Editorial | We Must Change
We all likely imagine ourselves to be liberal minded, open to change, aware that we’re on a journey, unafraid of where we might be led. But reality is otherwise. From childhood we prefer routine, doing the same things in the same way with the same people. We observe people existing in awful situations, physically and emotionally because they cannot bear the thought of being any other way. When things get tough in life, or painful memories are re-stimulated, we tend to react in the same well-worn paths of response, open the fridge and find something sweet, say the same angry words, think the same bitter thoughts, recall the same acutely painful memories of related pain. But the call of Christ, the way of the Spirit, is the very opposite of conservatism. We are challenged daily from God’s word, from the path we are taken by providence, the people we are led to meet, the situations the Angels arrange for us… and the enigmatic words of Jesus in Jn. 3:8 become no less enigmatic, but all the same ever more true to our observed experience: “wind blows where it wills, and you hear its sound, but do not know from where it comes and where it goes. So is every one that is born of the Spirit”. Israel’s wilderness journey was along paths and routes totally unknown to them: “You have not passed this way before” (Josh. 3:4). And so with us who, like Abraham, obediently go forth towards a land we do not really know, without any clearly defined highway there stretching before our eyes. But we are led on this way with great resistance on our part; because we are so conservative. The divine leading seems at times more a dragging of us, kicking and screaming. It is God’s grace and indefatigable desire to save us which overcomes the resistance of our native conservatism. Sadly, many believers have tried to have the best of both worlds the exciting life of being led by the Spirit, and yet encasing this supposed way of life within a conservatism which they justify as ‘defending the Truth’. A mistaken assumption is often made - that conservatism is next to Godliness, a required form of spirituality; the way we used to do things must be right. Of course, the basic truths of Christ cannot change. But I’m not talking about those things.
“The old is better”
The fact is, we must change. And radically so. The life in Christ is a path of radical, daily transformation. The Lord recognized the basic conservatism of human nature when He noted that "No man also having drunk old wine immediately desires new: for he says [deep within himself], The old is better" (Lk. 5:39). The Lord taught this in the context of engagement with John’s disciples, who thought that the old ways of the Mosaic law could be mixed with some form of belief in Christ. He likened such a position to putting new wine into old wineskins; or taking a piece of new cloth to patch up a torn old garment. The stress in Mt. 9:16 may be on "a piece". Taking parts of Christ's teachings was the temptation being given into by John's disciples. The torn old garment had to be thrown away and the new one totally accepted and publically worn. Yet the Lord recognizes our conservatism, and His patience with us is proof of that. “No man… immediately desires new” appears to be a concession to the weakness of John's disciples, and to our weakness. The Lord accepted that they would not make the change immediately. There was indeed a changeover period between the Lord's death and the destruction of the temple in AD70, and the early church struggled with issues like circumcision, fellowship with Gentiles etc. They were struggling to totally reject the old and accept the new. And in human lives today the Lord recognizes that the total change of life will not come immediately - because we are essentially conservative. To get a piece out of a new garment, that new garment would be spoiled; the old one likewise would be rent further. "New" cloth refers to cloth which hasn't yet been washed (cp. baptism); on first washing of the new garment, it would shrink, and thus make a tear. The tragic waste envisioned here is like the new wine running away on the ground from the old burst bottles. Likewise the old wineskins would've had to have the old wine poured out from them to have this new wine put into them. Mixing the old life and the new covenant, a bit of the one here and a bit of the other there, results in this tragic wastage all around. The Mosaic system is described as an old garment in Heb. 1:11; it "shall perish" uses the same Greek word as in 5:37, where the bottles "perish". The new garment is that of Christ's imputed righteousness (Rev. 19:8; Mt. 22:11). Agnaphos is a combination of the negative article a, with knapto, meaning, "to card"”. It therefore refers to an uncombed or unfinished material. This suggests that the New Covenant is an unfinished work; God's work in us is on-going and may take apparently unstable turns and changes - e.g. prophecy is often conditional; the intended timing of Christ's return has and may yet still change, dependent upon factors like the freewill repentance of Israel; God may