Monthly Archives: June 2012

Half-Way There!

Congratulations!  We are half-way there!  

As we wrap up June and head into July, we have completed half of the New Testament!  I am so glad you have been here thus far and let’s press on with determination.  Luke will be a great way to spend July.  Then into the Corinthians letters which are always interesting and full of questions.  After that the Pastoral Epistles, so lots about church life in this quarter of the year.  If you fell off the wagon in June with the beginning of summer, jump back on board.  Any day with the word of God is a blessing!

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Luke 3: Baptized with The Holy Spirit

Another characteristic trait of Luke’s Gospel is his emphasis on the Holy Spirit.  Of course, we see this most clearly in Acts, volume two of the set, but there have been several time already where mention of the Holy Spirit has been made when it was not in Matthew or Mark.

The adult John was clearly a prophet, one who spoke necessary words even if they were confrontational, even if they would get him killed one day.  (I noticed today that verses 4-6 were first spoken by Isaiah, who tradition says was sawn in two; then John the Baptist, who was beheaded; then Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I have a dream” speech, who was assassinated.  People don’t usually like prophets.)  John came preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins and offered a water baptism that brought this to one’s life.  Yet he also says Jesus will do more than simply offer repentance and baptism for forgiveness.

To all of them John responded: “I am baptizing you with water.  But someone is coming who is stronger than I am.  I don’t deserve to untie his sandal-strap.  He will baptize you with the holy spirit and with fire.” (3:16)

The thing that was new with Jesus was not baptism, it was the gift of the Holy Spirit offered to all who would follow him and come into Christ through Christian baptism.  Baptism was the ritual; the Holy Spirit was the power and the result.  Even forgiveness was available through John’s baptism; it was the Spirit that was missing.  Remember Acts 19 (also written by Luke) where this was precisely the issue with a group of people baptized by John but who were missing the Holy Spirit?  To punctuate the point, in this chapter Luke includes Jesus’ own baptism in which the Holy Spirit comes upon him.

A life with forgiveness is wonderful, but we are destined to end right back where we were before.  We would be a people obsessed with forgiveness because of our permanent fallen state.  What we need is empowerment to become something better than what we presently are.  That is the importance of the gift of the Holy Spirit.  God not only forgives us, He empowers us by that Spirit to live a life that is progressively more holy and capable than it was before.

I wonder if sometimes we are guilty of still only preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3).  We emphasize the need to be washed clean of sin.  We encourage each other to turn from sin.  And, yes, we become obsessed with forgiveness because we have missed the part that we can actually become something different than an incapable sinner.  Acts 2:38, a verse ultra-familiar to many of us here, says:

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Have we forgotten about the last part?  And if so, are we missing the most important part?  Are we missing the one unique characteristic of Jesus’ baptism, the one part that is essential to becoming God’s people in a fallen world, the Holy Spirit?

I think so.

What do you think?

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Luke 2: A Sign of Things to Come

It is a little surreal reading this classic Christmas chapter on June 28 when it is above 90 degrees F in Memphis!

I was drawn to this passage today as I read:

“Don’t be afraid,” the angel said to them [the shepherds]. “Look: I’ve got good news for you, news which will make everybody very happy. Today a savior has been born for you–the Messiah, the Lord!–in David’s town. This will be a sign for you: you’ll find the baby wrapped up, and lying in a feeding-trough.” (2:10-12).

The sign the angel is talking about, no doubt, was that Jesus was to be found swaddled and in a manger.  That would have been the clear sign the shepherds could use to find Jesus.  What other newborn in Bethlehem would have been found in a cattle trough?

But I am wondering if there is more meaning to this passage than the literal.  This is a very unorthodox place for the Messiah to be laid.  This is not how a king should be born and laid to receive his admirers.  And these are strange people to pick to tell first about the birth; shepherds were second class citizens or less.

Is that maybe part of the sign?  Is this a sign of what kind of king this would be?  An indication of what sort of ministry this savior will have and to whom he will minister primarily?  A hint that he will be a much meeker, socially marginalized savior than expected, one better suited for shepherds and innkeepers?  That would certainly fit what we know about Luke’s concern for the disenfranchised of his society.  But it might still fit today, don’t you think?

Who are the people in your world who can better identify with a savior in a feeding-trough than a bassinet? 

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Luke 1: A Worshipful Response

Major things happen in this long first chapter.  God starts moving again.  Remember this follows four hundred years of divine silence.  Angels appear.  Temple worship is interrupted.  Signs and miracles occur.  Babies are conceived in unlikely and unnatural ways.  God is on the move and it is BIG!

All of this action has a point:

He [John] will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. (1:16)

He [Jesus] will be a great man, and he’ll be called the son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever.  His kingdom will never come to an end. (1:32-33)

He [God] has rescued his servant, Israel his child. (1:54a)

Blessed be the Lord, Israel’s God!  He’s come to his people and bought them their freedom.  He’s raised up a horn of salvation for us. . . . Salvation from our enemies, rescue from hatred, mercy to our ancestors. . . . Letting his people know of salvation, through the forgiveness of all their sins. (1:68-69a, 71-72, 77)

God moves so as to save, to bless, to rule, and to redeem.

