The reflections below arise out what the Spirit was saying in a prayer meeting in Perth on the ninth of October. They become increasingly contextual and prophetic as the article moves to its conclusion.
Paradoxically, the history of the people of God has depended upon dispersal from situations that seemed familiar and comfortable to those of apparent risk and danger. In our hour God is raising this issue with the bulk of the churches in Australia. It is very apparent that unless the current dominant form of church allows itself to be turned inside out, it will generally have no future.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament provides a paradigm for this. The temple was associated with numerous promises of God’s presence and favour (2 Chronicles 7:16 etc.). These however were always conditional upon obedience, where this failed God warned he would cast the people out of the land (2 Chronicles 7:19- 22 etc.). With time, this found fulfilment in the Babylonian exile. The great surprise to Israel was that the exiles and not the remnant that remained in the land who were promised the divine favour (Jer 29:11; Ezek 33:23 – 29). As long as Israel regarded the possession of the land and its blessings as a right rather than a privilege, it was living under the divine disfavour. God’s promised presence in the temple had become some sort of charm or talisman functioning automatically for their protection. This view of God in their midst had in fact become an idolatry (Jer 7:1 – 15).
Strangely, only the absence of the presence of the glory of God accompanied by the visible sign of the physical destruction of the temple and the Babylonian exile (Ezek 10) could adequately reveal to Israel God’s universal presence and power to heal and restore. Whilst in the land, Israel seemed unable to grasp that the LORD truly was the God of the whole earth. The great message of Isaiah 40 – 55, to those whose physical conditions outside of the Promised Land seemed to speak of rejection, was that exile was a prelude to universal restoration.
Jesus and the Dispersion of the People of God
Despite these clear prophetic truths, when Jesus came to Herod’s temple he found it in no better spiritual condition than that of six centuries before. The idolatry now was not in the form of other gods (Israel had learned that lesson permanently), but money making religion. It was with prophetic zeal that Christ evicted the money changers from the court of the Gentiles (John 2:13– 22). Instead of a place where the nations could come and pray to the true God, the temple had become the greatest money making institution of the eastern Roman Empire. In popular parlance it was simply called “our place” (John 11:48).
What enraged the religious power brokers of Jesus’ day was not his claims to be speaking for God, nor the evidence of this by signs and wonders, but his assertion: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19). Being unspiritual men they literalised Jesus’ prophetic words about his death and resurrection and interpreted them in relation to the physical temple. It was on a charge of threatening to demolish the temple that Jesus was arrested, tried, and eventually condemned (Mark 14:58;15:29).
Yet a deeper strand of teaching lies beneath the surface of these texts. Jesus’ prophetic action in dispersing the money changers points to the importance of a voluntary dispersion of his people out of their comfort zone and into the world. This is manifest in the prophetic words of the high priest Caiaphas concerning the necessary fate of Jesus. “‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day they began to plan his death.” (John 11:49-52)
Through the death of Jesus the localisation of the presence of God in Israel, and especially the Jerusalem temple, would come to an end. Spiritually, the entire legal and sacrificial system of the old covenant was rendered invalid by the satisfaction Christ offered to the Father on the cross (Heb 8:13). The followers of Jesus would now be constrained to move out (disperse) with the message of reconciliation to the ends of the world.
Hence the inner connection between Jesus’ command and promise: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19 -20). It is only in their obedience to the command to “Go”, will the promise of Jesus to be present (“I am with you”) be fulfilled. The Lord does not promise a vital presence unless we disperse from “our place” of security.
The Church must be Dispersed
The New Testament writers understood the exile – dispersion pattern to be normative for the state of the new covenant people of God. The author of Hebrews holds up the faith of the Old Testament saints from Abraham onwards as examples of those who never entered into an earthly rest (Heb 11:8 – 40). Peter can address his Christian audience simply as “the exiles of the dispersion” (1 Pet 1:1). Not only are Christians scattered from the geographical hub of Jerusalem, but they are yet to be gathered into the heavenly city of God (Gal 4:26; Rev 21 – 22).
Sadly, for most of its history the established church has resisted the outward thrust of the Spirit. Two significant examples spring to mind. Even the mighty early church of Jerusalem seemed to remain wedded to the comfort of its location and did not disperse with the gospel until persecution arose through the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1, 4). As late as the fifth century, there was little progress of Christianity into Asia until believers of a minority opinion (Nestorians) were forced out of the Roman Empire and eventually planted churches as far east as China.
We as the church in Perth are in no better position today than most of our forebears in Westernised Christianity. Unless we become uncomfortable with our comfort we will never see the kingdom of God come with power (1 Cor 4:20). To use a prophetic picture drawn from a number of sources in our city, we will never “fly like eagles” (Isa 40:31) until we are either pushed out of the nest or take a risk with the leap of faith. At the moment, spiritually speaking, most of the church is living in a nest where there is filthy mess and immaturity, but we are unable to see or sense it (Heb 5:11-13).
The Jesus who took up a whip in the temple to scatter those who were profiting by localised worship is speaking these words to us: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a whip, or with love in a spirit of gentleness.” (1 Cor 4:21). The choice has been made, Jesus is about to move his church outwards into mission, it is only a matter of whether we will experience this as harshness in the face of our continued stubborn resistance, or agree with our Lord and see exile and scattering into all the dimensions of society a rich blessing. The apostolic – prophetic word concerning these things is coming, may we pray it forward and embrace it as it comes.