God's Character

Modern Christianity: Is God really among us like we say he is

We rarely like to talk about this, but have we ever wondered why the Christianity we experience rarely, if ever, lines up with the awesome, mind boggling experiences the authors of the Bible wrote about? Since we worship the same God the early church did, what explains the undeniable difference in the way God interacts with the church today?

The answer, however painful, is simple: our faith is almost nothing like the faith they lived out

Introduction

Of course, God is always with us, but within modern Christianity, it has somehow become normal for us not to experience him miraculously like the early church did, yet, we serve the same God, and read the teachings of the same Apostles, so what explains the difference?

The difference, is in the way we approach the concept of faith, as many of us think faith is simply believing God exists, but the authors of the Bible defined true faith as not only having sincere belief, but that this belief should inspire us to passionately change our lives in accordance with God’s truth

When this type of faith is put into practice, it involves laying down worldly idols, and sin as we eagerly obey God’s commands to love one another, and live righteously. However, today, this is something we struggle with due to the way we prioritize worldly fulfillment, even sin, over our relationship with God. This behavior makes our modern version of faith more like wishful thinking, as we lay claim to God’s blessings with a sense of entitlement, but reject how he commands us to live

Jesus, and the Apostles did not separate faith from obedience in their teachings, as we cannot claim to have faith in God yet reject his commands

Romans 1:5
Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake

John 14:23
Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching

1 John 5:3
In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome

Galatians 5:6
The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love

It is this sincere, active, faith which attracts God’s presence, as it is a reflection for how much we love, and desire him in our lives. However, without it, God’s presence will not be strong among us as the Bible is clear that without this type of faith, it is impossible to please God

Hebrews 11:6
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him

Do not be discouraged though, we will talk about what steps we can take to increase God’s presence in our lives, read on!

Just How *Did* The Early Church Live Out Their Faith

Rather than start with the trademarked finger wagging, it will come later though, I promise, let us look at the early church’s version of Christianity, as God’s presence was so strong, miracles were considered normal, spiritual gifts like tongues, prophecy, healing, etc… were standard gifts for every day Christians, and people sold their possessions to make sure no one in the church had unmet needs

For reference, let us look at some passages which illustrate these points as we will quickly see the early church experienced God in a much different way than we do now–remember, we worship the same God, whose power is just as capable of changing our lives if we respond to his love in the same way!

To start, the passage below shows how thousands of people reacted to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, which was the day the Holy Spirit filled the Apostles and they first started speaking in tongues. Now, it is important to note how these new Christians did not just say they believed in God at that moment, but went on to dedicate their lives to Christianity immediately after professing belief in Jesus, ie: they did not just say a sinner’s prayer without life change or live in a manner which showed they cared more about worldly happiness than honoring God or obeying his commands

Acts 2:36-47
Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved

This is really interesting, as we see the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship”, and “every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts”, which shows they not only professed to believe in God, but actively worked to obey his commands, and made a point of frequently being around other Christians in the process

By contrast, how often have we heard something in a sermon or read something in the Bible, and then changed our lives immediately as a result?

Not often!

Sure, we often change our lives over a period of time, but this usually takes days, weeks or even decades–can we say we have ever changed our lives immediately?

…no hands, what?

And how many of us can say we meet together with other believers more than a few days a week, let alone daily, to study God’s Word?

*cough*

I do not say this to condemn anyone as I have been guilty of the same thing in the past, but most of us do not exactly share the enthusiasm of the early church in pursuing or honoring God, let alone share their desire to surround ourselves with hungry Christians who are going to encourage us to radically walk away from our old lives, and keep us accountable in the process

(I told you Finger McWag would show up eventually!)

Also, look at how the passage above says the early church responded to the gospel by selling their “property and possessions to give to anyone who had need”

…um, what

Think about what this means for a moment, as the early church was so eager to love one another, they were willing to live without the security of their investments, and without attachment to material possessions, just so they could take care of anyone among them who had financial needs

That is completely awesome!

However, in our churches today, apart from selling our property, liquidating stock, cashing in our 401k’s, selling our possessions, etc… to help others, which is not exactly something we do anyway, most of us are not even close enough to our fellow believers to know if there are unmet needs among us in the first place, which raises the question: is it because we love one another so much that we do not know if anyone needs help?

*crickets*

John 13:34-35
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another

In the examples above, we see the early church express their sincere faith by eagerly pursuing God through living righteously, constantly learning about him, being around other believers daily for encouragement, and by selflessly giving out of love for one another, so what was God’s response to them honoring the gospel so passionately?

