Posts Tagged With: gospel

Final Thoughts & Thanks

We have made it!

One chapter a day, five days a week, every full week of the year.  Really, that is a not a lot of reading.  But I have a whole string of years where I couldn’t even muster the fortitude to be that disciplined.  Maybe you do too.  There seems to be something about reading the Bible that creates a challenge even for the most ardent readers.

Yet we did it.  And we can be thankful for our seemingly small feat.  I know there are big, monumental experiences that shape us in significant ways.  But more often than not I find we are formed as humans by our little habits, small victories, excusable vices, short lines in sand, and tiny changes.

As far as blogging is concerned, I don’t know yet what next year brings.  I will keep my personal, periodic blog going, but this blog comes to an end today, though all posts will stay up and accessible and the comments will stay open.  This is now two consecutive years I have written a blog of this sort — two years ago with the Qur’an and this past year with the New Testament.  I do not have plans to undertake a project like this for this upcoming year.  I have discerned that it is best for me to spend time with physical and domestic health instead.  I am drawn to The Message again, the translation I almost used this year, before N. T. Wright published The Kingdom New Testament, his interesting but not significantly different translation.  I hope to keep reading on the same schedule but without the writing.  Maybe one of you will find value in a writing discipline like this and invite us to join you next year?

As you might expect from a teacher, I would like to end with a question.  Not all of you have wanted to post comments this year and that has been fine.  Do consider posting on this one.

What have you learned from a year spent reading God’s Word to the Church?

 

I share three reflections I have had several times this year.  I look forward to your thoughts as well.

1.  For many of us, there is no better spiritual practice than reading the Bible.  Spiritually, people are wired differently.  Some are shaped strongly my worshipful experiences.  Some have been turned into reading-the-biblewho they are by fervent, honest prayer.  Others become different people through service to those they love and those in need.  For many, though, the regular practice of Bible reading is the number one shaping influence in their spiritual growth.  This is where the Gospel, in its many forms, speaks good news into the vagaries of our life.  This is where we are confronted by words that have been read — spoken, really — and therefore cannot be ignored.  This is where our minds of flesh are turned spiritual.  Almost without exclusion, those I respect the most spiritually all have one thing in common: they read their Bibles.  In a million different ways.  But they read.  And I want to be one of these same people, so I read.  When one truly gives him- or herself to the words of the Bible as we have done this year, we are not left the same person.  Sometimes, like echoes bouncing around in the chasms of our hearts and minds, those words hit us months later, but the word of God is “alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12).  These words do not “return void” (Isaiah 55:11).

2.  The Bible is always best understood when read and interpreted together.  Blogs have long been cited as tools that have overly-democritized the marketplace of ideas.  Whether you are 8 or 80, you can create a blog and post your ideas.  Then search engines put all search results side by side by topic, not knowledge or research or experience or anything else.  That is why the best blogs always have a robust community of readers and comment-makers so as to raise the discussion past the opinions of the one author.  That is what I was hoping we could produce here.  Likewise, Protestants (as most of us reading this blog are) have always made much-ado about the “priesthood of all believers” and the importance of the Bible.  Put them together and we all feel like we can read the Bible by ourselves and our personal arabs-studying1interpretations have equal authority.  For sure, all should read their Bibles and all perspectives should be considered, but the interpretations that are hammered out in groups of people are almost always better than what individuals come up with themselves.  That is the value of Bible classes in church contexts.  That is why we read other people’s books.  That is why education has (until lately) always been a communal undertaking.  I am extremely thankful to all of you who have taken the time to read my posts.  I am even more thankful to those of you who took time to comment and ask questions and bring up alternate viewpoints (and not all of this was done on this blog; sometimes it was at school or church).  I have learned from you, and where “iron has sharpened iron” our understanding of the Bible has become that much better.  From here on out, I always want to read my Bible with others.

