As the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and told the leading priests what had happened. A meeting with the elders was called, and they decided to give the soldiers a large bribe. They told the soldiers, “You must say, ‘Jesus’ disciples came during the night while we were sleeping, and they stole his body.’ If the governor hears about it, we’ll stand up for you so you won’t get in trouble.” So the guards accepted the bribe and said what they were told to say. Their story spread widely among the Jews, and they still tell it today.
Matthew 28:11-15 NLT
What do you do when the truth no longer fits the narrative you’ve been supporting? What do you do when you have been patting a story on its head for years—purporting to represent the truth—and evidence arises that completely dispels what you held to be reality? These indeed are the circumstances the chief priests and elders found themselves in following Jesus’ literal physical resurrection from the dead. These Jewish leaders had been standing against prophecy-based truth regarding Jesus from the inception of his miraculous ministry. Jesus’ ways and teachings just didn’t fit into the religious structure they had developed.
Now they were in an absolute dilemma utterly confronted with incontrovertible facts contrary to the narrative they had been patting. It is interesting to note that these Jewish leaders were at the point of ultimate decision in how they dealt with the truth regarding Jesus. This could have been a time of conviction, a time of repentance and turning. Instead they chose to perpetuate the lie even compounding it further by adding preposterous exclamations. Can you imagine a soldier admitting to his superiors that he was asleep on guard duty? Further, there would be the question as to why—once the guards became aware of the disciples’ intent—they didn’t do something to thwart their efforts. I can imagine the bribe paid by the Jewish leaders must have been significant considering how it had to offset the incredible experience just encountered by the soldiers as well as the charges of dereliction of duty they would face before their superiors.
Have you ever considered that the scenario just reflected on is still being—in principle—worked out through the church? Is it possible we could be practicing the faith today in ways that are in fact in denial of absolute biblical truth? If this were in fact true we would find ourselves embarrassingly in the same untenable position occupied by the Jewish elders of Jesus’ day. If this were true, we would—spiritually speaking—be shooting ourselves in the foot in terms of forfeiting eternal rewards.
How did the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day arrive at a point in their religious experience wherein they could literally reject the very one all Scripture pointed to as the coming Messiah? At risk of oversimplifying I would suggest that somewhere along the path of their spiritual journey they forgot that everything God gave them in their religious order was meant to announce Jesus. In doing so they began to make it more about themselves than about God. Everything God gave Israel in terms of the feasts, sacrifice, priesthood, the temple, etc. was intended to point to and proclaim the coming Messiah.
Once they started down this road another misleading dynamic came into play. The people began to rely more and more on dogmatism for truth rather than revelation. That is, there began to be an unqualified acceptance of the religious teachings of the elders without questioning and investigating rather than seeking to know truth by revelation based on one’s personal relationship with God. We see an example of this kind of behavior in Acts where Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica is interdicted by unruly Jews who thoughtlessly followed their leaders without thinking things through for themselves. Paul then moves on to Berea where he is met with an entirely different response.
These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so (Acts 17:11 NKJV).
How refreshing to see how at least some of the Bereans chose to verify what they were hearing by appealing to Scripture for themselves. Now, I am not suggesting that church leaders today are intentionally misconstruing the truth thereby leading the masses of believers astray. However, we have inherited a unquestionably unbiblical church structure that necessarily discourages individual believers from sorting out truth for themselves.
The unbiblical structure to which I refer is the dichotomy or clergy and laity practiced by most Protestant churches today. Few believers today question or challenge this false hegemony. Most behave as if this bifurcation of leadership and ministry functions existed from the church’s inception. If not that, they see this unholy division as an improvement over what the pristine church practiced for over three hundred years. When comparing how effectively the early church propagated the Gospel throughout the known world with the missional ineptness and basic irrelevancy of the church today, it seems incredible that we could believe we have improved on what they did.
The truth is there was no clergy/laity division in the church throughout most of the first four centuries of its existence. This was mostly true because from the beginning believers were taught that the church constituted a kingdom of priests. In other words, each and every believer was encouraged and challenged to discover his particular gifting and calling in the body of Christ. Early Christians felt a unique sense of responsibility to bring something of the life of Christ to the other believers each time they gathered. By creating a distinctive class of professional ministers the church has effectively disenfranchised believers from their individual calling, ordination and gifting. This action basically nullified the priesthood of believers so adamantly taught in Scripture.
And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God…But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light (1Pe 2:5,9).
How many Christians do you know today that have an abiding sense of their gifting, calling and ordination coupled with a profound sense of responsibility to personally bring equipping ministry to the body of Christ? On the other hand, how many do you know that feel themselves to be part of a spiritually subservient class of believers incapable of doing ministry summarily relegated to the professional clergy? Given these conditions, the loss of authentic ministry in and through the body of Christ is inestimable. By tacitly accepting the clergy/laity fraud, we have fundamentally crippled the spirituality and effectiveness of the church.
The truth is that the Holy Spirit can exercise God’s ministry through any committed believer regardless of background, education, experience or status in life. The greatest qualification for being a ministering servant of Christ is not seminary training and denominational ordination. It is one’s absolute surrender to Christ accompanied with the willingness to be conformed to his image. In this spiritual state God can mold and use us as vessels unto honor in a great house.
From the Old Testament types and shadows to the origins of the church in the first century God has always intended to express himself through all his people. How long will we continue disavowing biblical truth, denying the priesthood of believers and forfeiting the best God has to offer for building up the body of Christ and taking a compelling Gospel to a lost world? The answer lies within each of our hearts as we consider our response in the face of biblical truth. Will we continue to pat a false narrative on the head and remain spiritually listless or will we repent and like Paul choose to be everything in Christ he died for us to be?
F. Stoner Clark - January 26, 2016