His abundant presence!

What Does A Church Look Like When God’s Presence Is Strong

This is the fun part!

Let us look at some of the examples discussed in Acts which show what happens when the faith of individuals, and churches is truly sincere, as God’s abundant presence results in righteousness, wisdom, love, and miracles of all kinds!

Acts 2:42-43
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles

(Note how it says “many wonders and signs” happened, not one or two at random as God’s presence was so strong these were common–how many of us can say we have ever seen an undeniable miracle happen in our lives, let alone see them with any amount of frequency?)

Acts 4:32-35
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need

(There are two things to note in this passage, as we see again the Apostles wielded “great power”, but also that God’s influence was so strong, he “was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them”, which shows how God’s presence increased the selfless love the people had for one another as they obeyed his command to love one another!)

Acts 5:12-16
The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed

(Again, we see how the Apostles “performed many signs and wonders”, but look at how it says that people’s sincere belief in God led them to bring their sick, and those who had evil spirits to be healed, “and all of them were healed”, not some or a few, but all of them!)

Okay, so it is no surprise the Apostles performed miracles, but these next set of passages blew me away, as they show two regular church members, Stephen and Philip, doing incredible things as the result of their relationship with God:

Acts 6:1-8
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people

(Wow, think about this passage for a moment, as, despite all the miracles and amazing teaching the Apostles were doing, they were still serving food to the poor as a demonstration of what it means to honor others before themselves! Not only that, but the people they chose to replace them did miracles themselves as well–talk about an amazing church to attend!)

Acts 8:5-8
Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city

(Again, keep in mind Philip was one of the regular church attendees serving food to the poor alongside Stephen, and he went on to bring almost an entire town to God, performing many miracles, and drove out evil spirits in the process!)

Are these scriptures amazing or what?

I mean, can you imagine attending a church where the pastors, even the food servers, are walking so closely with God miracles happened on a regular basis–no wonder the early church met together every day, it must have been incredible!

However, sadly, when we read about the early church, these types of events seem surreal to us, as most of us have never experienced anything even remotely like this in our churches or personal lives, so how do we?

Drawing Near To God By Eagerly Putting The Gospel Into Practice Will Draw Him Near To Us

Yep, I know, news and sports at eleven, but putting God’s commands into practice by obeying his commands to love one another, and live righteously is what draws him near to us–true story!

To dig into this further, let us start with how James makes it clear that, once we become believers, God leaves it up to us to create or avoid intimacy

James 4:7-8
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded

(Keep in mind James was speaking to a body of believers, this was not addressed to non-Christians)

Also, one thing many do not understand, is God promises to reward those who “earnestly” draw near to him, which is amazing as the reward he promises is greater intimacy with him, not passing, worldly blessings!

Genesis 15:1
I am your shield, your very great reward

Hebrews 11:6
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him

(To understand this verse, we need to look at the word “earnestly”, as in the original Greek, it means, “to seek out for one’s self, to crave, to search for”, which shows the author was saying we need to not wait for people to spoon feed us, but we should be so hungry for greater intimacy with God we seek it out ourselves, *and* fully believe he will reward us for doing so, ie: we should not seek God out of guilt or obligation, but with eagerness, and full confidence he will draw near to us when we seek him!)

Even though many of us talk about wanting a more intimate relationship with God, we often do very little to seek him as we might engage in a few Christian activities here and there, but demonstrate how the world is our first priority by the way we live

What am I talking about?

To quickly illustrate this concept, we need to ask ourselves a few simple questions:

  • Do we prioritize our relationship with God above most things in life, ie: do we value God more than looking for a spouse, a career, engaging in social activities, seeking validation through peer acceptance, exercising, eating out, entertaining ourselves with movies, video games, music, etc…?
  • Do we look forward to spending time in prayer and reading the Bible, ie: do we rush home from work or school in order to read the Bible and spend time in God’s presence, does our day seem empty if we did not start off by reading God’s Word, do we blow off social engagements in order to spend time with God?
  • Have our lives been radically transformed as the result of our relationship with God, ie: have we supernaturally turned away from our old lives, do we love others in ways we never even dreamed of, do our lives glorify God both to believers and non-believers, do we love, bless, and pray for our enemies in ways the world finds completely irrational?

(Yes, the answers are uncomfortable, they were for me too, but do not get stuck there, let us keep going!)

