Ephesians 3 – Plan A

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What is truly amazing about the love of God and the grace that He shows us is that, as Paul says here, this has always been the point and purpose.  This is why we were created, out of love, and what God has always desired, relationship with us.  It has always been His will to draw us to Himself.

Even after the Fall, when sin entered the world, the point at which God could have said that He was unequivocally done with us because of our lack of obedience, He still stepped into the gap desiring to show us His love.

Furthermore, this plan was always meant to include all the people of the earth, both Jews and Gentiles alike.  While God chose to work through a certain people that He called His own, it wasn’t for the purpose of keeping others out, but rather for the purpose of bringing them in.  This is a fact that often gets missed in the Old Testament, especially by the people of Israel.  They, like the Church, are called to be a “light to the nations” in the same way that Jesus is the “light of the world.”

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…” Isaiah 9:2

This full inclusion is made clearer through the life and work of Jesus as well as the revelation and power of the Holy Spirit and God removes the barriers that have long existed to being in a relationship with Him.

Paul accents this point in his prayer for the Ephesians, which is also a prayer for the whole of the church, that

…out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.



Ephesians 2 – No More Barriers

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Salvation isn’t quite as simple as we often think it to be.  We mainly talk about salvation in terms of having our “sins washed away,” sometimes even reducing it to a simple “get out of hell free” card.  Here, however, Paul breaks it down using stark terminology for what really happened for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Paul begins by laying out the reality of where we were before Christ, dead in our sins.  The use of the word “dead” is both intentional and telling.  Sometimes we brush sin off as being just a little thing, something that is relatively inconsequential in our lives.  Here, however, Paul reveals the truth of the reality of sin… and it’s literally killing us.  “Meaningless, meaningless,” writes the author of Ecclesiastes, “everything in life is meaningless” without God.  It’s utterly futile, a chasing after the wind; we live and then we die and all of our works come to nothing with no real significance unless God is in them.

Moreover, our sins also create a barrier between us and the only one who can both heal us and give our lives true meaning, God.  Isaiah writes, at the end of his book, that our works are like filthy rags without the Lord to redeem them.

Sin creates a barrier between us and God. Jesus Christ destroyed the barrier by dying for our sins.

In the midst of all this, though, Jesus enters the scene.  He doesn’t wait for us to figure it out, but rather lives and dies in our place that we may be reconciled to God, that the barriers would be removed.

“He himself is our peace,” Paul writes, “who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”  In language equally as stark and descriptive as barriers and death, Paul talks about the results of Christ’s work, breaking down barriers, bringing life, and drawing those who were once foreigners and strangers, near to God as citizens, members of God’s house, and intimately near to Him.



Ephesians 1- Predestined

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Paul begins his letter to the church in Ephesus, a letter that was most likely meant to have a greater audience than just this one church, on a really high theological note.  In fact, he basically sums up salvation history in this one chapter, and it all begins and ends with God.

From all eternity, God has called us to be His own.

There is a tenant in the Christian faith known as the doctrine of predestination that is something that has been talked about and debated over the years.  Many different denominations of the Church see this differently.  Essentially, the picture that Paul is trying to paint here is a God that is far above any confines of human existence.  In fact, before the beginning began, God had worked out the plan of salvation and had even called people to Himself.  This calling, which happened before all time began, is what we know of as Predestination.

Now, this particular doctrine also raises a number of questions for us.  If God had the plan of salvation already worked out before He created the world, does that mean that God knew sin was going to happen?  How could He allow that?  Does that mean He created an imperfect world?

What about free will?  Humans were created with the freedom to choose God or not, yet God already knows who He has called and who will respond?  Doesn’t that conflict with free will?

These are good questions.  The responses would take more time and are more nuanced than this writing has time for or can address.  Some of it is beyond human understanding and comprehension.  However, it may suffice to say that what we know as salvation history, as recorded in the Bible, is far greater, more thought-out, and abundantly more complex than we may have initially thought.  Yet, even in that, God has taken care of every detail to the point that we cannot lose even a hair from our head without it being His will.  Truly, He is amazing!



