Day 351: Hebrews 1-4; Introduction to Hebrews

Today we make a transition out of the Pauline Epistles and into what is known as the “general epistles.”  These books, Hebrews – 2 Peter, and Jude, are books that are written not to a specific church or person, but rather to the general audience of the Church throughout the Roman empire as it continued to grow and address a variety of issues and subjects, which compliment Paul’s writings well.  Paul is not considered to be the author of any of the general epistles either.  Most of the authors’ names show up in the title, with the exception of the book of Hebrews, whose author is anonymous.

The book of Hebrews is the first and longest of the general epistles.  There has a been a great deal of debate throughout the years about the authorship of this book.  Dr. Robert VanVoorst, in his book Reading the New Testament, points out that there have been many suggestions as to who Hebrews was written by.  Some, though this is not generally accepted anymore, suggest that Paul wrote this book.  This has been largely dismissed due to the major grammatical and stylistic differences between the writing in Hebrews and that of the Pauline letters.  VanVoorst writes, “The first author to cite this epistle was Clement of Rome (around 96 C.E.), although he does not say who wrote it… From the Earliest times in church history, whenever Hebrews’ authorship was mentions there has been great dispute about it.  Tertullian (in the second century) was the first to suggest Barnabas as its author.  The Protestant reformer Martin Luther in the sixteenth was the first to suggest Apollos, and this is a common conclusion today.  Adolf von Harnack, the greatest church historian of the nineteenth century, proposed that Priscilla was the author, which if true would make Hebrews the only NT book to be written by a woman.  (This makes an intriguing explanation for Hebrews’ anonymity.)   All in All, the argument about authorship is full of conjectures.”

While the author may not be known, it is very clear that this letter is written to the Church in general, and especially to Jewish converts to Christianity that might have been backsliding into Judaism.  It could also be that Jewish pressure on the Christian Church was on the rise and this was a letter written by one of the leaders of the Church to encourage those who were facing persecution from the Jews.  Many people think this letter was written in the mid 60’s A.D. because of its many references to the Temple which was destroyed when the Romans put down a Jewish revolt in A.D. 70 and destroyed for the final time, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.  However, it isn’t abnormal for those writing after A.D. 70 to write as if the Temple of God is still standing, something common because of the beliefs that the Jewish people held about the house of God and the deeper nature of God’s existence and presence.

Though it is fun to know the context in which the letter is written, it is the content which is significantly more important and to which we turn now and for the next couple of days.  In some ways, Hebrews could be seen as an exposition on the speech that Stephen gave in Acts 7, when he was before the counsel of Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Remember how he walked through the story of the people of Israel and God’s faithfulness, how it all led up to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, their Messiah?  Well, we see a great deal reference to the Jewish religious systems here in the book of Hebrews as the writer references God’s work in the past and how it points to Jesus as the Messiah and then continues on into what that means for the believers, the Church, and the world.

You can see this general trend even in the beginning chapters of this book, our reading for today.  The author begins by making the point that God isn’t doing something new here, He has always been speaking through various means.  Whether Abraham, Isaiah, Moses, David, or any of the priests that Israel had, God used them to reveal Himself.  Yet now “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”  It is not as though God is doing something different here, He continues to speak and reveal Himself, the truest revelation of which comes in the form of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Word made Flesh.

We see also that the author is making tons of references to Old Testament Scriptures and again, to Jewish religious systems.  He talks about the high priests, the prophets, Israel’s rejection of God, Joshua, Moses, and Abraham in the first four chapters.  Obviously, whoever was writing this was very acquainted with the Scriptures.  In many ways, one of the messages of the book of Hebrews is the understanding that we can’t fully know or understand Jesus without understanding all that God had been doing in redemptive history to work up to His coming.  As we have said time and time again, the who religious cult of Judaism and the sacrificial rites, the religious structures, the providence of God in their lives, and even the giving of the law all point towards this greater event in the coming of the Messiah.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.



Day 350: Titus and Philemon: Living into Identity

There are two books contained within our reading for today, both written by Paul.  Titus is one of the Pastoral Epistles yet, containing a great deal of similar information as 1 Timothy.  Philemon is another one of Paul’s Prison Epistles, written to a man named Philemon, as well as Apphia and Archippus about a slave named Onesimus.

Titus:

The book of Titus was written by Paul to Titus, a leader in the Church whom he left on the island of Crete  to teach the Cretan people, spread the Gospel, and build up the church.  As I was reading this, I got the impression that this may not have been where Titus wanted to end up, and that the task was rather difficult for him because of the nature and culture of the people of Crete.  According to one of their own, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”  This, no doubt, made Titus’ job a bit more difficult as he sought to build up the church and disciple people of God.  For Paul, the qualifications for Elders that he lays out here are not that different from those that he lays out for Timothy, yet  think they become all the more important within this context because of the difficulty in finding such people and the necessity to have them as leaders in the church.

As I’m reading this it also draws into my mind some of the issue that the contemporary church is facing as well.  There have been no shortage of reports about church leaders that are not meeting these qualifications and those that are, in their service, committing awful crimes against others both in and out of the church.  Pastors, Elders, and other leaders seem to be caught all the time in affairs and in sexual sin, yet it seems like the church continues to remain silent on these issues.  In other places, Pastors have watered down the Gospel so much that Jesus is hardly mentioned for fear that it might offend someone.  The ideas of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are running rampant in the church, making the Gospel seem irrelevant and the Word of God meaningless.  Paul speaks to us here as much as He is speaking to Titus: “teach what accords with sound doctrine.”  Moreover, he gives rather specific directions for the Christ-like living, something that is a necessity for the community of faith.

I have tended to say this at just about every mention of Christian living, but I don’t think that it can be emphasized enough.  While is seems that Paul is laying down the law for how people are to live in accordance with their faith in Jesus Christ, this is not a “law” in respect to a set of rules that need to be followed for one to earn their own salvation.  In fact, as Paul has said time and again, that it is out of the freedom that we find in Christ Jesus, the fact that we are no longer a slave to the law and sin, that we choose to live out our lives in a way that is godly and Christ-like.  Paul’s urging in Romans 12 is a testament to this, that because of the mercy that we are shown by God in Christ Jesus, we present ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, being transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, that we may live out Christ’s love and spread the Good News of the Gospel everywhere  we go.

