Exodus 18:17-23 The church must not mistake form for substance, and appearance of liveliness for fruitfulness.

Exodus 18:17-23 The church must not mistake form for substance, and appearance of liveliness for fruitfulness.

Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me: I will give you counsel, and God be with you. You be the people’s representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God, then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do. Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people also will go to their place in peace.”

Background

Jethro, having noticed the untenable situation Moses was in gave him counsel. On a daily basis, Moses functioned as priest to speak on God’s behalf, as magistrate to settle disputes and as teacher to teach God’s law to the people. To prevent Moses from wearing out, Jethro counseled Moses to delegate his responsibilities to men of truth who fear God. Of the three roles Moses performed, he delegated to appointed men the function of magistrate. So these men will judge the minor disputes of the people while bringing the major ones to Moses. This administrative restructure is meant to alleviate Moses’s burden as magistrate. Nevertheless, he alone still performed the functions of priest and teacher.

However, despite the restructure, we see at a later stage Moses wearing out because of the incessant unbelief of the people. It is clear that the work these appointed men did as magistrates could not cause the people to progress beyond unbelief. Indeed, this is a spiritual problem that cannot be addressed by administrative restructuring. Numbers 11 records the incident where Moses experienced a meltdown because of the people’s incessant complaining.

The rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.” … Now Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, each man at the doorway of his tent; and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have You been so hard on Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me? Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers’? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me, saying, ‘Give us meat that we may eat!’ I alone am not able to carry all this people, because it is too burdensome for me. So if You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once, if I have found favor in Your sight, and do not let me see my wretchedness.” – Numbers 11:4-6, 10-15

Having heard Moses’s complaint, the Lord gave him counsel. Unlike the counsel Jethro gave that involved delegation of authority at an administrative level, this time, God will take of the Spirit who is upon Moses, and put Him upon the elders.

The Lord therefore said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear it all alone. – Numbers 11:15-17

On that day, the elders receive spiritual authority, beyond the administrative authority they were previously given. The delegation of spiritual authority allows the elders to perform the functions of priest, judge and teacher. Now, they are equipped to speak with divine authority, to judge and to teach with divine wisdom. We can safely assume that this delegation of spiritual authority will spread in a hierarchical fashion. The purely administrative structure is now imbued with divine power of the Spirit. With the leaders now filled with the Spirit, Moses is no longer alone. Together they may help the people progress beyond unbelief to inherit the promised land.

Truth

The church must not mistake form for substance, and appearance of liveliness for fruitfulness.

A leafy tree gives an impression of fruitfulness from distance. Jesus saw a fig tree from a distance. But on closer examination found nothing on it except leaves. Hence, Jesus cursed it by saying, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” – Matthew 21:19b. Here, Jesus took swipe at the mainstream church of that time that bore no fruit. What Jesus wants is fruit of the Spirit, not an appearance of liveliness. What Moses had established through Jethro’s counsel is likened to a huge leafy tree devoid of fruit. It had clear structure, but no life of the Spirit. And the people continued to live in unbelief testing God throughout the wilderness journey.

Christendom today must be careful not to mistake form for substance, and appearance of liveliness for fruitfulness. We are not to mistake passionate worship for love of God, knowledge for faith, membership for discipleship, service for sacrifice, fellowship for communion in the Spirit, wealth for divine favour, organisational structure for unity, titles for divine authority, correctness for wisdom and lawfulness for spirituality.

Fruitfulness must not be mistaken for ministry participation

What is fruitfulness?

While hypocrisy is born out of sin and darkness, fruitfulness is born entirely out of pure and divine love. As the fruitfulness of a tree can only be observed through closer examination, likewise, the fruitfulness (or lack of it) in a person is observed through his responses to certain situations:

  • How he forgives the one who harmed him.
  • How he put the interests of the community before his own.
  • How he cover the sins of others by not exposing them to open shame.
  • How he appreciates and exalts those who are working in inconspicuous roles.
  • How he actively reaches out to those who are lost.
  • How he provides for those who are helpless.
  • How he comforts those who are sorrowful.
  • How he stands up for the truth.
  • How he reaches out to the lonely.
  • How he seeks God to be intimate with Him.
  • How he seeks out God’s will in the decisions of life.
  • How he stays faithful in doing God’s will despite set backs.
  • How he exercises divine authority in impossible situations.

Therefore, the church must systematically disciple members with the purpose of bearing the fruit of love. By watching over the disciples and observing how they respond to various situations, we understand not only their virtues and strengths, but also their wounds and inner darkness. A spiritual inventory can be created for each disciple to track their spiritual formation. And through the ministry of spiritual gifts, they may be healed and made whole.

Fruitfulness takes time and much pruning.

Normally, if a believer is willing to take on greater responsibilities in a ministry, he is considered to be doing well and growing in fruitfulness. That is a grave misjudgement. In fact, a large proportion of believers in the ministry today have yet to develop the necessary virtues and faith for it. They harbour impure motives and secret agendas. Therefore, it is important that believers be given time to grow and have their faith tested before they enter into ministry work. While the spiritually immature tend to become disillusioned in the course of the ministry, some also go on to infect others with their hypocrisy, strife and cancer. I once heard the wife of a church pastor said to her children, “When daddy is in church, he is like an angel. But when daddy is at home, he is like the devil. So let us all move to live in the church so that daddy can be like an angel to us.” It is easy to overlook our shortcomings when we are in the thick of the action while being lauded by all.

Therefore, the pastor must realign his aspirations and take time and effort to develop his people. He must not to put people into ministry work prematurely. God did not immediately empower the leaders with divine authority but only days after Jethro’s administrative restructuring. Similarly, Jesus did not immediately empower the 70 to send them out but had their motives tested before doing so. The problems the churches are facing today is largely attributed to the lack of maturity and fruitfulness among its leaders and members.

