Monthly Archives: November 2012

Revelation 2: Balancing “In” And “Not Of” The World

Live in the world, but do not become like the world.  That is the calling of a Christian, and a formulation we have probably all heard all of our lives.  (Did you know that phrase is not actually in the Bible?  The concept certainly is.)  We are called to be involved in the lives of non-Christians, not a detached group that vilifies, hates, and avoids those not like us.  We are called to shape the culture in which we live for the sake of Christ.  At the same time we are called to remain unspotted from the filth of this world.  We are not to become so like our non-Christian neighbors that we are shaped by their culture.

That is a challenging balance to maintain!

In Revelation 2-3, John addresses the seven churches of Asia, each in turn, in what are most like little “letters” to each.  A common theme running throughout these interesting sections is the way in which each church has interacted with the pagan, sinful culture in which they live.  Life in the first-century Roman Empire required one to worship the pagan gods and the Emperor.  Most of the publicly available meat came from sacrifices offered to pagan gods.  Business required a person to be a part of a trade guild (like a union) that had a patron god.  Public life was immensely immoral, especially sexually immoral.  Like any large economy, it was important to turn a buck, one way or another.  How do you live as a follower of Christ in such an environment?

Remember, the recipients of Revelation were persecuted Christians, targeted because they were identifiably different from their neighbors.  An easy way to avoid that persecution, though, is to lessen the degree to which you stand out as different.  A little cultural accommodation never killed anyone, right?  Maybe it might even keep you alive to share the gospel another day.  Jesus, who is in their midst (1:12), has seen their lives and has a message for each, usually focused on the way that church has chosen to live in their non-Christian society.

For ease of discussion I am including a chart that places each of the seven churches (and two other groups) on a continuum according to how they chose to interact with their culture (click on the graphic to enlarge and print from this PDF).  As you read through the “letters” to the seven churches, see if you can tell why I have placed them where I have.

There was a group in the churches of Asia Minor who were extreme accommodationists.  The Nicolaitans seemed to believe (like the Gnostics) that a Christian showed his superior spiritual strength by engaging in all the sinful practices of pagan life but without that affecting his soul.  The followers of “Balaam” (2:14) and “Jezebel” (2:20) — surely, two code names — were likely Nicolaitans.  It appears that this sort of thinking had been influential to various degrees in the churches of Thyatira and Pergamum.  The Laodiceans had developed the same sort of arrogance those in their city had who have become rich and self-sufficient (3:17).  Given that the Christians in Sardis were not suffering any persecution at all, it would appear they had chosen not to stand out from society in any great way.  Jesus scolds these churches for their compromise of doctrine, purity, and zeal.

At the other extreme would have been Christians who were on guard against this sort of cultural accommodation to such a degree that they isolated themselves from society, becoming judgmental and unwelcoming to outsiders.  While immensely pure, they also lacked the love for others that God so desired His people to have.  The Pharisees (literally the “set-apart ones”) would have the best known example of this mentality, though they were not Christians.  Of the seven churches of Asia Minor, the church in Ephesus was most known for this lack of love, and thus Jesus highlighted this compromise of attitude (2:4).

Only the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia escape any criticism at all from Jesus.  These centrist churches seemed to recognize their role as shapers of culture and were doing so admirably, even if that did mean that both of them would have to sacrifice their own comfort to do so.

Of course, this same continuum can be used to describe churches at any time in history and any place on the globe.  God’s kingdom in always an alternative community, different from the cultural norm.  He calls us to be the “kingdom of priests” (1:6) who stand in the gap as mediators with one hand on God and one hand in the world.

What do you think?

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Revelation 1: The King is in Your Midst

Jesus figures significantly in this first chapter of Revelation.  There should be no wonder; this is the “revelation of Jesus Christ” as verse one tells us.

John greets the seven churches of Asia Minor with a grand praise of Jesus, their common Savior:

Jesus the Messiah, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. (1:5)

Now, stop for a moment.  Think how provocative that flourish of praise is.  John is ascribing a power to Jesus that is equal or even surpasses the Caesar.  Is this god of the Christians more powerful than the Caesar who rules all other regional kings of the Mediterranean?  What a dangerous way to start a book to people persecuted for their seditious beliefs!

Lest there be a misunderstanding, this is a different kind of king.  Yes, he has conquered kingdoms.  He holds in his hands trophies of powers that have been vanquished.

He touched me with his right hand. “Don’t be afraid,” he said.  “I am the first and the last and the living one.  I was dead and look!  I am alive forever and ever.  I have the keys of death and Hades. (1:17-18)

Jesus is not a king like Caesar.  He certainly desires the hearts of those who address him as king, but he is not seeking more soil and greater riches.  He has conquered a power greater than Caesar himself.  His greatest victories are spiritual.

John not only says great things about Jesus in this chapter, he even has a vision of Jesus as well:

So I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me.  As I turned, I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the middle of the lampstands “one like a son of man,” wearing a full-length robe and with a golden belt across his chest. (1:12-13)

As we start this book, it is important for us to note where Jesus is in this vision.  He stands in the midst of seven lampstands, which verse 20 tells us signify the seven churches to whom this book is written.  Thus, as we start this book we see Jesus standing in the midst of his suffering people.

Jesus is a mighty king but also a compassionate comforter.

What stood out to you in this chapter?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Revelation

Recently, a friend and mentor said he and his co-teacher had taught every book in the New Testament in their Sunday School class . . . except Revelation.  It is just too hard a book to teach responsibly.  True!  I am afraid this sentiment is true for many Christians too.  They avoid Revelation out of fear, confusion, or intimidation.  Some so neglect the book they don’t even realize the book is called Revelation (singular), not Revelations (plural).

But many of us also know people who hang out in Revelation to the exclusion of much of the rest of the New Testament.  Every news headline is a fulfillment of some obscure detail in Revelation.  This two-thousand year old book was certainly talking about the European Union or Barack Obama or Pope Benedict.  Making sure people know and agree with these interpretations of prophecy is equally as important as how one treats his neighbor or whether care is given to the destitute.

