Posts Tagged With: Paul

Revelation 11: A Turning Point

The-turning-point-in-relationships-signTurning points.  We love them.  Or hate them, depending on which way things turn.  When things start turning in a favorable way, they are the dawning light of a new day.  They possess hope enough to fight on.

D-Day was one such turning point.  Thursday, June 6, 1944.  Tides turned for the Allied Forces on that day.  That Hitler and the Axis Powers had gone from the hunters to the hunted was becoming clear.  However, there was still fighting to be done.  V-E Day would not be for another eleven months, Wednesday, May 8, 1945.

In many ways I read this chapter, seemingly the contents of the bittersweet “little scroll” of chapter 10, as a similar turning point.

John receives a vision of two witnesses guarded safely through a period of persecution (42 months = 1260 days = 3.5 years = time, times, half a time → were all symbolic ways to depict an indefinite period of trial, based on Daniel 8).  However, when that time period is over and their message has been faithfully delivered, protection is lifted and the people of the “great city” of “Sodom” or “Egypt” kill them and leave them for public disgrace.  After 3.5 days, the two are resurrected and whisked away to the heavens.  At this point the angelic chorus of God’s throne-room breaks into unmatched praise and announcement of a decisive turning point.  Now is the time “to destroy the destroyers of the earth” (11:18).

Who exactly are the “two witnesses”?  There are many, many interpretations.  This may be one of the most contested passages in the book.  Almost all see that the two witnesses are described as Elijah (fire devouring enemies, shut up the sky from raining, v.5-6) and Moses (water turned to blood, calling down plagues, v.6), but who or what is being referred to by these figures?  If this vision is talking about actual people, I am most drawn to the suggestion that this would be Peter and Paul, both of whom died during the reign of Nero in public ways in Rome (always the “great city” in Revelation, and understandably like the immoral Sodom and tyrannical Egypt, v.8).

Now, fifteen years later, the Jesus movement did not in fact die as one might have expected it to after the persecutions of Nero.  Almost as if it were “back from the dead,” as strong as ever before, the tables have turned.  There are dark days ahead for the seven churches addressed in this book as Domitian brings a second wave of persecution in Asia Minor, but God will see them safely through this as he did before, at least safely through the second death of martyrdom to the great reward of new life.  Rome dealt its death-blow to those brought to Christ by the apostle to the Jews (Peter) and the apostle to the Gentiles (Paul), but death could not keep her down.  The fate of the kingdoms of the world is sealed at this point.  Victory is in sight.  Rome is going down.  Rome is now the hunted.  Justice is coming.  In many ways, what we will see as we keep on reading will be the undoing of the forces of evil opposed to God.

Verse 15 may be one of my favorite verses in the entire Bible:

The seventh angel blew his trumpet, and loud voices were heard from heaven.  “Now the kingdom of the world has passed to our Lord and his Messiah,” said the voices, “and he will reign forever and ever.”

There is nothing that God is after more than the redemption of His creation — people and place.  This is the New Creation, when this world is rescued from the forces of evil and it becomes the domain of God once again.  Here in the middle of the book we are given a glimmer of the glory to come.

What do you think?

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2 Thessalonians 2: Beware the Man of Lawlessness!

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

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2 Thessalonians 1: Worthy of Salvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What caught your eye today?

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1 Thessalonians 3: The Inevitably of Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

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1 Thessalonians 2: Sharing Our Very Lives

from “The Emperor’s Club” (2002)

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

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

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

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

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

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

What caught your eye today?  

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1 Thessalonians 1: Keep on Going!

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

1.  You are off to a great start!  

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

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

2.  Follow our example!  

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

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

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

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

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

What stood out to you in this chapter?  

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BONUS: An Introduction to the Thessalonian Letters

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Titus 2: Be the Pattern

Preach the gospel always; use words if necessary.

These are the famous words of St. Francis of Assisi, and good ones at that.  Though not a Christian, Mahatma Gandhi said this:

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Long before both of these men, Paul said something similar to Titus:

Make sure you present yourself as a pattern of good works.  Your teaching must be consistent and serious, in healthy speech that is beyond reproach.  That way, our opponents will be ashamed, since they won’t have anything bad to say about us. (2:7-8)

The world needs fewer sermons and more people who live the sermons they have already heard.  If Titus was ever going to be successful in fulfilling Paul’s charge to create strong churches on the sinful island of Crete, the revolution had to start in his own heart.  He could ask for nothing from those Christians and offer nothing to Crete he wasn’t able to be a pattern of.  He was to be the walking sermon.

