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The Apostle Paul thought about this a LOT!

Updated: Mar 21



(Today, we are sharing the final part in a series we are doing on Spiritual Formation in the Bible and its importance for believers today.)


Spiritual Formation Within the Christian Community

Community formation weighs heavily on Paul. He writes his letters to churches and leaders in hopes that “Christ is formed” (Gal. 4:19) in his spiritual children. Thompson writes that Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians arrived “only months after the establishment of this community.”[1] Paul is tasked with something “unprecedented in antiquity.”[2] He is going to create NT communities where the only thing many members have in common is their belief in Jesus as Messiah. Jews and Gentiles did not fellowship together.


“[Women] were treated in ways similar to property,”[3] says David deSilva. The situation with Philemon, Paul, and Onesimus could not have occurred before Jesus. Philemon “quite possibly ha[d] even supported Paul with material assistance,”[4] making him Paul’s patron. In Greco-Roman culture, the client (Paul) was subservient to the patron, yet Paul writes to Philemon as the one in authority (Phlm 8), and he is strongly requesting that he treat a runaway slave as a brother (v. 16).


In fact, by mentioning other leaders (v. 23–24), Paul ensures the letter will be read publicly in the house church. This shows that the New Testament community was different from anything seen in either the synagogue or Roman culture. It also gives evidence of the powerful change that the gospel produces in disciples. In any given NT gathering, you could find men, women, Jews, Gentles, slaves, and owners worshiping as one in Messiah. It’s no wonder Paul constantly emphasized humility and unity (Phil. 2:1–4, 1 Cor 3:1–17).


Elders and Equippers

Paul’s ecclesiology has elders leading these communities. The elder is a governmental office (1 Tim 5:17). Accusations against elders (and presumably others) are brought to elders (1 Tim 5:19). Elders rebuke those in sin publicly (1 Tim 5:20). Elders rule with the apostles (cf. Acts 15:4) in dealing with controversy. We should be slow in appointing elders (1 Tim. 5:22) to make sure they are living godly lives (1 Tim 3:1-7). Elders and other leaders function in the equipping gifts: apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher (Eph 4:11). The gifts come from Jesus and these leaders equip the saints for ministry and build up the body (v. 12). The goal is that the body would be unified in the faith and in our knowledge of the Messiah—to be mature (v. 13). These leaders protect the body from false doctrine (v. 15). The elder is called to govern the while the equipping leaders teach and train believers. In many cases they are the same people (cf.2 Tim 4:5).


Two activities that believers regularly engage in for community formation are worship and hearing the exposition of the word of God. The Bible has much to say about both subjects and how they cause spiritual formation. Lowe claims that “two of the central ministry experiences that contribute to mutual growth of the body,” which we learned about in the last section on ecology, “are worship and preaching.”[5]



What is Worship?

The Bible doesn’t give a clear definition of worship. The average Christian conjures up images of a band or organ and song leader in a congregation, leading the people in songs directed toward God. That certainly is part of worship; the Psalms are full of expressions of using music to honor God (Ps 149:1, 3, 150:3–5), David dances his way into Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:14), and Miriam employed the use of a tambourine and song to express gratefulness to the God who brought Israel through the Red Sea. Yet, worship in the Bible is much more comprehensive than simply music.


Professor Michael Morrison says, “The English word worship comes from two Old English words: weorth, which means ‘worth,’ and scipe or ship, which means something like shape or quality.”


He shares that friendship reveals a friend’s quality, and sportsmanship refers to being a good sport. “When we worship, we are saying that God has worth, that he is worthy.”[6] We value him (worth) well (ship). Worship is 1) being in awe of God and 2) expressing it through words, service, and even silence (Ps. 131:1-2). Richard Averbeck writes, “From early Genesis . . . to the end of Revelation . . . worship is at the core of spiritual life.”[7] He adds, “Worship of the triune God is the most spiritually formative practice available to us as Christians.”[8] There is little formation if the believer does not properly value God.


Morrison says that worship is expressed in three primary ways. 1) speaking, 2) listening, and 3) serving.[9] Serving is primarily expressed through sacrifice. One of the words for worship stems from the root avad, “to work” (cf. Exod 23:24). From here, we also get the noun eved, “slave” (cf. Gen 50:18). When the Levites made sacrifices, they avdoo “served” Yahweh. Another action is to bow down and prostrate oneself before God. 


Service: The first act of worship occurs with Cain and Abel. But by the definition above, Cain’s sacrifice was not considered worship; God did not “regard” sha’ah (Gen 4:5) or “look with favor” as DBL Hebrew defines it,[10] upon his offering, while he did upon Abel’s. Simply singing the right songs is not worship; there is a heart attitude that God expects. The first time we see the word worship used is in Genesis 22:5, where Abraham takes Isaac to be sacrificed, telling his servants that they plan to worship on the mountain.


