1 Corinthians 4:1-7 speaks powerfully to a foundational element of the Gospel. It has come up in four different conversations in the last 10 days, so I’m going to write about it.
Voices are a big deal. Our lives are dominated by many, many voices, internal and external, competing for our attention and often in conflict with each other.
Voices and God’s Story
I want to suggest that the story God is telling through the Bible makes sense in terms of competing voices, and that this offers a compelling framework for understanding salvation, evangelism and discipleship.
The good news proclaimed by Jesus is essentially an invitation to embrace the authority of The One Voice over all others;
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God,and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” – Mark 1:14–15 (ESV)
The reference to God’s Kingdom (among other things) points back to the only previous time when God’s reign and rule was complete and unopposed in Genesis 1-2.
This was broken in Genesis 3 when His voice was ignored and His authority rejected in favour of other voices (the serpent and personal desire). Humans chose to reject God’s voice and trust and obey others instead.
When God is rejected as loving Father and King, relationship with Him is not possible – this is who He is.
Separation from the source of life means death. Separation from the source of righteousness means sin. Separation from the One through whom all Creation exists and is held together means dysfunction and corruption in human relationships with God, with each other and with creation. All these things are direct consequences of the broken relationship with God.
God’s solution is to bring Creation back into the alignment with His reign and rule that we see in Genesis 1-2. He does not do this by brute force, but by invitation.
Jesus’ Gospel proclamation is a decisive moment in history as God engineers a reversal of Genesis 3. Jesus is inviting us to step into God’s cosmic restoration project as He works both *sovereignly* AND *collaboratively* to heal the brokenness of Creation.
He invites us to (re-)align our individual spheres of authority under His – to step back into the relationship of trusting obedience which characterised Adam and Eve in Gen 1-2, and Jesus, and everybody in Scripture who was said to have please Him. Thanks to Jesus death and resurrection, this kind of relationship is now actually possible – sealed, guaranteed and enabled by the giving of the Holy Spirit.
Voices, Evangelism & Discipleship
Within that framework, I’d like to suggest that evangelism – understood biblically rather than culturally – is simply the invitation to listen and yield to the voice (and authority) of the King over and above all other voices (and authorities).
Discipleship is the process of working that out more and more comprehensively in our lives. A never-ending process as we align ourselves with His voice and reign and progressively bring the other voices into submission to His – our physical desires, emotions, thoughts, important people in our lives, mass marketing and media, tradition and culture. Not that we stop listening to these voices, but we deny them automatic authority over us and test what they are saying against Word and Spirit whenever they try to exert authority over our lives.
Which brings us back to 1 Corinthians 4.
Discerning Voices: Discipleship 101
Paul lets us into his head as he identifies and debunks the different voices which are demanding his attention and trust in the particular situation he is responding to.
Paul is responding to divisions amongst the disciples in Corinth who are identifying themselves with different apostolic leaders (criticism of Paul is strongly implied). He doesn’t pay attention to what they say or their evaluation of him – he doesn’t rate their ability to make an accurate judgment. Neither does he trust his own evaluation of himself – his conscience and assessment are unreliable indicators. The only evaluation He trusts is God’s.
The great thing is that we don’t have to wait until ‘that day’ to hear God’s opinion/judgment – He speaks now.
Jesus made it clear that hearing and responding to God’s voice was the foundation of salvation and a restored relationship with the Father (John 6:43-45), and expected His sheep to recognise and respond to His voice (John 10:1-16).
He speaks through His Word and He speaks by His Spirit, given post-ascension as a seal and guarantee of God’s promise that we are His (Ephesians 1:11-14) to teach us, to remind us of everything Jesus said (John 14:25), to convict concerning sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:7-11), and to guide us into all truth (John 16:13).
We now have sure access to a ‘new’ voice, bringing us full circle back to the possibility go growing into that Genesis 1-2 relationship.
Romans 8 and Galatians 5 both speak to the contrast between being led by the Spirit and being led by the flesh. In both cases “Sonship” – restoration to special relationship with the Father in His family – is linked with the shift to being led by the Spirit (Romans 8:14 onwards & Galatians 3:23 onwards).
Within the context of God’s broader cosmic agenda of restoring Creation to His rule and reign, the end goal for the individual “son” is ‘being conformed to the image of [God’s] Son’ (Rom 8:29) – a process.
However, this is neither smooth nor inevitable. Hebrews 5:11-14 implies that there is a process of trial and error as we learn to discern His voice to us through Word and Spirit, and the context suggests that the original readers were actually slipping backwards.
Romans 12:1-2 describes a process of surrendering ourselves fully to Him, experiencing transformation as we die to the other voices that make claims on us (‘the patterns of this world’). This results in an increased ability to discern and respond to His will, and deepened alignment with His reign and rule – discipleship!
Our Response to the Voice Buffet
Each one of these voices (see the menu above) has a particular agenda and perspective.
Only one of these ‘voices’ is 100% reliable. Only God has shown Himself to have genuine integrity, honesty and other-centredness. To be both righteous and merciful, holy and gracious, fair and impartial.
All the other voices are unreliable, at best. All of them will inevitably have mixed motives, imperfect character and limited perspective and knowledge because of their source. Many of them are good to listen to, but none of them should take a place of authority over the Father.
Whatever voice speaks into our situation in any given moment, it’s critical that we take the thought captive, pause and ask the Father what He wants to say. At heart, evangelism is an invitation to do just that.
In the longer term we need to dedicate time to listening to the Father and getting to know Him better so we can recognise and respond to Him when He speaks, and discern voices that don’t belong to Him. At heart, discipleship is just that.
Whatever else we do in evangelism and discipleship, it must involve empowering people to hear God’s voice and respond to what He says.