HOW A SPIRITUAL MOVEMENT DECLINES - I
Lord! Help! Godly men are fast disappearing. Where in all the world can dependable men be found? Everyone deceives and flatters and lies. There is no sincerity left” (Psa. 12:1 - Living).
The state of affairs described in the above verse is an apt description of Christendom today. We find nowadays that even believers, who were once pursuing after godliness, have started indulging in deception, flattery and lies-to serve their own ends.
Sincerity is what God seeks from all of us, first of all. We may have a thousand and one faults and make an equal number of mistakes. But, if we are sincere, God can do miracles with our lives.
In Matthew 16:3, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees by asking them a question: “Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?”
If we do not read the signs of the times in which we are living, Jesus will have to rebuke us exactly as He did the Pharisees. When people know the Bible, but don’t know God Himself, they can easily be deceived-for every cult in the world uses the Bible as its textbook and have their proof texts to promote their peculiar doctrines. This is why so many cults have mushroomed around the world and become fashionable and acceptable to many people. Even believers are being led astray and are losing their salvation.
Under the new covenant, God wants every child of His to know Him personally (Heb.8:11), unlike as in old covenant times, when only the prophet (who rarely appeared) could know God personally. In fact, the new-covenant child of God can know God better and in a more personal way than the greatest prophet under the old covenant. Jesus said so, very specifically (Matt.11:11). There are very few believers who have a passion to know God Himself. Most of them seem to be keen only on increasing in Bible-knowledge and on having spectacular emotional experiences.
All this is an indication that we have come to the very last minutes of the last hour of the last days in which Paul said it would be “difficult to be a Christian” (2 Tim.3:1 - Living).
It will be difficult to be a Christian in the last days, not because of persecution or opposition, but because many people would “have a form of godliness without its inner power” (2 Tim.3:5). In other words, they would major on correctness of New Testament pattern and doctrine, but would not be interested in personal devotion to Christ or in practical godliness. Most of us who left dead denominations in the past, left them because we were searching for spiritual reality. We may have begun our search in earnest. But Satan is very smart to sidetrack believers into something cultistic, like the cult of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time.
The history of Israel has been given at such length in the Old Testament to teach us some important lessons. A wise man will learn from that history the way men pleased God and the way many displeased Him.
In Jeremiah 3:14,15, the Lord promises saying, “I will take you one from a city and two from a family and I will bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding.”
“Zion” represents the true church of the living God. God brings one from a city and two from a family into His “Zion.” And when we have come to this Zion-the church that the Lord is building-He promises to give us there “shepherds after His own heart,” who will feed us on a knowledge of Himself (and not just a knowledge of the Bible) and on understanding of His ways (and not just an understanding of doctrine).
Shepherds After God’s Heart
One primary identifying mark of the true Church of God is this: It has shepherds after God’s own heart.
God is love-and the primary characteristic of love is that it does not seek its own. So, shepherds after God’s own heart are those who do not seek their own. Such shepherds will not seek for anyone’s money or honour. They will seek neither to please men nor to impress them. Instead, they will seek to build up the believers in order “to present them perfect in Christ” (Col.1:28). Wherever God can find a man with such a longing - in any town or village - He will build His Church.
On the other hand, we have seen many cases of believers who leave the mainline denominations and seek to follow “the New Testament pattern,” have their doctrines all correct, but love money and seek their own, and yet imagine that they are building the Body of Christ. Confusion and chaos are always the result of their labours and what is finally built through their labours is always Babylon.
Only where God can find a man who does not seek his own, can the Lord build His True Church. One man like that, who shares the concern of God’s heart for people, is far more valuable to God than a thousand believers who seek their own.
To be a shepherd after God’s own heart will involve sacrifice, inconvenience, and suffering. It will mean being willing to suffer misunderstanding, opposition, ridicule and slander joyfully. And if such a shepherd is blessed enough to have a wife who also does not seek her own, so that their home is open for the Lord to do whatever He wants, then there will be no limit to what God can do through their lives.
I am not talking now about gathering many people. Numbers are not a mark of God’s blessing. Many of the well-known cults gather more numbers of people than anyone else. That does not prove anything.
Building The Body
I am talking now of quality-the building of the Body of Christ, where every individual member comes into a personal knowledge of God.
Without such a development, any group will only be a place where one blind man has led a whole lot of other blind people into the ditch. All their prayer meetings will be in the ditch, their Bible-studies will be in the ditch and their conferences will be in the ditch too!!
In Jesus’ time, He looked around and saw that people were like sheep without a shepherd. It is the same today.
The great need everywhere is for shepherds after God’s own heart. I am not talking here about just being an elder in a church. No. A large church needs many shepherds-those who have a heart that cares for God’s people. Such people may not be elders at all. But they will feed and encourage the sheep-serving them gladly.
