1 Thessalonians 1 – Inspiration

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Paul opens his letter to the church in Thessalonica with great thanksgiving for what God is doing in their lives and for how they have responded that work in spite of great trials and persecution.  He lists three responses to the Gospel that he is thankful for, stating them in the proper orientation:

  • Work – Produced by Faith
  • Labor – Prompted by Love
  • Endurance – Inspired by Hope

Each is a response to the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ and their orientation is important.  Work does not produce faith; because of our faith, we respond by “working” for the Lord.  This is true with the other two as well.  The importance of this orientation cannot be understated.  If indeed the church in Thessalonica was living like this, it would likely be the reason for why they endured such persecution so well.

Simply enduring persecution isn’t the end for Paul, though.  Keeping in mind his posture in other letters, this too is an opportunity for the spread of the Gospel and to build up the church through their actions and example.

Even as Paul is writing this, he relays to them how he has heard of what they have been doing through other churches, that they have become a model to other believers in the region.  The church in Thessalonica has become an inspiration for Paul and for other churches in the region, pointing not to their own strength but to the hope that they have in Jesus Christ.

Churches in today’s context can learn from this.  It seems that, far too often, we try to find our own niche, our own little thing that makes us unique from other churches, and then we claim that as our strength… even our identifier.  The reality, though, is that our strength and our hope come not from our own programs or great ministry ideas, but from the one person that binds us all together: Jesus Christ.



Introduction to 1 Thessalonians

The city of Thessalonica was the largest city and also the capital of the province of Macedonia.  It is located in what is now northern Greece, on the Thessaloniki Bay making it an important port city.  Thessalonica was also located on a major junction of the great Egnatian Way, the same trade route that the city of Philippi was located on, where a road split off and headed north to the Danube river.  This made the city a strategic place for both the Roman Empire and the spread of the Gospel.

Paul first visited and set up a church in the city of Thessalonica, as recorded in Acts 17, on his second missionary journey.  He stayed there for less time than normal due to persecution.  His abrupt exit left the young church open to the persecution he was fleeing, a persecution they endured for which Paul commends them in chapter three.

He is also writing the church in Thessalonica to give them instructions and explain some subjects, perhaps things that he would have taught them had he been able to stay in the city longer.

Dealing with the subject of persecution in the church often brings up the subject of the “end times” as well.  In the first century, Christians were expecting that Christ’s return was imminent and could happen at any moment.  Most expected that they would live to see Jesus come back to set up His Kingdom.  This thought and desire permeates all of Paul’s letter to the church here and as such, this letter has been given the title of one Paul’s “eschatological letters.”

Eschatology means “the study of (or doctrine of) last things.”  Most of us think of the book or Revelation as the primary source for such study, but in fact much of what we know about the end times, death, and Jesus’ second coming actually come from Scripture outside of the book of Revelation and it is through those things that we begin to have the language and context to look at John’s Revelation.



Colossians 4 – Open Doors

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Pray that God would open doors to the Gospel

Pray that God would open doors to the Gospel

Remembering that Paul is in prison while writing this, he closes his letter with a request to the church in Colossae to be devoted to prayer for themselves and him as well.  Even though he is incarcerated, Paul is still fervently preaching the Gospel and believes that God is going to advance the Gospel through His situation, grim as it may be.  To that end, he requests prayer, not just that he would be able to tell others about Jesus, but that he would also have the wisdom to say what needs to be said.

What Paul asks for is quite profound.  We talk, in Christian circles, about always spreading the Gospel, showing God’s love to all whom we meet.  Yet how often to we ask God for the wisdom to say what needs to be said (or to not say what need not be said)?  We find ourselves in very specific contexts in our lives, no one context is similar to another.  Like Paul, we ought to be relying on the Spirit to give us the words to say, not relying on our own wisdom to get us by.