Philemon:

The book of Philemon is a rather unique book in the New Testament because of the context in which it was written.  Being only one chapter long, Paul is writing to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, a name that means “useful,” because of his recent conversion.  Onesimus was apparently a slave of Philemon, something that was a common practice back then (whether we condone slavery or not is really not the issue here), and had left his service to Philemon after stealing some things.  Paul writes in the understanding the what Onesimus did was very wrong, yet in the time away from Philemon, he had come to faith.  Now Paul is writing on behalf of Onesimus to ask Philemon’s forgiveness.  Onesimus is returning to Philemon because it was right for him to do that as he was still technically the slave of Philemon.  Yet Paul is arguing for a deeper understanding of Onesimus as a brother in Christ rather than just another servant.  Moreover, Paul willingly pays whatever debt is owed to Philemon for the crime done against him.

A great deal of the theology of this letter comes from Paul’s other writing about equality and oneness in Christ Jesus.  Paul writes in several different places that there is no distinction between slave and free, male and female, etc.  Keeping in mind that there was a rather different understanding of slavery and even servitude back in this day, Paul is advocating for a deeper understanding of a person’s identity in Christ Jesus superseding that of any other identity that a person has.  This has been important to the Church in every age and context, but has become even more important in the last 200 years with the struggles against slavery, inhumane treatment of the people and the poor, this notion of equality in Christ Jesus has become an even bigger and important topic.  From Oscar Romeo to Martin Luther King Jr. the book of Philemon has become an important book in the conversation and understanding of our identity and equality in Christ Jesus.



Day 349: 2 Timothy 1-4; Pastoral Advice and Admonition

The second letter to Timothy, if written by Paul, was probably one of the last letters that Paul wrote before he died in Rome.  This letter is also probably one of the most personal letters that Paul writes, displaying his passion for desire for the continued spread of the Gospel and the success of the Church after he dies.  Paul, or the Pauline Writer, is encouraging his readers to continue to be faithful to the Word of God and to spread the Gospel of Christ Jesus, guarding against the myriad of other teachings that were emerging and seeking to corrupt the church.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.  Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

Paul goes on to talk about not only being unashamed of the Gospel, but to also remember the one who called you.  I am reminded here of a song by Big Daddy Weave called “Audience of One.”  This song talks about worshiping as if there is only one person there, God.  Paul talks about this same idea when it comes to the work that Timothy is doing in the Church.  He says things like “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.  An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.  It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.”  He also says later in chapter two, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

Finally, Paul talks a great deal about the nature of the Scriptures.  He talks about how important it is in leading a godly life.  What I find interesting is that he links the importance of Scripture and the persecution that he endured.  Paul says right after this that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  I think this is a very important link for us as we look at our own lives and the struggles and ‘persecutions’ we face day in and day out.  Paul continues, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

When we face down evil in this world, whether it be struggles in our own lives or the many issues going on in the greater world around us, we cannot disconnect the importance of the Scriptures in our lives as a a guide and as that which builds us up, prepares us, and equips us.  The Word of God is not just some self-help book, nor does it fall under the category of “sacred writings” as Paul says, but it is a companion, something that goes with us… something that should in inside of us.  There have been many instances in Scripture where the reference of the Word of God has been that of “digestion” or “eating,” and this is the type of thing that Paul is referring to.  He isn’t simply encouraging Timothy to just read it, but to get it inside of himself that it may become part of him.  In that way, no matter what is faced in life, God’s Word will be an intimate part of how he deals with it.

As addendum to this, Paul encourages Timothy to preach the Word of God always.  He says, “be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”  There is no time when the Word of God should not be spoken, not be preached, and is not useful for learning, teaching, and the building up of the Church.  This is why we preach the Word on Sunday, because it is part of who we are as the Body of Christ.  Our lives revolve around the Word of God as we live in response to the grace that He has shown us.  Americans tend to segment their lives in this respect, keeping church at church and work at work and home at home.  But for the follower of Jesus Christ, it is the Word of God that pervades all of these areas of life, encouraging and admonishing us in whatever places we find ourselves.



Day 348: 1 Timothy 1-6; Leadership Qualifications

We now enter a set of three books that are commonly called the Pastoral Epistles.  These are a set of letters that Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus towards the end of his life, likely while he was imprisoned in Rome.  Paul, understanding that he is at the point of handing off the leadership of the Church to others, exhorts Timothy and Titus, two primary, second generation believers and leaders in the church about the things that are important as they move into the future.  The Church itself was in a time of transition, as persecution was increasing and the thoughts of the immediate return of Christ were fading, the Church and its leaders had to learn how to function in the world as it worked to spread the Gospel in an extremely hostile and dangerous environment.

Remember that some of the beginnings of Church leadership and governance have already been seen in the book of Acts.  In Acts 6, we see the first selection of the office of deacon, a role that was primarily concerned with the physical well being of the Church and the poor around them.  These were people that are in charge or receiving offerings and gifts and then distributing them to those who have need.  Also in Acts, we see several situations where the church leaders decide things in a greater counsel.  In some ways this was the beginning of what the Reformed Church knows as a “classis” or a “synod,” which are larger bodies with representatives that come from churches within their areas to help govern and maintain order and direction in the greater church.

In my studies this semester I have had the opportunity to read through the Book of Church Order for the Reformed Church in America and some commentaries on it.  While this probably doesn’t sound like an entirely thrilling read, and it wasn’t, I think that it does offer some insight into how the Church, or at least the RCA denomination has taken the words that Paul speaks to Timothy here, and later to Titus, very seriously.  For lack of better things to say, I think I’m just going to encourage you to re-read this portion of 1 Timothy 3 and then I included a portion of the preamble of the RCA Book of Church Order about the leadership offices.  Compare what Paul has to say and what the view of the RCA is.  The emphasis on ordination to the offices within the church is important in the RCA because of what is meant by the word “ordained.”  It comes from the word “to choose” or to “elect,” something that comes from our doctrine of election, something that has a great deal to do with Lord’s choosing of a person of people to accomplish a particular task.  I say this, and so does the RCA, in whatever way conveys the highest amount of humility possible as this is not something to be flaunted, but rather understood as being completely and totally about the work of God in the lives of the people He has chosen, not because of their own excellence or merit.  In any case, let me encourage you again to read and compare the selections below!  I welcome any discussion that they or this might bring!