Whether one avoids the book or camps out in its pages, Revelation is an absolutely incredible piece of literature and fitting end to the Bible.  Personally, once I took a seminary class on the book my confusion over the book was far less.  Now, Revelation is easily in my top five favorite books of the Bible.  More and more I see how the teachings of this book have become integral to my own theology.  There is no way these short posts will help us all overcome our under- or overemphasis on Revelation, but may the last month of this blog help us all gain a new appreciation for this majestic book.

Revelation was written by a man named John.  But which John?  The apostle and writer of the Gospel and Epistles?  Probably not.  There is too many stylistic and theological differences to suggest these were all written by the same author.  Many scholars are content to simple say this is a different John, maybe “John the Revelator,” writing from exile on the island of Patmos just off the coast of Asia Minor near Ephesus.

When was Revelation written is also somewhat contested and a question that many scholars believe can be answered very precisely because of cryptic references in the book.  What most agree on is that the book was written during a period when Christians were being persecuted and therefore had to speak in code.  This would fit the time period of Nero in the 60s AD when Peter and Paul are traditionally thought to have been killed, but an even better case can be made that this fits the 80s when the Roman Emperor Domitian brought about an even bloodier oppression of Christianity.  I tend toward a later date.

What kind of book is this?  Prophecy?  Yes, there is certainly prophecy in the book.  A letter?  We know from the first three chapters that this book was addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor (where the persecution of Christians in the 80s AD was worst).  Revelation is sermonic and poetic in places, and maybe the best term for the book is apocalyptic, in that it is giving a message veiled in exaggerated, fantastical imagery because of perceived opposition to free speech.  Bottomline: Revelation is good literature.

When is Revelation talking about?  This is somewhat simplified, but there are three main options:

  1. Then — John was addressing people in the first-century undergoing first-century problems, mainly political and cultural persecution.  The main evil in the book is Rome.  The grotesque beasts are emperors and political/economic institutions.  Maybe the last three chapters are talking about the end of time, but the rest of the book has to stay anchored in an ancient Roman context.
  2. Future — John was foreseeing cataclysmic events that would take place at the end of time as Jesus returns and the New Creation comes.  Of course, the beginning of the end could be right now, which is what many people have thought all throughout time since the first-century.  So look for the “signs of the times” all around you.
  3. Always — John was speaking in symbols and by nature symbolism is much more timeless and malleable to situation.  We press the images too far when we come up with singular, specific, time-bound fulfillments.  John is speaking of evil in its many faces and forms, all throughout time.  Thus, John is talking about Rome but also our world today and the Middle Ages and the age to come.

Personally, I prefer the last option, with a heavy emphasis on “then.”

This month we may not break the code on whether Sandy and Katrina, economic cliffs, and re-elections are harbingers on the end-times.  But if we keep our eyes wide open to the big picture I believe we will be encouraged by John’s main point: Do not be discouraged by the darkness you see all around you, God wins in the end!  Better days are coming!  Praise the Lamb who has made the victory sure!

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Jude: Show Mercy, But With Wisdom

The book of Jude, also known as Judah (N. T. Wright’s preference) or even Judas, was possibly written by the prophet Judas (not Iscariot), though more likely written by Judas the brother of Jesus (c.f., Matthew 13:55).  This view is favored because the author does not consider himself an apostle and he calls himself a brother of James, which most believe is the pillar in the Jerusalem church, the author of James, and the brother of Jesus.  Seemingly not wanting to ride the coat-tails of his brother, Jude does not refer to himself as the Lord’s brother.

This is a hard book to date, and much of the decision rides on whether one thinks Jude borrowed from 2 Peter or vice versa or neither.  If Jude borrowed from 2 Peter, then Jude can be dated as late as the 80s.  As authors tend to borrow and elaborate, most scholars think Peter borrowed from the shorter Jude, meaning Jude cannot be dated later than AD 65.

Hebrews, James, John, Peter, and Jude are sometimes called the General Epistles because, unlike Paul’s letters, they appear to be written to broad groups of people, addressing very general circumstances.  Jude is likely the most general of the General Letters.  It is hard to say who is being addressed, what ethnicities are present, where they are located, and who exactly are the false teachers being discussed.  Regardless, the message is clear and widely applicable.

Verse 4 may be the best summary of the message of Jude:

They are godless men, who change the grace of God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.

People have arisen in the church(es) Jude is addressing that have turned the grace of God into an excuse to sin.  If wrongdoing is going to be forgiven, why not live how you wish.  This could have been a libertine version of Gnosticism that Jude was attacking, though as we see even still today people who love their sin more than their Savior have always used grace as a license to stay in their old ways.

“Shrewd as serpents, innocent as doves”

The ancient Egyptians of the Exodus.  Angels who rebelled and were cast out of Heaven.  The perverted people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Dumb animals who only follow their instincts.  Cain, who killed his brother.  Balaam, who would prophesy for the highest bidder.  Korah and his fellow rebels who dared to question the leadership of Moses.  Jude compares the false teachers in the midst of his recipients to this rogue’s gallery.  Not great company.

As I read Jude again, a book I do not spend a lot of time in, I was struck by this interesting passage:

With some people who are wavering, you must show mercy.  Some you must rescue, snatching them from the fire.  To others you must show mercy, but with fear, hating even the clothes that have been defiled by the flesh. (22-23)

Jude is clear.  Show mercy to everyone, even those on the fence thinking about walking away from the way of life you think is right and best, even to those trying to lead you astray.  But it would be unwise to think that all people are equal threats to your faith.  There are some who need you to be deeply invested in their lives, fighting for their very souls.  But there are others — like these false teachers — who, while we do not give them the ill treatment they deserve, must be treated with a healthy fear of what they can do to a person’s faith.  There is a distance that must be in place, lest one be pulled into their wickedness as well.  All must be shown mercy, but not all should be related to in the same way.