So too with us.  We can rage on about the moral decay of our world, but until we are the change we are advocating, things will never get better.  Strong churches are composed of Christians with strong character who offer to the world by their very lifestyle an attractive alternative to sin.  

What did you see in this chapter about being a strong leader?

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Titus 1: Strong Leaders with a Strong Aversion

How should a church operate in a very sinful culture?  What most needs to be said to a group of Christians living in a place where the natives even say of themselves, “Cretans are always liars, evil animals, idle guzzlers” (1:12)?  As we read through the three short chapters of Titus this week, let’s concentrate on this question.  You can go back to this post to read a little bit about Titus, Paul’s letter to him, and the island of Crete where Titus was stationed.

Paul’s first point in this chapter is that a church in such a decadent place must have strong leadership.  This was Titus’ main charge:

This is why I left you in Crete: you are to set straight all the remaining matters, and appoint elders for every town, as I charged you to do. (1:5)

If a church is ever going to be true to Jesus in a world that woes away the Beloved with desire and wantonness, they must have strong leaders leading the way.  These leaders must be trying to seeking after godliness not selfish gain or they will never stand against the easy slide towards cultural accommodation.  They must be able to oversee a group and their ability for this is best seen in how they have led their own children.  Above all they must be people of character.

Secondly, a church surrounded by sin will only stand if they have a strong aversion to that sin.  By nature, sin is alluring.  Weak Christians will quickly cave into the temptation of sin and the work of the gospel will be frustrated if a distaste for sin is not fostered.  There is sin that tempts from within a church and without.  Paul wants these churches to be guard against both cultural decadence in a drunken, sexual immoral, unchaste society; but they must also be alert to the threat of doctrinal unorthodoxy.  For the Cretan churches Titus was ministering to, this meant be they had to be wary of the legalism of the “circumcision party” (1:10), likely a Judaizing version of Christianity.  For us today it could mean any number of teachings that pull us away from a core belief in grace (we don’t please God by our own merit) and good works (we can’t get lazy and believe there is nothing to do in a fallen world).

Only strong churches stand in the face of sin.  Strong leadership and a strong distaste for sin.

What did you notice about how a church can stay strong though surrounded by sin?

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2 Timothy 4: Paul’s Last Words

If it is true that 2 Timothy is Paul’s last preserved letter, today we read Paul’s last recorded words.  This passage especially captures the moment:

For I am already being poured out as a drink-offering; my departure time as arrived.  I have fought the good fight; I have completed the course; I have kept the faith.  What do I still have to look for?  The crown of righteousness!  The Lord, the righteous judge, will give it to me as my reward on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. (4:6-8)

What hit home with you as you read the letters to Timothy?

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2 Timothy 2: There Is Work to Do

Soldier.  Athlete.  Farmer.  Workman.  Servant.

These are the five sorts of people Paul calls Timothy to become like (2:3, 5, 6, 15, 24).  Why?  What do these roles have in common? What is Paul trying to say?

Paul tells us some of his point.  Soldiers are called to suffer for a higher calling (2:3).  Athletes have a strict code of conduct by which they must compete (2:5).  At harvest time, farmers get paid back for their hard work (2:6).  Workmen “carve out” straight paths from the wilderness (2:15).  Servants do the will of their master and do not compromise his interests (2:23-24).  But even more basic than that is this: all of these five have work to do.  They are fundamentally laborers, and can’t get off track lest they shirk their responsibilities.

In particular there are a handful of things Paul tells his “worker” Timothy to avoid:

  • Stir away from “civilian activities,” that is purely frivolous pursuits that do not advance the kingdom (2:4)
  • Avoid quarrels and disputes that don’t accomplish anything (2:14, 23)
  • Flee from anything that would leave one ashamed and dishonored (2:15, 21)
  • Resist the urge to run one’s mouth in pointless gossip (2:16)
  • Run away from the wicked gratification of youthful passions (2:19, 22)

There is simply too much to do.  There is no time to get off track.  Get back to work.

What did you notice in this chapter?  

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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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1 Timothy 2: The Topic Is Dispute, Not Women

I come from a conservative denomination.  By conservative I mean what is typically thought when that term is used.  “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” was a saying I often heard growing up.  Our denomination was founded by men who coined slogans like “We are just Christians” and “We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent.”  We didn’t dance, drink, smoke or chew, and certainly didn’t go with girls who do.  At summer camp the boys swam separate from the girls.  The college I attended, that is associated with the same denomination, has recently been called a “bastion of conservatism.”  When the long-time college president died during my time there as a student, George H. W. Bush sent a note of condolence.  Ann Coulter has spoken on campus.  You get the gist.