1 Timothy 3

Qualifications for Overseers

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.  Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,  not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.  He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?  He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.  Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Qualifications for Deacons

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain.  They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.  Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.  Let deacons each be the husband of one wife,managing their children and their own households well.  For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Preamble of the RCA Book of Church Order

The Reformed churches have sought to follow the practice of the churches whose experience is recorded in the New Testament. The churches then were ruled by “presbyters” or “elders,” just as the synagogues from which the first Christian converts came were ruled by elders. The Reformed churches consider the minister to be an elder of a special kind, called in some churches of the Reformed order, the “teaching elder.” Ministers and elders therefore govern the church together. They also assist in the governing of the larger church by becoming from time to time members of the higher legislative assemblies or courts of the church. Thus also the lines of authority in the Reformed churches move from the local church to the General Synod. This is so since Christ, according to the New Testament, has appointed officers to govern the church under himself. Their authority to govern derives from him even though they are elected by the people. The local churches together delegate authority to classes and synods, and having done so, they also bind themselves to be subject together to these larger bodies in all matters in which the common interests of the many churches are objects of concern.  While governance of the Reformed church is executed through the offices gathered in assemblies, the church expresses its full ministry through all its members in a variety of tasks. Each assembly is charged with determining the nature and extent of its ministry in faithful obedience to Scripture and in responsible concern for the church’s mission in the world. Every member receives a ministry in baptism and is called with the whole church to embody Christ’s intentions for the world.



Day 347: 2 Thessalonians 1-3; More on the Second Coming of Christ

People the claim that they know when the second coming of Christ is, or when the day of the rapture is going to happen, or even when the final judgment will begin often seem crazy to us.  Those folks like Harold Camping, and others that have sought to lead people astray by teachings these false doctrines are often the source of ridicule, mockery, and criticism from both inside and outside the church.  We may think that they are the first, today the world has survived over 150 documented predictions (thank you wikipedia) of the end of the world, ranging from hundreds of years before Christ to as recently as December 31 of last year.  If that comforts you, then just know that we only have about 20 or so more documented apocalyptic events to get through, the closest of which is supposed to happen on February 22 of next year, the farthest out being about 10 to the 100th power years away when the “heat death” of the universe takes place.  Clearly these predictors have not read or taken seriously the words of Jesus in Matthew 24, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.

You may think this inconsequential to the reading for today, but sadly it was to address confusion such as this that Paul writes this second letter to the Thessalonian church.  There was, apparently, a great deal of confusing surrounding the final judgment and it seems as though there might have been another letter than came to the church in Paul’s name claiming that the final judgment had already begun.  People quit their jobs, sold all they had, and just waited for Christ to return.  Sound familiar?  This is what the followers of Harold Camping did in the days and weeks before his predicted dates of Jesus’ return.  Sadly, and I do mean that in some ways, it did not happen.  As I have said many times before though, the Bible is the given revelation of God’s self by God Himself to His people and the world.  There is no hidden code that is contained within its pages.  It is the Gospel of God’s mercy and grace that is seen in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and that is testified to by the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people.

2 Thessalonians is one of the books from which we get a great deal of pre-Revelation, post-Gospel understanding of the events of the second coming of Christ as well as other elements that will be part of this process including “the man of lawlessness.”  This person is commonly known as the “anti-Christ,” a figure who appears towards the end of time in opposition to Jesus Christ and the Church.  This figure, perhaps a single person or maybe a political or corporate entity, will exalt himself over God and all other gods, and will even proclaim himself to be God.

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.  Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.  Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?  And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time.  For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.  And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.  The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.  Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

A great deal of the end of time theology has been popularized in the Left Behind Series, an outcropping of pre-millennial dispensationalism.  This is a line of belief about the second coming of Christ that is drawn largely from a small amount of single verses that are woven together as proof texts to shallowly support a “doctrine.”  This line of belief claims a great deal of literal understandings of the final days of the earth, even drawing on the prophets as predictors of the future (which was not their primary function), and then drawing out a timeline from their reading of Scripture.  This includes a the popularized notion of a rapture, which comes from an interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, which has basically no Scriptural support (or other Scriptural support) whatsoever.

Indeed, Jesus talks about a great number of people who will come in His name (recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21), and that these people will be those who try to lead the believers in Christ astray.  I think, when we take these whole passages, as well as some of the other discussions that are had on the second coming of Christ, what we see is that all of creation is moving towards this time, and has been since the fall.  God is always at work for the restoration of all things, and there are forces of evil at work in this world that are dramatically opposed to this work.  Many have indeed come as “men of lawlessness,” and some have even claimed to be divine.  Many of the Roman leaders were like this, at times the leaders of the Roman Catholic church have walked this line, and there have been many leaders (the most prominent of which was Adolf Hitler) who have sought to rule the world and have even co-opted the church and the Gospel to support their cause.  Paul’s warning, as well as Jesus’ words tell us that we need to open our eyes to the greater happenings of things in the world.  This isn’t an encouragement to look for conspiracies and plots, nor is it encouragement to look at all the natural disasters as signaling the end of the world, and neither is it encouragement to say that “wars and rumors of wars” are signals of the immediate coming of Christ.  All of these things have been happening since the fall of humanity.

So what should our response be?  Paul says stand firm in the face of it, holding to the hope that we have in Christ Jesus in the midst of uncertainty.

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.  To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.  So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

He also says that we need to not be idle.  The notion of selling all you have, quitting your job, and just sitting around and waiting for the coming of Christ is entirely antithetical to Biblical teaching.

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.  For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.  It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.  For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.  For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.  Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”



Day 346: 1 Thessalonians 4-5; The Day of the Lord

One of the things that Paul addresses here in First Thessalonians has to do with the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.  In the first century after Jesus ascended into heaven, when he said that he would return soon, they thought that meant within their lifetime.  For some, this meant that there was a bit of necessity to stay alive until Christ’s return.  When Christ’s return didn’t happen right away and believers started dying, it constituted a crisis within the Church as they all grappled with what that meant for these believers that had “fallen asleep.”