“Magnificat,” Maulbertsch

So, how do you respond when God starts doing magnificent things in your life?  Just like Elizabeth, Mary, and Zechariah: you worship!

Elizabeth:  Elizabeth was filled with the holy spirit, and shouted at the top of her voice: “Of all women, you’re the blessed one!” (1:41b-42)

Mary:  My soul declares that the Lord is great, My spirit exults in my savior, my God. (1:46-47)

Zechariah: Immediately his mouth and his tongue were unfastened, and he spoke, praising God. . . . “He swore an oath to Abraham our father, to give us deliverance from fear and from foes, so we might worship him.” (1:73-74)

Over what in your life right now can you worship?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Luke

Though he never identifies himself in the book, the author of this gospel is almost universally acknowledged to be Luke, the “doctor” (Col. 4:14) and “fellow worker” with Paul (Phlm 24) mentioned in Acts in several places.  This sure identification comes from the tight connection between the Gospel of Luke and Acts, both of which are addressed to “most excellent Theophilus” in what is clearly a two-volume set.  Because the author of Acts identifies himself in the “we passages” of Acts as one of Paul’s companions on his second missionary journey, there is confidence this is Luke.

Who was Theophilus?  The name simply means “lover of God,” so some have posited that this was only a general title for any Christians who would read this book.  However, the title “most excellent” suggests this was a specific person and an esteemed one.  The dedications at the beginning of Luke and Acts were common in Roman literature as a way to honor the patron and publisher of a work.  Thus, Theophilus would not only have been learning from this gospel himself, but also been responsible for duplicating it and spreading it around.  The introduction of Luke makes it obvious this is an apologetic:

So, most excellent Theophilus, since I had traced the course of all of it scrupulously from the start, I thought it a good idea to write an orderly account for you, so that you may have secure knowledge about the matters in which you have been instructed. (1:3-4)

Anyone who has read the gospels know that there is much overlap in the books (53% of the book of Mark is in Luke in some form), yet there is always something unique about each.  Those unique qualities give us a window into why they were written.  The Gospel of Luke is by far the most Gentile gospel of the four.  With his Greek name, Luke was likely a Gentile and one associated with Paul’s later work in Achaia and beyond.  His gospel was largely written in the most formal, educated Greek style and has a marked order and structure.  It is also the most exhaustive, moving from an extensive birth narrative to his ascension.  Theophilus is also a Greek name, so he too was likely from the culturally Greek or Roman parts of the Empire.

Luke’s most characteristic trait is the book’s attention to the typically marginalized of the Roman culture.  Women are more important in this gospel than the others.  The poor are given focus and dignity.  Sinners are included in Jesus’ circles more intentionally.  Gentiles show up often in Luke, no surprise given the book’s supposed audience.

In these dog days on July, it will be good to walk the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea as we head to Jerusalem with the one who “came to seek and save the lost” (19:10).

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Philemon: A Slave Set Free

In the ancient Roman world, if a person were placed in house arrest as Paul had been he could still receive visitors.  Think of it like a modern prisoner who wears an ankle bracelet that would alert the authorities if he were to leave his house; visitors can still come to your house, bring you things, and even stay awhile but you aren’t going to the movies, on that family vacation, or — in Paul’s case — to Spain to spread the gospel as he wished.

One day while the apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome, a slave from Colossae (Col. 4:9) showed up at Paul’s front door.  Maybe he had run away from his master Philemon, or more likely he had been sent by his master to Paul with a message, supplies or money.  His name was Onesimus, a name that means “useful,” but ironically as a slave he was anything but (c.f., Phlm 10-11).

While Onesimus was in Paul’s house, the great apostle did what he did best: he shared the gospel with Onesimus and the slave became a Christian.  Now, in the new humanity, in Christ, where God does not see gender, race or social position (Col. 3:11), Onesimus was Philemon’s brother not his slave (Phlm 16).

I love how Paul’s point is driven home by the words he chose to use in this short letter (word frequency cloud done at Wordle.net in which larger words occur more often)

What would Philemon do now?  Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon and it is clear that Paul thinks his friend should release his slave from slavery and send Onesimus back to Paul to become one of the many missionaries that worked with Paul:

Because of all this I could be very bold in the king, and order you to do the right thing. . . . That way, when you did the splendid thing that the situation requires, it wouldn’t be under compulsion, but of your own free will. (Phlm 8, 14)

We don’t know how this situation turned out.  But Philemon is an excellent example of how the theological belief in a new creation was intended to have a significant effect on everyday relationships, as discussed yesterday.

One further historical question: how in the world did Bible-believing slave-owners and slave-traders in the nineteenth century ever read Philemon and think the institution of slavery was defensible?

What caught your eye in this tiny letter?

