Posts Tagged With: grace

Jude: Show Mercy, But With Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shrewd as serpents, innocent as doves”

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

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

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

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

What caught your eye in this often-neglected book?

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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?   

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2 Timothy 1: Don’t Give Up!

Paul has come to the end.  Most scholars who believe that Paul wrote 2 Timothy think this is his last surviving letter.  Some date it within a year of his death, traditionally thought to have taken place around 68 AD in Rome by beheading.  Every line drips with the emotion of a man who sees the end coming and so wants his life’s work to continue on with strength after he is gone.

Sadly, most in Asia Minor — the province in which Ephesus was found — had turned on Paul (1:15).  It seems they looked to his imprisonment as evidence that he was not favored by God and they pushed on to other versions of Christianity.  Paul’s fear is that Timothy will join their ranks.  Timothy is already losing his spiritual steam (1:6), and being the spiritual son of a “prisoner” isn’t exactly a great thing to put on your resume (1:8).

A person can only make it through trying times like these by faith, and this passage drips with Paul’s faith.  He is confident of Timothy’s faith, maybe even when Timothy is not:

I have in my mind a clear picture of your sincere faith — the faith which first came to live in Lois your grandmother and Eunice your mother, and which I am confident, lives in you as well.  (1:5)

Paul has faith that the Spirit is one of power:

After all, the spirit given to us by God isn’t a fearful spirit; it’s a spirit of power, love and prudence. (1:7)

Paul trusts in God’s purpose and grace, not his or Timothy’s own power:

God saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace. (1:9)

Paul anchors his faith in the power of the resurrection:

[God] has now made it [grace] visible through the appearing of our savior King Jesus, who abolished death and, through the gospel, shone a bright light on life and immortality. (1:10)

And Paul knows God is trustworthy:

But I am not ashamed, because I know the one I have trusted, and I’m convinced that he has the power to keep safe until that day what I have entrusted to him. (1:12)

When you come to the end, when death is looming and your friends have turned against you, the only way forward is by faith.

There are several great lines in this chapter.  What was your favorite?

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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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2 Corinthians 8: Keys to A Generous Spirit

We are now solidly in the section where Paul beseeches the Corinthians to imitate the generous giving of the Macedonians.  This is likely referring to the collection Paul was accumulating for the famine-striken Christians in Jerusalem.  Paul’s pitch rivals anything I have ever heard in any church capital campaign!

It is this line that catches my attention today:

The abundance of grace that was given to them (the Macedonians), and the depths of poverty they have endured, have overflowed in a wealth of sincere generosity on their part. (8:2)

I am wondering if these are the two most important elements to being a generous giver.

When we become truly aware of how much grace and how many gifts have been given to us by God, a grateful heart is produced. Maybe gratefulness far outweighs expendable income as a key motivator for lavish giving.  

It appears the Macedonians knew what poverty was like.  They must have had some lean years themselves.  They could relate to the plight of the Christians in Jerusalem.  Maybe empathy and compassion goes much further towards producing a generous heart than pity or an intellectual sense of responsibility.  

What do you think creates a generous spirit?

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1 Corinthians 6: Stay Clean

Have you ever noticed spilled food is only attracted to clean clothes?  I am convinced of it.  Put on a dirty shirt and you will never spill on it.  You can eat spaghetti, dripping wet barbecue ribs, or melting ice cream and you will still come out unscathed.  Put on a clean shirt and you are destined to drip ketchup from your hotdog right in the middle of your chest.  Murphy’s Law, I guess.

When I was young my mother’s last instructions to me any time I went out to play in the yard with my friends were “Stay clean!”  Of course, I never did.  A muddy hand is made clean again by rubbing them down the legs of your pants.  A bloody nose is stopped by the front of your shirt held up to your nose. Right?

Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians today are the same: Stay clean!

You were washed clean; you were made holy; you were put back to right — in the name of the Lord, King Jesus, and in the spirit of our God. (6:11)

God has cleaned them up, now stay clean and don’t make His work for naught.  But it seems everything they did was making them dirty once again.  Sure, they were under grace and not under Law, so this was not a matter of staying clean so as to earn salvation, but just because “everything is lawful” (6:12) for them doesn’t mean they should take advantage of grace.

How were the Corinthians sullying their new clothes?