What caught your eye in this often-neglected book?

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2 Peter 3: The Provocative Patience of God

He had the patience of Job.  At least that is what they said of him.  And I now see why.

He was my high school PE teacher and basketball coach.  I can’t remember a time I ever saw him genuinely angry, quite a thing to say about a coach.  I gave him many reasons to be angry.  He probably should have benched me most games for the tirades I was unfortunately prone to when playing basketball.  During game, he found me exasperating, and he showed his displeasure with grimaces and hands thrown in the air. But he never raised his voice with me or made me run extra.  In fact, no one knew of a time when he had done that with students, even though teenagers are notorious for their unreasonable behavior.

Why would he do that?  I have to wonder if it wasn’t for the same reason that God does the same with people.

Now that I am a teacher, I would imagine people said of him that he was a pushover.  Other teachers who ruled with an iron fist probably looked down on him as lax and irresponsible.  Maybe there were even students and athletes who doubted that he would ever lower the boom and took advantage of it.

It seems there were people in the background of Peter’s second epistle who were thinking the same about God.

This is what they will say: “Where is the promise of his [Jesus] royal arrival?  Ever since the previous generation died, everything has continued just as it has from the beginning of creation.” (3:4)

Where is this promised re-creation?  Judgment?  I don’t see that happening.  People get away with wrongdoing today just like they did yesterday and the same will happen tomorrow.  I would like to believe that there is a better day coming, but all I see is the same darkness.  Some days it seems to be getting darker.  So goes the thinking that some addressed by Peter were thinking.

But there was a reason for God’s patience with wrongdoers:

The Lord is not delaying his promise, in the way that some reckon delay, but he is very patient toward you.  He does not want anyone to be destroyed.  Rather, he wants everyone to arrive at repentance. (3:9)

And when our Lord waits patiently to act, see that for what it is — salvation! (3:15)

I had many great teachers, coaches, administrators, and mentors in high school, but few were as influential as my teacher and coach mentioned above.  I often see that I have unconsciously gravitated towards his way of teaching and mentoring.  The way he was willing to laugh with his students.  The way he would grab your arm for emphasis.  The gentleness with which he said and did everything, even though he was six and a half feet tall and had the body of a former college athlete.  I realize now that he saw what we — what I — could become, not just what we were at the moment.  I know he was longing for the day I learned the lessons he passionate taught.  I know he was being patient with my learning curve.  Had he done it for us, we never would have learned.  Had he (and others) given up on me, I am not sure I ever would have come around.  He was patient for a reason.

God is also patient for a reason.  Likewise, God wants all to “get it.”  He is being patient with our learning curve.  He is even being patient those who do us wrong (though we might wish otherwise) hoping that all will come around to his way of love and goodness.

What a provocative patience!

What did you learn from 2 Peter?  

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2 Peter 2: Like a Dog to Vomit

Peter gives one of the most detailed descriptions of a group of false teachers that I am aware of in the New Testament:

  • Their false teaching is destructive (2:1)
  • Their teaching can even cause someone to renounce Jesus (2:1)
  • They will be destroyed (2:1)
  • They will be popular (2:2)
  • Their practices are disgusting (2:2)
  • They cause people to blaspheme the way of truth (2:2)
  • They exploit people to satisfy their greed (2:3)
  • They prophesy, but falsely (2:3)
  • They follow their carnal lists (2:10)
  • They despise authority and arrogantly assert their own will (2:10)
  • They act more like irrational animals than the knowledgeable people they claim to be (2:12)
  • They hurl curses at things they do not fully understand (2:12)
  • Their lifestyle comes back to destroy them (2:12)
  • They are unjust (2:13)
  • They audaciously enjoy flaunting their decadence (2:13)
  • They turn Christian fellowship into crass parties (2:13)
  • They are especially inclined toward adultery (2:14)
  • Their appetite for sin is insatiable (2:14)
  • They especially target vulnerable people (2:14)
  • They are driven by greed (2:14)
  • They used to be orthodox but have since wandered after gain like Balaam (2:15)
  • They promise what they cannot deliver (2:17)
  • They teach their foolishness with charisma (2:18)
  • They promise people freedom, but they themselves are slaves to their immorality (2:19)
  • They are worse off than pagans because they have known Christ and have knowingly turned away (2:20)

I cannot even imagine this combination of characteristics.  It is unfathomable that all of these could be true of one group of false teachers and they were still persuasive to Christians.  The very fact that these false teachers seem to be as sexually immoral as they are described to be and still were considered credible is mind-boggling to me.  But that is probably because I am a post-Puritan Christian living in a time and place shaped by the Moral Majority where sexual sin is especially taboo.  Licentiousness was much more commonplace in the ancient Roman Empire.

The closest thing I can imagine to false teachers like these might be church leaders who wind up on the front page of the news because of their sex scandals and money-grabbing.  Inevitably their egos, appetites, and greed are their own undoing.  It is shameful, and as the honor of God is tarnished in the process there is no wonder justice so often comes.  However, even people like this try to hide their sin, whereas the false teachers of 2 Peter flaunted it.

Maybe the most important passage in today’s reading is Peter’s reassurance that God will not allow this sort of false teaching to overwhelm his Church.

The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from testing, and how to keep the unrighteous ready for the day of judgment and punishment. (2:9)

Peter’s audience surely needed this affirmation.

What caught your eye today?

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2 Peter 1: Real Knowledge

Well, folks, we are on to the third last book of the year.  One more month and we will have met a great goal of reading through the New Testament this year.  The reading plan we are using takes us now to Peter’s second letter, out-of-order as we read 1 Peter a month ago or so.  I am sure they have put 2 Peter here because of its many connections to the book of Jude.  If you would like to review the short introduction the Petrine letters I wrote back when we came to 1 Peter, you can find that here.