The history of Israel is given at such length to show us good examples that we can follow and avoid the mistakes that men made. There were two significant starting points in the history of Israel as a nation:
Firstly, when they began as a nation in Canaan under the leadership of Joshua.
Secondly, when they had a fresh beginning under King David, after centuries of backsliding.
Let us consider these two cases.
Joshua was a godly man who gave excellent leadership to Israel. He was determined to follow the Lord with his whole family, even if the rest of Israel decided to forsake the Lord (Josh.24:15).
Only such a man, who is willing to stand alone, if necessary, can provide godly leadership to any church today. During Joshua’s lifetime, Israel went forward from one victory to another.
But then Joshua died. There we can see what happens when a man, whom God has raised up at a particular time for a particular purpose in a particular country, finishes his earthly course and passes on.
Joshua’s fellow-elders took over the leadership of Israel (Josh.24:31). These elders belonged to the next generation after Joshua. Joshua died when he was 110 years old and the new leaders were in their 60’s and 70’s-for Joshua’s own generation (except for Caleb) had all perished in the forty years of wandering in the wilderness.
During this time-when the second generation was in leadership-things were not as good as in Joshua’s time. We read in Judges 1 that, during this period, there were a few victories (vv.1-21), but many defeats as well (vv.22-36). A slow decline had started.
The second generation had no steam in themselves, but were surviving on the momentum that they had received from Joshua’s leadership in the previous generation.
Like a train-wagon that has been pushed by an engine, the second generation moved very fast initially, but gradually slowed down and finally came to a grinding halt!
By the time we come to Judges 2:11, things become really bad. Israel now does evil openly in the sight of the Lord. Thus we see how what started in a good way in one generation, gradually became evil by the time of the third generation. The second watershed in Israel’s history was when David became king of Israel.
Saul was the first king of Israel. He had started in great humility, but backslid so greatly that God removed the anointing from him. Saul’s life is a picture of those movements that decline in the first generation itself-and there are many like that in Christendom too!
God told Saul through Samuel that He was going to give the kingdom to “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam.13:14). That was David. This made Saul extremely jealous of David. Saul hated David so much that he even wanted to kill him.
However, those in Israel, who recognised where God’s anointing lay, joined David. A small group gathered around David. But they were chased, persecuted and hunted by Saul all across the land and had to run for their lives. But God was with that small group.
Saul continued to sit on the throne of Israel for many years-just like many Christian “leaders” rule their flock today, even though they have lost the anointing of God from their lives long, long ago.
But Saul still had a following of those who fawned on him- just like many Christian “leaders” have in their own groups. Such a following means nothing. Many dead denominations and even heathen religious leaders have a large following. But, God is not with any of them.
The important question we need to ask ourselves always is this: “Do the grace and anointing of God rest upon me now?”
Church history has proved again and again that God has always done His great work in every generation through a small minority of His people who stand wholeheartedly for Him. As in Gideon’s time, the victory in the battle with Satan is always won by a small group of wholehearted disciples (Judg. 7).
Such a group (as in the case of David’s group) is hated, misunderstood and persecuted by the established systems in Christendom, who have no understanding of what God is doing in their time.
But God took care of David and his little group. The Bible records that “David served the purpose of God in his own generation and fell asleep” (Acts 13:36). Despite his faults, David was a man after God’s own heart and gave Israel godly leadership during his life-time. He was not perfect. But he was quick to humble himself and repent when even an ordinary prophet came to him and rebuked him for his sin (2 Sam.12).
But in spite of all of David’s devotion to the Lord, his humility and the anointing of God upon his life, he could serve God’s purpose only in his own generation.
After his death, things began to decline very quickly. Solomon, his son, started well (1 Kgs. 3:3,5,10-14). The book of Proverbs shows us how wise Solomon was when he began. Proverbs is perhaps the finest book in the entire Old Testament. It is like a new-covenant book right in the middle of the Old Testament! And Solomon wrote it!!
But Solomon backslid very quickly and very badly-and ended disastrously. Initially, he had moved forward on the momentum he had received from his godly father. But he did not have enough of a passion after God, to continue for long in the same direction. He was led astray by wealth and by women (1 Kgs. 10:23; 11:1-9)-just like many Christian preachers in our time! After Solomon died, his son Rehoboam (the third generation) took over. Then things became really bad. The younger generation joined hands with Rehoboam and took over the leadership of Israel, and Rehoboam despised the advice of the wiser, older men (1 Kgs. 12:6-15). This brought chaos into Israel and the kingdom soon split into two. All that Rehoboam could boast of now was that David was his grandfather. But he did not have any of David’s spirit.
We find an exact duplication of this degenerative process in many movements that were started by godly people in Christendom during the last 20 centuries.