3.  The New Testament is a whole lot simpler than we sometimes let it be.  I saw this repeatedly throughout the year, but especially in our reading of Revelation this last month.  We have tended to make the Bible much more complicated than it really is.  I think this usually comes when we isolate small phrases or passages and neglect the big picture.  I understand why that happens.  We all agree on that big picture, so we focus on the patches of disagreement that we find as we read because those are the things we feel we have to iron out.  Then we make those points of argument reasons for disunity and suspicion.  I completely understand the aggressive desire for truth in all things, but after this year of looking at the big picture of Christian Scripture I am all the more committed to continuing to do so.  With time I have found that small passages of confusion or points of contention work themselves out when we stay focused on the big picture.    I know that one of Jesus’ greatest desires is for Christian unity (John 17:20-21), so I am going forward from here today with the belief that anchoring myself in the Story of God’s good news to the world, not pet doctrines or favorite passages within a denomination, has a better likelihood of creating unity.

all-things-new

Thank you for being a part of the life of this blog.  I have benefitted from your participation.  Keep reading!  Glory to God our Savior and Teacher!

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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?  

Categories: 1 Thessalonians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

BONUS: An Introduction to the Gospel of John

Though the book does not say so, there is widespread acceptance that this gospel was written by the apostle John, who often refers to himself in the book as “the apostle whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20, 24).  Though one of Jesus’ inner circle of apostles, John is never mentioned in the book, which makes sense if John wrote the book but doesn’t if he didn’t.

Traditionally, because of its developed theology, the Gospel of John was considered the latest of gospels, likely written around 85 or later.  A good case can also be made that John was written before the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem in 70 because the book refers to places in that city in the present tense.  A developed theology does not have to indicate a late date.

Scholars have argued that John had various goals in writing his gospel.  Maybe he was trying to write a gospel to a Greek audience, hence the emphasis on Jesus as the “word” (logos).  It is certainly possible that John was trying to combat false teaching through his account of Jesus’ life.  But John himself tells us the simple evangelistic purpose of his book:

These are written that you may believe (or continue to believe) that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:31)

Therefore, one of the fitting characteristics of John are the seven “I am” statements of Jesus, thought by many to be John’s twist on God’s self-revelation as “I AM.”  John would not have us miss the point that Jesus was more than just a man.  This is one of the reasons why John is often the first book non-believers are encouraged to read.

John is unlike the other gospels in many ways, supporting the belief that the other three were trying to borrow from each other and tell similar stories while John was attempting to do something very different, maybe for a very different crowd.  There are no parables in John.  Miracles (or “signs” as they are called in John) are not as common.  John tells stories not included in the other gospels.   Instead of fast action like Mark, this gospel is full of long teaching sections.  For these reasons and others, John is a favorite of many people.

Categories: John | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Titus 3: Remember From Where You Came

There is a very real threat in this whole discussion of how to stay strong in the midst of a sinful world.  People who diligently fight sin, who view their world as immoral, who do not want to become like those around them can very easily become  arrogant, judgmental escapists with superiority complexes.

Titus was living in decadent Crete, charged with strengthening young churches to the point where they could stand strong against sin, both internal and external.  Right alongside Paul’s admonition to create strong leaders, maintain a strong aversion to sin, and to foster strong character is also the reminder that we too were once a whole lot like those we are now not trying to be like at all.  Strong, moral people remember their sinful roots.  This brings a strong sense of compassion while also standing strong against cultural accommodation.

We ourselves, you see, used at one time to be foolish, disobedient, deceived, and enslaved to various kinds of passions and leasers.  We spent our time in wickedness and jealousy.  We were despicable in ourselves, and we hated each other.  But when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, he saved us, not by works that we did in righteousness, but in accordance with his own mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewal of the holy spirit, which was poured out richly upon us through Jesus, our king and savor, so that we might be justified by his grace and be made his heirs, in accordance with the hope of the life of the age to come. (3:3-7)

A desire for holiness without a humble remembrance of our sinful past only breeds haughtiness.  Grateful hearts changed by the gospel of grace reach out to a broken world with compassion and a hope for something better.

What did you learn about spiritual strength in today’s reading?   

Categories: Titus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

2 Corinthians 11: Not So Very “Super-Apostles”

Paul snidely labels those who are opposing him in the Corinthian church as the “super-apostles” (11:5).  Images of Clark Kent with a Bible come to mind.  He tells us a good deal about these people in today’s reading.