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.  For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.  Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This exhortation comes within a greater discussion about Christian living.  From my perspective, what I see here is an encouragement from Paul that the believers take the faith and hope in which they living from day to day and take it with them as they deal with the death of their loved ones who are believers.  Paul has given them some instruction in how they should be living as believers, walking according to the Word of God and keeping away from the things of this world like lust and sexual sins.  The way in which we are called to live as Christians is that of a transformed life, as we talked about yesterday.  Again, this doesn’t come to us by way of a set of rules and legalism, but as a response to the grace that we have found in Christ Jesus and in an effort to live a life of faith out of gratitude for this wonderful gift.

For Paul, this is just a natural extension of his understanding of the second coming of Christ.  He has addresses this in a metaphor of those who live in the day and those who live at night.

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you.  For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.  But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.  For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.  So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.  For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night.  But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.  For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.  Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

The assurance and hope in which we live as believers in Christ Jesus is also the assurance and hope which we take with us into death, whether the death of a loved one or our own death.  This is not to say that there is nothing sad about a loved one dying, and that we shouldn’t mourn the loss.  Indeed death is not what we are created for, neither was sin.  But we do not approach it as others do either, without hope, in the same way that Paul encourages the Thessalonian believers to not live in the way that others do.  The transformation takes place through the grace of Jesus Christ is one that should be pervasive throughout all of our life.  Again, salvation is not some sort of cosmic fire insurance, but an event that makes a life of transformation, which we call sanctification, that happens continually over the course of the life of us as believers.



Day 345: 1 Thessalonians 1-3; Paul's First Letter

Chronologically speaking, the book of 1 Thessalonians is the first letter that Paul wrote to a church in the New Testament.  The Church at Thessalonica, now known as modern day Thessaloniki in Greece was one of the cities that Paul visited on his second missionary journey (reference Acts 17).  Some would say that this is one of the first churches that Paul set up as well.  It wasn’t as rosy as it sounds though as apparently Paul was driven out of the city because of intense persecution by Jews who opposed the teaching of Christ.

Before we continue into the content of our reading, I think it is interesting to note here some of what we read in Acts 17 about the Thessalonian church.  Luke, the writer of Acts, mentions “not a few leading women.”  Now, it is generally understood that Paul wrote this letter from Corinth, another church that Paul started whose letters we have recently read as well.  This understanding of the leadership of women seems to show very clearly that women in leadership within the church is a very acceptable thing.  We cannot dismiss these writings while holding up others such as Paul’s writing to the Corinthian church where he says that women “should be silent in worship” in chapter 14.  It is important that we keep in mind both context and content as we read.  The Thessalonian church benefited and prospered while having women in leadership positions, while the church in Corinth may have had some work to do before this would have been acceptable.  Let us take from both examples, not just the one that we wish to hold up, and work to further God’s Kingdom by utilizing all the gifts of God’s people.

Returning to our reading today, Paul is writing to the Thessalonian believers soon after he has been driven from the city in order to encourage and reassure them in their persecution, and to offer guidance to them as they seek to live a faithful life.  He talks about this right at the beginning of the letter, how they have been faithful and, in many things, he doesn’t feel the need to worry about them at all.

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.  For we know,brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.

Paul also makes a point of telling the Thessalonian believers that his visit, though short, was not one that was in vain.

For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain.  But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.  For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.

I think that as Americans we tend to lean towards what Paul is trying to counter here.  Western culture pushes us towards production, showing a result of our labor as a way of proving that we have accomplished something.  In this light, if we started a project and then were forced out of it, we would often consider it a failure rather than a success.  To this Paul says, that though they were only there for a short time and they had been persecuted in other cities as well, the visit was not in vain.  God is clearly at work here in greater ways than can be measured by human hands.

Often, this idea of productivity is measured in our church mission work as well, both local and abroad.  What is it that people so very often ask missionaries when they come to visit?  “How many conversions have you had?”  What do we ask ourselves in church when we look at the past year?  “Have we grown in number?”  Its as if we think that the only work that God does is with numbers.  If more people are coming to our church or are getting converted by our missionaries, then that means God is giving us success and we are clearly in God’s will.  I think Paul kind of addresses this here as well.  What is it that is really important?  Lives that are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

You can have a church with a very a great speaker that draws thousands and thousands of people to that building, but if lives aren’t being transformed then we really aren’t doing much more than good motivational speaking.  We can get people to pray “the sinner’s prayer” in droves, but if they aren’t truly coming to faith, and their lives aren’t being changed by the Gospel, then are we simply revealing Christ as some sort of cosmic fire insurance?  This is not the Good News of the Gospel, because it leaves us still in bondage to sin.  Christ did not come so that we could get our “get out of hell free” card and then live in the same ways of the world that we had always lived… Christ came that we might be set free from the Law and from Sin, that our lives may be transformed by the Gospel and that we may be brought to newness of life by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, through the Power of the Holy Spirit!



Day 344: Colossians 1-4; The Preeminence of Christ

Interestingly, this letter, which holds its main point as being the sovereignty of God and the preeminence of Christ as its main theme, is one of the letters of which the author is thought the be pseudonymous (written anonymously).  Over the course of the last couple centuries, people have become a lot more interested in textual criticism of the Scriptures and the authorship of the books as well.  This has led scholars and historians to comb through the original text to look for differences in writing styles, grammatical usages, and the like to show that the writers of these books are not necessarily who they say that are.  The book of Colossians is considered by a majority of historians to be not written by the apostle Paul.  The real question in this argument though is whether or not that actually matters.  Most Theologians would say no and here’s why.  In these times, and to a lesser extent in our contemporary context, writing a letter under a pseudonymous name was quite common.  Likely the person that wrote this letter was a student or contemporary of Paul that wrote after Paul’s death or imprisonment.  Writing in Paul’s name would have given the letter a great deal more clout and impact on the community that likely needed to hear what was in this letter.  Moreover, as the process of canonization took place, that process in which certain books and writings were deemed to be part of the Scriptures while others weren’t, we believe that the Holy Spirit was intimately involved in that process and in the process of writing these letters, books, etc.  Therefore, even though the person that is said to be writing this is likely not actually Paul, the nature of the truth that the letter communicates is not at all in question, harmonizing with the whole of the Biblical Scriptures and therefore authoritative and true for us today.

