What is it that distinguishes and differentiates a gathering of Godís people from every other kind of meeting or assembly? Is it that the people sing Christian hymns, that they read from the Bible, that they affirm the creeds?
At the time of the Reformation, the reformers sought to understand and affirm what a true church was. Most of them agreed that it was created when the word of God was honoured and preached, and His sacraments administered. Now these things may well be necessary, but they do not deal with the most important factor.
In the Bible we are told that Moses spoke with God face to face, as a man speaks to a friend, (though I am sure it would have been in a very respectful way, like Abraham, who had the reputation of being the friend of God.) When the children of Israel rebelled against God, Moses was told that Godís presence would go with him, but not with the disobedient Israelites. Moses, however, would not accept this. "How will it be known that I and Your people have found favour in your sight? Is it not in You going with us, so that we are distinct from all other people on the face of the earth?" (Ex.33:15-16)
Moses was quite right. It is the presence of God that differentiates Godís people from all other people. When we add to this the further and fuller revelation of God in Christ, each true church is, primarily, a gathering of Godís people where His presence, His real tangible, manifest presence, is known and experienced; where He is worshipped, honoured and obeyed; where the Lord Jesus Christ is lifted up as the Son of God above everything else, so that He can draw all people to Himself; where peopleís individual concerns are swallowed up in the seeking of the glory of God; where Jesus is the centre, and where the words of Toplady become true:
"Object of my first desire, Jesus crucified for me;
All to happiness aspire, only to be found in Thee.
Lord it is not life to live, if Thy presence Thou deny;
Lord, if Thou thy presence give, ĎTis no longer death to die.
Let me but Thyself possess; total sum of happiness;
Real bliss I then shall prove, heaven below and heaven above.
(Augustus Montague Toplady)
Toplady obviously knew the truth that he was writing about, but do we? One of the greatest tragedies of today is that most of the so called churches in this country do not have the real, tangible, awe inspiring presence of God, and therefore, do not have the right to be called Godís people. They are deluding themselves that their gathering is a Christian church, when, in reality, it is nothing of the kind.
In the wilderness, God commanded that the Israelites made a sanctuary for Him, so that He might dwell among them. The Almighty God promised that He would walk among them and be their God. (Ex.25:8, Ex. 29:45 & Lev. 26:12) That presence, shown by the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, stayed with them during the wilderness wanderings, due to Moses being among them, then continued with them under Joshua, as God promised that He would be with Joshua as He had been with Moses. (Josh.1:5) This meant that God drove out their enemies, and no one was able to stand against them.(Josh.23:9-10) But after that, Godís presence was gradually withdrawn, as the people went away from the true God, as Joshua warned would happen. (Josh. 23:12-13)
Godís intention remained the same, however, and became part of the promise of the New Covenant, under which, having cleansed His people from their sins, His dwelling place would be with them and they would truly be his people. Then all the nations would know that He had sanctified His people when His sanctuary, denoting His presence, would be in the midst of them for ever. (Ezek.37:27-28)
This shows, firstly, Godís intentions for His new people, the Church, that they would truly know His presence, for He would be in the midst of them; and secondly, that His presence is dependent upon the holiness of His people, and that without the cleansing of the heart, the removal of all idolatry, and complete obedience to Godís commands, that holy and powerful presence would not be possible.
This is why todayís Ďchurchesí, where preaching against sin, the importance of repentance, and holiness of heart and life are not insisted on, know nothing of the manifest presence of God, with God dwelling in their midst and walking among them.
There is much misunderstanding in the Church about the presence of God:
1. There is a general presence of God, for God is Spirit, and He is everywhere. We cannot go where He is not. (Ps. 139) This means that we can call upon Him anywhere, even from inside a fish, as Jonah did, but such a presence does not stop people from sinning, and cannot be what Moses was praying about, for that general presence would have been wherever the Israelites went.