  • They have been able to sway some of the church away from true doctrine (11:3)
  • They may have been teaching significantly different things about Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the gospel (11:4)
  • They clearly were well-educated, much more than Paul, especially in the area of rhetoric (11:6)
  • Given that much of this book is about the collection Paul is taking up for the Christians in Judea and that Paul repeatedly has to defend his financial decisions, the super-apostles were likely accusing Paul of using the Corinthians for money (11:7-9)
  • They are so flawed as to actually be “false” prophets (11:13a)
  • They transform themselves, chameleon-like, to look pious and orthodox (11:13b)
  • Paul calls them servants of Satan, implying they are a threat to spiritual purity, not simply other Christians with views different from Paul’s (11:15)
  • They are destined for Hell (11:15)
  • They regularly boasted about themselves (11:18)
  • They are enslaving, insulting, and exploiting the Corinthians (11:20)
  • They may be Jewish (11:22)
  • They have not sacrificed as much as Paul for the sake of the gospel (11:23-29)

So who are these people? When you put it all together it makes a lot of sense that these super-apostles were the same Judaizers who followed Paul throughout the eastern Mediterranean undoing his grace-oriented Christianity with a re-binding of law on Christians.  Their air of superiority had much to do with their ethnicity and training in the law.

For Paul these differences are more than surface differences of preference and style.  The super-apostles had eviscerated the very gospel and in so doing they were not to be tolerated at all.

What caught your eye today?

Categories: 2 Corinthians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

2 Corinthians 5: Ministers of Reconciliation

In every one of his letters we have read thus far, we have seen Paul state the gospel in some form or fashion, usually in a way that fits the context of the people he is addressing.  2 Corinthians 5 is the “gospel chapter” in this book.

If anyone is in the Messiah, there is a new creation!  Old things have gone, and look — everything has become new! . . . God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah, not counting their transgressions against them. . . . The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant. (5:17,  19, 21)

Personally, I love this version of the gospel message.

Now, it is our job, given by God, to be God’s “ambassadors, speaking on behalf of the Messiah, as though God were making his appeal through us” (5:20).  We have been given this “ministry of reconciliation” (5:18).

What motivates us to do this?  Paul mentions two things in this chapter:

So we know the fear of the Lord: and that’s why we are persuading people. (5:11)

For the Messiah’s love makes us press on. (5:14)

If we choose to believe the words of the Bible, the reality is that there are people who do not know Jesus, yet will come before God in judgment (5:10).  We share the gospel out of fear of what will happen to people if we do not.  We are also “beside ourselves” (5:13) with gratitude and honor because of the reality that the Messiah loved with such a depth that he died in our place so that we would be reunited with God.  That is an astounding message that needs to be shared.

What is your favorite verse in this chapter?

Categories: 2 Corinthians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

1 Corinthians 15: YOLO?

“YOLO!”

Have you heard this slogan?

“You only live once!”  YOLO, in short form.

I am hearing it more and more.  The younger the person I talk to the more likely I am to hear it.  I hear it used to encourage doing something great with one’s life, and also to justify immense stupidity.  What troubles me is that I am also hearing the same thinking coming from some of the Christians I know.  It is not always said outright, but the implications are often there.

You only live once — so we better live it up now.

You only live once — so you better be happy now.

You only live once — so you only get one chance to do it right.

You only live once — so do all you have to do to stay alive.

You only live once — so death is worst of all fates.

The problem, of course, is that it is not true.  It is not biblical.  It is not congruent with the gospel of Jesus.  We live twice.  And the second life goes on forever.  That’s a pretty big difference!  (So would that be YOLT?)

Oddly, in this very religious (though not very loving) Corinthian church, there existed some Christians who also believed you only lived once.

How can some of you say that there is no such thing as resurrection of the dead? (15:12b)

Paul is beside himself.  How can a Christian believe that?  The entire worldview of Christianity hinges on resurrection.  It doesn’t make sense and is a colossal waste of time if there is no resurrection of the dead.

For if the dead aren’t raised, the Messiah wasn’t raised either; and if the Messiah wasn’t raised, your faith is pointless, and you are still in your sins.  What’s more, people who have fallen asleep in the Messiah have perished for good.  If it’s only for this present life that we have put our hope in the Messiah, we are the most pitiable members of the human race. (15:16-19)

If dead people stay dead, then Jesus was not resurrected.  If Jesus was not resurrected, sin was not fully conquered and death was not dealt with at all.  There is a force greater than God — death.  If these are true, the entire gospel is a farce.  The system of beliefs is nonsense.  We are living on false hope, and deserve the labels of “ignorant” we sometimes receive.  We are missing out and ought to say instead, “Let’s eat and drink, because tomorrow we’re going to die!” (15:32)

A study for “The Resurrection” by Michelangelo

But death is not the end.  Read that again, if you need to.  That is a core belief.  We are headed to death.  We cannot live this life forever.  Cancer and heart attacks and horrible accidents are a reality of the “decaying” life, as Paul calls it in this chapter. But whatever happens that ends this life is not the end.  Do we really believe it?  It is fundamental.