plan one line of possibility for someone or a whole nation, e.g. Nineveh or Israel at the time of Moses - but change His stated intention in response to human prayer and repentance. This open-ended approach simply can't be squared with the "old" set-in-stone approach of the Old Covenant. The same message is taught by the next parable - new wineskins are required, because the New Covenant wine is fermenting, they need to be soft and flexible enough to change; if they are old and set, they will burst because of the movement and dynamism of the new wine. The wine of the Lord Jesus is therefore not about tradition, about a set pattern; but is rather a call to constant change and evolution. Yet paradoxically, religious people become set in their ways more than any, and seek stability in those traditions; whereas the activity of the Lord Jesus is the very opposite. Each wineskin expanded slightly differently in response to the fermenting of the new wine poured into it; no two wineskins expanded to an identical shape or form. We, too, will individually and uniquely respond to the new wine. We must change. If His new wine is not totally accepted, if it is mixed with the old, then lives will be destroyed through further schism. The only basis for avoiding schism is a total acceptance by all parties of the blood of the new covenant. When we read that the wine otherwise “runs out”, this is the same word translated “shed” concerning Christ’s blood (Lk. 20:20). Especially significant is the reference in Mt. 26:28 to Christ's blood of the new covenant being “shed”. Failed spiritual life, the life which only partially accepts the new wine of Christ but refuses to change, refusing to be new containers for it, results in the blood of Christ being as it were shed, the blood of Calvary wasted in the dust, and Christ crucified afresh by our apostasy (Heb. 6:6). This is the final tragedy of refusing to change upon receipt of the new wine.
God in Search of Man
We must change, but we do this by letting Him change us. Of ourselves we don’t have the steel in our will, the iron in our soul, to do so. Admittedly, the Lord had our nature, and He did. But we, from years and decades of observed personal experience, simply do not. When we read of the process of ‘conversion’ in the New Testament, the idea is not simply of our changing. It is equally of allowing Him to convert us. God may appear distant and passive, but once we grasp the doctrine (and it is that) of the work of His Spirit in human life, we are left in wonder at the scale and detail of His work. And He works globally, in different ways in different lives, sensitive to the unique personality, history and situation of each of those He would have as His children. He offered a sign to Ahaz to develop his weak faith; He was angry that Zacharias wanted a sign to prove that his frequent prayers to have a child would actually be answered; and He willingly responded to Gideon’s request for signs regarding the fleece, and then took the initiative to give Gideon more signs when he overheard the conversation of the enemy soldiers. We each have weaknesses in different areas, needs for spiritual development in different aspects, different talents and varying amounts of them granted to us; He works so actively in our lives according to a personal progress plan which He has been developing from the beginning.
Man is not alone in this world. Beyond the steely silence of the skies, there is God and His Son, working (or seeking to work) powerfully in our lives, every moment. Job realized this, in one of those flashes of insight born from deep suffering and internal turmoil: “You visit him [man] every morning, and try him every moment” (Job 7:18). It’s not that we are simply seeking for God and somehow, sometimes and in some ways we find Him. We are indeed in search of God, but God is in search of man. His Son is seeking “goodly pearls”, the Father is looking and hoping for the return of His Son, out looking for workers in his vineyard, and He revealed to Jeremiah that He is as it were running around the streets and squares seeking men. And so when God’s search for man and man’s search for God come together, the whole of Heaven is electric with joy, all the Angels rejoice together. But we, nervous little characters that we are, bounded by our conservatism and the very narrow frames of our vision and thinking, we who squirm in the dentist’s chair, we who, as children, feared whether our loving parent would really not let go of our hand as we first jumped into a swimming pool, feared whether loving, doting daddy would really do as he promised and not let go of our bicycle as we learnt to balance and ride free… We, Conservatives that we are, house proud town mice, or glued to our land and village way of doing things, vainly wishing to believe that the old and familiar must be the right and Godly way. We. Need to change, through believing more deeply the most fundamental truth of the cosmos: That God loves us, and wants us for His Kingdom, and through all His active leading and challenging of us, will never let go of us.
| Duncan Heaster