2. There is the presence of Jesus wherever His people meet, for where two or three are gathered in His name, He promised to be among them. This is better, but it is not sufficient, for it does not stop people sinning in their minds during services, and it does not stop them sinning in actions after services and meetings. It is not a life giving presence, nor a life changing presence. This promise is often claimed in services, but the effect seems minimal. Thousands of people in Britain and millions of people all round the world gather in His name, but their lives do not seem to be radically altered as a result. Something much more is obviously needed.
3. There is the presence that Moses spoke about, and would not move forward without it, for he knew that this was what made all the difference, and marked out the people of God, and showed His favour upon them. (Ex. 33:12-17) It brought Godís protection, for it provided the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. It was the presence of God that had been withdrawn from His people in the time of Hosea because they were disobedient to Him. (Hos.5:5-6 &5:15-6:3)
4. There is the presence of God that came down on the first temple when it was dedicated, a presence so strong that the priests could not stand to minister because of the glory that was revealed. (1Kings 8:10-11, 2Chron.5:11-14 & 7:1-3) These passages make it clear that such a revelation of the Lordís presence is revealed only when Godís people are obedient to Him, and do everything according to His will.
5. There is the presence of God that the prophet prays for when he beseeches God to rend the heavens and come down, so that the mountains might shake, bad things be burnt up, and Godís name is made known to His enemies, so that they tremble at His presence.
(Is.64:1-3) This is the presence of God seen in times of revival and awakening, and the cost is clearly spelt out as waiting upon God; remembering God in His ways; joyfully working righteousness; calling on His name; and taking hold of God. (vv.4-7)
6. There is the presence of God that Jesus prophesied about when He said that when the Holy Spirit came, He would convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment, (Jn.16:8), and which was fulfilled initially on the day of Pentecost.
The presence of God referred to in 4, 5 and 6 above are the full revelation of the Spirit of God seen in times of revival and awakening, for which we should all be seeking earnestly, but the presence referred to in 3 above is what all Christian churches should be experiencing now, to prove that they are a genuine gathering of Godís people. John Wesley knew it in his day, so that he was able to declare on his death bed, "The best of all is God is with us." He wasnít talking about a general sense of the presence of God, as in 1 above, nor about the presence of Christ among His people, as in 2 above, but about no.3, what Charles Wesley called "the real presence." The Methodists had proved the reality of that, and knew that God had vindicated them as His people, and had driven out their enemies, as He promised to do.
So any body of Christians have to prove that they are Godís people by having His stamp of approval on them, which is His manifest presence. This is what makes the meetings of Godís people different from every other gathering on the face of the earth, and without it, there is no reality, and no proof that they are the people of God.
Therefore, His manifest presence must be sought first before everything else, for He alone brings conviction of sin, holiness, true joy, peace, love, power, salvation and victory. We need to truly seek the Lord for this, but my experience is that very few churches are doing so.
One of the most obvious tests of a church is to see what people do before a service or meeting commences. In Lewis, before and during the awakening, when people went to meetings and services, before the meeting started, everyone would sit quietly, earnestly seeking the Lord, and praying for the Holy Spirit to come and have His way. But in our church services and meetings today, people are moving around, talking amongst themselves and making such a noise that the Holy Spirit is not given any opportunity of revealing himself. In many so-called church services, the congregation has to be called to order, as if it were a secular meeting, in order that the service can begin! There is no reverence for God, no seeking after Him. I have seen this in churches of all persuasions, where the absence of the presence of God is very obvious. It seems there is no one who lays hold upon God, and is fervently seeking Him. "There is no fear of God before their eyes." (Rom.3:18), "The Lord looks down from heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there is anyone who is wise, who seeks after God," (Ps. 14:2), but just as in the days of the psalmist, He finds only a few, certainly in the churches of this country. He has been driven out of what should be places where He is earnestly sought and honoured, or He has withdrawn from them. His disappointment must be enormous, for He sees far more than we do, all the shallowness, the selfishness and the complacency of what are called churches, but are not, for they do not have, and are not even seeking, the real and powerful presence of the Lord.