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Colossians 4: Everyday Grace

As he did in Ephesians, at the tail end of chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter 4, Paul ends this letter with a reminder that new life in Christ also affects our everyday relationships.  In the middle of that section — technically called a “household code” — Paul says this:

Whatever you do, give it your very best. (3:23)

Good relationships take our very best.  Husbands and wives can’t expect to have a good relationship if there is little effort put into their marriage.  Parenting is too challenging to think we can find success with only our leftovers.  Tired, distracted fathers find it too easy to “provoke their children to anger” (3:21).  The workplace can easily become tyranny if the boss isn’t trying to give her employees the best, to their benefit and to the mission of the organization.

But how is that possible?  We don’t always want to give our best. Quite frankly, there are many situations where the people in our life don’t deserve our best. Paul knows this and his answer comes in the very next phrase:

Give it your very best, as if you were working for the master and not for human beings. (3:23b)

We give our best out of devotion to God, not because other people deserve it.

That’s grace.  It isn’t just some concept we pull out when we want to talk about the conceptual matter of how God saves our soul.  Grace is also the very practical, unmerited blessings we give the people in our life in the nitty gritty of day-to-day life.

What did you learn from Colossians this week?

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Colossians 3: Changing Clothes

I grew up going to church camp in the summer. It was one of my favorite weeks (or two, if I could convince my parents to let me stay for another) of the year. When I was too old to be a camper, I became a counselor and did that until I went off to college.

Now, twenty years later, I am writing this post (a day ahead of time) from church camp again.  This is our church’s week to have camp for all kids in fourth grade and up, all 250 of them!  This is the kind of camp I could have only dreamed to attend when I was a kid.  I have a harder time keeping up with the kids each year and I am not sure why they aren’t ready for lights out at 9:30 like I am!  Still, what a great week!

Later today we will all head home, and one of the first things I will do is strip off my camp clothes, take a nice hot shower, and put on some clean clothes.  It’s not that we didn’t shower or change here at camp, I just never feel totally clean until I am at home in my shower and then in clean clothes.

Paul talked about this earthly life the same way. We are here in a set of dirty clothes (3:5-9), but it’s time to get showered and start putting on the new clothes we were really meant to wear (3:10-15).  Of course, by this metaphor he means there is a whole new set of thoughts and behaviors associated with the “new humanity” we are becoming (3:11).  By the power of the Spirit, we are getting dressed to go home.

Each of these points needs a book of it’s own, but in this chapter Paul gives us some guidance on how to change our spiritual clothes:

  • Set our minds on the spiritual not fleshly (3:1-2)
  • Strip off the old clothes instead of just trying to keep them on underneath our new clothes (3:5-9)
  • Put God’s word into our hearts and minds (3:16a)
  • Help each other become new people (3:16b)

What did you notice in this chapter?

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Colossians 2: Don’t Settle For Shadows

When I was a child on sunny days I liked to play with my shadow.  My friends and I would make shadow puppets, play shadow tag, and try to guess what animals the other was making with their hands.

It would be a rather silly thing to do the same thing as adults.

Yet that is what the false teachers in Colossae were suggesting:

So don’t let anyone pass judgment on you in a question of food or drink, or in the matter of festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These things are a shadow cast by the coming reality — and the body that casts the shadow belongs to the king. (2:16-17)

For Paul, the best kind of knowledge is the relational understanding of knowing Jesus, not just the esoteric knowledge of the false teachers for whom Jesus was more of a concept than a person (2:2-3).

Paul also emphasizes the relational side of baptism, something some of us today may have forgotten too.  Baptism is first and foremost about being buried and raised with Jesus (2:12).  Water baptism is always imitation of and a mysterious participation in the more important reality of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection; it is never the point itself.

Maybe that is a sign of all false teaching: it promotes a religion without a full and personal relationship with Jesus.

What do you think?

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Colossians 1: Jesus Is Enough

Jesus is cool.  He just isn’t the be all, end all.  He was a good man.  He taught good things.  But he is not sufficient enough to handle the weight of all of your cares, needs, and expectations.

Or is he?

In various ways we hear the same message the Colossian Christians would have been hearing.  Jesus is great but you need more than just Jesus.  You need Jesus plus religious rituals.  Jesus plus the law.  Jesus plus knowledge.  Jesus plus rigorous asceticism that shows your spiritual strength.  Or Jesus plus carnal indulgence without spiritual affect, showing your spiritual strength.  Or today we might say, Jesus plus a 401k plan.  Jesus plus some good counseling.  Jesus plus a group of friends.  Jesus plus church.  Jesus plus good works.  Jesus plus a good education.  Jesus plus career success.  Jesus plus a good marriage.

Not that there is anything wrong with taking advantage of the help and blessings that can come from most of these “pluses.”

Right from the start, Paul makes us face whether we think Jesus is enough to complete our lives.  Do we think Jesus is the center of our life; or is Jesus the add-on, the value added element, the plus in a life that is being lived just like everyone else in the world?  We can tell from the letter that the false teaching threatening the Colossian church didn’t think Jesus was sufficient.  If we are introspective enough, we can look at our own lives and tell whether we think Jesus is sufficient for life.

