Posts Tagged With: church

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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John 13: Known by Love

I’m giving you a new commandment, and it’s this: love one another!  Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another.  This is how everybody will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other. (13:34-35)

Christians are known by their sacrificial, inconvenient love.  Nothing is more of a calling card than love.  Not going to church. Not how one votes.  Not social policy one supports or opposes.  Not one’s moral code.  Not whether one takes or refuses that drink offered at a dinner party.  Not one’s language.  Not bumper stickers or symbols on the back of a car.  Not biblical knowledge.  Not leadership roles in a church.  Not community service.  Not parenting styles or the behavior of one’s children.  Not the percentage of money given away to others.  Christians are known by the degree they allow themselves to serve others at their own expense, their willingness to treat people with kindness and gentleness when they deserve much less, the degree to which we make life not about us but about others.

“They will know we are Christians by our love.”  We have sung this since we were children, but we need these regular reminders, don’t we?

What do you think?  

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3 John: A Teacher’s Greatest Joy

Nothing gives me greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (v.4)

Third John is addressed from the “Elder” again to a man named “Gaius” in an unnamed church.  Gaius represents a contingent in this church, unlike the power-monger Diotrephes, who look to John as their teacher and spiritual father.  As he approaches the end of this life, John wants more than anything to know that his “children” are being faithful to all he has taught them and all he has worked for.

As a high school teacher of Bible, I have been known from time to time to call my students my “kids.”  They kind of are.  I spend more time with them than my own!  And by the end of any year, I really end up caring a great deal about my students.  They are funny and I love the laughs.  They are thoughtful and kind, and one positive affirmation of what we do in class can keep me going for months.  I love to see them struggle with an abstract philosophical or theological idea until they understand it and can apply it to their own lives.  But my greatest joy is when we meet up a few years after graduation and it is clear they are “walking in the truth.”  That makes the long hours, endless grading, hard conferences, and discipling disappointments all worth it in the end.

What did you notice anew in Third John?

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1 Timothy 5: Be A Family

Life in a family works best if everyone plays his and her role, and the younger the family the more adjustment there is to those roles we must play.

In today’s chapter Paul gives Timothy instructions for the life of the church.  The interesting part is that he uses the analogy of a family to describe how Christians should relate to each other:

Don’t rebuke a senior man in the church, but exhort him as you might do with your father — or, in the case of younger ones, with your brothers.  Treat the older women as mothers, and the younger ones as sisters, with all purity. (5:1-2)

If this church is a family, they are a young family, still figuring out how to play their roles.  Here are some of the instructions Paul gives:

  • Give older men and women respect (5:1-2)
  • Brothers and sisters of similar age are to be treated with kindness and purity (5:1-2)
  • Take care of your biological family financially before seeking assistance from the church (5:4, 16)
  • Don’t take advantage of the church financially just to support self-indulgence or laziness (5:6)
  • Understand realistically the sexual and companionship needs of single family members and do not consign them to a life of sacrifice too soon (5:11)
  • Bridle one’s tongue and occupy one’s hands lest gossip and meddling take over (5:13)
  • Take care of financially those who lead and educate the church family (5:17-18)
  • Trust the leaders strongly, but deal with sin seriously if necessary (5:19-20)
  • Banish favoritism (5:21)
  • Be discriminating in how quickly you yoke yourself to others (5:22)
  • Know that people’s true character will come out in the end (5:24-25)

The church as family is a metaphor that takes on special meaning for those of us for whom it has become a literal reality, not just an image.  Some have had to walk away from a biological family in order to follow Jesus.  Some of us have moved far away from blood and are left without those natural bonds in close proximity.  Others do not have functional, loving families of their own.  When this is the case, the bonds of love found in God’s family are especially dear.

What hit you in a new way in this chapter?  

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2 Corinthians 13: True Strength

There has been a whole lot of talk about strength in the Corinthian correspondence this past month.  Strong leaders, strong reasoning and speaking skills, a strong tolerance for sin (though too strong for Paul’s liking), a strong sense of grace (again, too strong), strong pocketbooks, strong charisma and gifting, strong leaders, strong egos, and strong boasts.  Corinth was a culture of strength, and so was this church.

We have already seen Paul say there are other strengths to have that are far more important.  They need a strong sense of unity that bridges the many divides they have allowed to form in their church.  They need a strong love towards each other shown through character, not spiritual gifts.  They need a strong spirit of generosity so as to help those who have real need in the world.  Today, Paul ends these two volumes with one more kind of true strength the Corinthians should be sure to have in a culture that seems hyper-focused on strength.  They would do well to be strong in doing the right thing.

Test yourselves to see if you really are in the faith!  Put yourselves through the examination.  Or don’t you realize that Jesus the Messiah is in you? — unless, that is, you’ve failed the test.  I hope you will discover that we didn’t fail the test.  But we pray to God that you will never, ever do anything wrong; not so that we can be shown up as having passed the test, but so that you will do what is right. (13:7)

What big idea really stood out to you during this year’s reading of the Corinthian correspondence?

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1 Corinthians 14: For the Common Good

Why do we gather together as a church?  

This is an important question at a time when one can listen to a podcast of a church service, watch one on a television, bring up some great preaching on YouTube, or read a fantastic book by a dynamic spiritual writer.  Why pull on your church clothes, get into your car, and drive across town to “go to church?”

Asked a different way, when Christians gather together, what is the most important aspect of that gathering?

American Christianity has become thoroughly individualized.  We gather together, but we want to have a “personal touch from God.”  “We” is really just a group of individuals who each want to have a “deep connection with God in my spirit during worship.”  We want to feel like that sermon was “really speaking to me.”  “I” need to hear what “God wants to say to me today.”  Communion is a time of private introspection about my “personal relationship with God.”  For a lot of American Christians, church is all about harnessing the power of a group for the personal benefits that come to the individual.

