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.



Day 335: 2 Corinthians 1-4; Intro to Second Corinthians

As we enter into reading the second letter that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, we need to start by recognizing two things.  First, we have to remember that this isn’t a direct continuation of the first letter that he wrote, as if the letter was so long that he couldn’t put it into just one volume.  A period of time has passed since the writing of 1 Corinthians, a period in which is seems that Paul has indeed visited the church and that the visit was “painful.”  We also need to take into consideration, as this writing takes place, that there may have been several correspondences that took place between the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians and now, some of which may have been added into this writing as it took shape as one of the books of the Bible.

Paul opens his letter with a greeting, like many of the other greetings that he writes in the different letters to the churches throughout the Roman Empire.  He then talks about the current situation that he and his traveling companions have found themselves in.  Yet even in the many trials that Paul has faced, he doesn’t lose faith in God and even points to the greater desire of God in these hard times to turn to Him and rely completely on His strength.  However, Paul is not saying this in a way that is showing how good he is while at the same time showing how bad the believers at the church in Corinth are.  Instead, Paul is giving God the glory for the faithfulness that He has show in their sufferings.

In his writing, Paul talks about some of the issues that have been going on with his journey and his change of plans.  He seems to go into considerable detail about why the plans are changing and even feels the need to defend his decision to not return to Corinth.  In this, he also talks about a “sinner” among them.  It could be that these situations are related and that there is some conflict that is going on within the church in Corinth or possible between some leaders and Paul.  In any case, Paul has been directed by God not to return to Corinth and is instead writing to them to explain all of this.

The final chunk of today’s reading comes in the form of a discussion about the New Covenant and its superiority over the old.  Paul talks about the triumph that they had in Troas, preaching the Gospel of Christ there.  It seems that they had considerable success in their spreading of the Good News there, yet even in this Paul remains humble and gives the credit to Jesus Christ.  It is not what they do or even what they writing that is the main thing, but what the Spirit of God is doing on the hearts of those who hear the Gospel that is important to Paul.  He then makes a turn towards relating this to the people of Israel and their handling of the Old Covenant as well.  So concerned they are with what has been written and even what Moses said, and yet it is like a veil over their hearts as that cannot truly understand what actually means.

Really, we have said this many times before, but here Paul is saying it again, the Law is not something that brings salvation and neither do the sacrifices of animals bring about forgiveness.  These are things that were set in place to give light to a greater hope in the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  The Law dictates things to do in order to remain in God, yet in Jesus Christ these things are done and fulfilled.  It is, however, only through these things that we can really understand the significance of what Jesus did on the cross.

It is this hope, Paul goes on to say, that causes us to not lose heart.  In Jesus Christ we have a hope for something greater, something better than the struggles of this life.  He writes at the end of chapter four, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,  as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.