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The New Testament and Spiritual Formation, Part 3



Over the past week, because of you, we were able to bless two battalions and one unit with meat for banquets with their families.


Tonight was the third, and these soldiers sent us a video to thank you. And thank you, dear friends, for standing with Israel during this most difficult time. The soldiers have been inside Gaza for months. Many of them have not seen their families during that time. To be able to host them for an evening of fun and unity-building is a great privilege.


Thank you for making it possible.




 

The New Testament and Spiritual Formation


In the introduction, we began to unpack this idea of God molding us into his image. More than once, the Bible refers to God as a potter and his people as clay whom he is molding (Jer 18:1–11, Rom 9:21). Darrell Bock writes that spiritual formation “refers to all God undertakes and undergoes for us to bring us to maturity. It points to the resources he brings to the task of forming us into his likeness, as well as to what we do in the pursuit of this goal.”[1] That is a good refresher as we focus on the coming of the Holy Spirit.


New Testament Upgrade: The Holy Spirit

A significant difference between God’s dealings with Israel in the OT and his relationship with the church in the NT is the giving of his Spirit (Acts 2). This was the promise to ancient Israel—that God would empower them by his Spirit to keep his commands (Jer 31:31–33, Ezek 36:25–28). We see the Spirit coming on special individuals for specific tasks in the OT, such as Saul, when he prophecies (1 Sam 10:9), or Sampson, against the Philistines (Judg 15:14). In the NT, we see Joel’s prophecy coming to pass (Acts 2:17–21), where the Spirit is poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28). This should not be taken to mean everything considered “flesh” will experience the Spirit, but rather, “All the people of God receive the Spirit. The text specifically erases the major social distinctions of the ancient world: gender, age, and economic status.”[2]


Community from the Old Testament to the New Testament

In the Exodus story, Israel connected to God through Moses (Exod 33:7–11). In the New Testament, believers connect directly to God (Heb 4:16). Stephen Lowe points out that “in the New Testament,” we wrestle with “the relationship between the individual believer and the corporate community of the church as the Body of Christ.”[3] Lowe talks about H. Wheeler Robinson’s theological construct of corporate personality, “A phrase used to describe how an individual is seen as a representative of the whole group.”[4] There are several examples in the Hebrew Bible of the whole suffering for one individual's sin. “Achan’s sin causes the defeat of Israel at Ai and the destruction of his family (Josh 7). Saul’s shedding of Gibeonite blood leads to the execution of seven of his descendants (2 Sam 21).”[5] Robinson taught, “[T]he collective sense is so much a part of [the ancient Israelite] and of his outlook … [that] he can never wholly detach himself from the social horizon.”[6] In the NT, we do not see corporate judgment. Only Ananias and Saphira die when they sin (Acts 5). The man sleeping with his stepmother in 1 Corinthians alone is judged (1 Cor 5:1–2). Paul says, “I have already pronounced judgment on the one [emphasis added],” not the whole congregation, “who did such a thing.” (1 Cor 5:3)


That is not to say that the corporate gathering is not an essential aspect of formation in the NT. Lowe notes that Greco-Roman culture “saw a distinct bright line between the individual and the group,” much like the individualism we find in America.[7] Bock agrees that Western culture tends “to privatize the spiritual experience and make it a ‘personal’ matter between the believer and God.”[8] Jeffrey Kennedy says, “The local church serves as the primary site of Christian transformation, fostering genuine fellowship and support.”[9] From the first days of the Jerusalem Messianic community, they placed a high value on being together for worship, fellowship meals, prayer, and teaching. From this came generosity and successful evangelism (Acts 2:42–47). All these contribute to being formed into his image.


While the believer is part of the universal church and his personal relationship to Jesus is essential, James Thompson writes, “[T]he local congregation remains the locus of Christian” life.[10] Paul doesn’t separate calling people to follow Jesus from planting congregations. “Paul knows nothing of the individual Christian, for people respond to the gospel by living in communities.”[11]


Only through contact with other believers can practical needs be met, such as to widows and orphans, comforting those who are suffering, and finding encouragement for ourselves from our spiritual family (1 Cor. 14:26). “Believers who meet in house churches or in large assemblies recognize that they participate in worship with believers throughout the world.”[12] The believer who neglects the corporate gathering is forfeiting one of the most potent tools for spiritual formation.


Growth through Suffering

When Jewish believers were suffering persecution, the writers of Hebrews warned them: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” (10:24–25). In the corporate gathering of NT believers, we find grace in difficult times. Interviews with both Ukrainian and Israeli believers revealed that in times of war and persecution, the congregational gathering is a place of strength and encouragement. “I have to be around believers!” shared one mother.[13] An Israeli pastor emphasized, “There is a stronger sense of us needing each other for mutual support and to pray and intercede for our people. The corporate gathering gives many a sense of refuge in the storm, a place where we are strengthened by God through our togetherness.”[14] Amanda Fetisova of Kryvyi Rih in Ukraine said the churches were divided before the war. “Churches are now working and praying together like never before.”[15] A believer in Kyiv writes, “Ukrainian believers served together in unity, like never before.”[16] Another one suggested that a common enemy united all believers.[17] Pastor Valentine Sviontek of Odesa, Ukraine, agrees. He is seeing unprecedented cooperation between leaders of different denominations.[18]


Finding the Balance

Early Christians struggled with the need for solitude versus koinōnia (mutual participation in one another’s lives and the resulting sense of interpersonal connectedness[19]). Monasticism began with the desert mothers and fathers, like St. Anthony, seeking solitude to “get away from the population centers, with all [its] distractions.”[20] These hermits struggled with basic needs, like food and the command for corporate prayers.[21] Pachomius (c. 292–348) founded a compromise—the monastery—where one could continue a monastic life without forfeiting koinōnia. “Members of the community agreed to submit themselves to a common life which was regulated by a Rule.” Bock writes, “God does not bring us into fellowship with him and make us a part of his people to function in isolation.”[22] Communal solitude was increasingly understood to be a healthier way to practice monasticism.[23]