More than that, though, Paul encourages the church in Colossae to “make the most of every opportunity.”  This too is an encouragement for us.  How many times have we heard stories about people who regret not saying something to a friend, loved one, or coworker, thinking that they would have an opportunity later only to find out some tragic thing happened.

People in the world are walking in darkness, the eternity of their souls at stake.  We cannot afford to be lax in our words or our actions, simply waiting for another day.  For Paul, the time to preach the Gospel was now.  Whether he was in prison, at home, or on the road, he sought the spread God’s Good News of love and grace, praying that God would open every door and give him every opportunity.



Colossians 3 – Living the New Life

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The theme of life and death is one that runs throughout the Old and New Testament.  In fact, much of the meaning of Christ’s death as a sacrifice for our sins derives its meaning from the Jewish sacrificial laws and worship cult (which means: a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object) that was in place in the Old Testament.  For them, the understanding of the need for something to die so that one may live was normal and natural.

So when Paul talks about the New Life that we have in Jesus Christ in terms of putting to death some things so that we can live a new life, it would make sense in this culture.  Ultimately it is Jesus who died that we may have true, redeemed life.

For us to live this new life, though, our old life needs to die as well.  Paul talks about this in other places by saying that it is his “old sinful self” that was crucified with Christ and died with Him there, and when Christ was raised from the dead, so too is our new self raised with Christ.

Paul places several practical applications to this at the end of the chapter, but how he talks about it shows the everyday nature of new life in Christ.  He probably recognized that the difference between talking about the new life and actually living it are two different things.  While it isn’t as easy as putting on your clothes, it certainly is a daily decision to do so.  In the same way that, every morning you have to decide what you are going to wear that day, we have to choose to put on the clothing of our new life.  Sometimes those will feel more like work clothes than casual, but the simple fact is that each day we have to chose to put them on and live into the profound gift that God offers us in Christ Jesus.



Romans 3:9-26 "But What About…?"



Colossians 2 – What Fills You?

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When we find ourselves looking around in life for next best thing we don’t often take a moment to look back at the “last best thing” and examine why it didn’t live up to whatever we hoped it would live up to.  Instead, we tend to follow trends and fads, blown this way and that by the winds of culture and who knows what else.

In much the same way, the church in Colossae was facing down a number of different “new teachings” and such that offered them something more than “just the Gospel.”

One the surface, even as I write this, that doesn’t sound so bad.  We tend to do this a lot in the church of today.  We have the Gospel, but then we jazz it up with praise bands and new music, fancy worship venues and effects, hipster preachers and particular language.  All these are done to “meet a need” or to “reach a target group,” and sometimes it even works.

However, the problem often comes in the fact that, what was once a womb, far too often becomes a tomb.  What happens when music styles change or culture shifts?  Do we change with them?  Good intentions aside, the answers far too often is no.

Why?  Because we are comfortable with the familiar.  Because the familiar where all the good memories come from.  It is, after all, what got us here in the first place…

But should that thing, whatever it is, whether at church or personally, be what is filling you?  It may taste good at the moment, like spraying a can of Reddi-Wip in your mouth, but it will ultimately leave you hungry and wanting real food.

Jesus is the true spiritual food.  He is the Bread of Life; He is the Living Water.  Ultimtaely, it is He who satisfies and nothing else.  Human rules and traditions can be nice, they can even direct us toward deeper worship.  Be careful, however, that they do not become an end unto themselves for it is in that moment that what once led us to drink at the well of life, becomes nothing more than a path to a dry desert.

 



Colossians 1 – Supremacy

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Paul opens his letter to the church in Colossae with joy and thanksgiving for the work that God is doing in the community of faith there.  Quickly, however, he gets down to business, even in his greeting, reminding them of the enormity and simplicity of the Gospel that is the foundation of their faith.