What does it mean to know God?  What is real spiritual knowledge?  

As we will learn more about on Monday, there were false teachers in the churches Peter was addressing.  Most people identify these as early versions of Gnostics, Christians who mixed their Christianity with significant doses of Greek philosophy and mystical kind of thinking.  These dualists made a strong contrast between the flesh and the spirit and, given the emphasis in this chapter on moral purity, they often taught that one showed their spiritual strength by engaging in sin with the body so as to show that their spirits were pure enough to remain unaffected.  Gnostics spoke often of having “knowledge,” which for them meant an intellectual and spiritual understanding that allowed them to rise above the mundane matters of physical life.  These false teachers had definite ideas on what it meant to have “knowledge.”

But so did Peter.  As he uses the word “knowledge” five times in this opening chapter and refers to “truth” and the “mind” as well, we know Peter wanted to weigh in on what true “knowledge” is.  Knowledge gives us everything we need to live a godly life that runs away from the “corruption of lust” (1:3-4).  Knowledge is one element necessary in living a fruitful life, a partner to character traits like virtue, patience, self-control, faith, and love (1:5-8).  In short, for Peter “knowledge” is an embodied understanding and skill that allows its possessor to live an earthly, physical life in the nitty-gritty in a way that glorifies God and maintains a high level of moral quality.  Knowledge is as much about the hands as the head.  Knowledge is lived, not simply believed or thought.  Truth is a lived, physical reality.  That would be a definite contrast to Gnostic thinking.

God has bestowed upon us, through his divine power, everything that we need for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue. (1:3)

What did you notice anew in this chapter?

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2 Thessalonians 3: May the Lord Give You Peace!

There is so much to be thankful in a day.  There are days I doubt that, but then something usually happens to remind me of the abundance in which I live and how minor my concerns are compared to so many people around me.

I am blessed to have three families, all of which are precious to me in various ways.  I am blessed with a wonderful wife and two great boys who are gifted in their own ways and who are growing day-by-day into great young men.  What a blessing to have the friendships, teaching, and worship-filled encouragement that I do at the church I attend.  My job at a Christian high school is hardly a job.  It is part ministry, part church, and three parts family.  I am blessed to spend my days alongside my dearest friends and mentors doing God’s work in Memphis.  I have so many other blessings — health, wealth (at least a bit), freedom, comfort, and safety — but all of these pale in comparison to the people who make each day more blessed.  You are some of those people, so today (and most other days as well) I say thanks to God for you.

Paul ended this short, second letter to the Thessalonians with the words that hang outside my classroom door as a greeting and that express my wishes for you today:

Now may the Lord of peace give you peace always and in every way.  The Lord be with you all. (3:16)

What did the Thessalonian letters teach you? 

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2 Thessalonians 2: Beware the Man of Lawlessness!

There can be no doubt that today’s passage raises lots of questions, most of which you are not about to get an answer to.  Paul discusses the mysterious “man of lawlessness” (2:3), and lots of ink has been spilled on who or what this is or was.  The opinions are myriad and no consensus has arisen; it would take far more time and space than I have to explore this topic completely (one needs only google “man of lawlessness” to see the ridiculous diversity of opinion).  Interpretations of prophecies like these tend to be shaped by the interpreter’s biases and philosophical presuppositions, so I will reveal mine by saying that I imagine Paul was talking about something and someone that made sense in a first century context, likely connected to politics given the cryptic nature of the prophecy.  At the same time, when has there not been someone who “fits the bill” in many ways?  My desire today is only to deconstruct one concern that people some times have when they come to this passage.

Paul describes the man of lawlessness as a deceiver who leads people astray with his lies.  Some grow concerned then that they will be pulled away from God, almost against their better judgment, by the wiles of this man and his trickery.  Let’s unpack this in good sermonic fashion with a nice dose of alliteration:

The presence of the lawless one will be accompanied by the activity of the satan, with full power, with signs, and spurious wonders, with every kind of wicked deceit over those on the way to ruin, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.  For that reason God sends upon them a strong delusion, leading them to believe the lie, so that judgment may come upon all who did not believe the truth but took pleasure in wickedness. (2:9-12)

Long before a person falls victim of the man of lawlessness’s lies, he has put himself in a place to be open to that deceit.  The lawless man only leads those who have decided to follow his leading.  Notice how this passage ends: those who believe the lies of this man had already chosen to take “pleasure in wickedness.”  Their love of debauchery had set them up to be led astray; those who like the dark have many reasons for why it is the best way to live.  From this love of wickedness then came denial and an unwillingness to “believe the truth.”  Only then are they hit with the one-two punch of deceit from the satanic man of lawlessness and delusion from God.  As much as it may not line up with the sensibilities that some of us with high, high views of human freedom, yes, it does seem that God will “harden the hearts” of those who have already chosen by their own choice not to respond to his love and grace.  Only then does judgment and destruction come.

In short, the man of lawlessness, as crafty as he may have been (or will be, given your view on latter-day prophecy), is not capable of turning the devoted against God.  To argue such is to claim there is one who can frustrate the plans of God for our salvation with his superior, evil power.  Surely we do not want to claim such a fallacy!  Christians — especially young ones like the Thessalonians — should always be on guard against influences that can corrupt their hearts and turn them against God.  Notice that sound teaching and traditions help one stand firm against the lawless one’s lies (2:15).  But we need not fret that this will happen against our will nor that of a good and powerful God.

What do you think?

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2 Thessalonians 1: Worthy of Salvation

Today’s post picks up a thread that started in the comments on yesterday’s post.

All this is a clear sign of the just judgment of God, to make you thoroughly worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. (1:5)

To that end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may complete every plan he has to do you good, and every work of faith in power. (1:11)

How often we think it comes down to us to be worthy of salvation, that it is up to us whether we are worthy to be saved.  Have we done enough?  Are we good enough?