What is the primary ministry of the believer?

It is to bear fruit by bringing harmony to their families, justice in the workplace and hope to all they meet. In other words, the primary ministry of the believer is to be fruitful in the real world. On the day of judgment, Jesus will say to the righteous,

“‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ – Matthew 25:34-40

Believers are not to be religious or churchy. We are to be fruitful first in our earthly family and the family of faith, then in the community and the nation.

Moses and his leaders wore out because they were focused on the ministry work of judging the people short of transforming them. The disputes kept coming because the people’s hearts were fleshly and self-serving. The only solution is to first transform these leaders by the Spirit, only then can they be fruitful in their families, then in the ministry and in all aspects of life.

Unless the leader grows the whole body stagnates

The manner in which the Spirit is imparted.

Notice the manner in which God imbued the 70 elders with the Spirit:… and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them. The Spirit the elders received did not come directly from God, but from Moses. This has always been the process through which God’s blessings come upon the children of God. Be it inheritances, divine virtues, wisdom, authority or covenantal blessings, they flow from father to children, from teacher to disciples, and from shepherd to the flock. That also goes to say that be it children, disciples or the flock, their blessing is limited by what their father, teacher or shepherd possess.

The leader cannot impart to his followers what he does not yet possess.

The leader’s mandate is to be the vessel through which the gifts and fruit of the Spirit are imparted to the flock. How can a leader become an effective vessel for that purpose? Firstly, he must be exemplary in manifesting the fruit and gifts of the Spirit. Secondly, the people must be convinced that he is a man/woman anointed with supernatural abilities. Thirdly, the people must submit under him and be discipled. Therefore, the leader must make Christ-likeness his goal and not be distracted by things of secondary importance (e.g. the operations of the organisation he serves). Whether it be divine virtues, wisdom, or authority, the leader cannot impart to his followers what he does not yet possess.

The body of Christ helps believers become more Christ-like.

That said, no one leader or believer possesses all the qualities of Christ. But the body of Christ does. Therefore, believers in the body are to submit to one another so that each may learn and become more Christ-like. While it is wise for the pastor to look outside for gifted ministers to fulfil their lack, it remains that leaders must grow so that they may impart something to their followers. For example, a leader or believer may not be competent in exercising the gift of healing and he seeks help from another. That may satisfy an immediate concern to heal some really sick people. But for the sake of Christ-likeness, it remains that the leader acquire the healing gift for himself and operate in it. Jesus gave spiritual gifts to the twelve, and subsequently for the seventy (see Luke 9:1, 10:1). Spiritual gifts and divine authority is on Jesus’s list of “must haves” for His followers.

The leader or believer who puts Christ-likeness as his goal will acquire all of Christ’s virtues, wisdom and authority. But one who puts ministry as the goal is focused on satisfying the people’s need. While both are important, the leader must pursue Christ-likeness as his primary goal so that his flock will continue to grow. A church that is centred around ministry needs and missions will stagnate. But the church that is focused on acquiring Christ’s attributes of virtues, wisdom and authority will continue to grow and fulfil its mission.

Everyone is a leader in his own right.

Be it in the context of a family or organisation, leaders must above all seek to acquire all the fruit, wisdom and gifts of Christ. In so doing, his family or organisation will continue to grow as the leader grows. But a church or organisation that is focused on importing external talents will experience high turnover and with it endless human resource problems. No doubt, the body of Christ possesses all the gifts of Christ and we are called to complement one another. However, it is every believer’s goal to conform to Christ’s image by acquiring all that He possesses: virtues, wisdom and authority.

Application

How do we acquire the fruit and the gifts of Christ? The Holy Spirit is sent to help believers build the necessary foundations so that we may become like Christ in all His glory. The apostle Paul said concerning the New Covenant freedom,

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:17-18

Firstly, we must cast off the notions and the spirit of the Old Covenant that hinder us from perceiving and receiving Christ’s glory. The Old Covenant mindset says that it is not possible to acquire all of Christ’s virtues, wisdom and authority. The New Covenant brings the Spirit into play that frees us to become like Christ in all His glory.

Secondly, study how Christ lived and emulate Him in every aspect of His life: His love, wisdom and resurrection power that He displayed through His work on the cross.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. – Ephesians 5:1-2

Thirdly, raise your personal experiences with Christ from an earthly to a heavenly level. This is done by seeking Christ’s face in the Spirit. By seeking Him relentlessly, He brings us into the heavenly reality to understand how He operates. Through Christ’s resurrection power, the believer’s spirit is liberated to encounter Christ in heaven and experience the realities there.

Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. – Colossians 3:1-2

When Christ ascended to heaven, He operates different from the way He operates on earth. Having ascended to heaven, He is given all authority and He is no longer bounded by space or by fleshly limitations. As we seek Him through continual meditations and fasting, the Spirit brings us into the heavenly reality with tangible experiences. The early church experienced that new reality on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came: the fire, the heat, the sound, and the wind. And Philip the evangelist began to operate in the new reality while preaching in the territories of Samaria. He worked with angels that teleported him from place to place (Acts 8:39-40). In the new reality, believers are no longer constrained by earthly laws and principles.

Dear Lord, I commit myself to seek your face daily. Cause me to encounter you and experience the new and heavenly reality. Free my mind from false notions and archaic teachings that hinder me from acquiring divine virtues, wisdom and power. Cause me to be fruitful in my church, family and to serve the people of the nations. In Jesus’s name I pray. Amen.


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