1 Peter 4 – Surprise?

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Peter is writing in a time of great persecution, but even in this, he tells his readers to “not be surprised” at the suffering that they are facing.  In fact, other parts of Scripture tell us that, because we are following Christ, we can expect persecution and suffering.  However, Peter wants to make a qualification here, clarifying the both why we suffer persecution as Christians and for what reason.

Part of suffering and persecution as Christians is participating in Christ’s sufferings.  Jesus said that the world would hate His followers because it hated Him first.  That said, Peter also wants the reader to make sure and understand that our sufferings, the persecution that we face, perhaps even the backlash from the world that we face, is happening to us because of the fact that we are Christ followers… not for other reasons.

This, I think, is an important distinction to make.  Christians today are often seen complaining about this and that, things that are going on in the government and in our culture that are counter to what we believe to be morally right or Scripturally sound.  Yet, when it comes down to it, not a lot of those things really “oppress” or “persecute” us.

What Peter is referring to here is the physical attacks that were happening to the Christian community during that time.  The government and many other people were working to limit the spread of the Gospel through the persecution of the church.  Peter makes sure to point out that it is for the Gospel that we should be suffering, not other reasons in our lives.

Nowadays, there is a number of ideological, cultural, and even personal things that we can stand up for and for which we could receive backlash.  All of those, however, pale in comparison to the “honor” and “joy” we have to suffer for the Gospel.

Do you think that the church in North America “suffers” for the Gospel?  Does society see the Gospel message as such a threat to us that they try to put us down and keep us under wraps?  Or are they just going about their business, tuning out our complaints, not worried that we’re really going to make that much of a difference?

Numbers 14, 20, 21 – Leaving Egypt: "Wilderness Work"

1. How does God use the wilderness time to reform and reshape His people? In what ways does their old identity need to be purged for them to move forward? How do you relate to this in your life?
a. How has HCRC experienced this in recent years?

2. What needs to be purged from your life to better enable you to trust God and live in dependence on him?

3. The “cruciform life” is the life that follows the path of Jesus, being crucified with Him, buried with Him, and raised to new life with Him. How do you react to the idea of the “U” representing the path of our lives?
a. How well would you say that you live into this in your own life? In what ways could you embrace it more?
b. How well would you say that HCRC lives into this in the life of the church? In what ways could we embrace it more?

4. Describe the tension in your own life of living in the way of the wilderness versus living to avoid it. Does the way of the wilderness mean intentionally choosing suffering? How?

5. How does God draw near to those who suffer? What is your own experience of this?

“Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision.” – A Puritan Prayer

6. How does the Puritan prayer that we prayed in church, seen above here, represent your life? How does it challenge you?

*Some questions taken from Leaving Egypt, by Chuck DeGroat

1 Peter 3 – Eager

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I don’t wish to ignore a portion of today’s reading, but we have talked about the language that is used here, the language of submission, in other portions of our walk through the New Testament.  It is important to note here that, on top of using this “submission” language, which we have said could be replaced with the word “value,” and should always be read with the idea that husbands and wives are called to mutual submission in the same way that they submit to Christ, here Peter takes it a step further to talk about the potential benefits and outcomes of acting in this way.  Our spouses could be won over, coming to know Christ, because of our actions!  As always, it is important to say here that this is not an encouragement to stay in abusive or dangerous relationships.  I do not believe that Scripture ever meant for that to happen and that those who twist Scripture for their own defense in this matter are wrong.

Aside from, but related to that is the following topic on “doing good.”  Peter encourages his readers once again to continue to do good in the midst of whatever suffering that they might encounter.  He even goes so far as to suggest that we should be “eager” to do good.

As I continue to think about the election this week and the results that have come from it, I wonder about what we are “eager” to do.  It seems like a lot of us are eager to get into meaningless arguments on social media, publically injuring our own witness and that of the church through unfriendly, unloving, and divisive speech.  It seems that we are eager to judge our friends and neighbors for their political affiliations and reactions to the events of late.  It seems that we are much more readily willing to allow the things of this world dissuade us the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2 – "Living Godly Lives in a Pagan Society"

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Could there be any more appropriate words to greet us two days after the election?  In the face of an over-abundance of persecution, Peter reminds his fellow believers that, while God is the ultimate authority, we are also called to submit to human authorities and to respect both our leaders and each other.