Introduction to Ephesians

Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus rather unique in that it does not address any specific theology error or doctrinal heresy that was present in the church at that time.  Rather, Paul’s writing here seems to be focused more on expanding the understanding of God’s love, grace, and eternal purpose and to link those to God’s goals for the Church as well.

Here Paul addresses a number different aspects of God that we have later formed into doctrines, key aspects of the Christian faith that are drawn out of Scripture.  As He explains God’s great purpose and forethought in the plan of salvation and the goals God has for the Church, Paul then moves on to show the steps toward their fulfillment.  As is almost universally true with Paul, this is the move from theological thought to practical application.

Ephesus itself was one of the most important cities in western Asia Minor, which we know today as the country of Turkey.  Located just inland, it had a harbor along the Cayster River that ran down to the Aegean Sea.  Because of this, the city became an intersection of several major land and sea trade routes.  Acts 19 records Paul’s visit to Ephesus, where he spent over 2 years evangelizing and setting up a church, which is also the time and place that he wrote the first letter to the church in Corinth.

The Apostle John also spent a majority of his later years in the city of Ephesus, from which he rebuilt the Christian community there.  He used the city as a home base for evangelism throughout Asia Minor.  John was exiled from Ephesus to the Island of Patmos, from which he wrote the book of Revelation.  He later returned to the city where he would spend his last days and be buried after his death near the end of the first century.

Paul visited Ephesus on his Third missionary journey. Photo Credit: www.thinglink.com

Paul visited Ephesus on his Third missionary journey.
Photo Credit: www.thinglink.com



Galatians 6 – New Creation

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Paul closes his letter to the churches in Galatia by reiterating what he has just said along with a few practical applications.  Freedom gives us extraordinary latitude in how we can live, and yet there are limits to that as well.  However, rather than condemning those who sin, we have the freedom to love them and help restore them.  This is why Paul encourages mutual accountability within the body of Christ.  Not only does it help to bring people back after a sin, but it helps us to keep our own ego in check.

The reality is that, with freedom, comes a transformed life.  When we receive Christ, we are a “new creation.”  Even though Scripture tells us “the old is gone and the new has come,” we still struggle with sin.  Our impulse is to revert back to the legalistic notion of having to pay for our sins.  To this, however, Paul says No.  It doesn’t matter what you have done, all that matters is the New Creation that you are becoming.

Beautiful, no matter how lowly the start may be.

Jesus Christ doesn’t look at who you were, He is much more concerned with who you are becoming.  Part of who we are becoming is seen in the fruit that our lives produce as we embrace our freedom in Christ.  Paul reminds his readers that freedom gives us the opportunity to move toward each other in restorative, supportive, and loving ways the build up the body of Christ.

It is important to remember, though, that we sometimes confuse these actions with legalistic things that we *have* to do as Christians.  They aren’t.  Instead, they are things that we now have the opportunity to do to show the love of Christ and as a response to the grace of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.



Galatians 5 – Christian Freedom

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The Statue of Liberty has represented freedom for many years

Using the word “freedom” in a Christian context can often be confusing because so much if what we understand “freedom” to mean comes from the cultural context of the United States of America.  We are the “land of the free” and any of our national symbols have become synonymous with freedom and liberty.

There has also been a struggle within the church in the United States which has wrongly portrayed civic duty and patriotism as being part of our “Christian duty” along with the notion that the U.S. is a “Christian nation.”

While it may be true that the U.S.A may have been founded using some Christian principles, mentioning God in historical documents and the like, but it doesn’t take a lot of looking around at culture to recognize that we are certainly not a Christian nation, at least not anymore.

When Paul talks about freedom in today’s passage, he is representing the freedom from the bondage of sin that is given to those who believe in Jesus Christ.  He is also continuing the themes of the last several chapters, helping us to understand that our salvation is not based on works of any sort, but by grace through faith.