It seems something similar was happening in the Corinthian church.  The ability to speak in tongues (which in this passage does seem to indicate speaking in an ecstatic unknown language indecipherable to the casual observer, c.f., 14:2, 23) was being held up as the supreme gift.  Why?  Because it created that intimate and personal connection between the worshipper and God.  Because it benefitted “me.”

Paul makes it abundantly clear that this is not what church is all about:

Let everything be done for the general upbuilding. (14:26b)

Since you are so eager for spiritual matters, try to specialize in doing things that will build up the church. (14:12)

Four other times Paul says the goal of spiritual gifts is to “build up the church” (14:3, 4, 5, 17).  In other words, we gather together for the good of all.  We assemble for “us.”  Communion is communal, as the name implies.  The deepest connection with God comes in our collective spirit as we worship together and serve each other.  Lessons are intended to be discussed and applied together.  Quite the opposite from how some see it today, church is all about harnessing the power of the individual for the corporate benefits that come to the group.

So the actions of the church that promote that communal spirit are to be most highly valued and incorporated.

Practically, how can we do that in our churches today?

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1 Corinthians 13: The Better Way

When read by itself, 1 Corinthians 13 is a wonderful passage.  Great for weddings.  An ideal chapter to learn generalities about love.  Nice for ethics (I’ll guess many of us were taught to replace the word “love” in verses 4-7 with our name as a way to determine how loving we truly are).  I would not wish to take any of those things away.

This chapter comes so much more alive when we read it in context — always a good principle for Bible reading.  1 Corinthians 13 is sandwiched between chapters 12 and 14.  We looked at chapter 12 yesterday and saw its focus on spiritual gifts.  Scan ahead and you will see that chapter 14 has the same focus.  Paul’s beautiful diatribe on love is best understood within the context of a church that is using spiritual giftedness of boast and divide.

Recall that we ended yesterday with Paul claiming there is a better gift than tongues or prophecy or miracles, that there is a “better way” to live than the way of competition and glory based on performance (12:31).  What is that better gift, that better way?

If I should have prophetic gifts, and know all mysteries, all knowledge, too; have faith, to move the mountains, but have no love — I’m nothing. . . . Love never fails.  But prophecies will be abolished; tongues will stop; and knowledge, too, be done away. (13:2, 8)

Love is that better gift.  The best way to judge spiritual fervor is love.  A Christian has reached the zenith when they love.  A church can be congratulated when they love.  If you want to pursue a gift, go after love.

And not just any kind of love.  A selfless, sacrificial, enduring love that banishes the attitudes the Corinthians’ competition was bringing: jealousy, envy, pride, anger, and vindictiveness.

Spiritual gifts were only intended to build up a church until the complete and perfect (13:10) outpouring of divine love came to the church, and to a large part that was dependent on the submissive obedience of Christians to the better way of love.  None of the fancy acts we see on those religious television shows with ladies with purple hair and men with perfect haircuts, shiny teeth and designer suits will be in heaven.  They were only a vehicle to an end.  Heaven is most of all characterized by love.  Love will go on for ever.

A church can major in the minors and they may just find it only fractures the bonds of fellowship.  Or they can keep the main thing the main thing and find that it builds up the very building blocks of community.

What stood out to you in a new way in this very familiar chapter?

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1 Corinthians 12: Edification, Not Competition

Have you ever met people who can turn anything in a competition?

My two sons are this way.  They race to get to the supper table first.  The race to see who can get in the front seat of the car first.  They one-up each other when tell stories about the day.  Everything is a contest to prove one is better than the other.  I have also watched with frustration the tears and lashing out that comes when one does not win or measure up or gets pushed down so the other can stand tall.

The Corinthian Christians were a whole lot like my sons.  Everything in the church had become a contest for superiority.  Who is the wisest, the most articulate, the most respected in society?  Who has the best education?  Who follows the best leader?  Who is a part of the best group within this fragmented church?  Who can show the most grace?  Who has the best food for the Lord’s Supper (a true meal at that time)?

Now it was the Holy Spirit, this great gift of God, given to us to make us holy and pure.  Yet the gifts of the Spirit were being used to create distinctions and airs of superiority.  How spiritual a person was had even become something that puffed up the Corinthians.

Paul reminds them that the whole point of the outpouring of the Spirit and the gifts that come with the Spirit is so “that all may benefit” (12:7).  They are meant to unify and draw people closer together in dependence, not split apart in competition.  There may be many different parts or “members” but there is only one “body” (12:20).  They together make up “the Messiah’s body” (12:27) and they need each other.  As we often see in the Bible, this point is emphasized by the use of repetition.  The word “all” is used 8 times.  “Same” occurs 7 times.  Ten times the word “one” is used to mean a complete entity.  Last, the word “whole” is repeated 3 times.  Let there be no mistake, Christians exist to be a part of something far bigger than what they can create themselves.

Then Paul ends this chapter in the most unexpected and seemingly contradictory way:

You should be eager for the better kinds of gifts.  Now I’m going to show you a better way, a much better way. (12:31)

Three times Paul uses the word “better.”  But if you say something is better to a bunch of hyper-competitive, pompous, attention-seekers of course they are going to want it.  Maybe this is something else they can use to divide and puff up.  What is this better thing?  What could be better than the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit?

What did not notice in this chapter? 

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1 Corinthians 8: We’ll Do It Your Way

1 Corinthians 8 is a nice companion to Romans 14-15, as both deal with the topic of how to handle disagreements of conscience between Christians.  More extensive thoughts can be found back in my Romans post.  In my opinion, the topic of how to handle conflict in our churches in one of the most important these days, especially as Christ’s last prayer for humanity was that we be united.