…in this election cycle, we have failed at this…

You know, there has been a profound outcry from some in the Christian community against Donald Trump because of his “foolishness.”  Indeed, the Donald, in his candidacy, fit the Biblical description of a fool almost too perfectly.

There has also been an outcry from others in the Christian community against Hillary Clinton.  Scripture has a lot to say about someone who is greedy, corrupt, and a has been caught in his/her own lies.

So what does Peter tell us to do in response to this?  Should we be bashing each other?  Should we be calling for love in ways that are divisive?  Should we commit to opposing the next government administration because it doesn’t fit our own preferences or ideology?  No.  Peter writes,

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority:whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.  Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

At the time of this writing, the emperor was trying to kill Christians; and Peter calls them to honor him.  I wonder if there is an application for us here?

The fact of the matter is this, there is no authority here on earth that is not subordinate to God’s authority.  That does not necessarily mean that those governments will follow the will of God though, and Peter’s words for those situations are also clear: “By doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.”

Friends, no government is going to save us, our religion, or our nation.  It is Christians living into their faith, loving our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, loving God, and living into the mission that we are called to as the Church of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 1 – Living Hope

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Peter opens his letter with a customary thanksgiving statement that praises God for all that He has done and continues to do in the lives of His people.  As he does this, he references the hope that we have, a “living hope” that is in Jesus Christ.  This, for Peter, is the foundation for all that is to come, for our whole lives as those who are “in Christ,” who have been “given new birth.”

This is an important place to start for Him, given all that is going on in the context of this writing.  Peter, along with the whole Church in the Roman Empire, has been facing dramatic persecution, the likes, and duration of which they had not yet seen since Jesus was taken into heaven.

In the face of this, where people were having to worship in secret, hide their identities, and were likely watchings friends and neighbors arrested and even put to death, Peter encourages them in the same way that Paul does: “Hold on to your faith.”  Peter reminds the of the Gospel, of the true hope that is found in Jesus Christ and the nature of that hope as well.  There is nothing that humans can do to take that away from them.  No matter how bad it gets, God is greater.  Even death cannot put an end to this hope.

With all of us waking up “post-election” today, whatever the results are (I’m writing this having just voted), and wondering like the rest of the U.S. what the results are going to be tomorrow when this is being read.  There is a lot of opportunity for fear, doubt, and disbelief.  I’m sure there was back then as well.  But Peter’s words here, and all throughout Scripture reminds us that our true hope does not lie in things in this world and that nothing in this world can take the true hope, the hope that lives eternally in us through Jesus Christ.

Introduction to the Letters of Peter

At the end of the Gospel of John, we encounter the narrative of Peter’s reinstatement after denying Jesus three times.  In it, Jesus repeated tells Peter to “feed my sheep.”  Throughout the book of Acts and at different points in Paul’s letters, we encounter Peter as an “apostle to the Jews,” focusing on teaching and proclaiming the message of Jesus to the Jewish people.

Later in life, however, Peter seems to have taken on a greater role within the church, writing not only to Jews here, but to the Gentile churches throughout Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), the same churches that Paul wrote to as well.

Peter’s writing come in roughly the mid-60s AD.  He was in Rome, probably after Paul died, and stayed there until His own Martyrdom sometime before AD 68.

All throughout His writings, Peter works to feed Christ’s sheep in a time when such “food” was scarce.  There was a great deal of persecution during this time.  Peter mentions it in every chapter of his first letter.  He encourages them to remain faithful to the Gospel and to persevere in the midst of their suffering.

In His second letter, Peter feeds Christ’s sheep by instructing them on how to deal with persecution, evildoers, and false teachers from within the church.  Both letters reveal Peter’s true “shepherding heart” for believers and for the church.  He continually encourages and challenges believers toward faithful living in the midst of many trials.

James 5 – Warnings and Prayers

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It is no secret in Scripture that God has a special place in His heart for the oppressed and marginalized.  Much of the mission of the Church is based on a call to care for the widow, the orphan, those in prison, and the oppressed and much of the early church was made up of such people.  The makeup of churches nowadays seems to have changed a bit.  Church appears to be a place where those who have their lives all together go, not where the broken come to receive healing.