Returning to the German concept of community, Johnstone, citing Tönnies, says, “Gemeinschaft is characterized by strong personal relationships, relatively simple social structure, and moderate division of labor.”[24] This is found in the family and in small villages.[25] Had he lived in the twentieth century, Tönnies would have found a profound example of Gemeinschaft in the Israeli kibbutz, “an extreme expression of the values of labor Zionism,”[26] where everything is shared—but there is a common ethnicity. “Tönnies, however, cited the Christian church as the most unique example of an ethnically diverse and globally dispersed Gemeinschaft.”[27] In any given New Testament congregation, you might find people from a dozen different ethnic backgrounds and social statuses. Communion with Jesus becomes the great equalizer (Gal. 3:28), where a CEO can find koinōnia with a grocery store clerk. Thompson says slaves would worship with their owners. “Such diversity was unprecedented among ancient associations.”[28] They might even serve on the same eldership team together. A Jewish tax collector serving Rome and a Jewish Zealot wanting to overthrow Rome served on Jesus’s senior leadership team together. When this did not occur in Corinth, but there were factions and people went hungry at fellowship meals, Paul doesn’t conceal his anger (1 Cor. 11:21-22).[29]


Discipleship and Formation

For many, the terms spiritual formation and discipleship are synonymous. It was common in Jesus’s Israel for rabbis to have talimidim “disciples.” A talmid was “one who has dedicated himself to life together with a rabbi, humbly serving him and learning the rabbi’s understanding of Scripture and his way of living it out.”[30] It was no small commitment. In her book, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Lois Tverberg writes, “Out of this unusual teaching method arose a well-known saying: you should learn from a rabbi by ‘covering yourself in his dust.’ You should follow so closely behind him as he traveled from town to town teaching that billows of sandy granules would cling to your clothes.”[31] As we follow Jesus like this, formation takes place.


But it doesn’t merely take place amid formal discipleship. Bock says that spiritual formation is broader.[32] “The spiritual life is too dynamic a process to be handled like building a car on an assembly line.”[33] In addition to each disciple being made by God uniquely, “formation takes place in the natural flow of life.”[34] If we just look at a day in the life of Peter, we can imagine how the events of Acts 12 brought deeper formation in his life. He begins the day in prison, on death row, possibly thinking of Jesus’s words about his future martyrdom (John 21:18–19) before dozing off between two guards. An angel sets him free, but he thinks he’s dreaming. Next, he appears to the believers just as they are praying. What impact did this have on the formation or spiritual growth of the early believers? Notice that the Spirit is the one initiating formation with the miraculous escape.[35]


In our next section, we will examine Paul’s theology of formation. It was as practical as it was theological. Like Peter above, the brilliant scholar experiences the risen Messiah amid life’s many challenges as he seeks to proliferate the gospel and plant New Testament communities.



 

[1] Darrell L. Bock, “New Testament Community in Spiritual Formation,” in Foundations of Spiritual Formation, ed. Paul E. Pettit (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008), 105.

[2] Duane A. Garrett, Hosea, Joel, vol. 19A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 369.

[3] Stephen Lowe, “New Testament Theology of Spiritual Formation,” Liberty University, accessed February 3, 2034, 00:56, https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_622693_1&content_id=_39565289_1.

[4] J. Jordan Henderson, “Corporate Personality,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[5] Henderson, “Corporate Personality.”

[6] H. Wheeler Robinson, Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1964), 14.

[7] Lowe, “New Testament Theology of Spiritual Formation,” 01:13.

[8] Bock, “New Testament Community in Spiritual Formation,” 103-104.

[9] Jeff Kennedy, “Video for Week 3 DSMN 850” Liberty University, accessed on February 4, 2024, 03:22, https://cdnapisec.kaltura.com/index.php/extwidget/preview/partner_id/2167581/uiconf_id/39820581/entry_id/1_hw3rd883/embed/dynamic.

[10] James W. Thompson, The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 197.

[11] Ibid., 48.

[12] Ibid., 198.

[13] Elana Vaknin, private correspondence with the author, February 2, 2024.

[14] Gil Afriat, private correspondence with the author, February 4, 2024.

[15] Amanda Fetisova, private correspondence with the author, February 4, 2024.

[16] Ganna Ivashchenko, private correspondence with the author, February 4, 2024.

[17] Galyna Landa, private correspondence with the author, February 4, 2024.

[18] Valentin Sviontek, private correspondence with the author, February 4, 2024.

[19] Johnston, “Old Testament Community and Spiritual Formation,” 80.

[20] McGrath, Christian History, 33.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Bock, “New Testament Community in Spiritual Formation,” 103.

[23] Ibid., 34.

[24] Johnston, “Old Testament Community and Spiritual Formation,” 73.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Henry Near, The Kibbutz Movement: A History (Oxford, UK: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1992), 398.

[27] Johnston, “Old Testament Community and Spiritual Formation,” 74.

[28] Thompson, The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ, 26.

[29] Ibid., 48.

[30] Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021), 221, Kindle Edition.

[31] Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, 28.

[32] Bock, Foundations of Spiritual Formation, 105.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Averbeck, “Spirit, Community, and Mission: A Biblical Theology for Spiritual Formation,” 28.


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I missed Part one of this series. Where can I find that?

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Part 1, the introduction is on this blog - Jan 22.

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