Great to see some of you at the King’s Birthday Conference this week in Sydney.
In the week leading up to the conference (with Phillip preparing his talk and struggling with a bout of covid), I had a chat with Ken Noakes about the subject of Christian maturity and its essential nature. Ken has written a unique and helpful book on the subject, and I started by asking him the basic question that I think all authors want to be asked.
Why did you write this book?
KN: I'm not sure I sat down to write a book. This was really written as a working discipleship manual, over a long period of time–about three years. And it came out of something I love doing as a pastor, that is reading the Bible with people, often one to one. I'll go off, sit in a cafe with them, will open some passage, we'll talk through it and see how it might apply into our lives as we listen to what God has to say.
And what I found was, as I was meeting with people over the years, there were four different types of conversation, depending on where the person was spiritually. So the first type of conversation is with the people who are checking out Jesus. They'd be asking all sorts of questions about Jesus, and my answers, or the passages we're looking at in the Bible are trying to address whatever those particular concerns might be. Part of what’s written into this book are really elements that help you understand who Jesus is, and what that might mean for you if you're to be a disciple.
Another group of people that I might be reading the Bible with is someone who is a new believer. So they’ve committed their life to Christ, but what was the step next—and so really, I'm trying to think through what the new believer is needing to understand from the Bible so they might walk with Christ. In that sense, learning the essentials.
The third group of people was the mature believer. As a pastor, it's such a joy to meet with people who have walked in faith for long periods of time. But often, when we’ve walked in faith for a long period of time, we now know so much of the Christian life that sometimes we get distracted by all of the things that we can be doing as a Christian. And so I thought it'd be helpful to do some type of stocktake, to go back to the essentials–what must we make sure that we are thinking clearly about and have applied into our Christian lives, so that when we are distracted, we know what is essential.
And then the fourth group was the people who were doubting their faith and were living that faith out with all sorts of conflictions that they were trying to work through. And they were looking for assurance of some type. So again, this book tries to address some of those doubts. Often those doubts are driven because they are living in a world that is dark, that has got strong opinions that are often different to what the Bible calls us as a Christian to live like, a contrast between what the world is saying and what God is saying. And those doubts are often driven by that contrast.
So the topics were chosen from thinking about how do we live and love, being a disciple of Jesus? And I found that there were nine that were worth making sure you have in place. The first one is saved by grace–that is the foundation and absolute starting point, particularly in a world that says you have to do everything. But then what does that relationship of being saved in grace look like? So the next two topics are grounded in the Word and faithful in prayer. We hear how he speaks to us, we get to communicate with him. Then you have a whole series of topics where really the order probably isn't as important: bold witness, resilience and suffering, committed in membership, loving in relationships, godly in giving. Often the conversations we have will be a pressure point in some way, but all of that is academic unless it's actually put into practice. So we finish the book off with being fruitful in service, because that's where the rubber does hit the road.
Another way of saying all this is that we move from principle to practice rather than the other way around. And I think we can often get that messed up, because the practice is what we're living out. And the principle we see is revealed there in Scripture for us to then be able to work out how to take that principle out into practice.
The Format of the Book
TP: Now I’ve been in publishing for a long time, and I've read plenty (and even written one or two) books about Christian living, and discipleship, and so on. But you've approached it in a unique way, not just in the topics you've chosen, but also in the way you framed each chapter. Can you explain what the format of each chapter is and how that came about?
KN: Yes, the way I structured the chapters is pretty much the same as the structure of the whole book, from principle to practice. I want us to be able to do business with God in his word, I want us to think through the principle of each of those particular topics. But by the end of the chapter I want to leave you thinking, “How do I practically apply that now into my Christian life in some way?”
So each chapter really has three parts. It starts with a first person reflection from the book of Acts, and I'll come back and explain why. The second part is a Bible study where I really point out a couple of passages and get you to work through what the Bible is saying on the particular topic. And then the third is the topic, the way I would address it, which finishes off with moving from principle to practice saying, “How do we then put that into practice?”