I find here again the conclusion I found back in Romans: the conscience (not opinions, preferences, traditions or stubbornness) of the brother or sister who cannot do something is the determining factor in a disagreement.  For the Corinthians, we can tell the issue was whether they could participate in the ubiquitous meals that took place in pagan temples knowing that the food served there had recently been offered to a pagan god.  These meals were not particularly religious; they might have been little more than the equivalent to a business luncheon at the local casino, but the location and history of the food tainted it in many Christians minds.  Paul himself did not think so, still he concludes that what his brothers and sisters who object to these meals as a matter of conscience think is more important:

If food causes my brother or sister to stumble, I will never, ever eat meat, so that I won’t make my brother or sister trip up. (8:13)

Let me say this: in my religious tradition I would probably be deemed a more progressively-minded person.  I like innovation.  I feel the church does have to adapt for the culture we are reaching, just as Paul did.  Just as the great Christian leaders of history have done.  I get rather impatient with people holding back what I think will bring progress and effectiveness because of scruples I am not sure are well-founded, well-educated, or “knowledgeable,” to use Paul’s word from 8:1.  However, I have to admit that everything I read here indicates I am the one who must bend, compromise, and reign in my ambitions for change, not the brother or sister who truly objects to something out of conscience (not tradition; I still struggle with patience in those cases).  I don’t like to say that, but I feel I must, if I am to obey the teaching of this chapter.  Of course, there is much more to discuss about the specifics of how to handle particular situations, but time does not allow me to go on.  Pursue this in the comments today if you wish.  One teaser: in a context where there are tens or hundreds or even thousands of churches of various stripes in a town or city, isn’t the easiest way to handle disagreement for people to migrate to churches that best fit their views, versus force something on an already existing church?  But I said that and other things in the comments of the Romans post linked above.

Paul gives a perspective in this chapter that I find very helpful:

And so, you see, the weak person — a brother or sister for whom the Messiah died! — is then destroyed by your “knowledge.” (8:11)

Maybe all of this is easier when we remember that this brother or sister is not just a roadblock or a curmudgeon or a whatever less than charitable word we might come up with.  She or he is a cherished creation of God whom God so valued that He died for him or her.  And if Jesus died for that person, can’t I at least give up getting my way for their sake?  Something to think about.

What struck you in this chapter?   

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1 Corinthians 4: Success Defined

Our American society defines a successful leader a certain way.  He is charismatic and charming.  She is an engaging speaker.  He has a strong backbone and can’t be railroaded by the people he leads.  She has a visionary spirit.  He projects genuineness and is authentically caring towards his people.  She empowers her reports and does not micro-manage.  In a post-Enron world, he must be virtuous and free from scandal.  She is available and open to input so as to elicit loyalty, but at the same time she is confident enough to make hard decisions.  He is a self-made man.  More often than not, successful leaders in our culture also have an attractive physical presence and have a lifestyle of affluence.  Bottom-line, a successful leader has power as our society defines power — the power of personality, persuasion, money, intellect, and respect or even fear if necessary.  (When you look at the complete list one almost has to be superhuman to be that leader.)

Is a successful leader the top dog . . . ?

The problem comes when we take this same paradigm and bring it into the church.  In this model, our preachers, pastors, elders, and teachers would be expected to be like the description above.  Consciously or not, we would then judge our leaders by this standard.  We should complain that this preacher is not dynamic or funny or a good enough storyteller.  That elder has not excelled in his own business career so surely he can’t help shepherd a church.  We certainly cannot abide a weak leader.  Nobody walks on a true leader and they have plenty of people to do the grunt work so they don’t need to get down in the trenches.  Successful church leaders get things done and win people over to their way of thinking and make it obvious that their ministry is achieving.  Church leaders need to make it known what they have done for the kingdom, so people will be impressed with them and slap their backs in approval and congratulations.  Successful leaders make sure churches have all they need, and their churches are not in want.  Ask yourself if any of this resonates with churches you know.  Do members you know have these expectations?

This seems to be something like the problem Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians.  It seems the Greek culture of Corinth had similar views.  Power is good, and weakness is bad.  Strong leaders are articulate and persuasive.  They get things done.  They evoke esteem and admiration.  They achieve and do not want.  They are celebrated and served by others.  We can tell from today’s chapter that this thinning was also in the Corinthian church:

Some people are getting puffed up. (4:18a; c.f., 4:7-8)

Paul makes it clear that this is not the right way to define success.  Churches need to guard against exporting this sort of thinking into their community.  It is counterproductive to judge leaders by this definition of success.  Actually, a church should be concerned if its leaders have this sort of thinking, as a new group of self-imposed leaders in the Corinthian church seem to have  (we will hear more about this group later).

This is how we [apostles] should be thought of: as servants of the Messiah, and household managers for God’s mysteries.  And this is what follows: the main requirement for a manager is to be trustworthy. . . . This is how I look at it, you see: God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession [a parade of prisoners of war, likely destined to fight to the death in the Colosseum], like people sentenced to death.  We have become a public show for the world. . . . We are fools because of the Messiah. . . . We are weak. . . . You are celebrated; we are nobodies!  Yes, right up to the present moment we go hungry and thirsty; we are badly clothed, roughly treated, with no home to call our own.  What’s more, we work hard, doing manual labor.  When we are insulted . . . persecuted . . . slandered. . . . To this day we have become like the rubbish of the world, fit only to be scraped off the plate and thrown away with everything else. (4:1-2, 9-13)

. . . or a servant-leader?