So you can imagine that we have also been pretty patriarchal when it comes to male and female roles in society and church.  There are certain things women are simply not free to do, and when an inquisitive child asks why, seeing that this is the 21st century and women and men are fast approaching equality in most arenas of life, he is taken to this chapter (and 1 Corinthians 14).

They [women] must study undisturbed,in full submission to God.  I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; rather, that they should be left undisturbed.  Adam was created first, you see, and then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the women was deceived, and fell into trespass. (2:11-14)

I have no interest in tackling female roles in ministry in this post.  I recently reviewed Scott McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet on my other blog and you can read a synopsis of his defense of the full participation of women in ministry there if you are interesting.  Suffice it to say, his is a view I did not grow up with.

I would like to make note of one point about the broader context of this chapter that comes out strongly when one comes to this chapter and is reading the New Testament through without any agendas, as we are doing this year, and that impacts the topic of women’s roles in ministry.  Look back to 1:4-5 from yesterday.  The false teachers stirred up dispute.  Those influenced by their teachings likely did as well.  Yet, Paul wanted Timothy to be a person of faith, love, and purity.  Earlier in this chapter, Paul instructs Timothy to encourage the people to pray for their political leaders so that they “may lead a tranquil and peaceful life, in all godliness and holiness” (2:2).  Men are instructed in this passage too, not just women.  They are told to lift up “holy hands” in prayer, which has less to do with worship style and much more to do with a spirit between brothers and sisters in which there is “no anger or disputing” (2:8).  Women are given instruction about their dress and appearance (instructions most people see as cultural, and no longer literally binding) and the most important point is that they are to be “modest and sensible,” “decent” women who are known for their good works not their fashions (2:9-10).  In 2:11-12 women (or at least some specific women in the Ephesian church) are told to conduct themselves in times of worship and learning with “silence” (most translations) or they should be left “undisturbed” so they can study in peace (Wright’s translation, one that seems rather flavored by his Anglican position on female roles in ministry).  Last, the chapter ends with the same phrases from chapter one:

. . . if she continues in faith, love, and holiness with prudence. (2:15)

Paying attention to the context does not crack the code on this passage as it pertains to women in ministry; I think you could make this passage support any position.  What we must do is honor the Bible enough to let the main point stay the main point and not lose it in the midst of our pet issues and positions.  Paul was addressing a church in the midst of dispute, a church quick to argue, who thought that argument was in fact a badge of honor.  Paul couldn’t have disagreed more and he encouraged Timothy to adopt the same approach.  Men were arguing.  Depending on which translation you use, women were either arguing as well or were so oppressed they were not able to study without harassment.  Paul’s main point is clear, though: stop arguing.

It is kind of ironic to me that we argue about this passage so much.

What do you think?

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1 Timothy 1: Beware of False Teachers!

Lurking in the background of most Pauline letters is some person, group, or philosophy that threatens the orthodox beliefs and practices of the Christianity that Paul was spreading.  This is very much true in the letters to Timothy.

As we start our two weeks with these letters, let’s look at a profile of these “false teachers.”

  • They teach “false doctrines” (1:3; 6:3)
  • They want to be “teachers of the law” (1:7)
  • They base their teachings on myths not facts and genealogies not stories (1:4; 4:7)
  • They come off as conceited (1:7; 6:4)
  • They are argumentative, produce controversy, and disrupt the peace in the church (1:4; 6:4; 2 Tim 2:23)
  • They were full of meaningless and foolish talk, showing that they don’t really know what he are talking about (1:6-7; 6:4; 2 Tim 2:23)
  • They encouraged asceticism (4:3)
  • They used their authority for financial gain (6:5)

When you put this all together, this sketch does not produce a definitive identity.  Clearly, like many of Paul’s opponents, they were tying the Jewish law to the way of Christ.  The asceticism and emphasis on myth and genealogy could come from Judaism or from an early version of Gnosticism that was becoming popular in Asia Minor especially.

Maybe the most important point about these false teachers is what Paul says today:

That sort of thing breeds disputes rather than the instruction in faith that comes from God.  The goal of such instruction is love — the love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. (1:4-5)

This was a false teaching that emphasized the obscure and ineffectual while neglecting the most important elements of the way of Christ: faith, love, and purity.