For the tragedy is that churches do not even realise that God has withdrawn from them. They should be broken hearted about it, but are complacent, content to let things carry on as usual. They are like Godís people in the time of Hosea, who were in a terribly dangerous situation, for they were about to be destroyed, yet they were full of pride, and did not seek the Lord, nor return to Him in repentance. (Hos. 7:10) They are also like the people of Judah in the time of the prophet Zephaniah, who wanted all that the world offered and God as well. They did not really follow the Lord, and when problems arose, they did not seek Him or inquire of Him, (Zeph.1:5-6), something that is tragically so true of many churches today.
Carter Conlon, of the Times Square Church in New York, spoke movingly about churches today. "Nobody has the right to change the Church of Jesus Christ," he declared, "as it is His Church, and He builds it according to His methods. What people are building today is not the Church of Jesus Christ, but a man controlled organization.
Run from churches where everything is well organized, but God is not present. Run from churches where they make excuses for sin, or do not speak about the seriousness of sin, and allow people to live their own lives as they want. Run from churches where they are satisfied with anything less than an encounter with Jesus Christ and where they do not declare that Godís purpose is for everyone to be permanently changed. Run from churches where there is no soul searching preaching of the word; where repentance from sin is not emphasised, where there is no mention of the blood of Christ, where holiness is not a priority. Run from preachers who try to make people laugh, instead of seeking to make them cry because of their sin. All true passion for Christ comes out of anguish. God is looking for people He can share His heart with, who will share His anguish for sinners," but most churches today are a long way away from that.
How then can our churches become places where God is present? There is a simple answer. It is through seeking Him. But how exactly are we to do that? We often quote Is. 55:6 "Seek the Lord while He may be found. Call upon him while He is near," and fail to take in what God says here and immediately afterwards. Firstly, we are told that there are times when God is near, and times when He is far away. This is not His general presence, but something greater. Secondly, we are told that there is a cost involved in seeking the Lord. "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts." Only then can he return to the Lord so that He may have mercy upon him. For sin drives God away. Without that genuine repentance, our seeking is in vain. Hosea wrote that even though the children of Israel went to seek the Lord, they would not find Him, because He had withdrawn Himself from them. Why had He done this? It was because they had been unfaithful to Him; they had dealt treacherously with Him. (Hos. 5:6-7)
They were not the only ones. We read that King Jereboam did evil because he did not set his heart to seek the Lord, (2 Chron. 12:14) and in the time of Jeremiah, the leaders in Judah did not prosper, and the people were scattered because they did not seek the Lord.
As a consequence, they are called stupid. (Jer.10:21)
We need to learn from these people, and seek the Lord humbly and with weeping, committing ourselves fully and permanently to the Lord, for only then can we be the true New Covenant people, as Jeremiah foretold. (Jer. 50:4) Without that repentance, that weeping, that seeking of the Lord and that permanent commitment, we have not even reached the level that Jeremiah foresaw, and we are a long way away from the New Covenant standards that we noticed in Ezekiel: repentance, cleansing, removal of all idolatry, and complete obedience.
God tells us that we will find Him only if we seek Him sincerely and earnestly, and search after Him with all our heart and soul. (Deut. 4:29, 2 Chron. 15:12, 2 Chron.22:9, Ps. 119:10, Is. 26:9, Is. 58:2, Jer. 29:13).
It means setting our hearts to seek God,( 1Chron.22:19, 2 Chron.19:3 2 Chron.20:3).
It means seeking His face, so that His face may shine upon us. ( 2Chron7:14. Ps. 27:8)
It means entering into a covenant to seek Him. ( 2 Chron.15:12)
It means being obedient to Him, and walking in His ways, as the psalmist explains, (Ps.24 :3-6), as David told Solomon to do, as Asa told the people of Judah to do, and as Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Hezekiah and Josiah did. (1 Chron.29:9, 2 Chron.14:4, 2 Chron. 17:4, 2 Chron.26:4-5, 2 Chron.31:21, 2Chron. 34:3)
It means rejoicing and praising God continuously. (Ps. 22:26, Ps.40:16)
For the wonderful assurance that is given to us is that God will not forsake those who seek Him, (Ps.9:10), but will reward them. (Heb. 11:6). He will answer them and be good to them. (Lam. 3:25) He will deliver them from their fears, (Ps. 34:4) for they will lack nothing that they need. (Ps.34:10) They will have the joy of the Lord. (Ps.119:2) They will understand justice, (Prov. 28:5) and they will be saved from judgment.(Amos 5:6) This is illustrated from the history of the people of Judah, who proved that when they sought God, He was found by them, and He gave them rest and peace from their enemies.