According to Paul, a successful, godly leader is first and foremost a servant and manager of God’s church, not their own.  They know there is no self-made minister and certainly no self-made church.  They may be very capable because of the gifting given them by God, but their greatest trait is that they are trustworthy of the great privilege they have been given to lead God’s people.  Their life is anything but comfortable, glamorous and affluent.  They roll up their sleeves and they do whatever it takes — nothing is below them — to advance the kingdom.  Their life is marked by sacrifice and they empty themselves of self, even to the point of putting to death their egos.  However, they are powerful, but in a whole new way.  It is the power of love, sacrifice, and the Spirit.

Now, that is a different way of view success.

What stood out to you?

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BONUS: An Introduction to the Corinthian Letters

I imagine the church at Corinth was not an easy church to lead.  Yet, the Apostle Paul went far and beyond to help them become what God would have them be as a church.  We likely only have two of the four letters we can tell Paul wrote this church (maybe three if our Second Corinthians is actually two letters combined).  We can tell from the way Paul starts many of the sections in First Corinthians that this letter is actually a response to some sort of correspondence from the Corinthian Christians.  Next maybe only to Ephesus, Paul spent more time in Corinth during his missionary journeys than anywhere else.  As challenging as the Corinthians were to Paul, he dearly loved them and that comes out in these letters.

Paul seems to be combating several issues in these two letters, each letter quite different from the other.

Holy living in an unholy culture:  Corinth was home to many temples, not all of which were likely in use at the time of Paul.  The most famous of these was the Temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, in which 1000 temple prostitutes once had served.  On the north side of the city was a temple to Asclepius, the god of healing.  This background of idolatry and sexuality will appear several times in the two letters.  This may be Corinth’s most recognized vice.  There is a now-archaic English verb, “to corinthianize,” which means to engage in lewd and indecent acts of debauchery, especially unbridled and indecent sexuality.  Paul’s instructions will be unequivocal: navigate through a sinful society with purity, abstinence, and consideration for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  This point is also what makes many people say 1 Corinthians is especially relevant for today’s world.

Airs of superiority amongst the members and the division that naturally would bring:  Wisdom was key to the Greek culture.  At least in some people’s minds, one’s value was attached in part to their intellectual development.  Education, philosophy and conventional thinking would have been held in high esteem.  As we will see early in 1 Corinthians, this attitude was clearly present in the Corinthian church as well.  This thinking also seems to have shaped how they thought about the spiritual gifts they had been given by the Spirit.  A pecking order of giftedness seems to have been causing a problem, as was their penchant to group off according to which religious teacher they preferred.  Unity will be the most recurring point in these letters.

Misunderstandings about the resurrection of the dead:  There can be no misunderstandings about this all-important idea fundamental to Christianity, yet it seems the Corinthians had many.  Paul will speak to the who, when, how, and what of the resurrection from the dead.

Encouraging the Corinthian Christians to give generously to famine-striken Christians in Jerusalem:  Situated at a main commercial nexus point between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, there would have been a good bit of wealth in the city.  Paul will encourage his Greek brothers and sisters to use that wealth to show tangible love for the Jewish brothers and sisters who started this movement they are now a part of.

Having to defend this apostolic authority:  Paul’s response to this issue composes most of Second Corinthians.  This was an especially big deal as questions of authority would have undermined everything Paul had been working for in Corinth.  The emphasis on wisdom in Corinthian culture would have contributed to this as Paul was foreign, educated in non-Greek religion and philosophy, and he did not emphasize the charisma commonplace in Greek cultural leaders.  More troubling for Paul were false teachers posing as apostles who had come to Corinth since his departure who were turning the church against him.  They painted Paul as opportunistic, greedy for their money, unreliable, and unskilled.  Paul responds will great passion and fire.  For what it’s worth, Paul’s explanation of why he is competent to be a “minister of reconciliation” has been one of my favor sections of Scripture since first training for the ministry in undergrad.

So much of the Corinthian letters has to do with church life.  This may be where we see Paul’s pastoral heart best of all.

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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 14: Handling Disagreements between Christians

Have you ever known a church not to have problems?  There is no such thing as a perfect church; where people gather together in community there is going to be friction, disagreement and hurt feelings.  Maybe just as important as the question “What should we all believe and do?” is the inevitable next question, “How do we best handle those times when we do not all believe and do the same thing?”

Review: The church in Rome (or, more likely, the collection of small house churches that fellowshipped with each other) was a divided community.  Much of the issue was ethnicity.  The Jewish Christians in Rome thought the culture and leadership of the church should be more Jewish.  The Gentile Christians had drifted away from Jewish religious customs and had assumed the leadership of the church.  From chapter 2, we know they were arguing over circumcision.  Now in this chapter we see they are arguing over diet and holy days.  The main issues were whether to eat meat (14:2, 21), drink wine (14:21), and whether to view certain days like the Sabbath as holier than other days (14:5-6).  The issue with meat might have been about whether to eat non-kosher food, in which case the Jewish Christians would have been the “weaker brother,” or it might have concerned whether is was appropriate for Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, and in this case the Gentile Christian more likely would have had the greater scruples.  Regardless, the disagreement in this church had reached the degree of judgment, condemnation, and exclusion (14:3).

What does Paul teach us (and the Romans) about how best to handle disagreements between Christians?

