Updated: Jul 4, 2018
In the first chapter of Genesis, the book of beginnings, God introduces the concept of community and plurality. God said, “Let us make man in our image…” God is himself, a community – one God, revealed in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Moreover, God said, “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, all the wild animals, and everything that creeps on the earth.” Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it…” God also intended humankind to be a community – Adam and Eve, and their descendants after them.
Notice that God even refers to animals in the plural form: fish (plural), birds (plural) cattle (plural), and creeping things (plural). In other words, God’s covenant is not just with an individual, but rather, with a whole race or group or community.
This is very important when it comes to understanding God’s covenant with the Jewish people through Abraham, and later, his covenant with the human race through Jesus. As Jeremiah put it, he is “the God of all the families of Israel” (Jer. 31:1). He is indeed, the God of community.
I will dwell in them and walk among them
Modern Western culture is grounded in ancient Greek philosophy with its emphasis on individualism. Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Alcibiades embraced and championed the idea of personal responsibility – independence of thought and freedom of choice, especially in issues pertaining to ethics and morality. However, in the rush to promote the rights and privileges of the individual, contemporary society has, to a large extent, lost touch with traditional community values.
Individualism has even pervaded the evangelical church, with preachers and teachers urging people to accept Jesus Christ as “personal Lord and Saviour” and to develop a “personal relationship with God”, phrases which, interestingly enough, do not appear in the Scriptures. Furthermore, in reading the gospels, I cannot find any instance in which Jesus had a ‘personal relationship’ with one disciple apart from the others. For example, there is no suggestion that Jesus ever took Peter away from the rest of the group in order to spend ‘quality time’ with him, ‘one on one’.
Now before you shout me down, let me state clearly: each and every one of us must respond to the call of the Spirit in our hearts; each and every one of us must put our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ; each and every one of us must believe in order to be saved.
However, the notion that we can enjoy a personal and private relationship with Jesus apart from other people is sheer nonsense. “Me and Jesus have a good thing going on…” might be appropriate in a folk song, but it has no place in covenantal theology. God said to Abram, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7).
As we read the Scriptures, we discover that God establishes his covenant with communities, not just individuals; He dwells among communities, not just with individuals; and He reveals himself to communities, not just to individuals. Moreover, it is as a community that we can experience His presence and power in the most meaningful of ways. Writing to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul said,
“You are the temple of the living God. As God has said, ‘I will dwell among them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people … I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.’” (2 Cor. 6:16-18).
The word ‘you’ is plural, referring to the Corinthians as a group, rather than just one individual. Notice also the words ‘them’, ‘their’ and ‘they’, all of which denote a community of believers. Paul alluded to the dynamic of the corporate gathering in 1 Corinthians 5:4; “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Just as the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle of Moses in the midst of the camp of Israel (Ex. 40:34-38), and just as the glory of the Lord filled the temple of Solomon in the midst of the city of the Great King (2 Chron. 7:1-3), and just as the Holy Spirit came like a rushing mighty wind on the Day of Pentecost and filled the house in which the disciples were sitting (Acts 2:1-4), so, apparently, the power of the resurrected Lord would be manifested each and every time the Corinthian believers gathered for prayer and worship – a fact attested to by the Lord Jesus himself in Matthew 18:19-20;
“Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
The key words in this passage are agree and gathered. ‘Sumphoneo’, the Greek verb translated ‘agree’, means to sound together, and hence, to be in accord and harmony. The noun ‘sumphonia’ is used in Luke 15:25 to denote concordant music, and is the basis for the English word symphony. The Greek word ‘sunago’, translated ‘gathered’, means to bring together as in a collection or a convention. In other words, Jesus is talking about two or three believers gathering together with one accord in one place – just as they did in an upper room in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost!
It is perhaps for this reason that the writer of Hebrews exhorted the believers, “don’t forsake the assembling of yourselves together, as is the manner of some” (Heb. 10:25). “Assembling yourselves together” does not necessarily denote a formal, structured religious meeting, as in a church service. Rather, it indicates a dynamic gathering of two or more believers in a spirit of love and unity – a gathering in which the presence of God is revealed! Such a gathering may well take place in a café, or on a bus, or in the sanctity of one’s home – or, as the disciples en route to Emmaus discovered, walking down a dusty road or sitting at a table sharing a meal (Luke 24:13-35).
Our Father which art in heaven
On a certain occasion, one of the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus responded by teaching them what has become known traditionally as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come; Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” (Matt. 6:9-13).
Notice that the words ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ do not appear anywhere in the Lord’s Prayer; rather, it is a case of ‘our’ and ‘us’. Indeed, the Lord’s Prayer is not just a declaration of the fatherhood of God; it is also a declaration of the brotherhood of man. It defines the essential nature of covenant, which is community.
No disciple could pray this prayer and just concentrate on Jesus, at the exclusion of his friend or neighbour. No disciple could pray this prayer and become enthralled in the presence of God, and forget about his brother or sister. No disciple could pray this prayer without being reminded that his relationship with God was somehow connected with and affected by his relationship with other believers.
For this reason, Jesus exhorted the disciples; “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift: (Matt. 5:23-24). In other words, your relationship with your brothers and sisters in Christ affects your ability to worship God! You simply cannot have a free spirit in the presence of God, if, at the same time, you are harbouring judgement and unforgiveness in your heart toward another human being.
The apostle Peter alludes to the fact that if a man does not treat his wife with respect and sensitivity, it may hinder his prayers and disrupt his relationship with God (1 Pet. 3:7). The apostle John is even more direct and to the point, asserting that
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21).
In short, one cannot love God without loving people. The glory of the God whom we seek is revealed, in no small measure, in the face of the man and the woman sitting beside us!
Honouring the Spirit in one another
In conclusion, I would like to comment on the importance of learning to honour the Spirit in one another. The apostle Paul admonished the Corinthians to no longer regard one another according to the flesh, but rather, to recognise one another as new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:16-17).
How can we implement this instruction on a practical level? When you first make eye contact with another believer, say silently to yourself, “I honour the Spirit of God in you.” This is a way of acknowledging that the person you are meeting is more than just flesh and blood; he or she, like you, is spirit. Moreover, he or she, like you, is created in God’s image and is a partaker of the divine nature.
As you do this, the other person will register your body language, expression and tone at a profound and unconscious level. The spirit in you will reach out and touch the spirit in them. It will be more than a meeting of minds and bodies; it will be a meeting of spirits, thereby raising the encounter to a whole new level.
Even though your salutation is silent, the other person will recognise the love and respect emanating from you. And thus a platform will be built for giving and receiving, teaching and learning – sharing all the riches of our Father’s house.