(2 Chron. 15;14-15)
Dr Michael Brown, in his book: The End of the American Gospel Enterprise spells out what it means to seek God. "We must desire God more than anything else. We must cry out to Him and long for Him. We must make an absolute determination that nothing will separate us from Him. We must be utterly ruthless with ourselves, and cut away anything that offends. It is time to put away our idolsÖ..We must make a radical change in our schedules. Shut off the television. Put down the newspaper and the magazines. Cut out the time wasted on phone calls. Seek the face of God. Make up your mind that nothing is more importantÖ.Fast and shut yourself in with Jesus. Pour out your soul to God, and before you know it, He will change your heart." ĎLet us press on to know Him. As surely as the sun rises, He will appear. He will come to us as the winter rains; like the Spring rains that water the earth.í (Hos.6:3) "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." (Jer.29:13)
So we need to sincerely seek the Lord for ourselves and for our churches, and tell people how serious this is. We need to tell others to seek the Lord, to seek righteousness, to seek humility, so that we may be hidden on the day of the Lordís wrath (Zeph.2:3). We know that the churches of this country are nowhere near where they should be. They lack courage, wisdom, power and effectiveness, but the most glaring fault is that they lack what makes them a gathering of Godís people; they lack His manifest presence. They need to be told this, for in their pride, they think they are all right as they are, whereas they are lacking the one essential component to even be a church in Godís sight. The world looks on, and sees an irrelevant, ineffective body of people, with meetings, in too many cases, conducted in a worse fashion than meetings of secular societies.
I am well aware that in times of revival, some meetings are far from orderly, but that is because God is at work, and people can see it. But in our church meetings and services, they can see that God is not working, for everything is controlled by man, or is uncontrolled. They see services and meetings that are conducted and led from the front, just as if they were secular meetings. The leaders seek to control everything according to a plan, and the congregation accept this as normal. The awesome, life changing presence of God is not desperately sought by the leaders or the congregation as the one thing that is necessary above everything else. The Holy Spirit is not honoured and sought. The Lord Jesus Christ is not made central. The leaders of the church do not echo the words of Toplady that life is not worth living if the presence of Jesus is denied. People are not on their knees in adoration, imploring Him to make Himself known. There is not even silent waiting upon Him to act.
Our churches need to be told their true state before God. They need to be told that their meetings have to be completely different from secular meetings because the one thing that makes them different is the manifest presence of God, but they do not have it.
If they did, they would know it. They would know it in their spirits, and they would see God working in their midst in convicting, converting and sanctifying power, because God had vindicated them as His by granting His manifest presence. All pride, all elevation of man, all showmanship and human display would disappear. God would be at the centre. Everything would point to Him. People would acknowledge their guilt, seek His face and beg His favour, (Hos. 5:15) People would be like those in Lewis, praying earnestly for the Holy Spirit to come and work. Godís word tells us that He lives in only two places; the highest heaven and in the one with a contrite and humble spirit. (Is. 57:15)
If the church you attend does not fit that description, then work and pray to bring it about. Be an example to others in your church on every occasion of one truly seeking the Lord, speak with sorrow of Godís disappointment, and tell them what God desires, so that your church becomes a people devoted to seeking the Lord and seeking His face until the manifest, holy and powerful presence of Almighty God is known in your midst, and the people of your church and those living in your area know that the services and meetings in your church are different from all other places because God is truly with you.
"It is time to seek the Lord that He may rain righteousness upon us. (Hos. 10:12)
Why should not Mal. 3:1 be fulfilled in your church: "The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple." Pray that it may be so.