Sadly, far too often we would say we are not, and therefore worthiness seems out of reach.  And I guess if worthiness is up to our efforts, yes, we should feel like we are not worthy.

The wonderful good news in this chapter is that it is God who makes us worthy by His actions, not our own.  And in case we missed it, Paul says it twice.

For those of us who have come from rather legalistic backgrounds, that is good news indeed!

What caught your eye today?

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1 Thessalonians 5: Children of the Light

You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a midnight robber. . . . But as for you, my dear family — you are not in darkness.  That day won’t surprise you like a robber.  (5:2, 4)

In the first part of chapter five, Paul lays out a series of contrasts:

There is a great day coming.  The new creation will soon be upon us.  When, you ask?  We do not know exactly.  Later today.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe long after we are gone, in the days of our children’s  children.  But we don’t need to worry about it.  Nobody in Christ needs to worry about it.

We are the wide-awake people.  We live in the light where robbers are less inclined to come.  We are not numbed to what goes on around us.  We are protected by faith, hope and love (5:8).  Though we do not know the hour, it is okay because we will have peace in that day.  We are destined for salvation, not fury.  So we can echo confidently the second last sentence of the Bible: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).

Does this describe the mindset you have?  Why or why not?

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1 Thessalonians 4: Basic Ethical Teachings

You should continue more and more to behave in the manner that you received from us as the appropriate way of behaving and of pleasing God. (4:1)

Paul only had a short time with the Thessalonians before he was chased out-of-town.  Still, he had discussed how they should behave as Christians.  For Paul, ethics were fundamental to the way of Christ.

In this chapter’s discussion of basic ethics and beliefs, it is interesting what Paul discusses: sexuality, money, and death.

This is God’s will, you see: he wants you to be holy, to keep well away from fornication.  Each of you should know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not in the madness of lust like Gentiles who don’t know God. (4:3-5)

Now, about charitable concern for the whole family: I don’t really need to write to you, because you yourselves have been taught by God to show loving care for one another. . . . Work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you may behave in a way which outsiders will respect, and so that none of you may be in financial difficulties. (4:9, 11b-12)

Now concerning those who have fallen asleep . . . We don’t want you to have the kind of grief that other people do, people who don’t have any hope. (4:13)

Think about it: aren’t inappropriate thinking and behaviors related to sexuality, money, and death especially dangerous?  Each can significantly alter the course of one’s life.  A life lived in immorality and licentiousness degrades and endangers others and oneself.  Greed makes the turning of a buck the most important goal and people who stand in the way a target for removal.  Laziness is contagious and makes many other vices necessary. Unchristian thinking about death may be the least obvious, but consider how life is lived when one believes the grave is the end.  There is also a common element in these three: each makes one live in the here and now with no gratification delayed and no thought to the future.

One more thought: is western society not obsessed with sex, money, and a terminal view of death?  How important it still is for us to believe that contrasting views about these three topics must be fundamental teachings for young Christians.

What caught your eye in this chapter?

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1 Thessalonians 3: The Inevitably of Suffering

There are absolutely many wonderful blessings that come from being in Christ.  No doubt about it!  And these are easy to talk about to new Christians.  But in the age of the “soft sell,” do we acknowledge that the way of Christ is one of sacrifice and suffering as well?

Suffering was inevitable in a mid-first century AD Greco-Roman community steeped in paganism, where there was great loyalty to the Caesar, and where Judaism was a state-protected religion that just happened to want to stamp out this new sect that had risen up around this Jesus the Jews back in Jerusalem had crucified.  But do we mention this to new converts?  Paul didn’t shy away from it at all:

We sent Timothy so that he could strengthen you and bring comfort to your faith, so that you wouldn’t be pulled off course by these sufferings.  You yourselves know, don’t you, that this is what we are bound to face.  For when we were with you, we told you ahead of time that we would undergo suffering; that’s how it has turned out, and you know about it. (3:2-4)

The reality of suffering couldn’t be avoided in Thessalonica.  Shortly after Christianity came to town, the persecution started (Acts 17:1-10).  The leaders of this church could remember the mob, the roughness with which they were dealt, and the days they spent in court sorting through false accusations.  It would make no sense to deny reality.  This was a very real Christianity, right from the beginning.

Do we offer the world a Christianity without suffering and sacrifice?  If so, we are promising something that we cannot deliver.  We are, in fact, denying the truth of an integral part of the way of Christ.  For Jesus, the path to the New Creation came through crucifixion.  Do we think it will be different for us?  Don’t we owe it to people to tell it straight?

What do you think?

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1 Thessalonians 2: Sharing Our Very Lives

from “The Emperor’s Club” (2002)

Early in my teaching career I developed the habit of calling my students “my kids.”  I still do it now that I am older and no longer that teacher who is “easy to relate to.”   Every now and then I will be talking about “my kids” and they have to clarify whether I mean my two sons or my 100 students.  All of the effective teachers I know allow themselves to develop a deep care for their students, albeit expressed in a variety of ways.

I hear Paul saying the same sort of thing in this chapter:

We were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her own children.  We were so devoted to you that we gladly intended to share with you not only the gospel of God but our own lives, because you became so dear to us. (2:8)

It was a common practice in the ancient world that upperclass families would employ the services of a wet nurse to care for their children.  Like modern nanny situations, this is just a job one does to care for themselves.  But also like many modern nanny situations, love and care would develop between the wet nurse and the children.

Paul says he allowed himself to develop that love and concern for the Thessalonians.  They weren’t just another stop on a long missionary journey.  They weren’t just another notch in his “gospel belt.”  He didn’t just turn them into a few free meals as he passed through town (as it seems his opponents were accusing him of doing).  They became to him like his own children.

If we are ever going to be successful spreading the gospel, we will have to develop the same heart that Paul had.  We will have to do more than just share words and a message.  We will have to share our very lives with others.

What caught your eye today?  

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1 Thessalonians 1: Keep on Going!