James issues a warning to those who are “rich,” but it goes for all those who oppress or ignore the oppressed and marginalized.  Our actions in this regard do not go unnoticed before the thrown of God.  We must be careful in how we act and in where our priorities lie for it is not our earthly wealth that matters to God, but what we did with the blessings, actions that reveal where our heart is, that He has given us that truly matters.

One of the ways we can ensure a proper orientation in our lives in this, and all matters that James brings up, is committing to prayer.  We don’t talk about this enough, I think, in the church.  When we come before God, we come to praise Him, to thank Him, and to lift up our needs and the needs of the world before Him.  We do this because God calls us to, because He is capable of handling our needs, and because we trust Him.  Doing so, however, does not exempt us from action either.  God calls us to be active participants in His work in the world and this happens through the prayers and actions of His people.  When we invite God into situations, we believe that He is going to act in ways the build His Kingdom and further His will in the world.

James 4 – Internal Desires

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Practical Theology, which is one of the main themes of the book of James, doesn’t simply have to do with what we do outwardly as we live out our faith.  Though that is a big component of it, James has already pointed to the fact that what happens outside of us, our actions, come from what is happening inside of us.

Here, he draws on that theme, even more, when he points out that much of the fighting, quarreling, and division that is present in our lives comes from the internal desires that we have not being fulfilled.

Now, some of these desires might be good things and are worth standing up for.  But what James is referring to here is actually the negative things, the things we covet or want.  We may get these things confused for those things that we need, forgetting that God always provides for the things that we need.  When we lose our perspective like this, the little things seem to be way more important than they actually are and we make a big deal out of them, fighting and quarreling about things that are really non-issues.

How do we overcome this?  James tells us to submit ourselves to God and resist these temptations.  When we do this, the devil will flee from us.  He makes it sound so simple…

However, the reality of what James is saying here brings us back to the very core of our identity in Christ.  We are those who are unable to save ourselves, unable to free ourselves, and unable to provide for ourselves; WE NEED GOD.  James calls us to a life of daily dependence on God for our protection and provision.

While future planning is not necessarily a bad thing, as Christians we are called to do it through the lens of daily dependence.  We do not do things under our own power, but because of God’s provision and blessing in our lives.  This is the essence of practical theology too, that our lives would daily reflect our full dependence on God alone.

Numbers 13-14 – Leaving Egypt: Facing the Giants

  1. As you consider your own journey, how do you relate to the spies who feared when they saw the giants in the land? Who are your giants?  How are you the “grasshopper”?
  1. When faced with a big decision, a direction change, or a new undertaking, fear makes the allure of Eqypt becomes even more enticing. In what ways does Israel look backward rather than forward, standing on the brink of the promised land?  Have you experienced that in your life?
    1. Have we experienced this in the life of HCRC?
  1. “Israel rejects God not because they want to be more but because they are willing to settle for less.” -Dr. David Stubbs  Have you ever experienced a time in your life where you have settled for something rather than embracing the great things that God has in store for you?  What is it that caused you to make that decision?
  1. God calls Israel His “treasured possession”, “loved”, and “chosen people”. He uses these same terms when He refers to His people now.  Yet like Israel, we stumble and struggle because a despairing sense of inadequacy and self-depreciation.  Do you experience these lies in your own life?  What truths in Scripture can you find to replace those lies in your life?
  1. The first vision we get of Canaan, the promised land, before all of the fear and rejection, is one of abundant flourishing and provision beyond anything that the people could have expected, a testimony to God keeping His promises. Have you experienced this in your own life?  Do you see places in your life where this is the current reality?  Are there places where you are on the cusp of this?  What steps of faith is God calling you to take to get there?
    1. Consider the life of HCRC. How do these questions apply?

*Some questions taken from Leaving Egypt, by Chuck DeGroat

James 3 – Deadly Tongues

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In Matthew 15, Jesus talks very specifically about the power of the tongue and what comes out of us.  He shows a contrast between the teachings of the Pharisees, who talk about unclean food as being that which makes us dirty and defiled and that which comes out of our mouth.  The things we say, Jesus points out, are the things that come from our heart and it is what which is in our heart that causes us to sin.