Death is swallowed up in victory!  Death, where’s your victory gone?  Death, where’s your sting gone? (15:54b-55)

Thank God!  He gives us the victory, through our Lord Jesus the Messiah. (15:57)

What caught your eye in this long chapter?

Categories: 1 Corinthians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

1 Corinthians 9: Ministry & Money

Jim Bakker.  Robert Tilton.  Creflo Dollar.  Kenneth & Gloria Copeland.  Joyce Meyer.

These are all ministers, well-known from their television presence, who have either been convicted of financial malfeasance in their ministry or have been investigated for such because of their lavish lifestyles.  I am afraid that there are whole sections of America that think of people like these first when they think of Christian ministers.  For these people, closely associated with church and church leaders is greed and exploitation of followers in order to line the pockets of those leaders.

Today, we learn that Paul was being accused of the same things.  We have been progressively piecing together a picture of Paul’s opponents in Corinth.  It would appear there is a group of leaders in the Corinthian church who have arrived only recently who are picking away at Paul’s authority in the church by making people question his credentials (chapters 1-4) and now his motives.  We can divine from this chapter that they are suggesting Paul is taking advantage of the Corinthians financially in order to benefit his own bottom-line.

Paul’s response is two-pronged.  First, he defends his right to support.  This is only fair and lawful.  Basic life practices show we owe people for what they do for us.  It is only right to pay those who minister.  For goodness sake, a farmer doesn’t even deprive an ox his due.  It is entirely inappropriate and unbiblical to pay a minister a subsistence wage for his or her work.  On the other end of the spectrum, we should also ask ourselves whether we can pay a minister so much that it actually begins to hurt him or her spiritually?

However, Paul’s second point was that if they remember correctly, he never even exercised his right to support in order not to give people like these accusers a foothold for scandal.  He supported himself through tent-making.  He willfully gave up his freedom so as to be as free from accusation as possible:

But we haven’t made use of this right.  Instead, we put up with everything , so as to place no obstacle in the way of the Messiah’s gospel. . . . I am indeed free from everyone; but I have enslaved myself to everyone, so that I can win all the more. (9:12, 19)

It is unconscionable to think we can pay a minister well below the average income in a church or community just because they are a minister.  Ministers don’t take oaths of poverty.  We are saying how much we value these noble people and their work with we pay them a pittance.  But in a culture where accusations and realities of ministerial greed do exist, we probably ought to consider whether it is wise to compensate a minister well above the median income of the church of a community or for a minister to live a lavish life.  We certainly owe a minister his or her due, but we also owe it to Christ to do whatever we can to “win all the more” and in America that means money is always part of the equation.

 What do you think?

Categories: 1 Corinthians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Luke 15: Two Sons

We have come to maybe my most favorite Bible story of all: the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  That is such a strange name for this parable.  “Prodigal” means extravagant and, while the younger son did live a life of decadent extravagance for a time, it is the father who is the truly “prodigal” one.  And this is as much a story about the older son as it is the younger son.  So let’s call it the Parable of the Two Sons.

I am reticent to say much of anything about this parable.  This is like sacred ground.  You just sit and listen.  You take it in and praise God.  As I see it, this parable is all of the Gospels in a single story.  Maybe the whole Bible.  Definitely the gospel message.  Pair it with Rembrandt’s depiction of the parable and a lot of other words aren’t necessary.  Therefore, I am reproducing Wright’s version of the story in toto instead.

Rembrandt, “Return of the Prodigal Son”

Once there was a man who had two sons.  The younger son said to the father, “Father, give me my share in the property,”  So he divided up his livelihood between them.  Not many days later the younger son turned his share into cash, and set off for a country far away, where he spent his share in having a riotous good time.

When he had spent it all, a severe famine came on that country, and he found himself destitute.  So he went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into the fields to feed his pigs.  He longed to satisfy his hunger with the pods that the pigs were eating, and nobody have him anything.

He came to his senses.  “Just think!” he said to himself.  “There are all my father’s hired hands with plenty to eat — and here am I, starving to death!  I shall get up and go to my father, and I’ll say to him, ‘Father; I have sinned against heaven and before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son any longer.  Make me like one of your hired hands.'”  And he got up and went to his father.