Abraham is about to sacrifice his son of promise. He does not want to kill his son but desires to obey Yahweh. This is a deep act of sacrificial worship. Once he arrives, he does not utter a word. Averbeck bluntly says, “There are times when there is really nothing positive to say.”[11] Worship, in this case, was both the act of attempting the costly sacrifice and Abraham’s obedience by being willing to give up Isaac. Averbeck says, “[T]rue authentic worship is the bringing of one’s life and concerns to God so that they might be set before him and worked through in his presence.”[12] This was a loyalty test, and Abraham passed (Gen 22:15). Esau McCaulley tells us the Hebrew verb “to sacrifice” l’haqriv is the causative form of karav, “to draw close.”[13] Sacrificing for the kingdom brings us closer to God (Phil 3:10b).


Speaking: The second time we see the word “worship” is with Abraham’s servant, who is sent on a mission to find a wife for Isaac (Gen 24). His act of worship is quite different than his master’s. Abraham’s worship was his obedience. In Genesis 24:26, the servant is overwhelmed by the favor of God when God brings Rebekah to him, and the text says, “[He] bowed his head and worshiped the Lord.” Out of the overflow of gratefulness, words are formed: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen” (Gen 24:27). This type of spontaneous prophetic utterance, where one responds to the goodness of the Lord, is seen elsewhere in scripture. Just as her namesake on the Red Sea shores, Miriam, the mother of Yeshua, “magnified the Lord” (Luke 1:46) when Elizabeth confirmed by the Spirit that she was carrying the Messiah in her womb.


Listening: OT scholar William Dryness speaks extensively of God’s self-revelation in Scripture, describing it as the “focal point of revelation.” Revealing who he is, “his person and character, precedes . . . the revelation of his purposes.”[14] Roff Renteroff writes, “[Y]ahweh himself becomes visible in his powerful acts of salvation. He becomes known through these acts; whoever sees or experiences them can know God in them.”[15] G. Dan Harris calls these acts “God Events” (the Exodus miracles, God answers Elijah by fire, etc.), “where the Israelites saw God most clearly revealing Himself to them.”[16] Encountering God’s self-revelation in nature can bring a sense of awe to our souls. While most worship expects words or action, sometimes it is in complete silence, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).


Averbeck focuses on the phrase “call on the name of the Lord.”[17] “Lord” here is specific: Yahweh, not the generic Adonai. With the birth of Seth’s son Enosh, K. A. Mathews says the text (Gen 4:26b) “announces a new direction in formal worship.”[18] Soon, we find Abram (Gen 12:8) and Isaac (Gen 26:25) both using this phraseology when building altars to Yahweh. The false prophets “called on the name of Baal,” but he did not answer. When Elijah calls on Yahweh, fire comes from heaven. Salvation comes when anyone calls out to Yahweh (Joel 2:32).


Preaching and Formation

Harry Shields laments the lack of enthusiasm for expository preaching today. “Why is it that preaching is viewed as a relic left over from some of the glory days of the church?”[19] he asks. How much is this due to our post-modern, fast-paced era, where people bring their anti-boredom systems “smart phones” into church? And how much is this because many preachers are simply not interesting or well-prepared? Shields quotes John Stott in saying, “Theology is more important than methodology.” Yet, a creative presentation of theological truth that taps not only into the intellect but also into emotions is more likely to have an impact and be remembered.


Preaching that causes formation must be more than information being passed along. Robertson McQuilkin writes, “Holy Spirit-anointed preaching is the means that seems best designed to aid spiritual formation.”[20] He suggests four “indispensables” to develop this type of preaching: “Our preaching should be Bible-based, Spirit-energized, verdict-demanding, and audience-connected.”[21] Such quality preaching takes commitment to Bible study, disciplines for empowerment, and homiletic creativity. People should walk away from a sermon in awe of God.


This is the same for gospel preaching as for preaching to believers. In the “New Testament, preaching was the primary means that God used to transform people.”[22] When Peter preached on Shavuot, his Jewish hearers were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37).



As mentioned, cooperating with the Holy Spirit is key to obtaining such power in preaching. While many people argue over whether there is a second blessing or Spirit baptism for service, no one can say that Peter wasn’t a different person post-Pentecost. He was the most mistake-prone disciple in the Gospels, but he preaches with authority after his Spirit encounter. When Jesus opened the Scriptures, the people understood the qualitative difference in his preaching versus the typical rabbi of the day. His Jewish hearers “were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority” (Luke 4:32). McQuilkin says the preacher touched by the Spirit will have an “inner sense of the Spirit’s presence,” he will be “unconditionally yielded, fully at the disposal of the Spirit” and there will be tangible fruit in the life of his hearers.[23]


While solid theological exposition and Holy Spirit empowerment are foremost, the preacher must also know how to connect to his hearers. McQuilkin refers to a homiletics professor who speaks to students in Swahili and then tells them they will be tested on the content. This technique itself is good homiletics. “There’s no point in talking your own language to someone who doesn’t understand it.” [24] Paul was brilliant in speaking to Jewish rabbis and Greek philosophers. He understood that proclaiming that Jesus had fulfilled OT prophecies would not work with his Mars Hill audience.