James picks up on this teaching as he continues to lay out a practical theology of living out our faith through what we do.  The tongue, he says, is one of the most powerful elements of our bodies and it can be what steers us into trouble or our of it as well.  He also points out the dichotomy (a contrast between two things that are completely opposite) in having a tongue that both speaks the praises of God and also curses the things around him or her.  These things shouldn’t exist together, but far too often they do.

Language is the very essence of civilization.  Nothing that humankind has already achieved would be possible without it.  How we speak, though, is not often taken into account when we talk about the direction of cultures and people.  Yet James points out that something as seemingly simple as this could change the course of a much greater group.  The ship is steered by the rutter, the forest burns because of one small spark.

Could it be that culture, ideology, even governments could change because of an intentional change in how we speak to each other?  The negative impacts of speech are certainly evident in our culture today, especially in this current election cycle.  I wonder what the world would be like if we chose not to engage in hateful, divisive rhetoric (true of all political parties and their adherents).  I wonder how our relationships with those that don’t think, feel, look, or believe like we do would change if we chose our words and actions carefully?

James 2 – Favoritism

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Continuing in the mindset of practical theology, James offers some practical thoughts on how our lives and actions are to be lived out in relationship to other people.  What he says is, “Don’t show favoritism.”  But what actually does that mean?

Favoritism is defined as “the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.”  This may not seem like a very big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it is profoundly important when it comes to the application of grace and love in our lives.  The act of showing favoritism in any situation is intentionally divisive, selective, and willfully unloving in nature.  You cannot favor one person over another and say that you love them the same.

This, as James says, is a violation of the Law which says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  We’ve talked often about how the Law gets somewhat of a bad wrap at times, being shown as that which enslaves or binds us. That, however, was not and is not the intention of the Law.  James says that the Law was intended for freedom which, I think, is why Jesus comes to fulfill it, not remove it.

Now, through Jesus Christ, we are no longer subject to some of the provisions of the Law, but the “meat and potatoes” of the Law still function and indeed applies to the life of faith.  Here, then, is why James says that favoritism is important to avoid in our lives.  Favoritism, in its raw form, is discrimination, division, exclusion; each is the antonym of the love that God calls us to live.

It goes far deeper than we think.  Often this gets applied to families.  Parents shouldn’t show favoritism among their kids, yes.  But in reality, this command applies to our entire life.  We must work to remove favoritism and all its roots from our hearts because we don’t have to go far inside to see favoritism among family members or peers become preferences, cliques, and division in the community of faith… and if these things are alive and well inside the church, things like racism, sexism, and discrimination of other sorts can be quick to follow.

James 1 – New Testament Wisdom

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The book of James is sometimes referred to as the “Proverbs of the New Testament.”  James begins his writing by talking about wisdom and faith in the midst of persecution.  Keep in mind what we have learned, that there as a significant amount of persecution taking place in the first century, when the New Testament was written, and James, being in Jerusalem, was witness to much of it.

James’ appeal to wisdom in the midst of this, though, does not veer off the path that we’ve seen throughout the New Testament, but rather embraces many of the themes of it using language that we’ve only rarely seen.  Jesus is referred to as “the wisdom of God,” by Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth, James echoes these words as he appeals to seeking “wisdom” in difficult times.

In the book of Proverbs, one of the key lines is “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Now, “fearing” God doesn’t have anything to do with being afraid, but rather it is a seeking after, or following of God that is the foundation for wisdom.  James picks up on that theme here.  How are we to endure persecution?  By seeking wisdom or, in other words, by following the example of Christ.

He then goes on to cite several examples of this, most of which can be found in Jesus’ teachings as well.  Humility, faith, steadfastness, meekness, and action are all a part of the core of Jesus’ teachings and are all central themes of the New Testament message and encouragement to believers everywhere.

Like the book of Proverbs, which doesn’t mention God directly at all, James doesn’t necessarily lay out the Gospel message in precise detail.  However, the echoes of God’s grace and the message of Christ’s teachings can be found throughout the book of James in practical and applicable ways for our everyday life.

Introduction to James

James is one of the “General Epistles,” having no specified audience or church that it was written to.  These writings, like many of the other epistles, would have been copied by hand and distributed widely throughout the early church.