He does this on purpose, knowing that one of the things that they have been struggling with is a number of false teachings in which things are being added to the message of Christ.  Far too often it seems that things are being added to the simple Gospel message…

Yes, Christ died for you… but you have to follow this tradition…

Sure, Jesus forgives your sins… but you have to have special knowledge for salvation…

Of course God will save you… if you avoid all the good things the world has to offer…

These were a few of the false teachings that were slipping into this relatively young church, and things that often slip into our own practice of faith as well.

The issue?  Disorientation.  As we are following Christ, keeping on the “straight and narrow” road, other things in life pop up, whatever they may be, and our straight and narrow path becomes a bit zig-zaggy.

This is true with our faith as well.  We claim Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives, but as we press on toward the goal, other objectives seem to enter in.  Sometimes they are things we are told we *have* to do (legalism, traditionalism, etc.), or maybe things we *have* to believe.  In any case, our faith becomes “the Gospel and…”  Sadly, most of these things start out as good parts of our lives, things that help to direct us toward God, and end up becoming idols in and of themselves.

Paul, however, makes sure from the get go that his readers in Colossae understand that with Jesus Christ there is no “and” to the Gospel.  He is supreme in all things, being both equal with God and the only one who can reconcile us to God.  Salvation comes from no one  and nothing else.



Introduction to Colossians

The book of Colossians is another one of Paul’s letters written to a church while imprisoned in Rome.  While the city of Colossae was not a very major city at the during the 1st century A.D., it was unique in that the church itself was started by Epaphras, a convert from the city of Ephesus.  This may make the church in Colossae one of the first church plants recorded in the Bible.

Because the church itself was young and its leadership rather inexperienced, it fell prey to the inroads of heresies, false teachings both from outside and within the Christian community.  While these are never directly described, it is possible to understand them based on what Paul is talking about.  The NIV study Bible lays them out in this way:

  1. Ceremonialism / Traditionalism – strict rules about eating, drinking, and religious festivals
  2. Asceticism – avoiding earthly forms of pleasure for religious reasons
  3. Worship of Angels – Belief that there were certain spirits from God through whom we approach Him.
  4. Devaluing the person and work of Christ – placing other things (like all of these other heresies) as being more important that the life and work of Jesus Christ.
  5. Secret Knowledge (pre-gnostic thinking) – a heresy that developed into a full-blown sect of Christianity, that somehow the way to God was through “secret knowledge” and “hidden secrets”
  6. Reliance on human wisdom and tradition – a topic Paul often addresses in his writing, certainly not unique to the church in Colossae.

Paul begins his writing specifically addressing the preeminence of Christ.  Placing Him above all things, in the rightful position in the world and in our lives and Lord and Savior solves a good portion of the heretical problems that the church in Colossae was facing.  When we understand this and our lives are oriented around it, we recognize the adequacy of Christ in all things and also realize our own empty weakness.



Philippians 4 – Think On These Things

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As Paul closes his letter, he returns to the subject of unity, once again encouraging them to be unified in their actions and thinking.  He even names a few people whom he asks the rest of the church to help in being more unified.  It is interesting that he doesn’t put them down here, but rather builds them up as those who are faithful in their work for the Gospel.  They have worked alongside Paul for the advance of the Gospel but struggle now with unity together.

How often does that ring true in our congregations?  We are all in this together, working to share the Gospel and Christ’s love for all people, but we cannot seem to get along with each other well.  Sometimes it’s because of current issues, but far too often it has to do with us holding on to things in the past that continue to divide us, even if the original issue has been solved or is no longer relevant.

How can we move toward greater unity in the midst of such struggles?  Paul says to think on things that are noble, pure, lovely, etc.  He encourages them to show gentleness to everyone as well.

Perhaps, if we are indeed looking for the good, seeking out what God is doing in our lives and all around us, and keeping the focus on the “peace of Christ” rather than on the abundance of negative things that are so prevalent around us.

The reality is that the Church is full of imperfect people.  We do things that end up causing hurt but we also have a choice in that moment, to focus on the negative and the injury to ourselves, or to share the same mind as Christ, identifying and forgiving sins committed against us, not allowing those things to cause division among us.