  • Dragging each other into the Roman courts to settle their personal differences and offenses (6:1-6).  They looked like an uncharitable bunch who couldn’t solve the problems of the world as they couldn’t even settle their own problems.
  • Forgetting that the hallmark of a follower of Christ is to model selfless sacrifice, even if it means being wronged and losing what is rightfully yours (6:7-8)
  • Indulging the body with immorality and possibly food (6:12-14)
  • Possibly using the services of prostitutes, maybe even religious prostitutes in the pagan temples (6:15-17)

That is no way to show God appreciation for what He has done.  One brings glory with a holy life.  One worships God by what one does in the body, as that is His temple (6:19-20).

“Stay clean!”

What did you see anew in today’s chapter?

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1 Corinthians 5: Grace of a Different Sort

I hope those who know me best would say I am all about grace.  I love to talk about it, teach it, and read about it.  I am painfully aware of my need for grace.  Any chance I get to speak publicly I am increasingly inclined to bring the message of grace.  More and more in my life, by the help of the Spirit, I am learning to practice it in my relationships, and of course that is most important.

The challenge comes when grace meets sin, in particular sin in the life of people who are representing Christ in this world.  Grace must cover over sin, or it is not grace.  Grace teaches us that we are all in a place of need because we all fall short.  Grace knows that our brothers and sisters will fail.

But is there a limit to grace?  When is the right response discipline and judgment, not mercy and unconditional acceptance?

It seems from this chapter that the Corinthians were a deeply graceful people.  In fact they were so gracious they took pride in what they had forgiven and accepted, even in their midst.  This is likely what they were “boasting” about in verses 2 and 6.  Apparently, a man’s father died and some time after (maybe soon after?) this man took his father’s second wife (surely not his own mother or the text would have said as much) as his own wife.  More to the point, this was deemed scandalous, immoral, and undignified even in their permissive Corinthian society (5:1).  The Corinthian Christians surely saw this as wrong as well, but they had chosen to respond with acceptance instead of judgment and exclusion.  How noble and mature, right?  In a world of judgmental Christians better known for picketing funerals and petitioning politicians and excluding “dirty” people from their social circles, it is very easy still today to want to be the ultra-accepting ones.

Except Paul didn’t feel this way.  In fact, he was beside himself with the Corinthians (“Well I never!,” 5:1b).  This is grace run amok.  Grace is supposed to attract people to God, and this “grace” was a turn off even for the pagans.  And that right there is the key point for Paul:

Everybody’s talking about the sex scandal that’s going on in your community, not least because it’s a kind of immorality that even pagans don’t practice! (5:1)

Grace is not intended to enable sin, rather to move us past our sin in gratitude for such a gift.  We are a re-created people; “depravity and wickedness” have been taken from us (5:6-7).  Why would we allow our sin to remain and fester within us?  Dealing with sin with kid gloves thinking it will go away is a dangerous naiveté.

Paul proposes a different tack.  There is a place for judgment within the church.

Let me tell you what I’ve already done.  I may be away from you physically, but I’m present in the spirit; and I’ve already passed judgment, as though I was there with you, on the person who has behaved this way. . . . You must hand over such a person to the satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord Jesus. (5:3, 5)

Note, Paul is talking about how Christians deal with other Christians, not non-Christians (5:9-13).  It is fine to show one’s support for a restaurant because of their stance on gay marriage amongst predominantly non-Christian people, but do we deal with the greed and gluttony and bigotry in our own midst as vigilantly?

Judgment, exclusion, discipline, handing over to Satan, not associating with — well, that doesn’t sound very gracious now, does it?  Certainly all of those response can be done with entirely wrong, depraved motives.  But that is not what Paul is intending here.  Notice what the purpose of this sort of discipline is: “the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved” (5:5).  Put distance between you and the offender so as to get him back again but as a spiritually-stronger, morally-cleansed brother.  Produce a situation where the immoral one feels a loss of love that causes repentance.  The goal is salvation.  The desire is to draw that person closer to God again.  That is an act of grace, albeit a different sort.  That grace says you deserve for us to write you off and have nothing to do with you ever again, but instead we will pray for you, keep you on our radar, and welcome you back with open arms when you decide to turn around.  This is the grace of the father of the prodigal son who never went looking for the son, yet welcomed him home as a dearly loved son not just the slave he was willing to be.