It is a bit ironic that this letter, of all the letters, would be the one that garners a discussion like this as the writer himself is pointing first and foremost to the preeminence of Christ and the truth that comes through Him above all else.  While discussions about historical things are important, the pseudonymous Pauline writer is pointing beyond that discussion to show us that really where we should be looking to is Christ, not grammatical issues or textual criticism.

One of the main purposes of the letter to the Colossian church was to combat and issue that was cropping up in the church.  A couple of days ago I mentioned the word Gnosticism, which was something that the Apostle John expressly writes against in all of his writing.  He, however, wasn’t the only person to encounter that issue as the writer of Colossians is making clear.  There were (and are) people that had taken the Christian teaching and intermixed it with some of their own teaching.  This led to what we could call “Gnostic Christianity” (which really is a misnomer because it is impossible).  These people taught that, while Christ came into the world, we really need a special knowledge to know God and it was this knowledge that saved us.

Right at the beginning, this position is challenged by the simple truth of Jesus Christ:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

The Pauline writer is laying out very simply the story of Jesus Christ and the truth of both His deity and the Gospel that we find in Him.  There is no special knowledge here; the writer is not somehow uniquely enlightened apart from the work of the Holy Spirit which is also at work within us.  Indeed this idea of Gnosticism is just another way that Satan is trying to twist the Good News of Jesus Christ so that we turn from it rather than cling to it.

Now, you may be thinking that this is something not worth talking about because of the fact that it is history and the Gnostic Teachings do not exist anymore.  Actually, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Agnosticism is a “religious” affiliation that has become a major player in the last 50-100 years or so.  Agnostics believe that there is a God out there but that He is ultimately unknowable.  This leads to a sad resignation that there is no way to save one’s self accept through trying to be the best we can be and hoping that somehow God sees that.  Sadly, I think that a lot of agnostics are actually people that are leaving the Church today.  Too often they are leaving because we aren’t preaching the truth of the Gospel and we certainly aren’t living it out.  The ideas of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, that God is out there somewhere but is not intimately involved in our lives so we just need to be good and try harder and God will help us from time to time, are running rampant in the Church and they are leading believers astray.  It is simply NOT TRUE.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.  For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.  In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,  having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.  And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,  by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.  He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.



Day 343: Philippians 1-4; True Joy

The book of Philippians is another one of the prison epistles (letters) that is written by Paul while he was imprisoned in Rome.  This letter is often called Paul’s joy letter, because he expresses a great deal of joy amid all of the persecution and suffering that he is enduring.  He states that he is imprisoned for the Gospel, yet he takes great joy in it because it has served to advance the message of the Gospel into the Roman guards that have been around him.  I think it interesting that we often worry about “the right opportunity” to spread the message of Jesus Christ and talk about always being ready and aware of it, yet Paul’s example here is that every opportunity no matter how bad it seems, is the right opportunity to share the Gospel!

As I read this book today, I feel that there needs to be an explanation of what Paul means when he says “joy” or even “rejoice.”  Clearly Paul is not in the best of circumstances, and he really doesn’t have any reason to feel happy, upbeat, or anything of the sort.  In fact, his living conditions in a Roman prison, even under house arrest, would have been rather deplorable by today’s standards.  Yet Paul still says that he has joy in his suffering, and even that he “will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

So what is Paul some sort of super Christian or something like that?  I would say that we all hold Paul in pretty high esteem, but he is human like the rest of us, there is no doubt.  The different here is the idea of what joy really is.  We often equate happiness with joy, as if somehow they were the same thing, but they are not.  Happiness is something that we want.  We do things to make ourselves happy; purchase things, give things, create things, even play things all in an effort to make ourselves happy.  Happiness is an emotion, it depends on our circumstances, and is often fleeting.  We could spend our whole lives trying to find things, jobs, toys, and people to make us eternally happy and always end up disappointed.

Joy on the other hand comes only from Jesus Christ.  Joy runs deeper and is stronger becomes from a source outside of ourselves.  The introduction to Philippians in the NIV Life Application Study Bible says that “joy is the quiet, confident assurance of God’s love and work in our lives – that He will be there no matter what.  Happiness depends on happenings, but Joy depends on Christ.”  This is why Paul can write from prison in such a joyful tone!  He knows that there is more to life than happiness, and that his circumstances here on earth, though difficult, do not compare and cannot change His identity in Christ Jesus.  Again, it is because of the joy that he has in Christ Jesus that he can write, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

More than this, Paul can say to the church in Philippi, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

As we have often talked about, living a Christian life in a Christ-like way isn’t a matter of rules and restriction but freedom from sin.  Because of what Christ has done for us we are free from the Law and from sin, and free to live for Christ.  This is why Paul writes these things.  Out of the joy that you have found in Christ Jesus, live in such a way that your life reflects this joy in every possible way… especially in the unity you have with other believers.  I wonder if people would walk into my church on a Sunday and wonder what in the world was going on because of all that joy that was flowing around that place.  I wonder if those that go to my church would, if the difficult times of life, know that they could find themselves in a place that, in the midst of their suffering and find those that would be willing to both support them in their sufferings and still uphold them with joy because of the hope that they have in Christ Jesus.  I wonder if this is something that is prominent in the greater Church today… or if we spend a lot of time walking around with our heads down because we’re not happy.

Brothers and Sisters we have a hope that is much greater than all the happiness this life has to offer, and we find it in Christ Jesus!

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ  and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—  that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.  Only let us hold true to what we have attained.



Day 342: Ephesians 4-6; Unity in the Spirit

Our reading today beings with a very important key word: “Therefore.”  I think that we have talked about this word before when we got to Romans 12, Paul is saying in this, “because of all that I have said to you in previously, now do this…”

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

This is the main thrust of the second half of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, Unity in the Spirit.  Interestingly, Paul asserts here what we hold as true for the whole church, the upholding of unity, even in the midst of the diversity of denominations.  Paul’s point is very important, and I think it even more important as we look at the church today.  There have been a considerable amount of splitting that has taken place, especially in the church in North America.  Denominations are at odds with each other over little things that are really peripheral in the life of the church.  Paul is saying that we need to make every effort to heal these divisions among us.  I’m not necessarily advocating for the end of denominationalism here because there is certainly room within the church for the diversity of worship styles and even peripheral theological beliefs.  The fact is though, that we all hold (or should be holding to) the same core principles: Salvation in Jesus Christ by the Grace of God alone through Faith.  Those that do not hold to this Gospel, as Paul has written elsewhere, are in essence, not Christians.