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and his heart was stirred with love and pity.  He ran to him, hugged him tight, and kissed him.  “Father,” the son began, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son any longer.”  But the father said to his servants, “Hurry!  Bring the best clothes and put them on him!  Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet!  And bring the calf that we’ve fattened up, kill it, and let’s eat and have a party!  This son of mine was dead, and is alive again!  He was lost, and now he’s found!”  And they began to celebrate.

The older son was out in the fields.  When he came home and got near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  He called one of the servants and asked what was going on.

“Your brother’s come home!” he said.  “And your father has thrown a great party — he’s killed the fattened calf! — because he’s got him back safe and well!”

He flew into a rage, and wouldn’t go in.

Then his father came out and pleaded with him.  “Look here!” he said to his father, “I’ve been slaving for you all these years!  I’ve never disobeyed a single commandment of yours.  And you never even gave me a young goat so I could have a party with my friends.  But when this son of yours comes home, once he’s finished gobbling up your livelihood with his whores, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

“My son,” he replied, “you’re always with me.  Everything I have belongs to you.  But we had to celebrate and be happy!  This brother of yours was dead and is alive again!  He was lost, and now he’s found!” (15:11-32)

Categories: Luke | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

BONUS: An Introduction to Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Luke | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philemon: A Slave Set Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What caught your eye in this tiny letter?

Categories: Philemon | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Ephesians 4: Put On The New Humanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgive one another (4:32c)

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

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

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

What phrase speaks loudly to you in this chapter?

Categories: Ephesians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ephesians 3: Ministry Is A Gift!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What stood out to you today? 

Categories: Ephesians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ephesians 2: Reborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the gospel.

What struck you in this chapter?

Categories: Ephesians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Romans 15: After Romans

What happens after the book of Romans?  Where in the life of Paul does this great book come?

Paul wraps up the teaching of his book halfway through chapter 15, then he starts to wind down this long letter by doing a bit of business.  Paul’s greatest desire is “to announce the good news in places where the Messiah has not been named” (15:20).  Specifically, Paul longs to go to Spain (15:24, 28).  He looks forward to finally coming to the Roman church, something he has not been able to do before now (15:23-24).  Rome will become a home base for his Spanish campaign, providing financial support (15:24).

But first Paul has to complete some unfinished business.  The Christians in Macedonia and Achaia have given Paul money to deliver to the poor Christians in Jerusalem who are suffering from a famine (15:26).  Paul will head back to Jerusalem then come to Rome.  The book of Romans was likely written in Corinth during the time mentioned in Acts 18, then taken by Phoebe to Rome around the same time Paul headed east.

Paul reveals some apprehensiveness about this trip to Jerusalem:

Fight the battle for me in your prayers to God on my behalf. so that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judaea, and so that my service for Jerusalem may be welcomed gladly by God’s people. (15:30b-31)

Acts 21 shows Paul had reason to be concerned.  Paul was quickly arrested in Jerusalem on trumped up charges and almost killed by the Jews.  By the end of Acts Paul does make it to Rome, but not in the way he wished at all.

Did Paul ever get to Spain as he wished?  The Bible never says definitively, but early church fathers Eusebius and Clement of Rome both indicate that Paul was released from house arrest in Rome and took the gospel as far as Spain.  It seems Paul does get his wish in the end, though not in the way he wished.

Isn’t that often how it works?

Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Categories: Romans | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Galatians 1: No Other Gospel

“Good news,” she said.  “You’ve qualified for twice as much as you are asking for!”

“She” was the woman at the bank where my wife and I applied for a mortgage loan to buy the house in which we presently live.

Naturally, thoughts of a bigger house, a better zip code, second and third bathrooms, a guest room, a workshop in the garage, and more modern amenities flew through our minds.

I am very thankful today that we had enough sense to balk at her suggestion and proceed with the modest amount we had originally been seeking.  I can’t imagine how we could have afforded the monthly note had we listened to her “good news.”  I still wonder what she was thinking, but then the word “predatory” comes to mind.  It was the early 2000s after all.

Not all “good news” is really all that good.

Slavery is a perfect word to describe what my wife and I would be experiencing had we taken on a mortgage payment twice what we pay right now.  Working long hours and extra jobs to pay the mortgage company.  We would be truly house-poor.  Feel free to sit in the corner over there where a couch should be, had we the money!  In fact, I have noticed that any time I do something largely or completely for money, I end up regretting it.  It is never worth it.  Anything but good news.