In Colossians 1, Paul offers the following assertions about the deep meaning and value to be found in the person of Jesus:

  • Paul starts with the most important and fundamental point of all: Jesus is the embodiment of God (1:15, 19).  When you have Jesus you actually have God within you.
  • Jesus reigns over our home because God “transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son” (1:13).  He is in charge of our reality.
  • As he was the power that brought about creation (1:16), Jesus is the very reason we exist.
  • Jesus is the reason we do not fear God’s wrath (1:20, 22). We now have reconciliation, peace, and are viewed by God without accusation.
  • As the “firstborn from the realms of the dead” (1:18), Jesus is the reason we can be assured of our own resurrection.
  • We will all submit to something, and Jesus is our best object of submission.  In a wordplay in 1:15-18 on the variations of the word “head,” Paul makes it clear that Jesus holds this position in reality, thus life is better lived in line with that reality.
  • In a truly difficult verse, Paul explains that it is now our job to “complete” the unfinished work of Jesus (1:24).  The only thing that can be unfinished or “lacking” in the work of Jesus must be the part that depends on us: to be his hands and feet in this world today.  Thus, Jesus becomes the purpose behind our mission in life.
  • When the King is “living within you as the hope of glory” (1:27), Jesus is our reason for hope.
  • Jesus is the core of our message, as “he is the one we are proclaiming” (1:28a).
  • Jesus is also our way to maturity as we “grow up” and become “complete” in him (1:28b)

It sounds like Paul thinks Jesus is more than just an add-on to a life that is looking elsewhere for meaning, security, and hope.

What stood out to you in this chapter?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Colossians

If one thinks that Paul wrote the other Prison Epistles, most agree that Colossians was authored by the Apostle Paul while in prison likely in Rome sometime before AD 61 when Colossae and the Colossian church were ravaged by an earthquake.  Interestingly, Paul had never been to Colossae when he wrote this letter.  Epaphras, who likely started the church in Colossae, had just come to Paul in Rome and reported on the progress of the church and its challenges (1:8).  Paul writes this letter in response as a form of encouragement.

Much of the background of Colossians revolves around a false teaching in the church or some to come their way that is often called the Colossian Heresy.  The Colossian Christians are or will be tempted to leave the simple gospel of grace through Christ alone for a set of teachings that emphasize asceticism (2:16, 21), everyday wisdom (2:8, 23), veneration of angels (2:18), and the insufficiency of Christ to fulfill the fundamental needs of life (1:15-20; 2:9).  Over 45 different theories have been given for who exactly these false teachers were in Colossae.  These theories usually include bits of Judaism, Gnosticism, Greco-Roman philosophy, and pagan religions from that area mixed together with Christianity.

This is the first time we have come this year to Gnosticism so an explanation is in order, especially as many who study Colossians believe the heresy was an early version of Gnosticism mixed with Judaism.  We know that by the second century AD there was a Christian philosophy in place in many churches that accepted a dualistic worldview.  A Gnostic thought the world was composed of two parts: the evil and degrading physical layer of life, and the pure and edifying spiritual aspects of life.  A human, for instance, was a good spiritual being trapped in an evil prison of flesh.  Sin comes as we follow our physical desires, and redemption can be found by listening and developing our spiritual self.  (You may be thinking to yourself at this point, “Hey, I know Christians who believe that today!”  Yes, there is a dualistic Christian worldview that still exists today, but I would question whether it is biblical.  Is God not the Creator and Redeemer of all we are?)  Consider how Gnosticism would affect beliefs and ethics.  They did not believe that Jesus was physical.  Jesus did not die a physical death on a cross, it only seemed that way.  Our greatest mission is to escape this physical world, not redeem it.  There were also two opposing views on how to deal with this physical body we live in: 1) deny your flesh and beat it into submission to your superior spiritual willpower, and 2) indulge your flesh and satisfy your physical desires wantonly showing that you have the spiritual strength within your pure soul to wallow in the mire of life and not be affected adversely by your physical behaviors. If an early form of Gnosticism was present in Colossae, the details of the letter suggest it was of the ascetic variety.

Personally, I don’t think we can downplay the fact that the main threat to the early Christians in Asia Minor at this time were Christian and non-Christian versions of Judaism.  Note that circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, holy days, and food laws — all hallmarks of Judaism — are mentioned often in Colossians.  In my opinion, the likeliest explanation for the Colossian Heresy is that the young Gentile Christians of Colossae were being be swayed away from the gospel of grace alone in Christ by a legalistic version of Jewish Gnosticism that emphasized law observance, physical asceticism, and the belief that the work of Jesus was not enough to save people.

In this letter, we will see Paul warn the Colossian Christians that there is nothing fulfilling or lasting in this “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (2:8) because true fullness, power, wisdom and life are found in Christ (2:3, 9-10; 3:4).  His desire is that “you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (4:12).

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Philippians 4: Pray In All Situations

Contentment does not mean we do not have needs.  Of course, we will still be in need.  Later in chapter 4 Paul talks about being in need and how the Philippians provided for him at that time.  Contentment can remain even when we are not comfortable with what we have and the situation we are in.