What does a Christian leader look like today who is similar to these false teachers?

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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?

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2 Corinthians 10: Boasting Without the Ego

Some days it seems like we are swimming in a sea of ego.

Here in America, the presidential campaigns are heating up and there is enough ego to choke on coming from both parties.  I guess that is part of the game.  Football seasons are cranking up and a great number of athletes are more than willing to tell us how good they are.  In the world of Howard Stern, Usain Bolt, LeBron James, and Lady Gaga self-promotion is a must.  Then our kids learn this and life imitates art in the hallways of schools across America and on Facebook and Instagram pages.

How do we walk like Christ through the world of ego?  

We are headed now into the last big part of 2 Corinthians where the idea of “boasting” is key.  In this chapter alone the word “boast” is used seven times in eighteen verses.  As we will see more clearly in the next chapter but as has been seen several times already in the Corinthians correspondence, pride was certainly encouraged in the self-important culture of Achaia.  A person needed to make a name for themselves, develop the skills and personality traits that were admired, and then they didn’t need to feel bad about making these known.  Furthermore, pride always brings about competition, and it seems it was also okay to point out your opponents failures in comparison to your strengths.  We can tell that in the Corinthian church there were people present not lacking in ego and quite willing to point out Paul’s inferiority.

Paul states in this chapter that he felt justified in joining in the boasting, but he would boast in what God had done through him, not his own accomplishments.

But when we boast, we don’t go off into flights of fancy; we boast according to the measure of the rule God has given us to measure ourselves by, and that rule includes our work with you! (10:13)

For Paul, the most important things he has ever done, the greatest bragging point is simply the success he has had evangelizing.  Yet, Paul also knows that success does not come from his great rhetoric, because he is sometimes lost for words.  It is not his charisma and personality; he is too meek and weak for that.  It is not some ministry proudly named after himself, because the power of his ministry came from God and the ability to change hearts always comes from God.  The Corinthians need not look for Paul’s credentials to be impressed.  They only need to look at their own history to realize, they would not be in Christ had Paul not come to town.

In a world of ego, we would do well to boast like Paul did:

Anyone who boasts should boast in the Lord! (10:17b)

What stood out to you in this chapter?  

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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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2 Corinthians 7: Godly Sadness

If I did make you sad by my letter, I don’t regret it; and, if I did regret it, it was because I saw that I made you sad for a while by what I had written.  Anyway, I’m celebrating now, not because you were saddened, but because your sadness brought you to repentance.  It was sadness from God, you see, and it did you no harm at all on our account; because God’s way of sadness is designed to produce a repentance which leads to salvation, and there is nothing to regret there!  But the world’s way of sadness produces death. (7:8-10)

We don’t like sadness in our culture.  Life is supposed to be happy all of the time.  Nothing but butterflies and rainbows.

Of course, you can’t have rainbows without rain clouds and butterflies emerge from a strenuous battle with a cocoon.

I am afraid that this “happy-all-the-time” mentality has seeped into American Christianity too.  We expect God to smooth every road before us.  Life with Jesus is supposed to be a charmed life.  Surely, hard times are punishment.  And those who bring hard words of correction are not welcomed people at all.

At some point prior to 2 Corinthians, Paul has written a “sad letter” to this church.  This description doesn’t really fit the tone of 1 Corinthians, so many scholars think Paul is referring to another, lost letter to the Corinthians.  Clearly, Paul had hard things to say.  Things the church did not want to hear.  Things that made them ashamed of themselves.  Those are uncomfortable letters to write and conversations to have, and Paul confesses he regretted having to write such a letter.  Yet, the sadness the letter produced was exactly what the Corinthians needed.  It woke them up and they acknowledged in repentance that Paul was right.  A momentary spate of sadness created a wholesale change of direction.  Truly, “there is nothing to regret there!”

This sort of godly sadness is absolutely necessary, and it reminds us that not all we greet as bad is necessarily so.  Godly sadness created changes and results in salvation and redemption of that which is lost, broken and dying in our lives.  Godly sadness is what makes rainbows and butterflies possible.  There is always hope underlying the sadness.

There is a worldly sadness that is rightly undesirable.  Worldly sadness is nothing but rain and there are no silver linings.  Worldly sadness sweeps the cocoon away in a torrent and butterflies never emerge.  Worldly sadness offers nothing but death.  Hope is nowhere to be found.

When was a rebuke the most appropriate word you have ever received?  