  1. Make people who are not like you feel comfortable by choosing to avoid arguments (14:1)
  2. Know that we don’t all have to agree on some matters and we shouldn’t make others feel unacceptable to God (14:3)
  3. Don’t make barriers where God has not (14:3)
  4. Hold on to the belief that God is capable of strengthening the faith of people who do not believe and act like you (14:4)
  5. Know that the genuine desire to honor God, not the action itself, makes what a person restricts himself from or participates in noble and worshipful (14:6)
  6. Remember that we are not living for ourselves and our own desires (14:7-8)
  7. Abstain from passing eternal judgments on others because that is God’s job, not ours (14:10-13)
  8. Be willing to sacrifice personal freedom in consideration of other’s conscience (14:14-15)
  9. Remember that the Kingdom of God is more so focused on internal virtues than external behaviors so abstinence or participation in the latter is less important than how we treat others (14:16-17)
  10. Strive to build each other up, not hurt the other (14:19-20)
  11. Know it is more loving to give up freedom out of deference for the other than to express your own religious freedom (14:21)
  12. Listen carefully to your conscience for guidance on how to act personally (14:22-23)

I have given a bit of thought to this topic ever since college and I always come back to the same conclusion.  It seems that the scruples of the “weaker brother” usually needs to be decisive in a disagreement.  The stronger sister can abstain or forego an action; the weaker brother cannot do something in good conscience he deems to be wrong.

What do you think?

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Romans 12: True Worship

Today we move from one my most daunting passages to understand to one of my favorites.  Paul is known for structuring his letters with long theological sections about beliefs followed by much more practical sections about ethics.  Romans 12:1 is that pivot point in this book.

We use the word “worship” in many ways.  I have to wonder if most of the time we don’t reduce that word down to far less than what God intended worship to be.  Worship is that thing that happens at the church building.  It is singing and praying and preaching (and dancing and rocking a guitar or drum kit, if you church does that sort of thing).  Worship is what some person “leads.”  Worship has a set soundtrack.  There is a “worship hour.”  Worship has an “order” of set events.  Sure, you can worship anywhere — on a mountain top, down by the lake, in a hospital room, in a flash mob at the local mall — but still we are talking about the same action: singing songs and praying prayers.

Is worship this? . . .

The Roman church Paul was writing had also reduced the idea of worship down to far less than what God intended.  For them it was about religious activities and rituals and sacred days.  It was about symbolic acts like circumcision.  It was about what food was eaten or not.  Worship was a cultural expression and both the Jewish and Gentile Christians wanted to stamp their own ideals onto that expression.  In short, worship was what took place when “the saints meet.”

The word “worship” comes from an Old English word “worth-ship.”  The connotation of this word is to show honor to the inherent worth of the person being worshipped.  It is tied to the ancient practice of “kissing the feet of” the person being honored.  Worship is saying to another you are the one, not me.  You are the focus of life, not me.  You matter.  I adore you and want to do your will.  Can you sing that in a song?  Of course.  Can you pray those sentiments?  Definitely.  But it is so much more than that.

Paul reminds the Roman Christians of this point:

So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.  Worship like this brings your mind into line with God’s. (12:1)

Worship is not a religious activity that takes place in a sacred place at a sacred time.  Worship is to happen everywhere all of the time.  God is not looking for some sacrifice of an animal or a sacrifice of discomfort in circumcision or a sacrifice of diet by avoiding pork or a sacrifice of time by observing the Sabbath.  Or let’s update that today: God is not looking for a sacrifice of time on a Sunday morning or a sacrifice of money put in an offering plate or a sacrifice of career by being an inner-city social worker or a sacrifice of zip code by living frugally and denying our comfort and status.  God wants us — all of us — as the sacrifice.  God wants us to tie our worship to how we live each day, as “living sacrifices.”  God wants acts of worship that are tied deeply to our “mind” and that shape how that mind thinks.  Everything we are and everything we do is intended to be worship.

For the ancient Roman Christians that meant that the most worshipful actions they could take would be to love (12:9-21).  They needed to worry less about what they did to their bodies and more about what they did with their bodies.  They needed to worry less about what food they ate and more about with whom they ate or refused to eat.  They needed to try less to get others to become like them and more so to become like others so they together might become like Christ.  And they most needed to do this with the people they disagreed with most.  Love is the act of worship God wants most.

. . . or is this worship?

How do we get this wrong (or right) too?

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Romans 10: Trust Me!

A trap very easily fallen into when reading Romans is to bypass the original context and focus solely on what Romans can teach us.  Romans 9-11 is a difficult section of Scripture, but that is especially true when we forget about the original context.

Any good Jew in Paul’s time would have been tempted to appeal to their chosen-people status as grounds for salvific confidence.  The logic would have gone something like this: Israel was chosen by God, I am a Jew, so I am good with God. That line of logic has a modern equivalent: the Church is composed of God’s elect in this world, I go to church, so I am good with God.

In Romans 10 Paul is taking on this faulty thinking.  God isn’t looking for heritage or membership, He is looking for people who truly trust Him and His faithfulness to His promises.  God isn’t looking for people who “establish a covenant status of their own” (10:3), He is looking for people who have faith in their hearts, confess that faith with their mouths, and ask with dependency for God to save them (10:10-13).  That invitation was given to the Jews and some received it, though others did not (10:21).  That invitation is also open to all because it relies upon God’s goodness not those being saved.

If the Jewish Christians in the Roman church thought that being a Jew seals the deal, they missed the boat.  If we think being a church member ensures salvation, we too are just as lost.

What were you drawn to in this chapter?

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Romans 2: Those Self-Righteous Jews

. . . and then the other shoe dropped.

Yesterday, Paul seemed to be squarely on the side of the Jewish Christians, one more Jew who saw the Gentiles as an inferior people group and unfit for leadership in the Roman church.

Today, in a piece of literary genius, Paul turns the table completely.

So you have no excuse — anyone, whoever you are, who sit in judgment!  When you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, because you, who are behaving as a judge, are doing the same things. (2:1)

Sure, the Jewish Christians would not be practicing idolatry or sexual immorality or robbery of the conventional sorts.  They were not literally like the Gentiles.  But that is the problem with self-righteousness.  It settles for literalism, and congratulates oneself for not doing some specific act of perversion.  Yet the Law had become the Jewish Christians’ idol.  And their adultery was spiritual not sexual.  They were worshipping their own ability to be good, and stealing God’s glory.