In this freedom, we are no longer bound by sin in any form and not required to perform any ritual acts to absolve us from those sins.  Paul lists a number of them here, following it by a list of effects that freedom in Christ has on our lives.  No longer do we need to look out for ourselves, but we are free to love others as Christ loved us.

I love the freedoms that we celebrate and far too often take for granted in the U.S.  However, the freedom we have in Christ is so much deeper and greater than any human freedom could ever be.



Galatians 4 – Know or Known?

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Though it may seem like his attention has shifted, Paul continues here to lay out the foundation of what it means to be in Christ by grace through faith rather than through works.  He uses the themes of slavery and adoption to illustrate this.  Where slaves do their master’s bidding, working at whatever they are told to earn their place, through Christ, we are set free from that.  No longer do we need to work to earn favor with God or our place in His Kingdom.

The same is true with adoption.  A child that is orphaned has no family, no inheritance, no future (or so it was at that time).  Orphans would often become slaves or worse.  Paul casts us as orphans until God, in Christ, adopts us into His own family by His grace.  When this happens, we are made heirs of God’s Kingdom and God calls us His child.

God calls us His child

Paul has spent a considerable amount of time talking about the role of faith in this argument.  Faith is crucial to salvation because it is through faith that we receive the gift of God.  It is important that we not confuse what Paul is saying here though because faith itself can be a “work” of our own.

Biblical theology points to faith as a work of the Holy Spirit inside of us, another act of grace by God.  We, in turn, come to a point of acceptance, claiming that faith as our own.  This is when, using Paul’s language, that we “know” God, or at least begin to know Him.

However, Paul makes a distinction here that is important.  He says that we are “known” by God.  He has been at work in our lives since the very beginning bringing us to the point of faith and salvation.  God knows us more deeply and more fully than we even know ourselves.  When we come to the point of salvation and know God, we enter into a family of believers where our “abba Father” knows each one of us and loves us unconditionally and eternally.



Matthew 24:36-51 "Keep Watch"

Discussions and questions about the End Times can be confusing, difficult, and nuanced.  Jesus cuts through all that, giving us a specific understanding that we cannot and do not know the details and therefore, we must keep watch and be ready for it will come when we least expect it.



Galatians 3 – Old Testament Understanding

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God’s Grace is the same throughout Scripture

I have heard it said far too often that the Old Testament is all about the Law whereas the New Testament in all about grace.  The Old Testament encourages “works” whereas the New Testament promotes faith.  Painting in such broad brush strokes may reveal some general truths about things, but also may over-generalize the issue at hand.

As Paul is addressing the churches in Galatia, he is not doing so with a copious amount of books and commentaries on the life and teachings of Jesus. At this point, what we know as the New Testament was nothing more than a random assortment of letters and writings by some who were trying to make sense of everything that had happened as was happening in this new found faith.

Interestingly, though, Paul’s Old Testament understanding of who Jesus is and what He came to do is profound and deep.  It also directly challenges the broad generalizations that we tend to place Scriptures two testaments.

While it is true that the Law was given to prescribed how to live into the identity that God had given, the reality is that identity that we have from God has always been an act of grace.  Living into that identity has always been an act of faith, the so-called “works” a response to their identity.

Paul quotes and references more than a dozen Old Testament passages, all relating the message of the Gospel that has been given since the very beginning, culminating in the coming of Jesus.  God makes it possible for us to be reconciled to Him through the work of Jesus.  Faith, however, has always been a component of this; works were the result.

Where Israel got it wrong, and where we often do too, is that they thought that it was the works that make us who we are rather than the grace of God.



Galatians 2 – Flippity Flop

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Paul spent a long time working toward acceptance within the Christian community, an understandable hurdle to overcome when one joins the side of those he or she has been persecuting.  This was somewhat complicated by the fact that Paul was also moving outside of the Jewish circles and preaching the Gospel to Gentiles.  This made the Jewish Christians somewhat uncomfortable which was also understandable given the generations of exclusion that had taken place.

