A strange movement was sweeping across American Christianity, infecting churches everywhere with its biblically questionable practices. Most churches seemed oblivious to the implications; they were ignorant and indiscriminate, simply going along with the crowd because it seemed like the right thing to do. But those leaders and churches with knowledge of the Scriptures and a true gift of discernment diligently protected themselves against this passing trend. They would have none of that nonsense. They were vigilant about remaining true to New Testament teaching.
One of the more vocal opponents to the suspicious new movement wrote this about it in a newspaper editorial: "I emphatically deny that there is any divine authority for Sunday schools, either by precept or precedent, hint or allusion. . . . In all the writings of the New Testament there is not one word that even squints in that direction" (J.T. Showalter in the Gospel Advocate, April, 1910). A handful of opponents even taught that Sunday school advocates were destined for hell unless they repented.
The fear was that these newfangled "Sunday schools" would put Bible teaching in the hands of uneducated and untrained laypeople, cultivate diverse doctrines through the various curricula they used, and splinter churches in the process. In other words, it would mess up the current order. Plus, there were no specific chapter-and-verse references to Sunday school anywhere in the New Testament. Therefore, it was not according to Scripture.
The same thing was said of missionary societies during the nineteenth century. "Sit down, young man," said a church elder to William Carey, the father of the modern missionary movement. "If God wants to save the heathen in India, he will do it without your help or mine!" This idea of going to "backward" people and trying to explain the gospel of the kingdom was considered by many to be pointless and potentially threatening. It could even undermine the colonial order.
Sadly, religious people have often opposed the moves of God throughout history. That's because God doesn't fit our expectations, and he sometimes upsets the balance of institutions and their leaders, threatening to the status quo. And for those who are attached to the status quo, that's a problem. Especially when they believe God put the status quo in place to begin with.
That's the scene in many sections of the gospels, an ongoing theme in Jesus' ministry. He and the religious leaders of his day had numerous confrontations. It was an epic clash of kingdoms, a vigorous battle between light and darkness, good and evil, truth and lies. In John 7-8, Jesus came into Jerusalem and made a big splash, upsetting the power base and the religious order of the scribes, priests, and teachers of the law. They weren't going to allow any uneducated, rule-breaking Galilean with rumors swirling about him to mess up their system. So they opposed him. And God. They missed the time of their visitation.
We often face similar tension between the Spirit and the status quo today—individually and corporately. The issue we have to deal with is how to determine when something is from God and when it isn't. And, as with the early opponents of Sunday school, our perception of what God is doing might be too narrow. We have to be more than knowledgeable about the Word; we have to be sensitive to the Spirit who breathed it.
How can we do that? For starters, we can ask the Holy Spirit to make us sensitive to His work and His ways—even when He defies our expectations. God is innovative, creative, and always breathing new life into his people. When we assume that the "new life" He breathes is going to follow the blueprint of his past works, we get into trouble. God is much too creative to do the same thing the same way again and again and again. He is always stretching us—just as Jesus stretched the minds and hearts of those who encountered Him.
Second, while we value what we've learned in the past about God and His ways, we need to live with anticipation of learning more. God is always shedding new light on people who have received past revelation with acceptance and faith. He doesn't leave us to stagnate. When we decided to follow Him, we implicitly committed to be repeatedly surprised and to live with a sense of wonder. We may not have known it at the time, but an adventure was beginning. In laying down our old life and accepting new life in Jesus, we gave up our right to any sense of predictability.
Finally, we need to learn to withhold judgment against what God may or may not be doing in someone else's life until we've seen the fruit—and sometimes that comes much, much later. Unlike ancient Israel, who stoned prophets in the present and honored them later, we need to let God do his work in our lives and the lives of others without judging it too soon.
When our hearts are sensitive to God in these ways, His Spirit can open our eyes, deepen our relationship with Him, and take us places we never thought we would go. In our openness to His work, we encounter Him in surprising ways. And we avoid the mistake many God-fearing people throughout history have inadvertently made. We recognize the times of our visitation.
Adapted from A Walk Thru the Book of John: Encountering a Surprising Savior, a small group study guide from Walk Thru the Bible and Baker Books.
This small group study and others can be found at www.walkthruguides.org.