What do you say to brand new Christians?  I see Paul saying three things to the young, young Thessalonian Christians in this passage.

1.  You are off to a great start!  

When you received the word, you had a lot to suffer, but you also had the holy spirit’s joy.  As a result, you became a model for all the believers in both Macedonia and Achaea.  For the word of the Lord has resonated out from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaea; your faith has gone out to people everywhere. (1:6b-8a)

They have started strong and have so much to build on.  They just need to keep on going as they have already.

2.  Follow our example!  

You know what sort of people we became for your sake, when we were among you.  And you learned how to copy us — and the Lord! (1:5b-6a)

When you are starting something, it always helps to have an example to follow.  Paul did not shy away from claiming to be such an example, and he didn’t come off as prideful either.  Paul is following Jesus, so if they follow Paul they are also following Jesus.  Could we say that to a new Christian?  The truth is new Christians are following our examples, whether we want them to or not, whether we encourage it or not.

3.  Don’t even think twice about turning back now!

They themselves tell the story of the kind of welcome we had from you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who delivers us from the coming fury. (1:9-10)

There is a day of wrath and fury coming for those who have rejected Jesus.  The Thessalonians don’t want to fall back into that group.  We see that eschatology theme coming through.  Keep on going!

What stood out to you in this chapter?  

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BONUS: An Introduction to the Thessalonian Letters

We now move from one of the last parts of the New Testament to be written (John) to one of the first (only Galatians and Mark may be older).  We know Paul was in Corinth when he wrote 1 Thessalonians (1 Thess 3:1-2), and we know from an archaeological connection to the mention of the Roman government official Gallio in Acts 18:12-17 that this places Paul in Corinth around AD 51 or 52.  By al appearances, 2 Thessalonians was written shortly after, maybe six months later.

There are some letters of Paul that scholars argue were not actually written by Paul; the Thessalonian letters are not two of these.  There is almost universal agreement that these are authentic Pauline letters.

We see from Acts 17 that Paul and Silas had quick, evangelistic success in Thessalonica even with prominent people in the city.  Just as quickly, though, unbelieving Jews came in behind them to counter their work.  Specifically, a mob was formed that chased Paul and Silas south to Berea and then to Athens, causing hardship for the new Thessalonian Christians like Jason and others.  We should notice the charge brought against Paul and Silas by their opposition: “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:7).  Thessalonica was the capital city of Macedonia, a Roman colony widely inhabited by retired military officials in the Roman army and thus loyal to the king.  It is worth noticing that in this milieu, the kingship of Jesus was still so foundational that Paul and Silas did not back down from sharing this fact.

Have you ever done something in a hurry and just hoped it lasted?  If so, you understand why Paul wrote his Thessalonian letters.  We don’t know exactly how long Paul stayed in Thessalonica, but it would have been shortly after the first converts were made.  These new Christians were left unsupported and unguided, which would have been especially challenging as they had converted from paganism (1 Thess 1:9).  In his absence, Paul begins to instruct them through his letters in godly living in a hostile world.

There are no letters of Paul’s that have more to say about the second coming of Christ than these two.  Every chapter of 1 Thessalonians ends with a reference to the second coming (eschatology).  With a doubt, this theme will run throughout all of our reading this week and a half.  Eschatology is not an easy concept, therefore there is no surprise that the Thessalonians were struggling with this new teaching. Whether they should continue to work until Jesus returns appears to be an issue for them as does the cryptic “man of lawlessness” we will read about in 2 Thessalonians.

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John 21: Never the Same Again

When you really meet Jesus for the first time, your life will never be the same again.  

I trained for the ministry in undergrad.  I earned my degree in Bible and at twenty-two I launched out into the world with too many fears and too little faith.  I then proceeded for several years to run away from the call to ministry. I worked in restaurant management and then in the insurance industry.  Mainly I worked at getting a paycheck and distracting myself from the fear and inadequacy I felt about he prospect of working for a church.  Then, I could fight it no more.  At the insistence of my good wife, we moved off to Memphis for graduate school and I have been in educational ministry ever since.

I enjoyed the insurance job a great deal (the restaurant job, not so much) and could have stayed in that job for many years and many promotions, but I had a nagging sense that all I was doing was making a rich company richer.  My life was missing purpose.  I was made for something different.  I am not being dramatic when I say that there is rarely a day in my ministry career now when I would say there is no purpose to what I do; I see the point of my work by the hour practically (though not the results, often).  Still, there are days when I am tired from the pace and never-ending nature of teaching (not the kids, they are great!) that I joke with my wife that I ought to quit and go back to insurance.  Of course I never would, by choice.  Never.  I don’t think I could ever do that job again with any degree of satisfaction.

Peter had left fishing behind three years before.  Had it been a lucrative job?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it had been a job and it put supper on the table, or breakfast as this story would have it.  Then he matched off after this rabbi and his life had never been the same since.  But he blew it.  He didn’t just deny Jesus once, but three times.  How could he keep following Jesus?  How could Jesus accept him?  So he went back to fishing:

Simon Peter spoke up.  “I’m going fishing,” he said. (21:3a)

Maybe we read this and think Peter was going off to wet a line like some retired man passing some time.  But fishing was not a pass-time with Peter, it was a job.  Peter was saying, I am going back to what I did before.  I am a failure as a disciple, so back to the boat and nets.  What happens next is so interesting:

So they went off and got into the boat; but that night they caught nothing. (21:3b)

Peter can’t do what he did before.  It doesn’t work.  There is no going back.  He has met Jesus and his life will never be the same.  His ability to catch fish is frustrated, because he has a new purpose in life: to be a fisher of men.

Only when Jesus comes along and guides Peter’s hands again does he find success.  A night without a single fish turns into the catch of the year, only because Jesus blessed their work.  Do you really think that there was a miraculous number of fish just on the other side of the boat and they never tried that?  The point, though, is not about fish.  Peter will only find success when he is working for Jesus again.