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2 Corinthians 6: Ministering with a Wide-Open Heart

We have been wide open in our speaking to you, my dear Corinthians!  Our heart has been opened wide!  There are no restrictions at our end; the only restrictions are in our affections!  I am speaking as to children: you should open your hearts wide as well in return.  That’s fair enough, isn’t it? (6:11-13)

No one should accuse Paul of holding back from the people he ministered to.  Paul opened his heart wide to the people he reached out to.  This was risky.  He opened himself to hurt, betrayal, and disappointment — the kind of things he mentioned in verses 4-10.   But in so doing, he also opened himself to great love from the Corinthians and meaningful change in their lives.  Paul knew we can’t expect from others what we aren’t willing to give to others ourselves.  We will only receive as much love, transparency, and vulnerability as we are willing to give to others.

We hear a lot of talk these days of boundaries and leaving the job at the office.  Ministers are warned not to get too close lest they get burned.  We are taught to create professional distance.  There is certainly a lot of wisdom in this advice.  Appropriateness, emotional maturity, and protection from lawsuit are all valuable considerations.  However, I have to wonder if the Paul who is talking in this passage, the Paul who gave all he was to his children in the faith, the Paul who knew that effective ministry required deep emotional investment would have agreed completely with conventional wisdom.  I wonder if he would have said as Parker Palmer did: “to know” those we minister to we must allow ourselves “to be known” just as deeply as we are expecting.  Maybe the better question is how to best be professional and yet truly available.

Fortunately I feel I only have to look at the “wide-open hearts” of those I teach with to see what Paul is talking about.  They are experts in their subjects but they also allow their lives to be a text in the class.  They share their own stories, their own successes and failures with students trying to navigate similar decisions.  They are not afraid to compliment, high-five, and hug.  They know how to laugh with a kid and chide him for poor thinking.  They are tired at the end of week from pouring out their very selves to their students, but they also they celebrate with their whole hearts at games, concerts, art shows, and homecoming activities.  They express their love and pride freely at the end of the year and they feel an honest loss when students graduate and leave.  They cry when discipline is necessary and love enough to bring it.

This is ministry, and it takes a wide-open heart to do it well.

What did you notice in this chapter?

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2 Corinthians 4: Fragile Strength

This is one of my favorite chapters in the whole Bible.  I am finding these are the hardest chapters of all to write much about.

Most of my life I have not felt good enough or strong enough.  The comparison game starts early in life and I usually felt and sometimes still feel like a middle-of-the-road kind of guy.  Furthermore, I see the magnitude of the mission of God and I feel especially incapable, weak, and overwhelmed.

That is probably why I am so drawn to this chapter.  Paul understands what I feel, and he found a better perspective.  I read these lines praying for these to be my true words as well.

We have this treasure in earthenware pots, so that the extraordinary quality of the power may belong to God, not to us.  We are under all kinds of pressure, but we are not crushed completely; we are at a loss, but not at our wit’s end; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are cast down, but not destroyed.  We always carry the deadness of Jesus about in the body, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our body.  Although we are still alive, you see, we are always being given over to death because of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our mortal humanity.  So this is how it is: death is at work in us — but life in you! . . . We know that the God who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us with Jesus and present us with you. . . . For this reason we don’t lose heart.  Even if our outer humanity is decaying, our inner humanity is being renewed day by day.  This slight momentary trouble of ours is working to produce a weight of glory, passing everything, lasting forever; for we don’t look at the things that can be seen, but at the things that can’t be seen.  After all, the things you can see are here today and gone tomorrow; but the things you can’t see are everlasting. (4:7, 10-12, 14, 16-18)

What line resonated with you today?

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2 Corinthians 3: Qualified for Ministry

So what makes you think you are qualified for ministry?

That seems like a pretty reasonable question.  In fact, it is the kind of question I would expect to receive if I were in an interview for a sales person job or an opening for a management position at a factory or a job as a crane operator at the construction site down the road.  A person needs to have the appropriate credentials if they are to assume they can do a job.

Isn’t it the same in ministry?

Don’t get me wrong.  There is nothing wrong with pursuing academic training in ministry.  I have two earned degrees in theology myself.  But is a person qualified for ministry if they have a degree in the field?  If they are a dynamic speaker?  If they have the charisma to capture a room and motivate people to achieve a goal?  If they go to lots of conferences and enact cutting edge thinking and technology in their churches?  If they can attract a crowd and grow the membership of a church?  If they can lead a capital campaign that nets millions of dollars?  Now flip it.  Is a person disqualified from ministry if they do not have these traits and abilities?