Summary

Combining the different themes of this chapter, an effective equipping (cf. Eph 4:11-14) preacher has been awed, scarred, and branded by God. In the Dead Sea region of Israel, there are many wadis—dry riverbeds. Over the centuries, the waters that rushed down from the mountains near Jerusalem into the Judean desert during the winter flash floods have left their marks on these wadis. They tell a story. In the same way, the preacher who seeks to have God move through him has allowed the Holy Spirit to leave his marks—through sufferings, persecution, and victories—on his soul. Only then will he have something of substance to offer his hearers.


Conclusion

There are dozens of top-selling books on spiritual formation. Fathers of the modern formation movement, such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster, challenged the believers to seek a more robust and holistic discipleship experience. Evangelicals began to concern themselves with the practices and disciplines of pre-Reformation figures such as the desert father Anthony, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila. We learned about the disciples of lectio divina, contemplative prayer, solitude, fasting, humility, etc. However, a robust theology of spiritual formation has been lacking and has made more than a few skeptics see it as something spooky, connected to Eastern mysticism.


This series aimed to give a basic theological undergirding of the impetus behind spiritual formation. The case was made in these pages that spiritual formation is profoundly biblical. Mankind was created in the “image of God” (Gen 1:26). God “formed” (Gen 2:7) Adam from the dust of the earth before breathing life into his nostrils, causing his soul to come to life. Paul wants to see his disciples formed into Christ (Gal 4:19) and tells the Corinthians that as we contemplate Jesus we will be transformed (2 Cor 4:18). He wants the Romans to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2) by learning to love, hate evil, be devoted to one another, honor each other, be zealous for God, be joyful, be patient, and be people of prayer. He wants them to “show hospitality, bless their enemies, “live in harmony with one another,” and reject pride (v. 9-16).


This is the difference between discipleship and formation. Discipleship can give someone tools for growth, but only God’s Spirit can form the character and heart of Jesus in a believer. Said another way, we cannot become like Jesus apart from Jesus. This is spiritual formation.



 

[1] Thompson, The Church According to Paul, 23.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] While women were treated as property, deSilva says the evidence is not clear if they were regarded as property. David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 203, Kindle.

[4] Ibid., 128.

[5] Stephen Lowe, “Worship, Preaching, and Spiritual Formation,” Liberty University, accessed February 26, 2024, 00:34, https://canvas.liberty.edu/courses/581417/pages/watch-worship-preaching-and-spiritual-formation?module_item_id=61391511

[6] Michael Morrison, “What Is Worship? A Survey of the Bible,” Grace Communion Seminary, accessed March 2, 2024, https://learn.gcs.edu/mod/page/view.php?id=4256.

[7] Richard Averbeck, “Worship and Spiritual Formation,” in Foundations of Spiritual Formation, ed. Paul Pettit (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008), 51.

[8] Ibid., 52.

[9] Morrison, “What Is Worship? A Survey of the Bible.”

[10] Swanson, DBL Hebrew, sha’ah.

[11] Averbeck, “Worship and Spiritual Formation,” 59.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Esau McCaulley, “Worship,” ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).

[14] William Dyrness, Themes in Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1980), 25.

[15] Rolf Rendtorff, “The Concept of Revelation in Ancient Israel,” in Revelation as History, ed. Wolfhart Pannenberg (London, UK: Sheed and Ward, 1968), 32.

[16] G. Dan Harris, “The Central Event View of Human History Model (CEM). An Apologetic for a Christ-Centered Christian View of Human History,” (Phd Diss., Liberty University, 2017), 100, Doctoral Dissertations and Projects, 1412, https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/doctoral/1412.

[17] Averbeck, “Worship and Spiritual Formation,” 57.

[18] K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 292.

[19] Harry Shields, “Preaching and Spiritual Formation” in Foundations of Spiritual Formation, ed. Paul Pettit (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008), 246.

[20] Robertson McQuilkin, “Spiritual Formation Through Preaching,” in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, eds. Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson (Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 48, Kindle.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Shields, “Preaching and Spiritual Formation” 248.

[23] McQuilkin, “Spiritual Formation Through Preaching,” 51.

[24] Ibid., 53.

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