship of the Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14) in the sense that all who live the same spiritually-centred life will thereby be bound together in a powerful and inevitable fellowship. When, for example, two Christian mothers strike up conversation about the difficulty of raising children in this present evil world, when two brethren talk about the difficulties of living as Christ would in today’s business world…there is, right there, in those almost casual conversations, the fellowship of the spirit. It isn’t just a social connection because we belong to the same denomination.
We have suggested that often when the NT speaks of the ‘spirit’, it refers to the spiritual way of life. Is. 26:8,9 parallels “the desire of my soul” with “my spirit”; it is the dominant desire of a man. For David, the salvation promised to him through Christ was “all my desire” (2 Sam. 23:5). The direction of his life was towards that end. 2 Chron. 15:12,15 parallels seeking God with having our whole desire for Him, giving all our heart and soul to Him. God judges a man’s life with regard to where the essential, dominant desire of his heart is focused. This is why some of the kings of Judah are introduced with the comment that they did right in God’s sight- even though it becomes apparent that they did many wrong things, and sometimes died committing wrong acts. But surely they were judged on their dominant desire, where their heart was, and not on their specific acts of failure. Likewise there are Biblical examples of where men can commit the same action but be judged quite differently. It all depends where the spirit is, in what overall direction the way of life is going. At judgment day, the Lord will commend the righteous for feeding Him etc.- and they will reply in genuine surprise, feeling that they truly have not done any of those things for which He commends them. The point is, their way of life was an unconscious doing of good; it is the mindset which legalistically remembers every act of righteousness which will be finally rejected. Often, “desire” is seen by God as prayer (Ps. 10:17; 21:2; 27:4; 59:10; 92:11; 140:8; 145:19; Mt. 18:32; Rom. 10:1; 1 Jn. 5:15). God interprets that inner desire as prayer, even if it is not articulated in specific requests.
This all has a great relevance to us in ecclesial life. So often we hear words and see actions by our brethren which hurt, which tear us apart as we meditate upon their real import. And so churches or small groups of converts can become divided and embittered. But try to see your brethren as God sees you. He doesn’t max out on our specific words and actions; He sees the overall direction of our lives, and whilst taking note of our failings (as He did with those of Judah’s kings), He recognises us on the basis of the dominant desire of our hearts. He sees that we truly seek Him, even if we don’t get where we would like to. And so let’s try to recognise that our brethren are all going broadly the same direction as we are. You would stand at their graveside, surely, and know that here lies a man of God, one who will rise again and share eternity with his Lord and yours. You would do that because you realise, deep in your heart, that your brother was in his heart committed to his Lord. All the rest was surface irritation. And if you don’t see your brother like that, then you are condemning him. And for the sake of your eternal destiny, you must snap out of that mindset. We have to assume our brethren will be in the Kingdom. Paul did this even with Corinth; he wrote of how “we shall judge angels” (1 Cor. 6:3) when we are all accepted in the Kingdom. And his way of writing to the Thessalonians about the resurrection and judgment assumes that all of his readers would be accepted (“so shall we ever be with the Lord…ye are all the children of light”). We too can do nothing else but see each other like that. The impact of this is colossal. We’d rather shy away from it. But meditate awhile upon it. It can enrich and ennoble and dignify every gathering of the believers, from twos and threes meeting in apartments throughout Russia to the dozens now gathering in churches throughout Africa and India.