Paul gives us one more secret for how that is possible:

Don’t worry about anything.  Rather, in every area of life let God know what you want, as you pray and make requests, and give thanks as well.  And God’s peace, which is greater than we can ever understand, will keep guard over our hearts and minds in King Jesus. (4:6-7)

Secret to Contentment #4:  Pray!  Pray fervently!  Pray all the time, in any situation!  Say what is on your mind.  Ask for what you need.  Thank Him for what He has already done.  Surrender to God’s will.  Express your willingness to trust Him.  As we remember what God has done for us in the past, prayer helps contentment to become real and solidifying our hearts.

What have we learned about contentment from Philippians?

There is a way past anxiety and on to contentment and joy in all situations.  It is not by eliminating need as if that were possible.  It is not by attaining all we want and fulfilling all we desire; when do we ever reach that point?  As we fix our focus past this present world and on to the rewards and reality of the world to come, as we face realistically our needs and give those to God in prayer, as we become oriented more towards serving others than ourselves, we can be rest assured that God is in control of all things and our futures will be okay.  Paul never promises a life without struggle or a life filled only with blessings — remember where he was when he was writing this letter — but Paul is sure of this:

I have strength for everything in the one who gives me power. (4:13)

What have YOU learned?

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Philippians 3: Looking to Heaven

If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world. — C. S. Lewis

Which is the real world, this one or the one to come?  Well, both really.  It is not realistic nor compassionate to expect people to ignore this world as a place of no consequence.  We have families here.  We fall in love here.  We experience and inflict real hurt here.  We work at jobs here that are intended and do have real consequences.

Maybe the better question is which world has enduring value and therefore is worth orienting our life towards?

Several times Paul tells the Philippians Christians (and us) that they will find contentment by attaching to the hereafter rather than the here and now.

Paul pulls out his resume, which by Jewish standards was quite impressive (3:4-6).  Then he declared,

Does that sound as tough my account was well in credit?  Well, maybe; but whatever I had written in on the profit side, I calculated it instead as a loss — because of the Messiah.  Yes, I know that’s weird, but there’s more: I calculate everything as a loss, because knowing King Jesus as my Lord is worth far more than everything else put together! (3:7-8a)

Paul is eager “to forget everything that’s behind, and to strain every nerve to go after what’s ahead” (3:13).  After all, “we are citizens of heaven” (3:20), not Philippi, Rome, Memphis, America or anywhere else.  “Our present body is a shabby old thing” but the “glorious body” is coming (3:21).  Paul’s eyes are firmly fixed on what is to come, not the present roller coaster ride he is presently on.

Secret to Contentment #3:  Attach your heart to the New Creation where long-lasting treasure is found, and there will always be a better day coming.

What struck you in this chapter?

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Out of Pocket Again

I am not going to be able to respond to comments or questions for the next week again.  The posts will keep coming, so keep dropping by!  Blessings!

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Philippians 2: Look Out for Others, Not Yourself

All day long we are feed the message that if we want to be happy and content we will have to have what we want.  In marketing it is called the “you sale.”  Buy this product and you will be happy.  Wear this product and you will be more attractive and self-assured.  Go into debt to get a bigger or better one of these and you will find peace.  You want it.  Or maybe you even deserve it.  You’ll be happy when you get it your way.

Be sure to read the fine print! WOW!

Then Paul comes along, claiming as he has that he had discover how to be content, and he says this:

Bring your thinking into line with one another.  Here’s how to do it.  Hold on to the same love; bring your innermost lives into harmony; fix your minds on the same object.  Never act out of selfish ambition or vanity; instead, regard everybody else as your superior.  Look after each other’s best interests, not your own. (2:2b-4)

Secret to Contentment #2:  Stop trying to find contentment in self-fulfillment.  You will be happiest when you serve others and pursue their best interests.

What did you see in this chapter about contentment?

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Philippians 1: God Is in Control

Many of us live lives full of anxiety and insecurity.  This only leads to a loss of joy and contentment.  In 4:11 Paul claims to have learned how to be content no matter the circumstances.

There is much to consider in Philippians and any of it would be interesting and worthwhile.  However, as we read through each chapter, I have chosen each day to concentrate on Paul’s secrets to a life of contentment and joy.

 

Paul begins his book with great confidence in the future of the Philippians:

Of this I’m convinced: the one who began a good work in you will thoroughly complete it by the day of King Jesus. (1:6)

He has also been able to see how God has used his imprisonment to “help the gospel on it’s way” and to bring “new confidence to most of the Lord’s family” (1:12-14).

Though Paul desired for his own sake to go to be with God, he was able to be content with however long he lived because it meant he still had chances to benefit others in the Lord (1:21-27).

In the point that may be most astounding to me in this chapter, Paul is able to rejoice even in the preaching of false teachers seeking only power and money because at least the good news about Jesus is being spread (1:18).  That’s a new way to view the Jim Bakkers and Ted Haggards that make Christianity seem so corrupt.

Secret To Contentment #1:  Anchor your confidence in God’s ability to orchestrate the future in the way He knows is best rather than your own ability and foresight, and joy and peace can be much more constant.  God is in control and it’s going to be okay.