Then three times Jesus reinstates Peter to his new ministry:

“Well, then,” he said, “feed my lambs.” (21:15)

“Well, then,” he said, “look after my sheep.” (21:16)

“Well, then,” said Jesus, feed my sheep.” (21:17)

Peter can’t go back to catching fish; he has a job to do feeding the sheep of Christ’s church.  And the rest is history. Peter’s life was never the same.

John has taken us from the beginning of Jesus’ life — actually before his birth, to the point when he created the world — to the death and resurrection of our Savior and now to Jesus as he prepares to leave the world in the hands of people like Peter.  What will they do now? History tells us that all of them went on to live radically altered lives of service and sacrifice.  Eleven of the twelve apostles will die a martyr’s death and our author John will die in exile.  John leaves the reader with the same question Peter had to answer: what do I do now?  Now that you see who Jesus really is, what will you do now?  There is no turning back.  You will never be the same again.

What did you learn from this month’s reading of John?

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John 20: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Back in college, I studied the Gospel of John with Jim Woodroof, an fantastic speaker and an even better man.  In that course, we read a book he had written about the Fourth Gospel called Between the Rock and A Hard Place.  The basic premise of the book, as I recall, was that Jesus is consistently portrayed in John as one who places people “between a rock and a hard place” so as produce a decision of faith in their life.  Jesus desired to bring people to rock solid faith in him but first they had to have reason to believe.

As was discussed in the introduction to John, one of John’s greatest goals with his book was to help people come to believe in Jesus.  This is the “gospel of belief,” as our other textbook called John.  We see a statement of this goal at the end of our chapter today, in what for many is the purpose statement of this gospel:

Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which aren’t written in this book.  But these are written so that you may believe that the Messiah, the son of God is none other than Jesus; and that, with this faith, you may have life in his name. (20:30-31)

Belief, though, is easily squashed by doubt and alternate explanation.  As long as one can explain the deeds of Jesus in some other way, faith can be deferred.

My professor’s point was that over and over again we see Jesus doing things that could only be explained by him being divine.  He can tell the Samaritan woman details about her love-life.  He can heal a man born blind.  Jesus walks up and paralysis is gone.  Thousands of people eat a full meal from five loaves and two fish.  This was the “hard place.”  There people stood between the hard place of trying to explain away the inexplicable or the rock solid faith that can come through a belief in Jesus.  Either Jesus is divine as he says or there is some naturalistic explanation for what has just happened, but what that could be?  Could it be that Jesus is God is the easiest explanation?

I see this dynamic happening three times in John 20.

  1. It all comes to a head for the “other disciple” — who most people think is John — when he runs into the empty tomb and sees the grave cloths all neatly folded up.  This can’t be explained away, and it made everything else make sense for him (20:8-9)
  2. Mary sees a man she thinks is the gardener, a stranger to her. But when he can call her by name, she realizes Jesus was more than just a man. (20:16)
  3. Thomas can’t believe that Jesus could be back from the dead.  That is until he puts his fingers in Jesus’ wounds and can’t deny the facts. (20:25-28)

The best ending to this post would be these words of Jesus from today’s reading:

Is it because you’ve seen me that you believe?  God’s blessing on people who don’t see, and yet believe. (20:29)

What did you see today?

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John 19: The King Takes His Throne

I like how as we have read through the four accounts of Jesus’ death from the various gospels each of the authors has emphasized something different.  Today I have seen John emphasize kingship.

The word “king” is used eight times in this chapter.  Jesus receives a crown and a thorn.  A crowd shouts for him.  He is even enthroned in a significant way.

But this is a king of a very different sort.  He wears a crown of thorns.  He wears the purple robe only long enough to be mocked.  He is slapped not saluted.  People shout for him, but for his death not his glory.  Let there be no mistake, Jesus is a king.  Pilate says it several times, even when the people object.  As he dies, Jesus hangs beneath a sign declaring it too:

Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews (19:19)

With this in mind, John paints the picture of this chapter as a paradoxical enthronement.  This is Jesus the King, and the King has taken his throne.

Jesus is the king of sacrifice.  His is a kingdom of selfless service where love is the power that changes the world.  In this kingdom, victory comes through death.  His subjects will follow his example.  On this day the King is crowned and seated on his throne.

Do you see this too?

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John 18: Jesus’ Special Place

My favorite place in Memphis, TN, where I live, is a large park in the middle of the metroplex called Shelby Farms.  Once a penal farm where the detainees would produce their own food (hence the name), now this 4000-acre park is home to fields, trails, lakes, a river to canoe, a state-of-the-art playground, equestrian area, dog park, disc golf course, community gardens, agricultural land, and natural woodlands.  There is more than enough room for one to get lost from the cares and concerns of life and be distracted by the beauty and order of nature.  This is why I love Shelby Farms most.  A hike in the woods is the best therapy I know.  What a great way to get away from the stress of a week of work or to blow off the steam that comes from parenting adolescents.  This is my special place, because it is a getaway.

Sunset in Shelby Farms by my 13-year-old son

John tells us today that Jesus also had a special place:

With these words, Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley to a place where there was a garden.  He and his disciples went in.  Judas, his betrayer, knew the place, because Jesus often used it as a meeting place with his disciples. (18:1-2)

Maybe it was just a meeting place.  Or maybe it was Jesus’ meeting place because this was a that place Jesus liked to be.  We know Jesus would often withdraw from the masses for times of prayer and meditation.  We know Jesus would often go to mountainsides and wilderness places at these times.  I think it is possible that this was that sort of place for Jesus.  What a logical place to go on this night.