There is really one thing that Paul is addressing here that he does so in two different forms.  First, there was a process of forgiveness, healing, and acceptance that the believers had to go through before they welcomed Paul into the community.  In that time, I’m sure questions were raised about his motivations and such, but ultimately that time had since passed and he had become not only a part of the believing community but a leader within it.

The other aspect of this is Paul’s ability to and right questioning of Cephas, also known as the Apostle Peter, in his interaction with the Gentiles.  It seems that Peter was working harder at “keeping up appearances” with the Jewish Christians and doing so was leading other believers astray.  As we read in 1 Corinthians, Paul is uniquely concerned that our actions do not damage the witness of the Gospel, and that is what is happening here.

Division or Unity?

All of this is to once again prove Paul’s authority as an Apostle.  Ultimately this Authority comes from God.  His calling on our lives, however, would also be confirmed by others in the Church and in leadership positions.  It would also be confirmed by Paul’s actions as a leader.  He has the responsibility to preach the Gospel and live His life in accordance with it, and to be held accountable when actions and words don’t line up as was the case with Peter.

Thinking about this and watching the continuing political coverage of the current election cycle makes me wonder what has happened to our political leaders.  They say one thing and do another, or just say different things all the time depending on who they are in front of.  How have we come to such a point?  How are they held accountable?  It is a lesson for those of us in the church, both leader and layperson alike.  We cannot flip-flop our message, our lifestyle, and our values to suit whomever we are with.

We cannot flip-flop our message, our lifestyle, and our values to suit whomever we are with.  Yes, there is freedom, but never should that freedom be used to lead others astray.  Rather, we use our freedom to love.

I wonder what the government would be like if it lived out the love, acceptance, equality, and unity that it so often claims and far too often wields like a weapon against the other party?



Galatians 1 – God Alone

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How quick are we to change our minds about something or someone?  Commercials, political debates, even some Sunday morning sermons are designed to get us to change our mind about things, some for the better and others not so much.  In any case, we can be very fickle creatures can’t we?

We aren’t really sure how much time has passed since he had first visited and set up the churches throughout Galatia, but by the wording here, it had not been very long.  Already, he says, they are deserting their belief in Christ for a “different Gospel.”  It seems, though, that they were also quickly deserting him.  His authority as an Apostle was in question and, therefore, his calling by God as well.

The believers were dealing with a group known as the Judaizers, those Christians with a Jewish heritage that held to the legalistic practices of the Old Testament law.  These people believed that you couldn’t be in the Church if you weren’t circumcised amongst other things.  This group likely denied the Apostleship of Paul because he wasn’t a direct disciple of Jesus.

One God, One Gospel, One Word

Paul, however, counters both arguments with one simple fact: calling and salvation come from God alone.  There has never been a human practice or act that can bring about our own salvation.  Sadly, these Judaizers, like the Pharisees, completely missed the point of the Law as being a description of how God calls us to live out our love for Him.

In the same way, our calling from God is not something that comes from our own good life or works.  Rather, it comes by the grace of God alone.  Nothing we do can change this as Paul will later write in his letter to the church in Ephesus:

For it is by grace you have been saved,through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.



Introduction to Galatians

Unlike many of Paul’s letters, the book of Galatians may not have been written to a specific city church, but rather to a region with a more general audience.  The region Galatia is located in what is now the country of Turkey and was visited frequently by Paul during his three missionary journies.  While it is not documented directly, we know that Paul visited and set up churches in several cities in the region including Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13), Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14), and Iconium (Acts 16 and 2 Timothy 3).