Often, when I read amazing books on discipleship, I will read the writer or the commentators' view on the particular topic. So what I wanted to do with this one was to put the Bible study before the content of the chapter, because I'd much rather people did business with what God is saying to them before they worry about some schmuck like me, writing what I think of what God says. Just like you would in a Bible study with someone, where you would look at the passage and what it is saying first, before you offer what you think to help clarify that.
In that sense, it's a systematic treatment; I want us to be able to look systematically at what the Bible is saying so that we can do good theology. And so that's where the Acts reflections came in. As you know, Acts is such an extraordinary book in the canon of Scripture, because it creates that bridge from the promises and the covenant of the Old Testament and the reality of the gospels that we see fulfilled with Jesus, and then the commission to go out and actually do what you're supposed to do, which then flows out into the rest of the letters of the New Testament. And I don't think it's a surprise then that if these are essential characteristics of a follower of Jesus, then you should probably see them in the first Christians that we see documented in the Acts of the Apostles.
So what I did was I took some of the people you meet in the Acts narrative and did a first person retelling; not creative writing, but writing that actually goes, “Oh, look at that, I can see that in the text.” And in that sense, not bring it to life, but give it a character that I can now relate to because I'm a Christian, like they were in Acts trying to work out how to live this out. Then the rest of the chapter kind of teases that out through the Bible study and the topical address.
Love in Relationships
TP: It would be good to take one of your nine characteristics, and use it as an example of the approach of the book and give people a taste of how it works. Let’s choose ‘love in relationships’. The summary of that chapter says: “The world says All You Need Is Love. And we can define love to be whatever we choose. But God says love others in a way that is both pleasing and acceptable to me.” Why is this characteristic of the Christian life important?
KN: I think Christians talk quite a lot about loving one another. It’s our expectation of the Christian life, and I don't know many Christians who aren't trying to be loving. And yet I'm told over and over again by the world how unloving Christians are. In fact, we're hateful. And so I think that particular chapter is my way of trying to say, “What does God say about how you actually genuinely love? And why does that look different to the way the world is saying you should be loving?”
TP: Yes, that's a very important subject. I'm going to ask you to read the story–the first person Acts reflection–that begins this chapter, just to give people a taste of how this starts, and then we'll talk a little bit more about the chapter.
A voice from Acts: “I needed to obey … even if it meant loving my enemy.”
Inspired by Acts 9:10-19
Have you ever been asked to do something that just feels wrong?
I remember hearing God’s call. And I remember thinking that nothing seemed right about what I was being asked to do!
As a follower of Jesus, I had been so encouraged to see the gospel work in Damascus going from strength to strength. More and more people in my home city were hearing about Jesus and becoming his disciples. It was exciting.
But then we heard a rumour. Saul of Tarsus was on his way to Damascus. This was unsettling to say the least.
Saul had led the charge against many followers of ‘the Way’. He had issued murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples and had arranged permission from the high priest to travel around the synagogues seeking out Christians to imprison for their faith. He was a piece of work. There were even stories about him looking on approvingly as Stephen was stoned outside Jerusalem.
We all knew the threat he posed.
And then the Lord called out to me in a vision: “Ananias! Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He will be praying, and he will be expecting you, because in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias restore his sight.”
What? Surely this was a cruel joke.
If this was the same man we feared, this was a suicide mission! I had to say something. “Lord,” I said, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm that he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. He has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name!”
And I will never forget what the Lord said next. “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.”
Now I had a choice. I could listen to my fear, reject the words I had heard from my Lord as a falsehood, and selfishly walk the other way; or I could love like my Lord, which would require me to regard his words as truth and obey them—even if it meant loving my enemy.
I went to Straight Street.
Pushed open the door.
Cautiously entered the house.
Saw a man at prayer.
Looked at this man, who couldn’t see me and didn’t know I was there.