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.  Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.  Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.  Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.  Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Keeping in mind that all of this falls under unity in Christ Jesus, Paul moves on from the greater faith community to that of the Christian house hold.  This passage of Scripture has often been misinterpreted to reference the subservience of wives to their husbands.  Sadly, people have used also to be proof that wives are somehow always to be submissive to their husbands in a sort of abuse of power way in which the husband dominates the wife.  This is truly not the case, and Paul says this outright. “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”  Marriage itself is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the Church.  Jesus indeed left His Father in heaven to be united to His bride the Church, something that happened through His death and resurrection and something that will happen in its fullness when Christ comes again in His glory.

Finally, as Paul closes out this letter, he talks about the armor of God and Christian living.  Paul says again and again “put on” the whole armor of God.  This is not “armor” is not something that we use for special occasions, it is something we are to wear like clothing, putting it on everyday.  We are to clothe ourselves righteousness, guard our head with the salvation we have in Christ, be always ready with the Gospel of peace.  We have the Sword of the Spirit and the Shield of faith for our defense, and all of it is held up by the belt of Truth which supports all things at all times.  The best news of this whole passage is that this armor is not something that we create for ourselves, but like the salvation given to us by grace through faith, this armor is built up and given to us by God through the Holy Spirit.  These too are meant not just for our own protection, but for that of the protection of our neighbor, our brothers and sisters in the community of faith.  We defend each other and ourselves, fighting the good fight against the spiritual forces of evil that are at work against us.



Day 341: Ephesians 1-3; Dead to Sin, Alive in Christ

The church in Ephesus was arguably one of the most important churches in the western part of Asia Minor, mostly because of the central location of the city of Ephesus, which was the most important city in western Asia Minor, in what is now known as Turkey.  Located on the western coast of what is now Turkey, Ephesus was one of the last cities with which to dock before heading across the Aegean Sea.  It is almost parallel with Corinth, which would have likely been one of the city’s greatest trading partners.  Ephesus, being as busy and important as it was, became home to a great deal of pantheistic worshipers of Greek and Roman gods as well as a home for thinkers and philosophers.  To that end, the city was home to a great amphitheater, the temples of Hadrian and Artemis, and the Library of Celsus, one of the greatest Libraries of the ancient world (which was privately funded by Celsus himself).

Both Paul and John spent a great deal of time in the city of Ephesus.  Paul used it as one of his bases from which he traveled throughout the heart of the Roman empire, starting churches and encouraging Christians as he went.  John also spent a great deal of time in Ephesus, the place from which he likely wrote his Gospel and the letter that he wrote to the churches before he died.  Tradition hold that John died in Ephesus and his tomb is located there in the Basilica of St. John.  The letter of Ephesians, as well as that of Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon are commonly known  as the “prison epistles” because tradition holds that they were written by Paul from prison to encourage the church as it continued to grow.  Ephesians is probably the most uplifting letter that Paul writes to any of the churches, full of encouragement and instruction with little in the way of admonition and disciplinary talk.

The letter to the Ephesians is divided into two parts that actually fall well into the readings that we have for today and tomorrow.  Today, the first half of the book, largely covers God’s plan of salvation in Christ.  Paul beings with an opening, thanking God for all the Spiritual blessings in Christ that have been poured out on the church.  He also touches on what we have just talked about in the book of Ephesians, the idea of identity approaching it this time from the angle of adoption.  He says,

just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.  He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.  In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

This passage is where we draw a great deal of our understanding of the doctrine of election and how we understand our identity in Christ.  Like we talked about yesterday, identity is a big deal for us, especially as we look at who we are and whose we are.  The deeper definition of our being one in Christ Jesus plays a big part in our lives.  Paul says that this happens because we were chosen, in the same way that Israel was chosen, not because of anything that we have done, but because of the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  Like a child who has been adopted by someone, we too have become a part of God’s family, or as Paul says in Galatians, heirs to the promise in Christ Jesus.  There is no longer a distinction between Jew and Greek, or any other distinction, we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul goes on from here to talk about how this happens.  Most of this explanation comes from the abundantly well known words of Ephesians 2, a place that we get a great deal of our understanding about the nature of grace:

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—  not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

This is what Paul is working so hard to make known to people throughout the world, and encouraging churches to hold as the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ.  This too is what he is encouraging all people in the community of faith to hold to and to preach and testify to in their lives.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.  I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.



Day 340: Galatians 4-6; Faith, Salvation, and Freedom

Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia continues on as he turns from addressing some of the issues that they had dealt with in the leadership towards the issues that the church itself was facing, many of which were the same.  To do this though, he starts off by pointing out who they are in Christ Jesus, working to solidify their identity.  There is a very particular reason for doing this, something that is a very powerful reality that we tend to overlook in our lives, especially in the church.  Identity is powerful because it reveals at our core who we are.  Now you may be thinking, I know who I am, I am so-and-so the son/daughter of my parents, the husband/wife to so-and-so, father/mother of these kids… etc.  All of this is true and in many ways these truths define your existence.  There are even deeper truths about the reality of who you are as well, and this is what Paul gets at.  His point?  The Gentiles are fellow heirs of the promise given to Abraham.  They are fellow heirs because they are in Christ Jesus.  How does this happen?  It happens through baptism.  At the end of chapter 3 yesterday we read “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

This is the deeper reality of our existence and the truth of the Gospel that we proclaim through Baptism.  As I am of the Reformed tradition and denomination, we practice infant baptism, yet these things are still applicable in a very real way.  In Acts, Peter proclaims that “this promise is for you and your children, and all who are far off, all whom the Lord our God will call.”  We claim the same promise as the children of the Hebrews did.  In circumcision the children of Hebrew parents were made a part of the community of the people of God, engaged to be part of the covenant, and heirs with God’s people.  In Baptism, the children of believing parents are marked, claimed by God as His own, and made members of the community of faith, engaged to profess the faith and heirs to the promise that is in Christ Jesus.  This is the deeper reality of identity that Paul is talking about here, it is at the core of who we really are: claimed by God through grace alone.  Ultimately the prayer and hope is that these children will come to know Christ as their Savior, something that the church body promised to help with as the parents and the community of faith raises the child in the knowledge and understanding of Jesus Christ.