Yes, even discipline can be an act of grace.  Grace motivates change, so the approach Paul was taking fits.  Ironically, what doesn’t fit is the “grace” of the Corinthians.  Nothing would change in unqualified, principle-less acceptance of a perversion even non-Christians find offensive.  In fact, the only thing that changes is the reputation of the Church and the Christ who we serve.  And for the worse.

What do you think?

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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)

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Luke 13: One More Year

I have been reading the Bible for a long time, but I can honestly say I don’t believe I have ever really noticed this parable.

Once upon a time there was a man who had a fig tree in his vineyard.  He came to it looking for fruit, and didn’t find any.  So he said to the gardener, “Look here!  I’ve been coming to this fig tree for three years hoping to find some fruit, and I haven’t found any!  Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?”

“I tell you what, Master,” replied the gardener; “let it alone for just this one year more.  I’ll dig all around it and put on some manure.  Then, if it fruits next year, well and good; and if not, you can cut it down.” (13:6-9)

I am amazed by the amount of grace in this little parable.  One man is ready to give up on the fig tree.  The other one (Jesus?) wants to wait just one more year.  One more chance!  That is our God!  Yes, it is grace mixed with expectation.  This fig tree needs to produce.  But, when others are ready to cut it down, Jesus isn’t.  Not yet.

Do we ever write people off too soon?  It seems like this parable is implying so.

What do you think?  

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Colossians 4: Everyday Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did you learn from Colossians this week?

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Romans 6: Free at Last!

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and freed all slaves living in America.  He was the president, he said they were free, and that is that.

Well, it wasn’t really that easy.  The Confederates were no longer acknowledging Lincoln as their president so his words weren’t worth much to them anymore.  At least until the Union won the Civil War and asserted their power and laws.

So at the point of the Emancipation Proclamation were the slaves free or not?

You are only free to the degree people (including yourself) let you be free.

There were pockets of slave owners in Texas that got together and conspired to keep the word of the Emancipation Proclamation from their slaves.  It wasn’t that hard to do.  Many slaves could not read.  The slave owners would also run abolitionists out of town or even in rare cases kill them lest they stir up the slaves into dissension.  When rumors of freedom did get through to the slaves, all the slave owners had to do was tell them to look at their situation.  How could these rumors be true?  They don’t appear to be free, do they?  In the end, in these pockets of Texas, even though slavery had been abolished, freedom was denied to the slaves for another two years.

The Roman Christians were at a crossroads.  Theologically they had to decide how free they would allow themselves to be.  Their slave masters were not flesh and blood though.  They had to decide how free from law and sin they would be.

Paul has been painting a picture of Law that is not pretty.  There is within fallen humanity a propensity to sin (5:12-13), but until a command comes along declaring what we should and should not do the sinful desires inside of us do not know how to tempt us (3:20).  Think of children: as soon as you say don’t do something, what do they want to do?  The very thing prohibited.  Likewise our sinful desires.  The law was not intended to be a way to salvation, rather it showed us how depraved we truly are (5:20).  To hang on to law as a way to get right with God is nonsensical.  Law leads to sin which produces guilt and ultimately death (6:23), whether spiritual death or the metaphorical death of hope and love and goodness.

In this chapter, Paul sketches out an alternative.  He tells the Roman Christians: “you have been freed from sin” (6:7, 18, 22). Sin is no longer their master, because they have been freed from an obligation to follow the Jewish Law.  Law played its role and now it is time for another option: the cross and the grace that is freely offered there.  As we identify ourselves with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through baptism (6:3-5) we choose a new cycle.  The cross brings freedom which produces gratitude and ultimately life.

The wages paid by sin, you see, are death; but God’s free gift is the life of the age to come, in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord. (6:23)

Paul, though, leaves these two opposing options as exactly that: choices.  The Roman Christians can choose to go the way of law or the way of the cross.  He argues one will lead to death and one to life.  They have been freed from sin by the power of the cross.  Through Christ’s resurrection God showed this truly is His world and life and death, freedom and slavery truly are His to determine.  But they still have to choose to not let sin have that power over them by going the way of grace through the cross, not the way of law and sin (6:12-14).  They would only be as free in the Roman church as they allowed themselves to be.