The author of this book is widely agreed upon to be James, the brother of Jesus, who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem for approximately 15 years.  He is mentioned multiple times in the book of Acts as holding this position and being a part of many of the councils and meetings that took place there.  An interesting fact about this is that, for several generations after the formation of the church, tradition has it that a relative of Jesus was appointed to be the head of the church in Jerusalem.

Different than much of the rest of the New Testament, James is a very practical book, focusing on the application of theology in everyday life.  For some, this makes James a favorite while for others, it can be confounding and theologically confusing.  There have been many arguments about how James’ theology mixes with that of Paul.

There have been many arguments about how James’ theology mixes with that of Paul.  James seems to have a “works first” approach, whereas Paul is all about grace; they often appear to be in conflict with one another.  However, when we bring them both together, especially looking at the whole of Paul’s writing, we see that works, how we live our lives in response to the Gospel of grace, are very important.  We are called to live transformed lives.

However, when we bring them both together, especially looking at the whole of Paul’s writing, we see that works, how we live our lives in response to the Gospel of grace, are very important.  We are called to live transformed lives in response to God’s love, not simply continuing on in our old patterns.  Our lives should reveal the faith that we attest to and James gives practical examples of how to do just that.

Hebrews 13 – A "brief" Note

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As the author of Hebrews concludes the letter with the customary final greetings, he/she encourages the audience to take what has been written, especially the exhortations (appeals, advice, arguments, persuasion, etc.) seriously.  This letter, the author says, is much briefer than it could have been.

Certainly, that is true of all the writing of Scripture.  There is so much more to say on all of these topics.  John, at the end of his Gospel, attests to this as well:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.  John 21:25

That being said, Scripture doesn’t continue on in this way.  I think of the many dozens of books that I was encouraged to read in seminary, tens of thousands of pages, and the thousands upon thousands of books that have been written on Scripture and theology; we could go on forever… and will!!  But the author here has a way of summing it all up in a couple of “brief” exhortations.

Keep on Loving – This first and primary exhortation is the crux of the whole Gospel, the whole Law, and all of Scripture.  Keep on loving God.  Keep on loving each other.  The author offers some practical ways in which this can be lived out but essentially the message is the same as Jesus’ message in Matthew 25, “Whatever you did for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”

Hold to sound teaching – This is a message that endures throughout the New Testament.  As the church continued to grow, it continually faced a number of different threats from different groups that would offer “new teachings” or “new revelations.”  These, however, often steered people way from the faith and away from grace.  They were in direct contradiction of Jesus statement in John 14, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

Pray – Prayer is a continual exhortation throughout Scripture as well.  Paul writes that we should “pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”  Jesus too taught His disciples to pray and modeled a prayer life that we are called to follow.  Even at the right hand of God, Jesus is said to be praying, interceding for us on our behalf before the Father.

There is so much more to say here.  But, I suppose, I should take my cue from the author of Hebrews and keep it “brief.”  Much more will come as we begin our reading of James!

Hebrews 12 – Cloud of Witnesses

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Do you ever feel like you are standing alone in your life?  Do you ever feel like the world is not on your side?  Lately, it seems, Christians have been a lot more isolated in North America because of their faith.  We don’t feel like we can talk openly about anything or even share our points of view because it seems to be no longer welcome.  We’ve been labeled, dismissed, and in some cases, even forcefully put to the margins of life.  It can feel very lonely.

In the context that the book of Hebrews was written, Christianity was facing some hard times, much worse that anything that we have experienced today.  Christians were hunted, imprisoned, and killed in numbers greater than pretty much every other time in history.  You can imagine that this was a bit isolating; a very trying time for the young Church.

However, the author reminds us here that we are never alone in our struggles.  It seems rather obvious for us to say that “God is always with us,” but the author is saying that and more here.  Yes God is with us in the same way that God has been with so many that have come before us, that have persevered through the life of faith, through all the trials and tribulations, and who fixed their eyes on the Messiah who would save them from all the evil of this world.

And so we are called to persevere, to run the race marked out for us.  We fix our eyes on Jesus because He is the one who gives us the strength and ability to run this race.  He also gives us the model for how we are to live in the midst of persecution, peacefully and lovingly, so that all will look and see Jesus Christ in us.