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…



Acts 12:1-17 "Praying in Troubled Times"

Pastor Jim Harrison, RCA Missionary



2 Corinthians 11 – Eloquent Fool

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If ever there was a place where sarcasm was used in the Bible, this chapter would be it.  As he continues to address the issue of the church in Corinth following some “other voices” that seem to be leading them astray, questions their wisdom through a rather sarcastic tone, making him look “foolish.”  Certainly, he is the foolish one in relationship to the “super” apostles because of his lack of eloquence in speaking… or the fact that he told them the truth, even if it was difficult to hear.

The reality of this situation is not something unique to the Corinthian church, though.  In fact, many churches continue to struggle with these things today.  While the truth of the Gospel message is simple, its implications are broad reaching and often challenge the way that we live.

Far too often, eloquent speakers come in and offer a feel-good message that we are “good” and “don’t have to change.”  We are told that nothing is actually wrong with us and that “God loves us just the way we are.”  There is some truth in these messages, but it isn’t the whole truth.  God meets us where we are, but doesn’t want us to stay there, He wants us to go deeper, to be transformed through His Spirit.  Sometimes this growth hurts… sometimes it is difficult…

Whenever people come to us offering a “better way” that we can know for the “low low price of…” we should be wary.  Scripture tells us that God’s Word is near us, in our mouths and on our hearts; the Holy Spirit will speak through it and transform us.  We need not pay an “expert” for a “special way” to our salvation…

Sadly, the Corinthians listened to those who boasted in human wisdom and ability, touting a better way than the Gospel Message.  I think of “prosperity gospel” preachers here… those who require payment for their blessing, who fly on private jets to “advance the ‘gospel…'”  Would they ever be willing to face beatings or imprisonment for the message they are preaching?  Would they stand with those who are facing that now?  Paul would… Paul did… Paul faced death for the sake of winning souls for Christ, not his own glory or wealth.



2 Corinthians 10 – Defend Yourself

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The tone of Paul’s letter takes a decidedly negative turn in chapter 10.  It seems that he has heard that some in the church in Corinth have challenged His authority as an Apostle.  What’s worse is that these accusations seem to have been taking place while Paul was away, citing the experience of while he was there, but not giving him the ability to defend himself.    Paul faced criticism because of his ability to speak “boldly” in letters but not in person.

It is likely that this is, on some level, a continue of what Paul addresses in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians.  Those in the church were judging Paul by earthly standards, looking for charisma and eloquent speech rather than the Word of God for the people of God.

When people boast in their own abilities, they set themselves up to be measured by them.  It doesn’t matter how many gold medals any athlete will ever win, the moment that they fail will be the moment shock and disbelief where many will question “how this could happen.”  Eventually, they too will retire, and someone else will take their place, beat their records, and they will fade into memory.  In fact, they often become the commentators that were so quick to question them.

However, when Paul boasts in the Lord and the ministry that God has given him, the metric for judgment changes.  Ministries and churches shouldn’t be judged by numbers or the charisma of their leaders but by the fruit that is being produced through the work of the Holy Spirit.  Certainly, God uses human gifts and abilities to further ministry, but those things are not the metric by which they are judged.

When we judge ministries and their leaders by human abilities rather than the work of God through them, we are actually placing our trust in those things rather than in God’s work.



2 Corinthians 9 – Cheerful Giving

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In a number of ways, 1 Corinthians 9 almost feels like a rehashing of the previous chapter.  Many of the same themes are present as Paul continues to talk about the same collection that is being taken for the church in Jerusalem.  Yet, where Paul was talking about the amount of giving in chapter 8, his focus shifts specifically to the attitude and heart of the giver here in chapter 9.

Paul points out in chapter 8 that the eagerness of the church in Corinth to give to this cause is a test of the sincerity of their love.  He then encourages them to give as they are able and even to go beyond that in some cases.

Here Paul points out once again that this is not a Law, and no one should give reluctantly, but rather, it should be done with a cheerful heart.  He draws on some themes from the book of Psalms here as well.  God does not desire sacrifice, the Psalmist writes in Psalm 51.  Rather, God desires a contrite heart, something that He would never turn down.

More important that the amount that is given is the attitude in which it is given.  In a world driven by money and material wealth, that is not always an easy thing for us to do.  We feel as though we have earned this money through our hard work, but what we fail to recognize is the blessing of God to bring us here in the first place.  God “supplies seed to the sower…”; He is always the primary mover in these things.  Everything that we have comes from Him and so, in an expression of thanksgiving to Him we give, joyfully thanking God for the blessings He has given us and trusting that He will continue to provide for our every need.