Worse yet, these Jewish Christians had narrowly defined “good.”  For them, good meant being of Jewish heritage, being among those chosen by God to have the Law, knowing that Law, being able to teach that Law, following the rituals of that Law like circumcision, food laws, and holidays.  Good meant being a good Jew.  So defined, yes, they were very good, and their Gentile brothers and sisters did not measure up.

Paul sets the Jewish Christians in Rome straight.  Good is not defined by hearing the law or having the law, but by doing it (2:13).  Paul goes one further: “Jew” — as in the people cherished by God — isn’t nearly as much about ethnicity as obedience.  Circumcision isn’t about getting rid of unclean flesh as much as it is about getting rid of an unclean heart (2:28-29).  Therefore, an uncircumcised but morally upright Gentile with a tender heart might actually be a better Jew, than someone who can trace their heritage back to Abraham.

If you are a Jewish Christian in this Roman church you have just been put in your place.  These chapters might be a rough start to a letter, but we can be assured that Paul had everyone’s attention at this point.

Do we ever do this same thing?  How so?

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Romans 1: Those Perverted Gentiles

Imagine you are one of the Jewish Christians in this ethnically divided, prejudicial church and you hear Phoebe read the last part of this chapter aloud.  You know Paul can only be talking about Gentiles.

They knew God, but didn’t honor him as God or thank him. (1:21)

They swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans — and of birds, animals, and reptiles. (1:23)

They dishonored their bodies among themselves. (1:24)

Men performed shameless acts with men, and received in themselves the appropriate repayment for their mistaken ways. (1:27)

They were filled with all kinds of injustice, wickedness, greed and evil. (1:29)

They know that God has rightly decreed that people who do things like that deserve death. (1:32)

Andrea Mantegna, “Bacchanalia with a Wine Vat” (c. 1500)

If you are one of the Jewish Christians who had started this church in Rome after returning home from Jerusalem after that first Pentecost of the Church (Acts 2), who then had been expelled from Rome by Claudius only to return to a very different, Gentile church, what are you thinking?

See, we were right!

Look what they come from.

Sure, they are Christians now, but can anyone really reform that much?

Their heritage is riddled with perversion, idolatry, and revelry.

We are so much better than they are!

Get rid of circumcision?  What comes next?  Some pagan festival like the Bacchanalia?

We should be the leaders in this church.  You can’t trust people like this.

If you are a Jewish Christian in this Roman church, you are liking this new letter from Paul, a fellow Jew.  Preach on, brother!

What grabbed your attention in this chapter?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Romans

Romans is a personal favorite of many people.  Paul, who almost all agree was the author, touches on almost every major theological belief in this great book, so the next three weeks are sure to be stimulating.

Rome was the center of the New Testament world.  A city of several million, it was the political and cultural center of the Roman Empire, home to the Caesars.  Rome was the ancient equivalent to New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Tokyo.  Religion was big in Rome, mainly the worship of the Roman gods and the developing Emperor cult, but there was a large, vibrant, and legal Jewish population in Rome as well.  Remember that when Christianity first stated it was considered a Jewish sect so it too was a protected religious movement and not largely persecuted.  Christians would suffer severely in Rome but not for another 20 years after the writing of Romans.

Romans was most certainly written in Corinth around AD 55 and delivered to Rome and first read to the church there by the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1).

The purpose for Romans has been described in many ways.  Martin Luther read his own issues with the Roman Catholic Church into the book and saw Romans as a treatise against works-oriented religion.  It is certainly that, but that characterization has more to do with 16th Century Europe than 1st Century Rome.  Others imagine Paul sitting down and writing Romans as a theological compendium, a statement of his beliefs.  There is too much that is specific to the Roman church for that to be true, plus that would make Romans truly unique amongst New Testament letters.

Like every other letter in the New Testament, Romans is situational.  There was something going on that made Paul write this letter, to a church he had not started nor even visited.  Paul had a habit of setting up home bases for his various mission endeavors.  First it was Antioch, then Ephesus, now Corinth.  Paul’s greatest desire was to get to Spain where the Gospel had not really yet been preached widely (15:23-33).  By all appearance, Paul was preparing this Roman church to be his next launching point for that campaign.  However, this church was a divided church turned inward on itself in no condition to be involved in outward mission.  We know from the ancient Roman historian Suetonius that around AD 49 the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome because they had been rioting amongst each other concerning a person named “Chrestus” (c.f., Acts 18:2).  This likely was an argument between Jews and Christians over Christ.  So for a span of five years until Claudius’ death in AD 54 when the Jews would have returned to Rome, this largely Jewish church with a defined Jewish flavor became thoroughly Gentile.  Leadership changed.  The culture and practices of the church changed.  Now in AD 55 we have a power struggle and identity crisis in the Roman church, largely involving ethnicity and customs.  Issues like circumcision, food, holidays, a background in paganism, an Abrahamic heritage, and the like would have been hotly debated, and these will pop up a good bit in our readings.  Paul is writing a significantly divided and prejudicial Roman church attempting to help them sort out their problems for the sake of the advancing Kingdom of God.

Background aside, Romans is so popular because the Gospel that all of us needs to hear speaks freedom, hope, love, and faith into every situation, whether in ancient Rome, modern Memphis, the Philippines, Malaysia or Canada.

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Matthew 23: Are We The Pharisees?

For those who only imagine Jesus as meek and mild and accepting of all, hold on because this chapter blows that stereotype to pieces.

Matthew has brought us to the last week of Jesus’ life.  The tension between the Jewish religious leaders and Jesus is escalating, and this chapter does nothing to help that.