I still could have run. I wanted to. I hated the things that he had done.
But I placed my hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit”.
Immediately, a substance like scales fell from Saul’s eyes. He could see again. It was all as the Lord had said it would be.
I am glad I didn’t run. Saul was baptized, and ever since that moment he has served the Lord with more zeal than anyone I’ve known. Now he is known as Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. What an unfathomable change!
It wasn’t comfortable for me to do as God told me. This man was an enemy of everything I believed in. I did not want to love him—it all felt completely wrong! Yet now Paul is my brother in Christ. I am so glad that I trusted God and obeyed his call.
TP: The story of Ananias is an extraordinary story. When we read that part of Acts we tend to focus on Saul who went through this extraordinary turnaround. But you beautifully brought out what it would have been like for Ananias. And what an example it is of loving your enemies, which is the distinctively Christian kind of love.
KN: Yeah, absolutely. I think In order to understand Christian love, we need to see it as a sacrificial love for others that is both pleasing and acceptable to God before it is to the world. And often we can get that the wrong way around, as if I need to be loving in the eyes of the world, and God will be happy with that. No, not necessarily. In actual fact, we're given quite clear instruction that to love well, to be Christianly loving, is to do it in a way that is pleasing and acceptable to God first because what it means to really love someone is to pursue what's best for them. Because love really is seeking after that good and wanting it for somebody else, and seeing that good in someone else. And it's why, theologically speaking, without a vision of who God is, without an understanding of what he regards and teaches us is good–which he of course, is the highest and greatest–without understanding the good in God and wanting that for someone, I really can't love them.
And you know, that perfect love which is described so well. In 1 John it is seen in the Godhead of Father, Son, and Spirit. If you take God out of the picture, then love will start to look very different. We live in a world where God has been removed from the picture. And so it's not really a surprise that the love that we are now seeking out also now looks very different.
And what the chapter tries to do is show that there is a relationship between love, truth and obedience; they work together. If you get any one of those wrong, then you end up with a different type of love. So without love, truth will not be valued. Without truth, it's difficult to know how to obey. Without obedience, it's impossible to demonstrate true love. It works together. And what I think and what I argue in the chapter is that each of those key qualities has now been replaced by the world for something else. And the result of that is we end up with, well, a very fallen and not trustworthy and hopeful love, which everyone seems to be upset about.
How can we make good use of this book?
KN: Well, I’d really like it to be read. You know, books on shelves look good, but they don't actually help. So it is good to be read, and then to give it away, to be honest. Give it somebody else who can then read it and hopefully benefit from it. And I hope individually, people will be upheld. And even though you could just sit down and read it and go through it, you might not get the most out of it that way. But you could read each chapter over a week. Start with the Acts reflection on one day, do the Bible study over the next two days, read the topic chapter on the next two days, and then think about the application on the following day and then go to church and talk about it with someone.
Perhaps another way to use the book—and this is probably the way I use it—is to read it one to one with people. Read the Acts reflection as a way of getting yourself into it. Sit down, do the Bible study together, send them away to read the topic, so that you've got something to then talk about when you next see one another or challenge one and over either WhatsApp or Messenger or whatever it is, about how you put it into play. So there's the 1-to-1 or 1-to-2 or 1-to-small group type of reading.
But you could also use it as a growth group or Bible study group manual in that there are Bible studies that could be written and done as a Bible study group. And again, leaving the group to go away to read the chapter and talk about it on the next Sunday. So I really hope it will get into people's hands and be used as that sort of discipleship manual and create a lot of discussion.
TP: Ken, thanks for taking the time and trouble to turn your pastoral conversations into a book. It’s very well done, and will be very useful in many different ministry contexts.
The book is: Christian Essentials: 9 key characteristics of every follower of Jesus, by Ken Noakes. You can get it at any good Christian bookstore, or direct from the publisher, Matthias Media, by clicking the link above.
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