“The Betrayal of Jesus” by Duccio Di Buoninsegna

Here is the kicker.  Jesus’ special place is the very place where he will be betrayed, where he will pray with desperation to not drink the cup of God’s wrath, where he will sweat drops of blood.  This is the place where Jesus’ will last experience freedom.  Even more startling is that Jesus knew all of this about his garden, long before it ever happened:

Jesus knew everything that was going to happen to him. (18:4a)

Jesus’ special place was the very place he would be betrayed.  Jesus has made regular pilgrimages to the very spot where everything will begin to be unraveled for him.  This is anything but a getaway.  Jesus wasn’t escaping the reality of life; he was immersing himself in it.  He was reminding himself of how this is supposed to end.  How amazing!

What did you see in today’s passage?

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John 17: Focused on Others Even at the End

It was the last night before Jesus’ death.  By noon the next day he will be dying on a cross, the sins of the world weighing him down.  He has been eating with his closest friends and students.  Jesus uses this moment to pray one more prayer in front of his community, a prayer that no doubt taught them volumes.  John 17 is that prayer.

What would your last public prayer be about?

When remembered in this context, I am always struck by how focused Jesus’ last prayer is on his disciples.  When many of us might pray for ourselves — and for good reason; Jesus was about to be beaten, humiliated and murdered; wouldn’t it be normal to prayer for yourself? — Jesus is focused on his friends.  This man filled with love is exuding that love even down to the end.

I’m praying for them. . . . I’m not in the world any longer, but they’re still in the world; I’m coming to you.  Holy Father, keep them in your name. (17:9a, 11)

What caught your eye?

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John 16: Sorrow into Joy

You will be overcome with sorrow, but your sorrow will turn into joy.  When a woman is giving birth she is in anguish, because her moment has come.  But when the child is born, she no longer remembers the suffering, because of the joy that a human being has been born into the world.  In the same way, you have sorrow now.  But I shall see you again, and your hearts will celebrate, and nobody will take your joy away from you. (16:20-22)

Oh man, I hope so!

All of us have sorrows that weigh us down in a heavy way.  All of us need release from something that seems to be our master.  Like Jesus’ analogy here, all of us have times when we think our “babies” will never be birthed.  I am thinking of a particular trial in my life that seems particularly unending and hopeless.  You should think of what your sorrow is too.

I cherish the reminder that joy will eclipse sorrow, that suffering will be forgotten and celebration will be the final word.  Many days I feel foolish believing that can be, in the situation I am thinking of.  But I hang on to hope, and cherish passages like this one.

How about you?

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John 15: Fitting In

“If the world hates you,” Jesus went on, “know that it hated me before it hated you.  If you were from the world, the world would be fond of its own.  But the world hates you for a reason: that you’re not from the world.  No: I chose you out of the world.  Remember the word that I said to you: servants are not greater than their masters.  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too.” (15:19-20)

Should we try to fit in?

If we totally fit into our world, is there a problem?  If we think and act like our non-Christian neighbors, should we be concerned?  If we are as liked by anybody we meet as anyone else, is that less than ideal?  Jesus seems to think so.

Now let me ask a few more specific and potentially uncomfortable questions and invite you to respond and ask your own questions of this sort in your comments.  Should we dress like the world?  Should our budgets, pocketbooks, and retirement plans look different?  Should our definitions of success be different?  Should we be bothered by mainstream entertainment?  Should we find it hard to embrace any particular political candidate and party completely?

But how much difference is too much and just makes us unnecessarily odd, not “persecuted”?

What do you think?

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John 14: If You Have Seen Me, You Have Seen God

If you had known me, you would have known my father.  From now on you do know him!  You have seen him. . . . Anyone who has seen me has seen the father! (14:7, 9)

What a provocative claim!  When you look at Jesus, you are looking at God.  Jesus only makes it clearer the further we read through this chapter:

Don’t you believe that I am in the father, and the father is in me? (14:10a)

It’s the father, who lives within me . . . . (14:10b)

I am in the father and the father is in me. (14:11)

If we have only known Christianity all of our life, maybe we don’t really appreciate how outstanding this claim was.  What other significant religious leader in history has claimed such a thing?  Would Muhammad have claimed such a thing?  Not at all!  That would have been blasphemous and worthy of death.  Would the Buddha have claimed to have been a god?  Though people have turned him into such, the Buddha was clear before his death that he was not a god, did not wish to be worshiped as deity, and did not even want to theorize about divinity anyway as he was simply interested in solving the problem of human suffering.  Would Abraham or Moses or Rabbi Hillel?  This too would have been highly offensive.  The Jews of Jesus’ time were ready to stone Jesus for claiming such.  Maybe one of the 330 million Hindu gods would have claimed to be a god taken human form in order to reveal the nature of the great universal power of Brahman to the unenlightened world.  But what Hindu in recorded history has ever had a run in with these gods of legend?  Besides, the fleshly body is but an illusion that the gods help us escape, why would they want to become flesh?  Marx thought religion and its gods were just an “opiate” for the hungry, disillusioned masses.  Freud would have said a god was just a projection of your superego.  Any good secular humanist would either laugh at the idea that a god even exists, or if one does that god is not at all involved in this closed system we call our universe.  And into that world, those of us who are Christians claim Jesus is God in the flesh.  Truly provocative!  And what a privilege to serve such a god!

And if the claim that God came to this world to reveal himself as a human named Jesus is not scandalous enough, the shock continues.

But you know him, because he [the helper; the Holy Spirit] lives with you, and will be in you. (14:17)

Not only did God condescend to live in the flesh as a human named Jesus, God lives in those of us who are Christians by way of the Holy Spirit.  What other religion in the world claims that the god would come to live in us?  Judaism and Islam are religions of the book; God has done all that is necessary when he gave us a book.  God does not need to come down to our level and it would be unfitting of God to do so.  The eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism would agree that there is divinity in the follower, but there is a spark of the divine in all living things.  This is no special honor.  And this piece of the divine Brahman power has no real consciousness and does not guide us into better living.  A secular humanist is no more convinced that God, if he exists, would indwell us than he did Jesus.  How audacious to believe that our God actually lives within us!  Again, a great privilege!

What do you think?

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