Nobody is encouraging us to follow the Jewish Law these days, but we can still give our freedom away to a works-oriented religion.  Again, this only leads to inevitable failure, overwhelming guilt, and the death of hope.  But the cross still stands before us today offering grace and freedom, propelling us into a grateful and abundant life of service to God and others.

The choice is ours.  How free will we allow ourselves to be?

What struck you in this chapter?

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Romans 5: Grace All The More!

Down at the core of the gospel that this book of Romans is so much about (1:16-17) are two truths:

  • We are all a bunch of rascals.
  • But God can save us anyway.

The first point we don’t like to accept, especially in a culture where we grew up on self-esteem slogans and a foundational belief that all people are good.  The second point we absolutely love.  We deem it an inalienable right.  Though, I wonder if we can really appreciate the second point if we don’t fully accept the first.  Maybe that is why some of my favorite verses in the Bible are right here in this chapter:

While we were still weak, at that very moment he died on behalf of the ungodly. (5:6)

This is how God demonstrates his own love for us: the Messiah died for us while we were still sinners. (5:8)

When we were enemies, you see, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son. (5:10)

Where sin increased, grace increased all the more. (5:20)

It’s all about grace, and when we forget that we get out of alignment.  Then we sell our uniqueness and settle for something that is just like everything else.

Thank God for His abundant grace!

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Romans 3: Bad News, Good News

Sometimes to really appreciate the good news we have to first understand the bad news.  It seems this is what Paul has been doing in Romans and it all comes to a head in Romans 3.

Lest the Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Roman church who have been jockeying with each other for power miss the point, Paul makes everything crystal clear:

Jews as well as Greeks are all under the power of sin. (3:9)

No one is in the right — nobody at all!  No one understands, or goes looking for God; all of them alike have wandered astray, together they have all become futile; none of them behaves kindly, no, not one. (3:10-12)

For there is no distinction: all sinned, and fell short of God’s glory. (3:22-23)

Both sides need to stop their posturing for a minute and face a fact.  Jew or Gentile, it doesn’t matter.  Both are sinful in their own ways.  Both are equally sinful.  Sin, of some sort, has slithered into their hearts and is slowly taking over.  At this point there is only one thing that matters and they are all the same in this way: they are doomed because of sin.

And right at the point of that depressing fact is when Paul gives the first of several statements of the gospel or “good news” in Romans:

By God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus.  God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. . . . He declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus. (3:24-26)

It isn’t how good we are that matters, it is how good Jesus was.  It isn’t what kind of blood we have running through our veins that matters, it is whether we have been covered by Jesus’ blood.  It isn’t the rituals we have done that save us, it is the ritual of sacrifice that Jesus did that saves us.  Jew, Gentile, Greek, Barbarian, American, Afghani, Iranian, devoted church attender, or tortured soul — it doesn’t matter.  We are all the same at the foot of the cross.  Sinners saved by grace.

What one phrase from this majestic chapter means the most to you, and why?

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Matthew 27: Let His Blood Be On Us!

I am struck by the utter irony of this passage:

“So what shall I do with Jesus the so-called Messiah?” asked Pilate.

“Let him be crucified!” they all said.

“Why?” asked Pilate. “What’s he done wrong?”

But they shouted all the louder, “Let him be crucified!”

Pilate saw that it was no good.  In fact, there was a riot brewing.  So he took some water and washed his hands in front of the crowd.  “I’m not guilty of this man’s blood,” he said.  “It’s your problem.”

Let his blood be on us!” answered all the people, “and on our children!”  (27:22-25)

Of course, the crowd means they will gladly take the guilt of killing Jesus.  His death is justified.  He is a law-breaker and blasphemer.  He incites riots and disturbs the peace.  Look at the company he keeps: he likely has some hidden sin.   If he really is God’s son then he can save himself.  But he won’t.  This guy is a ruffian.  We’ll answer for spilling his blood.

The irony is that by the end of the day that is exactly what happened.  Jesus’ shed blood was potentially “upon them and their children,” but not at all in the way they had imagined.  That blood signified redemption and atonement.  It meant they all had the potential to be saved by the very man they had crucified.  And if they accepted that invitation that blood would wash away their sins.  Were some of these same people among the 3000 saved on Pentecost forty days later?