I think that as Christians, followers and disciples of Christ, we need to understand this identity a great deal more.  In fact, it is abundantly important that the church come to a deeper understanding of this in our culture today, one that seeks to define and redefine who we are on an almost daily basis.  Companies have identified us as consumer and advertise to us in a way that makes us think that we are defining and identifying ourselves by wearing their clothing and shopping at their stores.  Food companies sell us food that is more than just a thing to consume, it is a lifestyle choice, identifying us as a “Coke” or “Pepsi” person, or perhaps someone who thinks everything is better when we drink Dr. Pepper (I love Dr. Pepper).  You might be a vegan, someone with a food allergy, an organic, etc. etc. etc.  All these are ways that companies try to get us to become identified with them, tricking us into the false notion that we have to do these things because they are part of our identity.

The reality is that our identity lies in something deeper and greater than anything this world has to offer.  Our identity lies solely in Jesus Christ and the Redemption offered through His Blood.  This is what Paul is trying to impress on the Galatian church as they deal with all of these things.  Some people wanted them to be circumcised, others felt that they needed to follow the law, and still others sought identity through doing works to attain salvation.  Paul shows them that none of this amounts to a hill of beans when it comes to the identity that is found in Christ Jesus alone.  More than this though, Paul is showing the believers that, if they are going after these things as a way of attaining their own salvation, trying to win it through works, they are actually devaluing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Paul even says that if they are going to try and win their own salvation through works, they are going to have to follow the WHOLE law, something that would be binding and ‘enslaving.’

But true freedom comes through faith in Christ.  Paul impresses on them here that they were called to be free.  This statement doesn’t come without a warning though, freedom is good but with it comes with responsibility.  He writes, “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”  This paradox of freedom and slavery is often confusing to people; how can one be both free and a slave?  What Paul is saying here is that we are free from the bounds of the Law, something that was given because of transgressions to tell the people of God how to live.  However, what Paul isn’t saying here is that, because we are free in Christ, we can just live however we want.  Rather, Paul is encouraging them to use this freedom as a way of spreading the love of Christ, a self-giving, selfless, unconditional love.  Because of what Christ as done for us, we are free to love each other, to not worry about our salvation which is secure in Christ, but to live that salvation out in life in the Spirit, the fruits of which Paul describes in chapter five verses 22-26.

This is expressed in many ways and Paul closes his letter by talking about living together in the community of faith.  He says that we should be bearing each other’s burdens, lifting each other up, and even working to restore each other in a way that is both gentle and building-up.   He even points to this in the summary of the Law that he writes, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  He ends with a very profound statement that has great implications for the community of faith, “You reap whatever you sow.  “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.  So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.  So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”



Day 339: Galatians 1-3; The Only Gospel is Jesus Chirst

The book of Galatians addresses some of the most pressing questions that the early church had in its infancy.  As the Gospel spread and churches were founded throughout Asia Minor, what was really the heart of the Roman Empire, issues started to crop up and people started to ask questions.  Along with this, there were disputes about salvation and even false teachers that began to preach other ways of salvation, and even skewed versions of the Christian Gospel.  One of these groups, the Gnostics, was a group that the Apostle John directly addresses in his Gospel and in the letters that he writes to the church later in the New Testament.

Paul’s writing to the church in Galatia, which was really a region that had within it over half a dozen major churches like Lystra, Derbe, and Pisidian Antioch, contains within it a great deal of material from which we draw our understanding of salvation by grace through faith.  Also addressed by Paul are some of the issues that the church leaders are dealing with, questions about circumcision and the inclusion of the Gentiles, and Christian freedom.  While this may not seem like a big deal to us today, we need to understand that the Church today is formed by the many issues and decisions that took place in the first couple hundred years of the church.  At stake here, in all honesty, was the proper understanding of salvation, which would have led to people feeling the need to do all sorts of works to earn their salvation.  Also at stake could possibly have been the church’s understanding Gentile inclusion in the promise of God, something that would have had ramifications far beyond a church or two in a Roman province 2000 years ago.

This is really the essence of what Paul is addressing here in the his writing though.  It doesn’t just have to do with the proper understanding of some obscure Christian doctrine, it has everything to do with the salvation of people’s souls.  Right from the get go Paul is speaking against those who would proclaim another Gospel.  He condemns those who would preach it and is astonished that people in the church would so quickly go away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  At the beginning of this letter he really doesn’t go into much detail about the nature of who and what is actually going on, but the fact is these people are trying to pervert the Gospel.

To be honest, this isn’t simply something that happened back then.  It is happening right now, in our churches today.  Across the nation and the world, ‘churches’ are growing by leaps and bounds preaching the health and wealth ‘gospel.’  These places preach of God’s desire to bless you, but only based on the amount you give.  This happens a great deal in the tele-evangelist circles too, sending you trinkets that are ‘blessed’ if you send them money.  Paul says that these preachers ought be ‘accursed’ because of their preaching.  Anyone who preaching a Gospel other than that of Jesus Christ crucified and salvation by grace is absolutely wrong.

Sadly, I think that sometimes stumble into issues like this as well, and it doesn’t just happen to your everyday, average-joe Christian either.  In chapter two of today’s reading we see that Paul has to address, of all people, Peter (the rock on which Jesus is building his church).  Apparently, due to fear, Paul is being sort of hypocritical in his actions with Jews and Gentiles.  There were those, at that time, that felt that the only way to salvation had to do with following the Jewish laws as well as accepting Christ.  They are called the ‘circumcision group’ here and apparently they were intimidating.  In any case, Paul stands up to Peter which, as Paul is explaining it, sends him on a whole explanation about salvation by grace through faith and not any sort of human work.

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

I like too, Paul’s explanation of the relationship between the law and the covenant of Abraham.  Many people had and have come to the belief that somehow the giving of the law nullified the original covenant that was made.  Paul points out that can never overlook the original covenant, which is more than the law, it is a promise which is fulfilled completely in Jesus Christ.  The law was only put in place in the mean time, something to help guide the people of God until the promise was fulfilled.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.