The resounding theme of Galatians 1 is “gospel.”  The word is used six times in this short chapter, and the phrase “good news” — the literal meaning of the word “gospel” — is used twice more.  But back then as much as now, not all good news is really all that good.

I’m astonished that you are turning away so quickly from the one who called you by grace, and are going after another gospel — not that it is another gospel. (1:6-7a)

Bear in mind the context of Galatians (see the bonus post below).  The Galatians are new Christians, some of the first converts of Paul’s first missionary journey.  But just as quick as they accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ laced all the way through with grace as it should be, they were being told by a group of hardline Jewish Christians — typically called the Judaizers — that good Christians are good Jews as well.  If you really want to follow God, you have to follow the Jewish law and customs.  Step right up for your circumcision, sir.  Stop cooking that filthy swine, madam.  Family, stop, it’s the Sabbath.  This was the new “gospel” they were hearing, and it seems from this verse above that some of the Galatian Christians were persuaded.  Jesus was a Jew after all.  God did come first to the Jews, didn’t he?  Paul himself was a Jew.

In no uncertain terms, Paul made it clear that not all gospels are truly good news:

If anyone offers you a gospel other than the one you received, let that person be accursed. (1:9)

Paul will tell us more later about why all gospels are not equal.  Simply put, some “good news” enslaves.  Well, that’s no good news after all.  Are we made right with God by grace or by law?  Because if it is by grace, you are free.  All debts are paid.  No obligations are in place.  One obeys out of gratitude and love.  But if it is by law that we are made righteous, then we are enslaved to a system of our own best efforts, which sadly always come up short.  There is always more to do.  We can always be better.  And we are obligated, for sure.

That’s slavery.  And that’s no good news!

What modern day “good news” isn’t really as good as it sounds?

Categories: Galatians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Acts 28: What Will You Do With Paul?

Luke has been following Paul’s judicial proceedings for many chapters, often with tremendous detail.  Why do we just end with Paul in house arrest for two years in Rome awaiting trial?  We need more closure than that.  Was Paul exonerated?  Did Jews show up from Jerusalem to plead their side of the case and did it go south for Paul?  Was Paul released and freed to go to Spain to preach the gospel as he so desired?  Was Paul killed in Rome for some charge brought against him successfully?  We are simply left to wonder.

Scholars have taken up the question and posited many a theory.  Here are a few:

  1. Acts was intended by Luke to be a legal defense for Paul before the Roman court, thus it had to be completed without these answers.
  2. Things did not turn out well for Paul and it didn’t fit the kind of ending Luke wanted to have so he left these details out.
  3. Luke was forced by sickness, jail, or traveling to finish his account abruptly.  Maybe a protegé of Luke finalized the letter quickly after Luke’s unexpected death.
  4. Acts starts with the word “first” (1:1), so maybe Acts was the first volume of two or more intended books about the gospel and the early apostles, but we do not have the later volume(s) or it/they were never written.
  5. The favorite theory amongst conservative scholars (and the one I like) is that Acts does end in the most appropriate way theologically, even if not historically.  Paul is not the focus of Luke’s book, the gospel is.  Luke starts in 1:8 with a charge from Jesus to take the gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the “very ends of the earth,” a place like Rome.  Thus, Acts ends with the gospel being preached in Rome with great freedom and acceptance, especially amongst the Gentiles.  Luke would have felt like this was a very fitting ending, so the argument goes.

This is now the second book in a row where we come to an abrupt, seemingly incomplete ending.  We saw the same thing at the end of Mark.  We saw there that Mark seemed to be leaving the reader with the question, “What will you do with Jesus?”  Let’s take that same approach here in Acts, just to experiment again.

Maybe Luke wants to leave us with these questions: “What will you do with Paul?  What will you do with a gospel that is open to all?  What will you do with a church that includes Jews but also Gentiles who are much more receptive to the Gospel?”

Back then, some would have said Paul is a heretic who has hijacked this restored Judaism and perverted into an ecumenical, watered-down movement of grace and acceptance to all.  Some would have said Paul has got it exactly right; come join a “new Israel,” no longer defined by race.  Some would be quick to write off the Jews because they had their chance.  Some would like to muzzle Paul or even kill him.