What did you learn today?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Philippians

Paul is sitting in prison when he writes Philippians and the other Prison Epistles — Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon. Some have suggested this prison was in Ephesus or Caesarea, but the Prison Epistles were most likely written while Paul was under house arrest in Rome and not later when Paul was in the Mamertime dungeon in Rome at the end of his life. The fact that this hopeful letter of joy and contentment was written in such circumstance is, by itself, astounding.

We learn from Acts 16 that the first members of the Philippians church were the businesswoman Lydia in whose house the church may have met at first, a young girl delivered from demons, and a Roman jailer whose very life Paul and Silas had saved.  This church likely had predominantly pagan roots as there wasn’t even a synagogue in Philippi when Paul visited on his second missionary journey.  Philippi was a proud Greco-Roman city, named after Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, and a city in which faithful Roman soldiers had been given land in retirement.

Given the overwhelming positive tone of this letter, we can tell Paul was especially fond of the Christians in Philippi.  They had given him great financial and moral support on his journeys most recently in a love offering sent with Epaphroditus.  At least part of Philippians is simply a thank you letter for their generosity.  Paul also must have sensed that he was closer to the end of his life and ministry than the beginning.  As any “father” would want to do, Paul also takes advantage of the opportunity to warn against false teaching, encourage them to stand firm in hardships, and to find their center for attitude and actions in the example of Jesus.

More than almost any letter in the New Testament, Philippians exudes a confidence about life.  Paul has learned the secret to being content no matter the circumstances (4:11) and wants his children in the faith to know it too.  With it’s 16 uses of some version of the word “joy,” there is no wonder why this short epistle is a favorite of many people.

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Ephesians 6: Doing Battle

Let’s try something visual today.

What does it mean to do battle for God?  Which of the following pictures best depicts how you would envision it?  There are a lot of different, even conflicting, ideas that a question like that conjures up.  Paul gives his thoughts on the question from Ephesians 6 at the end.

Be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his power.  Put on God’s complete armor. . . . the warfare we are engaged in, you see, isn’t against flesh and blood.  It’s against the leaders, against the authorities, against the powers that rule the world in this dark age, against the wicked spiritual elements in heavenly places.  For this reason, you must take up God’s complete armor.  Then, when wickedness grabs its moment, you’ll be able to withstand, to do what needs to be done, and still be on your feet when it’s all over.  So stand firm! . . . Pray on every occasion. . . . You’ll need to keep awake and alert for this. . . . Please pray that God will give me his words to speak when I open my mouth, so that I can make known, loud and clear, the secret truth of the gospel. . . . Pray that I may announce it boldly. (6:10-14a, 18-20)

trusting ~ standing ~ praying ~ speaking

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Ephesians 5: Imitators of God

So you should be imitators of God, like dear children. (5:1)

In the first part of Ephesians 5 before Paul gets to the household code of conduct (5:21ff), Paul gives seven characteristics of God we would do well to imitate if we are going to be God’s children, growing in His image.  See if you can find them in chapter 5 while you read.  For variety, my son put these seven traits into a word cloud.

How is it possible for fallen people to become like our magnificent Father?

Be filled with the spirit! (5:18b)

What from this chapter resonated with you?

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Ephesians 4: Put On The New Humanity

Back on Friday we saw that an important part of Paul’s specially tailored gospel message for Ephesus was that the cross has made the kingdom of God open to all people, Jews and Gentiles.  There is one new humanity irrespective of ethnicity.

Today, as Paul turns from the theological to the practical, from the God-part of the book to the Humanity-part, Paul reminds the Ephesians (and us) that God hasn’t just placed a bundle of blessings on their lap, they have a job in the new creation: make that new ethnicity-less humanity a reality in their everyday life as a church (4:1, 12, 22-24).  Paul brings this point home with the many “one another” phrases in this chapter (and also the very popular “one” passage in 4:4-6):

Bear with one another in love. (4:2a)

Be humble, meek, and patient in every way with one another. (4:2b)

. . . with your lives bound together in peace. (4:3b)

. . . held together by every joint which supports it [the church body] (4:16a)

We are members of one another. (4:25)

Be kind to one another. (4:32a)

Cherish tender feelings for each other. (4:32b)

Forgive one another (4:32c)

At the same time, we are not all the same.  Not only have we come from different backgrounds, God has equipped us with different gifts, abilities, and personalities (4:7, 11).  Yet, that diversity is unified by a common purpose:

The purpose of this [diverse gifting] is that we should all reach unity in our belief and loyalty, and in knowing God’s son.  Then we shall reach the stature of the mature Man measured by the standards of the king’s fullness. (4:13)

The “new humanity” we are called to become is best seen in the life and person of Jesus the King.  He died for us.  He saved us.  He is working inside of us and through us, all with the goal of becoming like him, not the world from which we have come (4:22-24).  That’s something that can create unity.

What phrase speaks loudly to you in this chapter?

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Ephesians 3: Ministry Is A Gift!

