A number of years ago I was invited to share with a group of pastors, teachers, and leaders for a two-day retreat.
On the last day of the retreat, I was asked to share some snapshots of Christ-centered community from my own experience.
I told the story of one such community. This body of believers discovered Jesus Christ in the depths and learned to love one another through thick or thin.
They also learned how to have New Testament-styled church meetings where every member functioned, sharing the riches of Christ through their various gifts . . . all without a facilitator present.
Their gatherings and their community life was under the headship of Jesus Christ.
One of my closing comments was that this group of believers had discovered that Christ was alive enough to be the head of His own church, not in rhetoric, but in reality.
They certainly had their share of problems and issues — as was the case with every church in the first century. But they also discovered how to find the Lord in the midst of them.
The examples I gave of the work of the Holy Spirit in this group were stunning. And they made a tremendous impact on my own life and ministry, all these years later.
When I finished, there were two reactions in the room.
One was amazement. Some of the leaders had never seen or heard anything like what I described. So they quizzed me with questions privately afterwards.
I was highly impressed with those particular people. Why? Because of their hunger for the Lord. In talking to these people, they were quite insightful and discerning.
The other group didn’t quite understand what I was talking about. They had no context for it, so they politely listened and then went on to other things, never asking a question.
One gentlemen in the room was both a professor and a pastor. After hearing me rehearse story after story about the amazing things that happened — and can still happen — when a group of Christians discovers how to live by the indwelling life of Christ together, he shared his opinion with the group.
In effect, he said, “what you’ve just described is a sociological reality called group form dynamics.”
Jaws began to drop throughout the room.
This man just heard the living testimony of Jesus Christ through His body, and his response was, “you’re describing a sociological reality.”
Here was a leader in the Christian world, a pastor of a very large denomination and a professor, and that’s what he heard.
My response was simple. I talked to him as though I were speaking to an atheist. I said, “I believe that Jesus Christ exists and that He’s real. I also believe that He lives in His people, and when they learn to live by His life, they can express Him in remarkable ways, shaming principalities and powers in other realms. That’s what this group of simple Christians had discovered.”
The conversation then moved on to other things.
I tell this story, all these years later, to make a point.
That was a Nicodemus moment.
Consider what Jesus said to Nicodemus.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? John 3:10-12
Just because someone may sport a clerical collar, pastor a church, hail to “Reverend,” or hold more degrees than a thermometer is no indication that they know the Lord very well.
Don’t mishear me. I have good friends who are pastors and professors and they have a deep and authentic walk with Jesus Christ and they can perceive when He’s working. However, just because someone is part of the clergy or they matriculated from seminary doesn’t ensure that they are spiritual and can discern spiritual things.
The sad fact is, there are many Nicodemus’ extant today.
They may hold PhDs in theology or ministry, but that doesn’t equate to knowing Christ deeply and living by His indwelling life.
The situation is no different today than it was in ancient Israel when God was enfleshed and broke into human history.
T. Austin-Sparks, a former pastor and one of the most Christ-centered and spiritually insightful men who ever lived, put his finger on the problem this way:
What is the nature of your relationship with Christ? You may believe in the Christian doctrine of the Deity of Christ, and believe in it very intensely. But if it is only doctrine, a tenet of the Creed, an objective fact concerning Christ, it will not carry you through the terrific experiences which lie in the path of true Christians. John said that the object of his writing his Gospel was that we might believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that believing we might have life in His name. But he took pains to show that those who did so believe, had an experimental basis for their faith. How and why do you believe? Can you say truly – because something has happened in me for which there is no accounting apart from God Himself. Emotions, reasonings, persuasions, cannot account for it. Human personalities, psychology, or any human or natural factor cannot account for it. It required God Almighty, and I found Him in Jesus Christ. It was the voice of the Son of God, and I lived, and live.
May the tribe of the unknown yet insightful Annas and Simeons increase, for they had eyes to see in a religious culture that was blind.
Read Luke 2:25-38 if you’re looking for a footnote.
Bottom line. Never be impressed with mere externals when it comes to spiritual knowledge and experience.
Jesus of Nazareth was a day laborer. He had no formal religious training, as did the scribes and priests of His day who were spiritually blind.
Neither did the twelve men whom He chose to take His place.
Don’t misunderstand: Formal religious training isn’t bad. It can be quite helpful. But it’s no guarantee in equipping women and men to know their Lord well and follow their spiritual instincts.