Interestingly, people say the same things about Paul and other more modern religious thinkers today who say similar things, don’t they?  Give me Jesus, but you can keep your Paul.

The question for us, though, as we end this great book of Acts is the same question Caesar will have to answer: “What should I do with Paul?”

Categories: Acts | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Acts 27: Shipwrecked!

Today’s chapter is immensely interesting for three reasons.

One, Luke is writing good literature.  We are coming down to the end of the book.  We have a goal we know the main character has — to get to Rome — but further, seemingly insurmountable complications come.  Luke knows how to push us along in the book!

Two, Luke is writing convincing history.  Scholars who study the book of Acts marvel at how historically accurate and detailed this chapter is.  This chapter is one of the best accounts of ancient nautical practices in all ancient literature.  This is not the kind of chapter an author makes up.  This was written by a smart researcher and eyewitness, as we know from the “we” in the first verse.

Three, Luke is ultimately writing theology.  It is not entirely correct to call Acts an historical account.  It is too theological to be pure history in genre (that is no denial of the factual nature of Acts).  Acts is selective history written for a specific theological point.  I was struck by how even this account of a shipwreck became a way for Paul to preach the gospel and also a great test of faith:

“So take heart my friends.  I believe God, that it will be as he said to me.” (27:25)

“If these men don’t stay in the ship,” he said, “there is no chance of safety.” (27:31)

What did you see in this chapter worth noting?

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

Acts 24: Resurrection is Key

Paul is confronted by Felix, the Roman governor in Caesarea.  Is Paul truly the rabble-rouser the Jews make him out to be?  That is a serious charge in peaceful Rome.  In response, Paul confesses the following:

It is true that I do worship the God of my ancestors according to the Way which they call a “sect.”  I believe everything which is written in the law and the prophets, and I hold to the hope in God, for which they also long, that there will be a resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous. (24:14-15)

What strikes me here (and in almost every other public address either Peter or Paul gave in Acts) is that resurrection is so foundational to the belief-system of the apostles.  Key to the gospel is resurrection from the dead.  This is mentioned again later in the chapter at 24:21.

I wonder if resurrection is that fundamental to our ways of thinking and talking today.  I more often hear forgiveness from the guilt of sin mentioned in our gospel language.  That is okay.  Of course, forgiveness is important as well, and it was a part of the gospel sermons in Acts too (c.f., Acts 2:38).  But not as often as resurrection.  If we have downplayed resurrection in favor of forgiveness of guilt from sins, what are we missing?  And why have we made this switch?  What does this reveal about us?

Paul is a wanted man.  Leave him alone in Jerusalem for 15 minutes and he is dead.  He is sitting in a Roman jail under suspicions of disturbing the peace.  Rome deals swiftly and decisively with people who upset the Pax Romana.  In Felix, he is talking to a man who more so wants a bribe than the truth, and Paul has no intentions of paying up.  He is headed to Rome, where Caesar’s word is truth, and Caesar has no reason to preserve Paul’s life.

How can Paul maintain such boldness and calm?  Paul has already told us:

I hold to the hope in God . . . that there will be a resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous. (24:15)

What do you think about this?

Categories: Acts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mark 1: The Kingdom is arriving!

“The time is fulfilled!” he said; “God’s kingdom is arriving!  Turn back, and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

In Mark, and for us who start this year reading this gospel, these are Jesus’ first words.  What great, revolutionary words!  Not “there is a kingdom waiting.”  Not “follow me to a kingdom beyond the azure blue.”  No, the good news is that God’s kingdom is arriving.  Here.  Now.  In Galilee.  And in Memphis.  In America.  In Afghanistan and Iran.  In your living room and the church conference room and in the projects.

That’s pretty cool news!  That’s worth turning around from whatever other news we have been paying attention to today.

There was other news in Jesus’ time too.  The news of the Caesar and his Empire.  The news from the “legal teachers” (1:22), as Wright calls the Jewish religious leaders.

But in the midst of much other news the people of Galilee are “astonished” by Jesus:

“What’s this?” they started to say to each other. “New teaching — with real authority!  He even tells the unclean spirits what to do, and they do it!” (Mark 1:27)

A new way to think.  A new kind of authority.  A new power.  A new hope.  That’s good news!

What verses impacted you in today’s reading?

Categories: Mark | Tags: , , , , , , | 29 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.