As I said yesterday, Paul always contextualizes the gospel to fit the audience he is addressing.  Think of it like jazz.  There is a main harmony that is constant throughout a song, but from what little I understand about jazz music a good musician takes that harmony and riffs off in new variations of the same constant harmony.  (Feel free to correct me if I apparently don’t understand anything about jazz!)

Sometimes Paul calls each of these variations a “mystery,” or “secret” as Wright translates it.  These are unique, audience-specific versions of the gospel or the consequences of the gospel.  In Ephesians 3, Paul gives the Ephesian Christians theirs:

When you read this you’ll be able to understand the special insight I have into the king’s secret. . . . Now it’s been revealed by the spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.  The secret is this: that, through the gospel, the Gentiles are to share Israel’s inheritance.  They are to become fellow members of the body, along with them, and fellow sharers of the promise in King Jesus. . . . My job is to make clear to everyone just what the secret plan is. (3:4b-6, 9a)

Paul has a ministry to share this wonderful new message far and wide, with Jews and Gentiles alike.  All are welcome.  This Jesus thing isn’t just for Jews.  Gentiles are welcome too.  And the revolutionary idea that Paul hasn’t really fleshed out in this book as much as he did in Galatians, for instance, is that these Gentiles don’t have to become Jews to become Christians.

This was not as easy a message to preach as we might think.  Sure, the Gentiles would be down with it.  But the Jewish gatekeepers were not as enthusiastic.  The first century Church spent the better part of that first century ironing out all of the details of that “secret.”  It got Paul beaten up more than a few times.  It caused churches to split.  It caused more than a little fuss.  Jewish Christians were content to come behind Paul and slander his ministry, lying about him and painting his ministry as an opportunistic grab at money and power.  I just have to imagine there were days Paul had to have second thoughts and desires to jump the next ship to anywhere.

That is why I am so struck by this line that comes in the middle of this discussion of his ministry:

. . . he gave me this task as a gift . . . (3:8)

Wow!  There was much about Paul’s ministry that I would not see as a “gift.”  I am afraid I am weak enough that there are days I would want to return that gift for another one.  Yet, not Paul.  Oh, to have that perspective!

What stood out to you today? 

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Ephesians 2: Reborn

In every letter Paul gives a grand statement of the gospel, always stated a bit differently for the context of that letter.  Chapter 2 is that chapter in Ephesians.

Paul reminds his readers what they were according to the “flesh” alone.

You were dead because of your offenses and sins! . . . We used to do what our flesh and our minds were urging us to do.  What was the result?  We too were subject to wrath in our natural state, just like everyone else. (2:1b, 3)

So, then, remember this!  In human terms — that is, in your “flesh” — you are “Gentiles.”  You are the people whom the so-called circumcision refer to as the so-called uncircumcision. . . . Well, once upon a time you were separated from the king.  You were detached from the community of Israel.  You were foreigners to the covenants which contained the promise.  There you were, in the world with no hope and no god! (2:11-12)

Before they came to Christ, the Ephesian church, which must have been largely Gentile, were dead, fleshly, destined for punishment, locked out from the promises and blessings of the Jews, without hope.

Can you remember when the same could have been said about you?

Then . . . because of the great grace of God, not because of anything we had done, lest we boast (2:8-9), we were reborn.  This idea of being new birth is very important to Paul at this point.  He punctuates that idea twice in this chapter with creation and resurrection language:

He made us alive with the king. . . . He raised us up with him, and made us sit with him — in the heavenly places in King Jesus. (2:5-6)

The point of doing all this was to create, in him, one new human being out of the two [Jews and Gentiles], so making peace.  God was reconciling both of us to himself in a single body, though the cross, by killing the enmity in him. (2:15b-16)

With rebirth the Ephesians are not the same person.  They died hopeless objects of wrath; they were reborn children of the King.  They died alienated Gentiles; they were reborn part of a greater humanity that does not see ethnicity and the hostility that too often comes with such differences.  They are no longer defined by their flesh.  They are new creations.

Can you remember when you were very aware that the same could be said about you?

That is the gospel.

What struck you in this chapter?

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Ephesians 1: Jesus the King

Over in England, it was the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation this past weekend.  Unless you have just been away from a media outlet of some sort you have seen the celebrations — flotilla, horse races, Sir Elton John, and all.  Now imagine walking into the middle of the crowds outside Buckingham Palace and shouting, “There is another queen, one better and more powerful than Elizabeth!”  Yeah.  I am thinking that wouldn’t go over well, even as fair-weather as the British people are about their royals.