Day 338: 2 Corinthians 11-13; Corruption, Sufferings, and Grace

Our reading for today is kind of a unique reading.  I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it at first.  It seems like Paul is boasting quite a bit about the things that have troubled him lately and all the resistance that was happening in his ministry.  So when I first read it, my thoughts were drawn to this scripture in Jesus’ farewell discourse in John.

John 16:32-33, “Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe?  Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.  I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’

I thought maybe that Paul was warning the church in Corinth about the things that would happen to them as they were doing ministry, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all those in Corinth.  There would be those who would claim to preach in the name of Jesus, but would only do it for their own profit.  Paul says that these people are not to be listened to, they are false (kind of like the tele-evangelists of today, or even those the preach the prosperity gospel).  Perhaps this is a warning of sorts.

But then it seems like Paul goes back to boasting again, talking about all of his sufferings, the beatings and punishment that he has taken and even this idea of a thorn in his flesh.  I was trying to put it all together as I was reading when I read this verse in chapter 12:

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

I think that this is the key to today’s reading.  Paul is laying out for the church in Corinth, and everywhere really, that following after Jesus is not something that is easy, or that it is going to make life perfect and care free.  In fact, generally speaking, the Christian life is not one of comfort where we can just go to our churches with our friends to hang out once or twice a week.  What Paul is saying here, or what I think he is saying here, is that if we are living out our Christian lives as true disciples of Christ, then we should be encountering resistance.  To that end, I would dare say that if we are not encountering some resistance from Satan, we should probably be questioning whether or not what we are doing is of God at all.  Even in periods of resting should we be feeling, at least a little bit, the prod of the evil one trying to disrupt our lives and get us off track.

What does this have to do with grace?  Well, if we think about it, everything has to do with grace.  God says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Translation: “you were never going to be able to do this on your own, you are only human, but that’s ok because I am God and I am working through you.  Whatever imperfections and weaknesses you have, I will cover them.  Whatever you can’t do, I can do through you.”  This addresses another huge excuse that is running rampant in the Church of today, we don’t think that we can do things because of this or that.  Often times we leave the evangelism to the pastors and missionaries.  Over 99% of the church hasn’t gone to seminary… which means they aren’t “theologically trained” to do these things.  But hey… news flash… neither were any of the disciples.  By the grace of God we have been chosen for such a time as this, to be God’s ambassadors in this world.  No… we don’t have the strength in ourselves to do what God has called us to.  God doesn’t necessarily call the equipped, He equips the called.  His grace is sufficient for us.  His power is made perfect in our weakness.



Day 337: 2 Corinthians 8-10; The Cheerful Giver

Paul has the dubious pleasure that I think every pastor throughout the history of the church has probably had at some point in time in his ministry, that of talking about giving.  You know… that awkward sermon that is given on the need for tithing and giving cheerfully when you “can’t afford” it.  Generally it is made more awkward by the fact that church funds are usually low, giving is down, and many of the church member blame the pastor and leadership.  It is an interesting paradox that churches often face as we are asked to give into a system that is clearly broken, and we are asked to do it joyfully.

Well, that might be a little bit more than what Paul is talking about here.  Paul has asked the churches to given gifts for an offering that he is taking to the church in Jerusalem who has suffered a great deal of persecution at the hands of the Jews.  They were, at this time, likely doing a lot more hiding and were probably very poor.  Chances are, the church in Jerusalem had been kicked out of the synagogues and many of the believers had been arrested.  It is entirely possible that they were meeting in houses or even in back alleys to worship, if they were able to meet at all.  Some of them may have lost much of their businesses, their homes, and perhaps even their families.  While Saul, now Paul, wasn’t persecuting them anymore, there were no doubt many that rose up to take his place.

Wisely, Paul approaches this from the angle of giving cheerfully, even drawing on Scripture like Psalm 112 to talk about the need and benefit of giving.  He doesn’t simply say that he needs money and then guilts them into giving by making them feel bad.  Instead, he talks about how giving is part and parcel to the Christian life, yet another part of the sanctification that is taking place within the believers.  Interestingly enough, Paul points out right away that it is a matter of the heart, not a matter of wealth or physical abundance.

Remember a long while back when we talked about the Shema and some of the meanings of the words “heart,” “soul,” and “strength?”  Let’s recap real quick here:

MIGHT – מְאֹדֶֽךָ – “Me’od” – power, strength, very, greatly, sore, exceeding, great, exceedingly, much, exceeding , exceedingly, diligently, good, might, mightily – Roughly translated… “me’od” means ‘muchness.’  If you have some sort of a spell checker, you will see that ‘muchness’ isn’t actually a word.  If we look at what we are loving God with so far, it encompasses all of our inward and outward being.  This word indicates then, all of the things that make up our lives.  For Hebrew people, one’s strength and power was related to his (and I say his because it was a patriarchal society) family, his wealth (money, flocks, herds, servants, etc), his house, his land, defenses, etc.  All of these things were to be used to love God completely and bring glory to Him.  While loving God with your exceedingly large biceps is a nice thing, this really means a bit more than that.

This is a direct quote from Day 53, we talked about the deeper meanings behind this command that really has become the overarching theme that runs throughout Scripture.  Not only are we to love God with our mind and our heart, and even by the things that we do and the interactions that we have, we are also supposed to be honoring God with all the physical things that we have as well.  Part of this is really understanding the nature of all we have as being first and foremost a blessing for God.  Our Heavenly Father is the creator of all things, He is above all things, and it is He who has blessed us with all that we have, great or small.  In this we need to make sure that our hearts are not for our things, but for the One who has given them to us.

The other part of this has to do with the nature of our hearts in this recognition.  Not only do we remember that all we have is given to us as a blessing from God, we are also to have a cheerful and open heart when we are giving back to him and to others.  Yes, it isn’t simply about the giving of things that Paul is talking about here, he is talking about the nature of our hearts both when we give and in our everyday lives.  We have not been blessed to be hoarders of our blessings.  Like the gift of grace in Jesus Christ, we are blessed to be a blessing, given to so that we can give ourselves as well.  This is both the attitude and the stance that we are to take as grow ever deeper in humility and thankfulness, giving generously and joyfully of the gifts that God has given to us.