Philippians 3 – Press On

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While it doesn’t seem that there was a specific threat to the unity of the church in Philippi, Paul knows from experience that there are those both in the faith and outside of it who will come lurking eventually.  We have seen this in his other letters as well to the church in Ephesus, the churches in Galatia, the church in Rome, and his multiple letters to the church in Corinth.

So Paul takes this opportunity to exhort the church in Philippi towards greater unity and the collective goal, that they may not be sidetracked by the “Judaizers” who preach circumcision or any other group that might try to push its way in.

Paul’s way of doing this, interestingly enough, is by citing himself as an example.  Indeed he was the Jew of all Jews, a leader in the community before he met Christ on the road to Damascus.  However, what Paul realized very quickly is that all of it was for nothing, and is not merely a distraction from the true goal of following Christ Jesus.

He talks about this in terms of a race, an apt metaphor if ever there was one.  This isn’t, however, a 100M sprint, it’s a marathon.  In other places, Paul talks about training his body for this long race, not getting distracted by those who would offer an “easy win.”  I imagine it would be pretty tempting, in the middle of a 25K run, if someone offered a ride to the finish line.  Essentially, that is what the Judaizers were doing, offering a physical act as the true way of Christian identity.

To this, Paul says no.  Don’t take the ride, don’t listen to the lies.  We press on toward the goal for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus.



Philippians 2 – Be Like Jesus

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As Paul continues to encourage the community of faith in Philippi, he both encourages them in their walk of faith and warns them of some potential dangers that might crop up in the church.  The chief among them is disunity and division.

When we experience good times of prosperity and growth, our tendency is to want to hold on to them.  While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can lead to selfish actions geared at personal gain, something that is antithetical to the message of the Gospel and the purpose of the Church.  Paul warns against this citing the benefits and encouragement from Union with Christ that are meant to be turned outward, not inward.

How we know this and see this is the example of Jesus Christ, His life, work, and especially His death.  Jesus, stepping out of heaven, humbled himself by taking on human flesh.  In this humility, not only did He put on the skin of a mortal being, He also submitted Himself to the will of the Father, fulfilling the Law by living the life that we could not and also dying the death that we deserved.  Paul writes that Jesus “took on the very nature of a servant.”

The cross was Jesus ultimate act of servanthood and humility. At the same time, it was also His greatest glorification.

The best way to avoid division and disunity is to take on these same traits, being like Jesus and turning all the benefits of being His child outward towards the world.  When we do this, we realize very quickly that it isn’t about us, it’s about God and showing His love and sharing His Good News.

As Paul continues in this chapter, he commends several people to the church in Philippi, all of whom are living out what Paul has encouraged the people there to do.  These are people who will encourage and strengthen the community when they arrive there, all because they are striving to be like Jesus.



John 3:1-17 "Reborn"



Philippians 1 – Advance of the Gospel

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Paul opens his letter to the church in Philippi on a decidedly happy note, not because of what is going on with him, but because of what he hears ash been going on in the church there.  He calls them “partners” in the Gospel and is overjoyed by the growth that has been taking place there, which he has heard about even in Rome.

It is not just the church in Philippi that is giving Paul a reason to celebrate, though.  Yes, they have been moving forward in the right direction, following God’s lead and seeing the Gospel advance whereas other churches that Paul wrote to were not.  But Paul himself is seeing the advance of the Gospel even in his own context where it was much less expected.

At the time of his writing, Paul was imprisoned in Rome under house arrest.  It would be understandable for us, as Paul talks about his chains, that he would be in a rather sour mood.  Yet he continues to rejoice because even in that context, the Gospel is moving forward!

Though Paul was in prison, the Gospel continued to advance.

Throughout Scripture, there are a myriad of narratives about God using seemingly bad situations for the good of those involved in them.  Once again, God is using Paul’s imprisonment for the advance of the Gospel.  This, Paul says, is also true when it comes to those preaching the Gospel.  Some do it for selfish reasons while others preach out of love.

