Many of nature’s processes have phases to them: the timetable of the tides, the patterns of weather, the life-cycle of flowers, the four seasons. Human life has its phases too. There are those which form the overarching timeline of conception to death. There are also those which come round in regular cycles, as famously captured in the ‘Life is a hamster-wheel’ poem of Ecclesiastes 3, with its drumbeat of ‘a time to…’
Phases, however, are not limited to the physical realm. When you read of God’s dealings with Israel in the Gospels and Acts, you discover the spiritual realm has such features too: there were clear stages in the Lord’s work in the first century.
But mapping those out is not just a matter of historical interest; it can actually be very helpful to us. With care, the map will guide us in thinking about the Lord’s work today.
Yes, we have to remember that Israel was a unique nation at a unique moment. A long history with God was coming to its rapid end, ‘this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world’ (Luke 11:50).
Nonetheless, seeing the different seasons of the Lord’s gospel work in Israel over that 70 year period can equip us to read our own times better. We need that skill.
Why? Because it helps us with the angst often felt about the weakness of gospel churches in the UK. When few are repenting and being baptised, pressure understandably builds for evangelism to be the dominating focus of church life.
This results in the production of new resources, the holding of conferences, the setting up of networks and training, the writing of books, the analysing of statistics, the inventing of slogans, the preaching of sermons, the telling of anecdotes and the recounting of pithy proverbs all with the goal of pushing for more/better evangelism.
But often we’d be better helped by pausing to reflect upon the Lord’s phases in the building of his kingdom and then living our church lives in the light of what He is presently doing in our place and time.
So let’s try to do just that: let’s see what phases are detectable in Israel in the New Testament. I’ll describe seven, using a farmer metaphor to help our minds picture what’s happening.
First come the conceptions, births and early years of John and Jesus. This is mostly a quiet period of gospel work, though with occasional outbursts of song and drama. It might be compared with a farmer in the midst of winter preparing the tools which he’ll use once it’s time for him to get into the fields.
After a number of years, John the Baptist begins preaching repentance, ploughing up Israel to hear the Lord soon. The farmer is now out on the land, turning over the soil ready for sowing.
Jesus arrives, is baptised, tested in the wilderness and then launches his ministry. The work requires a team which can scatter the word widely and quickly (Luke 9:1,2; 10:1). Sowing is taking place on the farm with hopes of a crop, although the farmer knows not all the seed will reach full harvest (Luke 8:5-15).
The Lord dies. His workers wait nervously, uncertain what their futures will be because they have failed to grasp his teaching, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’. (John 12:24). Terrible weather has struck the farm and the farmer fears that the crops are lost.
Then comes the resurrection and ascension! The ‘dead grain of wheat’ has grown into new life; many more will follow (see 1 Corinthians 15:20). So at Israel’s harvest festival of firstfruits, Pentecost, the sowers become reapers, gathering in great quantities of crops that the Lord predicted but which they couldn’t see, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field’. (Luke 10:2). The farmer’s fears are unrealised. Instead, he happily fills his barns as waves of harvesting follow on from the firstfruits (Acts 4:4), sometimes centred on a particular crop (Acts 6:7). It’s a busy season.
The Jerusalem church settles down to learning the apostles’ teaching and living in loving unity, albeit with lots of trouble too, as Jesus predicted. But her resources are plentiful and her life matures, glorifying God on the earth (Matthew 5:13-16) and hinting at the world which is to come. The farmer now, rightly, enjoys the good food he has grown and brought in.
But a time is approaching when the believers will flee as Jesus commanded (Mark 13:14). Jerusalem will be left with no church, to face the terrible judgment of ad 70 which the Lord predicted for her. However, amongst the Gentiles great crops are now being both sown and reaped. The farmer has received and enjoyed an abundant harvest. But changes in his area mean his fields will lie fallow. So he travels to help his brother who farms elsewhere.
There, then, is a sketch map of the Lord’s work in the first century of his kingdom. Lots more detail would improve it. But, hopefully, we can see a little of the phases he used. Let’s list them:
(1) quiet period of preparation; (2) disruptive period of shaking up lives; (3) sowing period of preaching the gospel and hoping for harvest; (4) unnerving period, where it seems all might have been lost; (5) harvesting period, seeing many converted, often in waves; (6) settled period of maturing using the many resources available; (7) fallow period where the gospel has no impact. Each of these can still be found in the Lord’s kingdom activity today. Think about gospel endeavour across the globe.
(1) Some places have no witness but the Lord is quietly preparing those who will go. (2) Other locations are passing through a ploughing period which is breaking hearts to receive the gospel. (3) There are people groups who are presently very open to hearing the good news. (4) Some areas which have received intensive gospel work are now waiting to see what will be harvested. (5) But others have the joy of many being converted and brought into the church – praise God! (6) In parts of the world with a long gospel history, churches are settled, well-resourced and able to stand firm and, indeed, provide help to others. (7) However, some of those are now entering a period in which the gospel is ignored, so that churches have to work to manage their survival or, even, closure.
But does 21st century kingdom activity really fall into such neat categories? No, it isn’t as simple as that for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the mobility of our age – the movement of folk around the world. So we have to use the map with care.
Yet if we recognise that, then it can help us to analyse and understand our own circumstances in a way which is useful for setting right priorities, targeting our resources and maintaining our morale.
How does it apply to you? That’s for you to work out. But for many churches in the UK, number (7) is generally what we’re facing. Not entirely so: in the Lord’s kindness we see occasional conversions and also believers joining us from other lands. Nonetheless, we typically live with the strains of the fallow phase.
Let’s not lose heart, however. Angst over our weakness is not easy to lay aside. But let’s remember that each phase has its place in the plans of the sovereign Lord. Our situation is not pointless because it’s not a time of reaping. We just need to be thoughtful about how we can best honour our Saviour in our lives and churches, and not burden ourselves with the wrong worries.
Pastor of Forest Baptist Church, Leytonstone, London