Judging by our responses to the questions above, and by the lack of God’s abundant presence in our churches and personal lives, I am going to go waaaay out on a limb here, but it is safe to say the vast majority of us are not seeking God earnestly like the early church as we are too caught up in our pursuit of self-centered worldly happiness

The truth, is in order to seek God “earnestly”, it means more than randomly picking our Bibles up for fifteen minutes a day or attending church once a week, it means diligently obeying his commands, and making every effort to love others more than we did yesterday instead of pursuing worldly fulfillment as our first priority

Seeking God earnestly means making the pursuit of him our lifestyle

For example, let us re-read the passage in James, as he not only says God draws near to those who draw near to him, but he also tells us truly drawing near involves washing our hands of sin, purifying our hearts, and, most importantly, it means we are no longer double-minded in our desire to draw near to God, ie: we no longer try to seek him while pursuing the world at the same time

James 4:4
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God

James 4:7-8
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded

Oh, right, that!

*cough*

Now that we have laid some ground work for how to increase God’s presence, I want to address a particularly common lie from the enemy

“Nothing We Do Could Ever Effect Our Relationship With God”

Okay, seriously, no author in the Bible ever taught this!

In fact, Jesus and Paul taught the complete opposite in the verses below:

John 14:21
Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them

John 14:23-24
Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me

Philippians 4:8-9
…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you

Even further to this, to put the idea of what a sincere faith really looks like, regardless of outward appearances, we have to put aside our contemporary version of what we call faith, and consider what the authors of the Bible meant when they talked about believing in God or having faith, as the meaning in Greek for “faith”, and “believe” is, “deep, profound conviction with accompanying, passionate action”

This is a lot different than what our typical, contemporary meaning looks like, ie: acknowledgment of fact, with little or no life change

Also, just like Jesus talked about obedience leading to intimacy, look at how Paul said, in Galatians and Romans, true faith is reflected in our obedience, and in the way we express love for one another, just like Jesus commanded

John 13:34-35
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another

Galatians 5:6
The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love

Romans 1:5
Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake

These verses about sincere faith aside, if it were true that nothing we did could ever effect our relationship with God, why is he not among us like in the days of the early church, did he get bored with us for some reason?

Of course not, God is not among us because we live our faith in a half-hearted way which does not honor him as the amazing, loving, miracle working God we read about in the Bible

Hebrews 13:8
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever

Also, this

God’s amazing, abundant presence is something we have available to us at any time, we just have to want it enough to seek it

Whoa, wait, what?

Yes, and this point brings us to the verse I was teeing up this whole time

Amos 5:14
Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is

In case you missed it, here it is again

Amos 5:14
Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is

This verse was written at a time when the Israelites thought God was truly with them due to their prosperity, stability, and other worldly benchmarks of happiness, which is why God sent Amos to tell them otherwise as they were living in ways which denied his commandments

Just like the Israelites, we may have worldly happiness, sing great praise and worship on Sunday mornings, wave our hands in the air, and gather together every week to hear our pastors, but we have to ask ourselves: is God really among us as we say he is?

Is he working miracles in our midst, whether physically, spiritually or emotionally, and is he radically changing people’s lives in the church, or, are we separated from his glory because we are willing slaves to sin, and lacking true love for one another?

Even though it is hard to imagine the kinds of miracles we read about in the Bible, they are actually happening all over the world in places like China, Africa, India, etc…, even in a select handful of churches in North America, where their faith, and desire to embrace the gospel, welcomes God’s presence in abundance. Also, many do not know this, but a massive revival happened here in the US during the fifties and sixties, though it died out so our generation never experienced it, how awful!

Now, of course, God is with us always, regardless of where we live or what era we are in, but we need to ask what worldly desires are we honoring before our relationship with God–these are the very things which separate us from him, even if they do not seem outright sinful

In my own life, I had to lay down idols such as a desire for a spouse, seeking money and a career as a top priority, as well as being a slave to porn, substances, and all sorts of things I used as crutches. I started giving to the poor, evangelizing, and also made time to disciple others before I saw God’s presence increase to the levels where I could say I experienced something which even remotely resembled what I read about in the Bible–and it has been awesome!

Taking these steps involved giving God my trust, and having a sincere desire to know him beyond receiving any worldly blessings from him, and these are steps any one of us can take, right now in fact, if we choose to–what is stopping *you*

Mark 12:30
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength

Psalm 84:10
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked

Habakkuk 3:2
Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy

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