What an amazing reminder of the grace of God!  He gives them what they want, and so much more!

What did you notice today?

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Matthew 20: A Kingdom of Rejects

"The Red Vineyard" by Vincent Van Gogh

Today I had one of those “I’ve never seen that line before” experiences.

Jesus tells the crowds the parable of the vineyard workers.  The vineyard owner goes out at the various times throughout the day hiring workers, but then pays all of them the same fair amount — one dinar, a day’s wage.  No one is shorted, mind you.  The owner is extravagantly generous with the workers who came late in the day, especially those who only worked one hour.  Fifty dollars to pick lettuce for a whole day in California’s Central Valley is half-decent if you are a migrant worker; fifty dollars for working an hour in the same fields is a celebration!  This is a wonderful parable of God’s grace, and a sober reminder that there have always been and still are hard-hearted people of God who don’t want anyone to get something they don’t deserve.

"The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard" by Rembrandt (I love the contrast between the come-lately pair in the right foreground laughing about their good fortune and the consternation on the look of the all-day workers grabbing hold of the landowner who seem to feel like they have been cheated)

It is verse 7 that I have never seen before.  The vineyard owner asked the last group of hired workers why they were still standing in the marketplace with nothing to do.  Their response:

“Because no one has hired us,” they replied. (20:7a)

These are the rejects.  The picked-over leftovers.  The pathetic lot who couldn’t get a job earlier.  And the vineyard owner utters the most wonderful words to them too:

“Well,” he said, “you too can go into the vineyard.” (20:7b)

The landowner’s vineyard — God’s kingdom — is a place even for the rejects.  Praise God!

What did you notice in this chapter?  

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Matthew 7: Kingdom Is As Kingdom Does

There is just too much “doing” in this chapter for this sermon to be nothing more than pie-in-the-sky idealism.

  • The word “do” (or “don’t,” “does,” “doesn’t,” “didn’t”) occurs 15 times in this one chapter.
  • Jesus encourages his audience to “ask,” “seek,” and “knock” (7:7), all very active verbs.
  • Jesus summarizes all that the Law and Prophets were teaching using the very active Golden Rule: “So whatever you want people to do to you, do just that to them” (7:12).
  • The calling card of genuine Christians is “the fruit they bear” or “produce” (7:16-19; “produce” is used 5 times in 3 verses).

Clearly, the Kingdom will come into existence by doing.  Granted, the Kingdom is not of our doing, as if it is the work of our hands.  But we are disregarding the activity in Matthew 7 if we think God will bring His Kingdom while we sit back passively waiting.

"The Wise and Foolish Builders" by Danny Halbohm

Don’t get me wrong.  I am no legalist who glories in my good works.  People who sit in my classes hopefully will tell you that is not the focus on my teaching.  People who know me the best will also tell you I don’t have enough good works to glory in!  We don’t “do” in order to get; we “do” because of what we’ve got.  But the world needs more than a Church that offers cheap grace that neither changes anything within us nor demands anything from us.  This world needs wise builders who hear and do.  The skeptical around us need to investigate the vines of our lives and find abundant fruit.  They need people who have actually found the gate that leads through the “tight squeeze” (7:14) to the narrow path and have turned around to show others the way.

This is the sort of thing Jesus meant when he said “Follow me!” (4:19)

A rhetorical question (if you wish): who in your life needs you to “do” this Sermon?

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Galatians 4: Children of Freedom

However, at that stage [before coming to Christ] you didn’t know God, and so you were enslaved to beings that, in their proper nature, are not gods.  But now that you’ve come to know God — or, better, to be known by God — how can you turn back again to that weak and poverty-stricken lineup of elements that you want to serve all over again? (4:8-9)

Most who study the background of Paul’s letter to the Galatians agree that the Christians addressed in this book were originally Roman pagans.  Before Christ they “didn’t know God.”  They worshiped “beings that . . . are not gods,” though the Galatians would have thought they were.  They worshiped “elemental spirits,” some translations say, that is supposed spiritual powers that were tied to the elements of nature.  These Galatians were likely those converted in Antioch, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium.  Remember, when Barnabas and Paul arrived in Lystra they were first thought to be Zeus and Hermes respectively (Acts 14:8-20), a reaction that makes sense when we consider their paganism.