As I have said before, I am thoroughly and unapologetically religious.  Institutional and traditional Christianity is in my DNA.  I don’t think religion is God’s Kingdom; it is not where one finds the life and divinity we are all after.  Yet, I still value religion as a vehicle that often times transfers me into the Kingdom of life and divinity.  I like the way Eugene Peterson balanced religion (or “church”) and Kingdom in this quote from Christianity Today a few years back:

What other church is there besides institutional?  There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church because there is sin the church.  But there is no other place to be a Christian except the church. . . . I really don’t understand this naive criticism of the institution.  I really don’t get it.  Frederick Von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree.  There’s no life in the bark.  It’s dead wood.  But it protects the life of the tree within.  And the tree grows and grows and grows.  If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death.  So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive.  And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long.  It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy and narcissism. 

“The Pharisees” by Karl Schmidt Rottluff

When I read a chapter like Matthew 23 I use it to inspect my own religious heart and determine whether Jesus could say some of the same things about me that he once said to the Pharisees.  The following are the phrases in today’s reading that I think all of us who are religious need to dwell on today to assess how true they could be in our lives as well:

You must do whatever they tell you, and keep it. (23:3a)

They talk but they don’t do. (23:3b)

They tie up heavy bundles which are difficult to carry, and they dump them on people’s shoulders. (23:4)

Everything they do is for show, to be seen by people. (23:5)

You tithe . . . and you omit the serious matters . . . like justice, mercy, and loyalty. (23:23)

You scrub the outside of the cup and the dish, but the inside is full of extortion and moral flabbiness. (23:25)

On the inside you appear to be virtuous and law-abiding, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (23:28)

Inserted into his invectives, Jesus offers two recalibrations for those of us who may feel like we are more aligned with the Pharisees than with Jesus:

The greatest among you should be your servant.  People who make themselves great will be humbled; and people who humble themselves will become great. (23:11)

First make the inside of the cup clean, and then the outside will be clean as well. (23:26)

The hypocrisy, legalism, and self-important arrogance of religiosity can be kept in check by a well-maintained interior life that  values humility not pride, service not power.

Lord, protect us from the “leaven of the Pharisees!”

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Matthew 5: The Blessed Kingdom Life

There are some chapters that are just daunting to write about; the next three are some of those.  What can be said about the Sermon on the Mount that has not already been said and said better or is really worth saying?  Like James, these are chapters that will meet us where we are, somewhere different each time we read them.  Do share how God speaks to you this time around.

There are many different theories on what exactly Jesus was trying to do in the Sermon on the Mount.  Was he, the new Moses, giving a new law on a new mountain?  Was he setting out the moral code of the Church?  Was he giving the “impossible dream,” a perfectionistic dare that only punctuates how God’s Kingdom is only attainable by the power of God?  Or something else?

No doubt the parallels between Moses and Jesus are no accident, but 5:17-20 discount a view of the Sermon that diminishes or reverses the role of the Old Testament law.  No doubt the Church has turned the Sermon into its moral code, though we haven’t done so well, have we?  Consider how successful Christians are doing with lust, hatred, divorce, and love for our “enemies.”  Sayings like the following one do sound like they are “impossible” reminders of our own frailty,

Well then: you must be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect. (5:48)

But why does the sermon end with the declaration that we are as “foolish” as a man who builds a house on a sandy seashore if we do not do what has been said in this sermon (7:24-27)?

I would like to advance a different idea, one that is certainly not my own and has been gathered from many different places, none of which I remember off hand.  The Sermon on the Mount is a picture of life when you come into the Kingdom and when the Kingdom comes into you.  Partly idealistic but also partly practical and doable, this snapshot of Kingdom-life was Jesus’ invitation to a whole new way of life, here and now, a worldview (beliefs and actions) that if accepted would revolutionize the follower and those in his sphere of influence.

The Beatitudes

With this idea in mind, consider the Beatitudes (5:3-10).  Eight character traits or positions in life are put forward as “blessed” or fortune or happy — humility, the need to mourn, meekness, longing for divine justice, merciful, purity, peaceableness, and persecution.  Most of us would look at this list and say there is little blessing or happiness in most of these.  But these are exactly the kinds of people who will find God’s Kingdom to be an answered prayer.  These sorts of people will find what our present world’s system cannot or does not afford.  These marginalized, downtrodden, and sad people will find this new way of life that Jesus is bringing to be truly blessed.  These are the kinds of people who need a new system and they will find it if they will truly follow Jesus.  On the other hand, there are others who at the exact same time cannot embrace this way of life as anything other than a curse.  As an interpretive key that this is a plausible reading of the Beatitudes, I appeal to the “inclusio” or enveloping structure of the Beatitudes: both the first and last Beatitudes mention the “kingdom of heaven.”  In other words, all the falls between is the blessed Kingdom-life.

Old Testament Law and the Kingdom

Or consider what Jesus was doing in the long “you have heard it was said/but I say” section at the end of this chapter (5:21-48).  Jesus is not taking on the Old Testament law as 5:17-20 won’t allow it:

Don’t suppose that I come to destroy the law or the prophets.  I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfill them! (5:17)

Jesus has come as a restorationist.  He is the rabbi who does not wish to start a new religion, rather has come to return God’s people to what they were called to in the beginning.  Jesus is not saying to ignore the Old Testament laws not to murder, commit adultery, divorce, swear falsely, reattribute justice fairly, or love your neighbor.  Kingdom people respect and keep God’s law (5:19).  Instead, Jesus is attacking the reductionistic legalism of the Judaism all around him that settled for the letter of the law and ignored the underlying attitudes that cause sin in the first place.  In so doing, he was in fact calling Kingdom-people to a “covenant behavior [that] is far superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).  Life in the blessed Kingdom is obedient life, but of a deeper kind than had become the norm in the world — even the religious world — around them.

Matthew 5 is a majestic start to a truly magnificent sermon!