2 Corinthians 8 – Giving Ability

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This is the first of two chapters in which Paul addresses the practice of giving with the church in Corinth.  At this time, a collection was being taken for the church in Jerusalem who had come under a good deal of persecution from the Jews.  While they had remained faithful to the Gospel, it seems they had lost everything else and were quite poor.  And so, picking up on the themes of his parting words in 1 Corinthians 16, he urges them to prepare for a collection when Titus comes.

The Old Testament paradigm of giving was set forth in the law of Moses, giving a tenth of what you made and also giving the first fruits of what you had.  Whereas this sounds pretty stringent and binding, it is, like so much else in the Law, a description of what it means to live out our love for God by putting Him first in all things including material wealth.

But what Paul doesn’t do here is rehash the Old Testament Law about giving 10% of everything.  Instead, he commends the churches of Macedonia who gave as much as they were able and in some cases beyond their means as well.  Notice that there is not an amount associated with it, some number that they had to reach, but rather a recognition of the love that they have shown through their giving.

There are a number of religious denominations that claim to be Christian out there today who claim that there are number values associated with return blessings.  Only once you reach them will God bless you.  These are false teachings, heresies that distort the message of Scripture and God’s heart when it comes to giving.  God does not want your money; He doesn’t need it.  God wants our hearts, to place Him first in all things.  This is why Paul calls this giving a “test of the sincerity of your love.”  It is not the amount that matters, but the “earnestness, the joy, and the heart which matters as we give what we are able… and beyond.



2 Corinthians 7 – Condemnation or Conviction?

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Far too often in the Church, the words ‘condemnation’ and ‘conviction’ are used interchangeably.  As Paul continues in his thoughts to the church in Corinth, he is making sure that they understand the difference.  The letter he wrote to them was, by his own admittance, truthful but also harsh, a difficult letter that may have caused some sorrow.  He is not, however, regretful of that because the intended goal of the letter, namely repentance, was accomplished.

Christian discipline is never condemning.  Condemnation says to a person or group of people that you are “too far gone,” you are “terrible,” that not even God can save you.  This is flat out wrong; a lie straight from the mouth of the enemy.  No one is every too far gone for the grace of God.

That is not to say that we cannot call out sin when we see it, particularly within the body of the church.  Paul talks at great length, in these two letters to the church in Corinth, about removing sin from within the faith community.  Rarely does he ever say anything about the surrounding culture apart from the need to be set apart.

When we are addressing sin, whether it be in our own lives or the lives of others in our faith community, Paul’s words here are an important lesson for us.  Yes, he spoke harshly, but he would not take it back.  His words were truthful but loving, convicting but not condemning.  When the Holy Spirit convicts us it is for the purpose of repentance, reconciliation, and further sanctification of ourselves before God.

Romans 8 says that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  John writes that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, that those who believe in Him would have eternal life.  There are no qualifiers here, only the offer of grace.  NO ONE is too far gone on this earth.

 



Matthew 22:34-40; 28:18-20 "God is at Work"

Al Gemmen, InnerCHANGE Miami



2 Corinthians 6 – Play through the Pain

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Paul’s ministry, and indeed the ministry of all of the apostles and the Church, in general, endured great hardship.  Paul was whipped, beaten, imprisoned, and rioted against, all because of the message of Christ.  He also experienced a great deal of joy in his ministry, seeing churches grow and the message of the Gospel advance in ways that were likely beyond his imagination.

Through it all, however, Paul makes it very clear that the circumstances that he has encountered have not stopped him from preaching the Gospel or opening his heart to them.  In no way has he put a stumbling block before them or in any way tried to hinder their growth.  He has been truly authentic with them, and he asked them to do the same.

This can be a hard passage to read.  Paul lays all of this out before the Corinthians, saying that he’s pushed through so much and it hasn’t stopped him from continuing his work.  Essentially, it sounds like he is saying that he is playing through the pain and telling others to do so as well.  Does that mean that our pain, our struggles, and our insecurities don’t matter?

Certainly not.  Paul would never, and is not here, minimizing the trials of his readers.  In fact, he is acknowledging here the vast array of things that he has encountered in his ministry.  In spite of it all, however, he encourages them to remain focused on Jesus Christ and the hope that God offers through Him.

While the many struggles, hurts, pains, and wounds of this life are a lot, Paul encourages us to not allow the enemy to make a stumbling block out of them.  Instead, we are honest in our sufferings, fixing our eyes on Jesus who walks through it all with us and guides us through the Holy Spirit towards deeper healing and reconciliation.