 

Paul took several missionary journeys and often passed through the region of Galatia. Photo Credit: www.psephizo.com

Paul took several missionary journeys and often passed through the region of Galatia.
Photo Credit: www.psephizo.com

 

While the destination of this letter may be a bit different than the others, the content and layout of the book of Galatians, as well as the purpose for Paul’s writing strikes a very familiar chord.  The Judaizers, those Jews who converted to Christianity but still held to many of the ceremonial practices of the Old Testament, were both questioning Paul’s Apostolic authority and pressing Gentile Christians to abide by Old Testament laws, specifically circumcision.

Paul, responding to this situation, is quick to defend his authority as an Apostle.  He then writes a doctrinal treatise of the doctrines of Justification, Christian freedom, and faith.  This is followed by a practical application section regarding this doctrine, as is often the case with Paul’s writing.

The book of Galatians may be one of Paul’s earliest known writings.  Though there is some dispute as to when it was written, there is no doubt that this letter came very early on in Paul’s ministry.  Galatians is both eloquent and vigorous in its apologetic nature, defending the essential truth of the Gospel and the New Testament that those who believe in Jesus Christ are justified by faith in Him, through the grace of God alone.



2 Corinthians 13 – Self Examination

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Photo Credit: Unsplash.com

Photo Credit: Unsplash.com

When I argue, I like to win.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who is readily willing to admit that.  No one likes to defend themselves knowing that they are going to lose.  Sometimes, though, that means a careful examination of what I am saying to make sure that I actually have firm ground to stand on.  Whether I like it or not, sometimes I have to admit that I’m wrong… or sheepishly remove myself from the conversation.

After all of what Paul has said to them, he now encourages them to examine themselves and what they have done so that may know whether they are in the faith or not.  In doing so, he is inviting God into this as well.  Paul can make an argument and tell them what it is that they have done, or not done, that is wrong.  However, it is the Holy Spirit who convicts and who restores.  We must always be open to the work of the Spirit in our hearts and minds.

Often, this is the most difficult place for us to be physically and spiritually. It is the true place of weakness and humility, the place where we are completely vulnerable, open to accepting reproof, even discipline, but also where we find the most growth and maturing.

Paul doesn’t call the Corinthians to self-examination out of fear, but our of desire to be in the Truth and in Christ.  In that, we find true power and true freedom.  Paul encourages the church in Corinth to strive for this, not so that they would attain their own salvation, but so that they would be open to the full measure of grace that God has shown us in Jesus Christ.  When we are open to this, unity and peace abound.



2 Corinthians 12 – Thorn in My Side

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Photo Credit: Unsplash.com

Have you ever had someone our something that was in your life that continually harassed you and never left you alone?  It’s so incredibly annoying and frustrating and it seems to go on and on making life more and more miserable.  Paul talks about this here, someone who has perhaps been talking behind his back or saying that Paul is somehow “less” of an Apostle than others.  It is possible that this is the person who Paul called to be disciplined in 1 Corinthians.

In any case, Paul’s reaction to this can be a learning experience for us as well. Rather than wallowing in misery over what was surely a rough situation, Paul allowed God to speak through it, realizing that the Spirit was teaching Him not to become conceited.

Being humble is an important lesson to be certain.  I think, however, Christians take things like this too far.  We focus on being humble, even making idols out of it.  God teaches Paul something deeper about humility, though, that is important for us too: His power in the midst of it.

Boasting about our humility doesn’t make much sense; it is the very opposite of what it means to be humble.  However, in our weakness, God’s strength is shown in ways we probably never thought imaginable.  Really, this is the point of humility, not to show how humble we are, but rather how great God is.

This seems to have been Paul’s point all along.  While the church in Corinth is questioning him based on human strengths, Paul continues to point them not to himself or what he has endured, but to the power of God and the message of the Gospel.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

I wonder what would happen if our churches, rather than boasting in the strength of their programming,looked to and relied on the power of Christ…

I wonder what would happen if our churches, rather than boasting in the number of people they have in their seats on Sunday, looked to and relied on the power of Christ…

I wonder what would happen if our churches, rather than catering to the vocal few that have the most money, looked to and relied on the power of Christ…