Now, at the behest of the Judaizers, the Galatian Christians were adopting a form of Christianity that practiced Jewish ritualism.  In fact, the Jewish laws and customs had become their real source of confidence, not the grace of God made available through Jesus.  Though this passage above says the Galatians were turning “back,” almost all agree they were not returning to paganism and that Paul is saying that their adoption of Jewish ritualism is really just turning back to a system that is akin to paganism is fundamental ways.

We could diagram it this way:

How was Jewish ritualism so akin to Roman paganism that Paul would see this as turning back, as if we have a boomerang effect like in the diagram above?  How could Jewish ritualism be closer to Roman paganism than to the gospel of Jesus?

The answer in one word was slavery.  In Paul’s mind both Roman paganism and Jewish ritualism enslaved a person.  Yes, they did this in different ways and their rituals and beliefs were radically different, but they ended up enslaving the worshipper just the same.  Whether one was offering a long line of seasonal sacrifices to the deities of Rome or one was doing the same to God, the result was the same.  The worshipper always had to do more, always had to curry favor with the gods or God, always paid off a debt, and always had to keep the angry gods or God happy.  There is no end to that “weak and poverty-stricken” system of slavery, whether done in Rome or Jerusalem.  On the other hand, true freedom could only be found in the grace of Jesus.  In Christ there is no more slavery (3:28).

I would like to assert that this same dynamic happens in Christian circles today.  We too have the boomerang of legalism.

It is easy to point out religious legalism when you see it.  This would be a legalism that says there is a highly religious routine or ritual that has to be done in order to achieve acceptance with God.  Religion is the way to salvation.  One is right with God because they have done particular religious rituals, as if the communion elements or baptismal waters have magical powers to cleanse.  One earns brownie points with God as he attends the prescribed worship services, serves in a public way in the correctly-performed church service, and gives a set amount of money to the church.  In religious legalism there is a correct set of beliefs and pattern for worship, and it is of utmost importance to discover and conform to these if one wants to be considered a true Christian.  Of course, the problem with religious legalism is the attitude with which these things are done, not the actions themselves.  Religion legalism trusts in human action.  It says the power of salvation rests in the efforts of the person to think and act correctly.  As futile as it is, religious legalism only leads to slavery.

For many of us religious legalism was an early trap we were able to escape from long ago.  It was our first religion, so to say.  But I see another legalism, though, that develops later that is just as enslaving.  For lack of a better term, let’s call this one progressive legalism (can you think of a better name?).  Let me stipulate that I would describe myself (and many would agree) as a progressive Christian, though I try to avoid legalism.  Nonetheless, I have seen how the practice of spiritual disciplines can become another list of things that must be done by good Christians in order to curry favor with God.  I have seen in others and experienced in myself a sense of self-satisfaction (or guilt and despair) in a list of benevolent efforts done for the poor.  There is within some progressives a set of required beliefs too, and those who do not hold these are considered inferior.  And that is when the slavery begins — to lists, earned favor, human actions, an expected way of thinking, an air of superiority, and the never-ending need to keep doing.

Though we might be tempted to place religious legalism and progressive legalism on the opposite ends of a continuum, in reality they are too alike for that.  This is the boomerang effect again, as we realize they are plagued by the same flaws.  Both are ritualistic.  Both rely on human actions.  Both are impotent and cannot change human beings.  Both rob us of freedom.

As Paul reminds us at the end of chapter four using Abraham and the mothers of his two sons as examples,

We are not children of the slave-girl, but of the free. (4:31)

Freedom is only found in Christ.

Where else have you seen this dynamic?

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Galatians 3: No Need for a Babysitter Anymore

Before this faithfulness [of Jesus] arrived, we were kept under guard by the law, in close confinement until the coming faithfulness should be revealed.  Thus the law was like a babysitter for us, looking after us until the coming of the Messiah, so that we might be given covenant membership on the basis of faithfulness.  But now that faithfulness has come, we are no longer under the rule of the babysitter.  (3:23-25)

I had many a babysitter growing up.