Think like a Corinthian.  We know their culture.  Wisdom, knowledge and education is good.  The cult of the personality will take you far.  Recommendations from the masses will take you far.  Gather a group of people to you and have them follow your teaching.  Sure, others might call it pride and “being puffed up” but really its just confidence.  We even know that this kind of cultural thinking had seeped into the church in Corinth in various ways.  If a group of people think like this, won’t they want credentials and recommendations?

Does that Corinthian thinking sound that different from everyday American thinking?

So, what qualifies a person for ministry?

Perhaps we need — as some do — official references to give you? . . . You are our official reference!  It’s written on our hearts! . . . That’s the kind of confidence we have toward God, through the Messiah.  It isn’t as though we are qualified in ourselves to reckon that we have anything to offer on our own account.  Our qualification comes from God: God qualified us to be stewards of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the spirit. (3:1-2, 4-6)

Paul appeals to two things as evidence to his qualifications as a minister:

  1. They only had to look at themselves.  How did they come to know about Christ?  Who brought them this far?  Their very lives were reference letters.
  2. They could see the marks of the Spirit in his life.  His power came from the power of the Spirit, not his own power.  His persuasive spirit was not his own, but God’s.  His charisma was the “charismata” (Greek for “gift”) that comes from the Spirit, not a charming personality.

One is qualified for ministry if there is within that person the Spirit who is changing the worshiper into the image of Jesus from one stage of glory to the next (3:18).

What caught your attention in this chapter?

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2 Corinthians 2: What’s That Smell?

Much of this new letter from Paul to the Corinthians revolves around a need Paul felt to defend his authority and reputation as an apostle.  We saw some of this in 1 Corinthians too.  It would appear there were other self-proclaimed apostles who had come to the Corinthian church after Paul who were discrediting Paul and trumpeting their own reputations.  In Paul’s response, we find some of the clearest teachings on what it means to be a minister of Christ, what our goal is for ministry, and from where our power comes (and we are all ministers if we choose to be, even if we don’t receive a paycheck from a church).  As much as possible, as we make our way through 2 Corinthians I am going to focus my posts on these ideas.

Today’s passage is a familiar one:

But thanks be to God — the God who always leads us in his triumphal procession in the Messiah, and through us reveals everywhere the sweet smell of knowing him.  We are the Messiah’s fragrance before God, you see, to those who are being saved and to those who are being lost.  To the latter, it’s a smell which comes from death and leads to death; but to the former it’s the smell of life which leads to life. (2:14-16)

It is not our job to save.  Our job is to witness, to live, to smell.  In fact we can’t help but smell.  That is just what happens when we live the way of Christ in this world.  People will sense something from our lives about what it means to know and be known by God.  Whether they like the aroma of our life is also out of our control.  Some will, some won’t.  And in the context of this passage, it has nothing to do with our level of sincerity.  Lost people can’t appreciate the smell of life.  But saved people find it as comforting as the smell of home-made brownies.  Our job is to walk, and even this is out of our control.  Prisoners of war were paraded, often in chains, through cities like Corinth in a “triumphal procession.”  God is even in control of where we walk.  Yet, we walk, and as we do a smell is emitted.  That is our job: to smell.

What did you notice about ministry in this chapter?

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1 Corinthians 16: Intentional Giving

We know from history that Judea was suffering from a famine at this point in time.  The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and the surrounding area were suffering from a famine.  For the Christians their problems were only compounded by the growing animosity between Jews and Christians and how this cut them off from the normal infrastructure of life.

We can tell from this letter and others that Paul had made it part of his mission to help the Jewish Christians by collecting money from Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia in order to bring relief when he soon visited Jerusalem.  Paul is discussing this in this chapter.  As a matter of logistics, Paul recommends that the Corinthians set aside their surplus money each week in order to have a store of money for the collection when he finally does visit Corinth on his way to Jerusalem.

On the first day of each week, every one of you should set aside and store up whatever surplus you have gained, so that when I come I won’t have to take an actual collection. (16:2)

I am struck by Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians (and to us) to be intentional in their giving.  This isn’t spur of the moment.  This is not a plea to give what you can spare.  This isn’t “brother, can you spare a dime?”  This is planned, purposeful giving and sacrifice over a number of months.  That is a good example.

What big idea really sunk in with you as you read 1 Corinthians?  

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1 Corinthians 12: Edification, Not Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did not notice in this chapter? 

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