“What does it matter?”  Paul says.  “The important thing is that in every way… Christ is preached.”

Sometimes we get caught up in denominationalism, questioning the motives of certain preachers, or criticizing the actions of other faith communities.  Paul, however, is not concerned with the minutia of what is going on in different churches as long as the Gospel is being faithfully preached.  Now, this isn’t a license to preach and teach whatever we want.  Yet, whatever the human motives are, when the Word of God goes out, it will not return empty.



Introduction to Philippians

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is uniquely positive in character, thanking the church for the gift it sent him while he was imprisoned in Rome.  Throughout the letter, though, Paul takes the opportunity to encourage the church in the midst of persecution and to exhort them to humility and unity within the faith community there.

The city of Philippi had a very unique and sorted history, being named after a Greek king, Philip the second, who conquered the city and named it after himself.  In the time of the Roman Empire, Philippi was a prosperous city which was located on the main highway that connected the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire with Rome itself.  This road, known as the Egnatian Way, was both the lifeline of the city and also the reason for its prosperity.  Philippi was also unique in that very few Jews lived within the city.  This may account for the fact that Paul’s letter to the church here contains no direct quotations of the Old Testament.

Philippi was located in Macedonia, in what is now northern Greece. Photo Credit: www.holylandphotos.org

Philippi was located in Macedonia, in what is now northern Greece.
Photo Credit: www.holylandphotos.org

Acts 16 records Paul’s first visit to the city of Philippi in roughly A.D. 50-51, on his second missionary journey.  Following a vision that God gave him, Paul and his traveling companions made the journey to Macedonia and preached the Gospel to those he met there.  Out of that came the conversion of Lydia, a particularly prominent woman in the early church whose hospitality and leadership are noted by Paul in Scripture.

The book of Philippians expresses a very practical and yet rigorous type of Christian living, commending its readers to follow the very example of Christ as it is expressed in chapter 2.  This is widely considered to be one of the most profound Christological passages in the New Testament.



Ephesians 6 – God's Armor

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God’s armor helps us defend against the constant attacks of the enemy.

Paul does two things here that are necessary for us as Christians to understand the reality of the battle that we are facing.  First, he helps us determine where the battle is being fought and second, helps us to understand the resources at our disposal for this battle.

One of the greatest struggles in any conflict is determining who the true enemy is.  Often it is easy to over-generalize the enemy, especially in war.  We go to war with a country, but the true enemy is a rogue government or evil dictator, not the citizens trapped therein.  In North America, the Church finds itself at odds with culture, often over-generalizing the enemy that is being fought as an ideology, supreme court decision, or political party.

While there may be some truth to these particular segments, they are gross over-generalizations that vilify things and people whilst distracting us from the true battle that is going on.  Paul cuts through this and points to the true culprit behind not just western culture’s moral decline, but every temptation, sin, and evil that has ever been: the great deceiver, Satan, and the plane that this war is taking place on is much greater than any one single issue or act.

As such, the armor and weapons that are needed for this battle are also greater than any human creation or action.  These are things that can only come from God.  Lately, it seems, and far too often, the Church has relied less and less on God’s armor and more on political structures and lobbying groups to confront the enemy and all his scheming… and to no avail either.

We need to understand the nature of the war that we are in.  It isn’t one that we are going to win on our own.  In fact, it isn’t going to be one until Jesus Christ comes again and wins it for us once and for all.  The image of the Church in the world will not be crafted by how we get our way in governmental structures, whether or not abortion is legal, or any other such thing.  Rather, as Scripture tells us,

Rather, as Scripture tells us, we will face troubles in the world and should expect that.  God has given us weapons to defend against these attacks.  He has also shown us how, exactly, the world will know our identity as Christ followers, and that is through the love that we show all those around us in spite of governmental decisions, moral cultural decline, and the like.