There was Debbie from down the street.  She introduced me to Deborah Harry (aka Blondie) right at the height of the punk rock rage.  Then it was Debbie’s sister and several teenage girls from church.  After that, being five and seven years older than my brothers, I became the babysitter.  I remember the time, though, I thought I was too cool to babysit my brothers, so my parents got one of my classmates named Renee to babysit.  I was told that if I were too cool to babysit, then I was also too cool to stay in the house while they were away.  I was exiled to the nearby park.  There was also the summer we had a procession of “nannies,” all college girls from the local Baptist church.  The most memorable of those was the one who was visiting from Zimbabwe for the summer.  She made us hotdogs one day and buttered the buns.  Didn’t toast them or anything.  Just butter right up on the hotdog.  Okay.

Babysitters are great . . . for a time.  But it would be kind of weird, however, having a babysitter when you are 32.  When your children are approaching the teen years you kind of get a sense that if they need a babysitter still, they might be a bit behind the curve.  There is a time for the babysitting to stop.

When maturity comes, parents have faith in their children.  Faith too in their parenting.  They trust that the growing child has the inner guidance to go the right way themselves.  Once you have experienced the freedom of adulthood, you don’t need a babysitter anymore.

What verse really got you thinking?

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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?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Galatians

Galatians was a favorite of the Reformers.  Martin Luther said of the book: “This is ‘my’ epistle.  I am wedded to it.”  Galatians has also been a favorite of evangelicals, given our focus on salvation.  As we start the epistles of Paul, there may be no better start.  Paul gives us the gospel, stripped down and simple, and leads us to the Holy Spirit as our power for spiritual living.

Almost no one questions whether Paul wrote Galatians.  In fact, Galatians may be his first letter, or at least one of the earliest.  Whether Christians have to be circumcised is a big question in the letter, and this was an issue that was settled definitively in Acts 15.  Strangely, Paul never cites that decision in Galatians, possibly suggesting this letter was written even before the events of Acts 15.  That would mean that the events of Galatians 2 refer to Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Acts 11:30.  Regardless, what we have here is some of Paul’s earliest thinking.

Historically, there has been no agreement on whether Paul is writing to Galatian Christians in the northern part of that Roman province or to Christians in the southern cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, converts from his first missionary journey.  Remember back to Acts 13-14, how Paul had quick success in this region only to be followed by fast opposition from the Judaizers, Jewish Christians who believed that one had to become a good Jew in order to be a good Christian.  It makes most sense to me that Paul is writing the Galatians in the southern province as a rapid rebuttal to the Judaizers who are jeopardizing his work.

What do you have to do to really be considered a Christian?  What is it that truly saves a person?  These are the questions Galatians will take up in a big way.  They are also questions we often ask today as well.  There will be much that is helpful in this short book.

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Mark 14: The Beginning of the End

It seems strange to be reading about the Last Supper, Gethsemane, and the beginning of Jesus’ trials already.  Mark is truly short and to the point.  In his preface to the KNT, N. T. Wright calls the Gospel of Mark a “revolutionary tract” (xiv), and that point has come out to me more so in this reading than ever before.

There is much to comment on in this long chapter.  What stood out the most to me was this wonderful juxtaposition of disappointment and grace:

“You’re all going to desert me,” said Jesus, “because it’s written, ‘I shall attack the shepherd, and then the sheep will scatter.’  But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” (Mark 14:27-28)

Jesus knows his dearest friends will run away instead of stay by his side when the time comes for his arrest and death.  There is that young man (John?) who is only wearing a tunic (?) but he runs away too in the end.  Peter stays a stone’s throw away but utters his fated denials.  Desert him they do.  Still, knowing that they will leave him, Jesus says he will never leave them.  In fact, he will go ahead of them to Galilee to prepare the way.  He will care for them until the end and even after that.  What a wonderful Savior!

Jesus prays while the apostles sleep

Now, jump over to Mark 16:7.  The women come to Jesus’ tomb on Easter Sunday.  Amazed, they meet an angel sitting on the rolled away tombstone.  He told them:

“But go and tell his disciples — including Peter — that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.  You’ll see him there, just like he told you.”

More grace!  The angel singles out Peter to be told specifically that he is welcome in Galilee.  That Jesus is right there waiting for him.  The very same Peter who had denied Jesus three times.

As many of you know, it is typically thought that Mark is writing his gospel in Rome based on the testimony and memories of Peter himself.  As Max Lucado said of this passage, you have to imagine Peter had a big lump in his throat when he told this story.

Praise God for His grace, patience, and kindness to us!  He goes before us today.  

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