What do you think?

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Hebrews 13: True Sacrifice

“Just give me something to do!  Enough with the philosophy, tell me what to do!”

This exhortation is one I have heard a lot in my life as a teacher, especially when teaching busy, pragmatic adults.  My teenage students have a much higher tolerance for the theoretical, ironically.

The book of Hebrews ends well for those who are looking for something to do.

Our part, then, is this: to bring, through him, a continual sacrifice of praise to God — that is, mouths that confess his name, and do so fruitfully.  Don’t neglect to do good, and to let “fellowship” mean what it says.  God really enjoys sacrifices of that kind!  (13:15-16)

There is a real threat that religion — any religion — will replace the true relational worship God is truly seeking.  For the Hebrews, that meant substituting law observance and religious rituals for a true faith in and imitation of Jesus.  For us that substitution might come in a variety of forms:

  • Letting our assurance rest in our baptism or church involvement
  • Defining our goodness by charitable giving
  • Assuming that Bible reading, prayer, and listening to Christian music are the activities God most want from us
  • Thinking that the greatest things we do for God happen in a church building

This has been a common chorus as we have meditated on Hebrews.

Notice what the Hebrews author says are the sacrifices that God truly desires: praise, witness, goodness done to others, and fellowship.  In other words, love God and love others.  The sacrifices God most desires are relational, not ritual.  They are the sacrifices of will, time, and energy.  It could be that the best sacrifice we could give today would be to forgive a friend who has wronged us or to take the risk involved in mentioning Jesus to someone.

As we finish Hebrews today, summarize in one sentence the overall message you have heard God speak into your life from this book.     

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Acts 6: A Growing Kingdom

The word of God increased, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem grew by leaps and bounds.  This included a large crowd of priests who became obedient to the faith. (6:7)

This group of 120 sure has grown.  First it was to 3000, then over 5000 men.  Now they are growing by “leaps and bounds.”  Let there be no mistake, God wants His kingdom to grow.

Acts 1:6-8 is considered by many to be a bit of a thesis statement for the book.  Many key themes from the book of Acts launch off from this passage.  We also find here this sentence which also becomes the very structure of Acts:

Then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth. (1:8)

Think of it like concentric circles spreading out from Jerusalem, where the events of Acts 1-4 took place.  Now we are in the Judea section.  The Jesus movement is still very much a Jewish thing, though now there are “Hellenistic” or Greek Jews in the mix.  Next, with Philip we will see the gospel move to Samaria, a far less palatable place to a good, upstanding Jew.  Paul and Barnabas will take the gospel in the latter half of the book into the pagan Greco-Roman world until the book ends in Rome, the furthest civilized city to the west where the gospel would realistically be expected to go.  We know from Romans that Paul’s greatest desire is to go to the Far West, to Spain, where the gospel has yet to go.  Unto the very ends of the earth, indeed.

God wants His kingdom to grow.  I see nothing in the Bible that indicates God wants to sell the kingdom like a salesperson hawks his wares to one more empty shopper seeking a new trinket or novelty.  No billboards and slick advertising campaign are needed (and if they are, aren’t we admitting we have turned God’s kingdom or at least our churches into one more consumer good?).  Still, we don’t need to glory in being ostracized outsiders whose small numbers are a badge of honor.  God wants growth.

We can be certain that God wants his kingdom to grow spiritually; maturity is always the goal.  God intends for his kingdom to grow numerically, as we are seeing here in 6:7.  As Acts 1:8 makes clear, God is looking for geographical growth too.  That same verse confronts our insular and even prejudicial tendencies and says God is looking for a kingdom that grows ethnically.  The kingdom is going to be a 64-pack of Crayolas, praise God!  But that ethnic growth is what produces a problem in Acts 6 too as the leaders try to deal fairly with both Greek and Jewish widows.  This verse from Acts 6 also indicates he wants the kingdom to become socially diverse; the Jesus movement was now made up of Galilean fisherman and now Jerusalemite priests too.  Next thing you know, we will have ancient politician’s wives joining in (hint, hint).

Of course, God’s desires are no different today.  What would it look like if our Christian circles were growing in numbers and spiritual depth, reaching out into new neighborhoods and countries, and becoming increasingly more diverse ethnically, racially, and socially?

What made you think in today’s reading?

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Acts 4: Giving to One Another

There was no needy person among them. (4:34a)

Really?

No one among the first few thousand Christians in Jerusalem had material needs?

Christians can’t say that today.  Of course, there are many times more Christians today than there was back then, and in many more impoverished areas of the world.  Still, that is an incredible claim.  Oh, for that to be true today!

How was that possible?  We have part of the answer if we back up a few sentences:

Nobody said that they owned their property; instead, they had everything in common. (4:32b)

This is the thinking that makes the lack of need possible: the realization that the material blessings that come our way are not our own.  We are stewards of God’s possessions.  We are conduits not swimming pools — blessings come in order to flow through us and out, not be collected for our leisure.  I need a new mind in this regard.  The feeling that makes this kind of radical care for the community of believers is in the sentence before this one:

The company of those who believed had one heart and soul. (4:32a)

A solidarity of spirit.  A unified soul.  A deep kindredness that has knit people together as one.  When that happens how could we let our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer in need?  I need a new heart in this area too.

Maybe that is the secret.  In only three chapters since the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we have seen a sea change in these disciples.  They have a new understanding they did not have before.  They are now becoming known for harnessing extraordinary power to heal.  In this chapter especially we have seen a boldness they certainly didn’t have two months before.  Now they possess a sacrificial love for each other.  How did they do it?

They didn’t.  The Holy Spirit came upon them in a deeply transforming way.  Their new mind and the new heart came from above.

Come Holy Spirit and give us radical, giving love for each other!

Categories: Acts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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