But that is essentially what Paul does as he starts Ephesians.  This is where N. T. Wright’s choice to translate “Christ” as “king” really makes the point.  Eleven times in twenty-three verses Paul calls Jesus the “king.”  But there already was a king in Ephesus: Caesar.  And if that wasn’t enough to fill their hearts they had the blessings of the local goddess Artemis.  This was not a people in need of another king, another power, and more blessing.  Yet, that is exactly how Paul starts.  How confrontational!  Notice how in-your-face these verses sound when you remember where they are being read:

His plan was to sum up the whole cosmos in the king — yes, everything in heaven and on earth, in him. (1:10)

This was the power at work in the king when God raised him from the dead and sat him at his right hand in the heavenly places, above all rule and authority and power and lordship, and above every name that is invoked , both in the present age and also in the age to come.  Yes: God has “put all things under his feet.” (1:20-22a)

Artemis (Diana)

Artemis was usually depicted with many breasts from which her worshipers were nourished.  Her blessings sustained life.  Yet, Paul packs blessing after blessing into Ephesians 1 as he reminds the Ephesian Christians what they have received from God, not Artemis (1:3):

  • Being holy and irreproachable in God’s sight (1:4)
  • Adoption as God’s sons and daughters (1:5)
  • Deliverance by the forgiveness of sins (1:7)
  • Making known the secret of God’s purposes to us (1:9)
  • Marked by the Spirit as an inheritance (1:11, 13)
  • Being made wise, understanding things others do not (1:17)
  • Enlightenment to the “eyes of your inmost self” (1:18)
  • Knowledge of the amazing power of God towards us (1:19)

Paul also sneaks the real issue into the chapter three times:

To the holy ones in Ephesus who are also loyal believers in King Jesus. (1:1)

I’d heard that you are loyal and faithful to Jesus the master (1:15)

You will know the outstanding greatness of his power toward us who are loyal to him in faith (1:19)

The real question that the Ephesians had to grapple with first was to which king they would be loyal.  To whom would they go for blessing?

What did you notice in this significant chapter?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Ephesians

Though some have doubted it because of the lack of personal greetings so common in his letters, the apostle Paul is stated twice as the author of Ephesians (1:1; 3:1), a letter likely written while the apostle was under house arrest in Rome (3:1; 4:1; 6:20) around AD 60.  The other Prison Epistles — Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon — would have been written at this same time, and we will be reading all four together in the next month.

The Temple of Artemis

Ephesus was an important city in the ancient world and in the life of Paul.  Situated at the nexus of sea and land trading routes, Ephesus became both a commercial and cultural center, by far the most important in Asia Minor and one of the top five most important cities on the Mediterranean.  Home to the Temple of Artemis (Diana), one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, Ephesus also became a religious center as pilgrims flocked to the temple seeking a blessing from the many-breasted fertility goddess.  You may recall it was Ephesus where the silversmiths rallied a large part of the city to chant “Great is the Artemis of the Ephesians” for two straight hours (Acts 19:23-34).  Paul spent almost three years here (Acts 19:10) growing very close to the leaders in the church and using the Ephesian church as a home base for his evangelism of western Turkey.  This Ephesian church is the one to whom Paul sent Timothy in 1 and 2 Timothy towards the end of the apostle’s life in an effort to set them straight when they apparently went off track.  John would warn the Ephesian church to regain their “first love” in Revelation 2.

Ephesians may be the most general of Paul’s letters.  Whereas Paul usually addressed a problem or threat to the church, he only seems to be encouraging the Christians in Ephesus to know how blessed they are and to stand firm in those blessings appreciating the high calling of the Church.  In a unique way, Ephesians talks about how the work of God on behalf of Christians impacts all areas of life — spiritual, religious, ethnic, and social.  The general nature of this letter makes some theorize Ephesians was really a circular letter sent to many churches in western Turkey.

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Romans 16: Phoebe the Deacon?

Let me introduce you to our sister Phoebe.  She is a deacon in the church at Cenchreae.  I want you to welcome her in the Lord, as is proper for one of God’s people.  Please give her whatever practical assistance she may need from you.  She has been a benefactor to many people, myself included. (16:1-2)

Phoebe was a deacon?

Yep.

Maybe that just means “servant,” like the KJV, the original NIV, the ASV says.

However, it seems there is something about the Greek word and the sentence structure that suggests the more formal words “deacon” or “deaconess” work better, as we find in the newest version of the NIV, the NLT, the CEV, and Wright’s KNT.  Also, her role as described in this passage above indicates this was more than just a great servant-hearted woman who worked behind the scenes to make the ministry of the church in Cenchreae work smoothly.  She was the “benefactor” of the Cenchrean church, likely meaning the church there met in her house.  She likely also provided a room for the many traveling missionaries; Paul indicates he had been privy to her hospitality.  All indications are that Phoebe was a well-to-do lady, maybe a business woman like Lydia the seller of purple cloth.  It was possibly this business that took her to Rome — no little expense — and Paul was taking advantage of that agenda.  Phoebe would have been carrying the letter to the Romans to the church there (depicted in the picture above even).  As was custom, she would have read the letter aloud to the church in Rome and been available to answer clarifying questions given that she had just been with the author.  Altogether, Phoebe was an esteemed leader in the early church known for her servant heart and at least this active effort to advance God’s kingdom.

This may be a realization that does not fit with what we have been taught in the past.  That is another perk to a comprehensive reading plan.  But this is an especially fitting way to end a letter that has focused on unmerited grace to all based on God’s love and calling, not one’s identity or status.

As we finish Romans today, what one major theme has really struck you this year as we read through this wonderful book?

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