The Wardrobe of Easter: Learning God’s Word
An essential aspect of the Christian life is listening to and obeying God's word.
In the previous meditations, we have been considering the several Christian practices that St. Paul encourages Jesus’ followers to practice daily. Taken together, these behaviors make up the Christian community’s “resurrection uniform,” clothing appropriate for those who are risen with Christ. In this meditation and the next one, Teaching God's Word, we shall consider the twin practices of teaching and learning God’s Word in Christian community.
An essential mark of the earliest Christian community is that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.“ (Acts 2.42) That fact prompted the late John Stott to declare unequivocally that “a living church is a learning church.”
A learning church
“A learning church.” How extraordinarily ordinary this activity. Not rapturous mystical experiences; not the working of miracles; not flamboyant Pentecostal outbursts; not heavenly ecstasies—nothing of the (spectacular) sort. Rather, the entire earliest Christian community was a schoolroom, plain and simple, in which the apostles taught what they had heard and seen about Jesus, and their fellow Christian believers took it in as pupils. Every faithful Christian community ever since has viewed learning Christian truth, revealed in Scripture, as a vital aspect of its life together and as crucial to spiritual growth. Christian belief is “belief in the truth,” and truth is acquired through learning.
While he was still with them on earth, Jesus had promised to send his followers “the Spirit of truth” who “will guide you into all truth.” (John 16.13). They understood that to grow and mature in their faith and obedience, they needed to learn the truth. They needed to understand correctly the way things are. They had to learn accurately and well about God, the Father of Jesus Christ; about Jesus, God’s Son, who suffered and rose again; about the presence of the Holy Spirit; about the new, risen-with-Christ community to which they now belonged, etc.
Make no mistake: there wasn’t a trace of anti-intellectualism in the earliest Christian church. Doctrine mattered to those Christians—it mattered a lot—and they wanted to learn as much true doctrine as they possibly could. So they sat at the feet of the apostles, and learned from them eagerly.
Yes, eagerly, as though their very lives depended upon it. For it did. Typical of nearly every local early Christian fellowship was the response of the Christians in Berea: “they received the message [of the Gospel proclaimed by Paul] with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17.11)
And yes, wholeheartedly and without reservation, too. Humbly they acknowledged the Gospel message was in authority over them. They were willing to trust its promises and to submit to its commands, without exception. They knew they were not free to accept what they liked, and to reject what they didn’t. Scripture was the criterion by which they regulated their life and judged their experience (and not vice versa, by the way). Gladly they would have agreed with St. Augustine: “If you believe in the Gospel what you like, and reject what you dislike, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”
The earliest Christians took the task of learning the teachings of the Gospel with deep seriousness. They knew that their learning had eternal consequences. To live a life devoted to God (a part of which is to learn more and more—and yet more—about God), one must have a mind for God—nothing less than what St. Paul calls “the mind of Christ.” The consequences of accepting—or rejecting—that “mind” stretch into eternity.
How Paul delighted to see his fellow Christian believers—his pupils—learning well what he had taught them: “We thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work among you who believed.” (I Thess. 2.12) He encouraged them to keep learning: “So then, brothers [and sisters], stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you…” (II Thess. 2.15)
If Paul was delighted by what he saw, how much more does the very heart of God skip a beat with joy and delight at seeing Christ’s followers first learning and then obeying the truth. God applauds them and blesses them when they do: “May our God and Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” (II Thess. 2.17)
During Sunday worship, after reading the Scripture for the day, the reader then declares in a strong voice: “The Word of the Lord!” The congregation responds heartily: “Thanks be to God!” Both the declaration and the response, taken together, are the Christian community’s ritual way of affirming that God’s Word is both gift to them and also places them under obligation.
The gift: God has spoken—yes, spoken!
The obligation: The people must listen—yes, listen!
And then learn.
Lord, speak to me that I may speak
in living echoes of your tone.
As you have sought, so let me seek
your erring children, lost and lone.
O lead me, Lord, that I may lead
the wandering and the wavering feet.
O feed me, Lord, that I may feed
your hungry ones with manna sweet.
O teach me, Lord, that I may teach
the precious truths which you impart.
And wing my words that they may reach
the hidden depths of many a heart.
O fill me with your fullness, Lord,
until my very heart o'erflows
in kindling thought and glowing word,
your love to tell, your praise to show.
O use me, Lord, use even me,
just as you will, and when, and where
until your blessed face I see,
your rest, your joy, your glory share.
Words: Frances R. Havergal, 1872, alt., P.D.
This series was written to be read in the following order: