Posts Tagged With: sin

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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John 9: Who Has Sinned?

“Healing the Blind Man” by Edy Legrand

Jesus and his disciples come upon a man who had been blind since birth.  He appears to be a well known man in his community (9:8).  A conversation ensues concerning sin and who is at fault for this man’s condition.  However, throughout the chapter who the sinner is becomes a hotly contested question.

Conventional wisdom at the time said people like this were being punished for sin.  Maybe it was the sin of the person afflicted; maybe it was due to the sin of the parents.  The disciples are thinking like this (9:2).  Who is the sinner?  Either the blind man himself or his parents.

Then we hear the Pharisees tell us who they thought had sinned.  Simply put, they thought everyone had sinned, well, except for them.  Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, so surely he was the sinner (9:16, 24).  When the formerly blind man refuses to agree with them that Jesus was the sinner, they declare him to be a sinner too (9:34).

Ask the formerly blind man and he would tell you that it isn’t likely that Jesus is a sinner (9:25):

God doesn’t listen to sinners. (9:31a)

Could it be that this man who had been blind since birth could actually see the truth more clearly than the religious leaders of his time?

Then Jesus got the last word.  Earlier he made it clear that neither the sin of the blind man nor his parents was the cause of this man’s blindness.  Jesus said he came to bring sight to the blind, while those with sight would be blind.  The Pharisees correctly interpret this as a slight against them.  Jesus, then, says this:

If you were blind you wouldn’t be found guilty of sin.  But now, because you say, “We can see,” your sin remains. (9:41)

Who has sinned?  The Pharisees.  They know better, yet deny him nonetheless.

What did you see in this chapter? 

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John 8: Dehumanizing Religion

One of the ugliest sides of religion is when it uses people.  Religion does this.  It pits people against each other in some cosmic game of “who is closer to God.”  We toot our own horns and then shoot pot-shots into other people.

In today’s reading, the religious people in the story drag a woman likely straight from the bedroom where she had been caught in adultery.  John even says, “they stood her out in the middle” of the crowd, before Jesus and asked him what should be done with her (8:3).  Are they really concerned with her sin?  Only mildly at best.  Are they really seeking justice?  Then where is the man she was with?  No, John makes it clear what they were doing:

They said this to test him, so that they could frame a charge against him. (8:6)

This woman is nothing more than a disgraced pawn caught in a desperate powerplay of the Pharisees.  She is just a platform on which to make their point that Law is to be followed.  She represents no more than an opportunity.  She is the faceless, story-less example of a moral issue.  This woman who had allowed herself to be used by a man for his passion is now being used by a whole cadre of men for their agenda of power.  The Pharisees are using this woman, in the name of religion.  Her sin was not excusable — and Jesus didn’t ignore it either (8:11b) — but she was still a human being.

When have we allowed our religious agendas to use people?  When has a person’s life become little more than a point in an argument or a story in a sermon?  When do we only see the immoral actions of people and fail to see the person doing the action?  Are there people who if they ceased to exist it would be fine with us?  Are there whole groups of people we easily write off with racial, religious, socio-economic, or political labels, caring less about their personal narratives?

Is there a way to follow our Master by seeing a person in need, not approving of their sin but also not condemning and dehumanizing them?

What caught your eye in this chapter?  

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1 Peter 4: Sharing the Sufferings of Jesus

There is so much to say about suffering in this chapter, but I am afraid with school activities and deadlines I do not have the time to do it justice.  Help me out!  Share with us today what you learned from this chapter.  Here are the verses I was drawn to today and a few initial and random thoughts about suffering faithfully.

So, then, just as the Messiah suffered in the flesh, you too must equip yourselves with the same mental armor. (4:1a)

Jesus had to suffer, so do we really think we will not?  But suffering is more successfully faced when he prepare our minds to face it.  It we run headlong into hard times clothed only with raw emotion, we should not be surprised when we come out cut, bruised and wounded.

Someone who suffers in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of their mortal life no longer according to human desires but according to God’s will. (4:1b-2)

Suffering trains the heart and equips us to overcome the weaknesses that allow sin to reside in our lives so easily.  Suffering may be as pleasant as working out is for many of us, but it may also be as beneficial in the long run.

They will have to account for it [the curses of sinful people] before the one who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (4:5)

In the middle of all of this talk about suffering, Peter reminds us God gets the last word.  Justice will come in the end.

Keep absolutely firm in your love for one another, because “love covers a multitude of sins.”  Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Just as each of you has received a gift, so you should use it for ministry to one another. (4:8-10)

We can’t face suffering alone.  We need the fellowship of others.

Beloved, don’t be surprised at the fiery ordeal which is coming upon you to test you, as though this were some strange thing that was happening to you. (4:12)

Suffering tests and reveals how genuine our faith really is.  That can be a scary outcome.  It can also be a blessing.

You are sharing the sufferings of the Messiah. (4:13)

It is one thing to benefit from the sufferings of Jesus.  What an esteemed calling to also share in those sufferings, to actually be able to say we know a piece of what Jesus went through!

Caravaggio, “The Crucifixion of Peter” — Peter knew something about “sharing the sufferings of Jesus,” tradition says Peter was crucified in imitation of Jesus, but upside down because he protested that he was not worthy to be crucified the same way Jesus was

What stood out to you today?  

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1 John 1: Just the Right Words

1 John is the The New England Primer for all first-year Greek students.  I knew I was hitting the big time when I graduated from my 50 flashcards of basic Greek vocabulary to the actual text of 1 John in my Greek New Testament.  As one can tell from today’s reading, this is possible because John uses a very limited vocabulary in his letters.  There may be a lot of reasons for this.  Maybe Greek was a second language to John who had been raised in the Galilee region of Palestine and likely spoke Aramaic natively.  Maybe John was not well-educated, however he shows great ability to think deeply about theology.  Or maybe John just wants to drive his point home with a beautiful simplicity.  Keep it simple and people will never mistake you.

Many of the words that John hangs his message on are emphasized in this very first chapter:

life, light, darkness, fellowship, truth, lie, sin, joy

 

Add “love” from chapter two and “spirit” and “world” and you have a wide door into John’s thought.  Let’s pay attention to how John uses these words and what meaning they have for the aged disciple as we read John’s letters.  I’ll bet we see them next month in John’s gospel too.

This passage has a nice confluence of most of these words:

This is the message which we have heard from him, and announce to you: God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him.  If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the dark, we are telling lies, and not doing what is true.  But if we walk in the light, just as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his son makes us pure and clean from all sin.  If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar, and his word is not in us. (1:5-10)

What caught your eye in this short chapter?

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BONUS: An Introduction to John’s Letters

Though never identified in the letters, the author of the Johannine letters is almost certainly the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, and author of the Gospel of John.  Based on writing style, there is good reason to think the writer of Revelation is a different John.  The John who wrote 1, 2, and 3 John was one of the inner circle of apostles and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23).  Though he started his adult life a fisherman, he ends it as one of the pillars of the new, growing Christian church, a highly respected leader in the Ephesus area in particular.

“The Apostle John” by Rembrandt

The Johannine letters are likely some of the latest parts of the New Testament.  Some date John’s letters to the late 80s.  If this is correct, the first generation of those who had actually seen Jesus were dying and John was pure royalty.  Given that no specific recipients are mentioned in 1 John, the first epistle was likely a circular letter distributed among a diverse group of Christians, especially in Asia Minor around Ephesus.  Given the general nature of the teachings of the letter, that makes perfect sense.  Second and Third John are equally as general and universal.

Most scholars situate the Johannine letters in the context of Gnosticism.  This false version of Christianity really blossomed in the second century AD but it was likely an early version John was addressing.  Gnosticism taught that the physical was evil and the spiritual was good.  The fleshly body was wasting away and either an impediment to holiness or a temporary object of no consequence to be used and abused because only the soul really mattered.  Gnosticism derives its name from the Greek word “gnosis” which means “knowledge,” because the truly spiritually enlightened ones have a special knowledge that sets them apart from their more earthbound peers.  With these beliefs, a good Gnostic could not believe Jesus was fully human and flesh.  One version of Gnosticism called “doceticism” taught that Jesus only seemed to be flesh and another version called “Cerinthianism” taught that the man named Jesus gained his spiritual nature at baptism and lost it before he died.  We will hear John attacking this sort of thinking in his letters, 1 John especially.  As the flesh was evil, one was supposed to either deny his fleshly desires through asceticism (seen earlier in Colossians) or indulge the flesh in licentiousness.  This latter version seems to be the one John addresses.

John wrote 1 John to expose false teaching and counter any wrong thinking about Jesus that had cropped up.  As one of the last eyewitnesses of Jesus, John could testify that Jesus was indeed flesh.  John also believed that the libertine worldliness of pre-Gnostic Christianity was eroding the true Christian witness.  In 2 and 3 John, John encourages faithful Christians to extend hospitality to evangelists he would have sent out even if powerful, possibly-Gnostic leaders in his church opposed him.

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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 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 5: Ministers of Reconciliation

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

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

Personally, I love this version of the gospel message.

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

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

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

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

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

What is your favorite verse in this chapter?

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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 8: How Is Your Heart-Soil?

Earlier this week I was looking back through an old journal of mine (before I was willing to share my writing with others) from 2006.  Interestingly, I found that on this very date six years ago I was meditating on the Parable of the Sower from today’s passage.  I share here now what I wrote six years ago.

How did these soils get this way?  The simple answer is that each soil had an owner that created its condition, and in this parable the owner clearly is not God.

The “pathway” heart-soil has become hardened by the actions and choices of the owner and others.  Pathways are picked by an owner as soil that will purposely be trampled upon and rendered incapable of sustaining a crop.  Then these paths are worn through repeated use.  The owner directs others to use that same pathway, and trespassers will even use a path if available.  Habitual sin, misuse of our bodies and souls with others, and even unwanted abuse harden our hearts so that we will not listen to God’s word of truth.  We chose to use what was created to be pure and fruitful in degrading and harmful ways or — in one of those hard to rectify speeches of the Lord — others are allowed to snatch away from us, through abuse, the hope and love and truth we so desperately need.

The “rocky” heart-soil has not been prepared for the long growing season.  Whether from laziness or a desire to see an immediate result from his plantings, the farmer has failed to dig out the rocks that will stunt the growth of his immature plants, causing them to wither in the hot, dry summer months.  These plants are simply unable to reach the deep reservoirs of water below the rocks.  When we move too quickly from one spiritual high to another, trading an emotional high for the disciplines and experiences that really mature faith in the dry heat of suffering and divine silence, we produce heart-soil in which the fledgling sprouts of faith will also quickly wither.  In today’s world, our greatest obstacle to the deep reservoir of Spirit-water is our hunger for immediate gratification.  We are content to soak up the jolt of a worship experience but refuse to learn to control one’s anger.

The owner of the “thorny” heart-soil has also failed to prepare his land for successful growth.  The owner did not pull up the faster-growing, hardier thorns, allowing them to compete with the more tender grain shoots; this owner has simply tried to sow a new crop amongst existing plants.  Given that the thorns are identified as “worries” but also “riches and pleasures” it would seem that some of these thorns have intentionally been left to live alongside the grain shoots.  Both grain and thorns receive rain, nutrients, and sunlight, allowing competition to arise, but the thorns thrive.  When we fail to uproot the attitudes, desires, and behaviors contrary to the Way of Christ attempting only to add Christ to an already hardy life of worry, excess, and selfishness, our immature faith will flounder under the competition.  The Spirit will not live in a divided heart.

The owner of the “good, pure” heart-soil has prepared his plot with wisdom, effort, and patience.  He has removed the rocks and thorns, and loosened any packed soil before planting.  He tucked the seed into the soil away from the birds.  His plants will find moisture and room to grow deep.  His plants will remain free from competition.  We enrich our heart-soil for bountiful growth when we break the bonds of habitual sin; when we use our bodies and souls as they were intended; when we avoid abuse (to the degree we can); when we realize crop preparation is a time-intensive, long-term endeavor; when we patiently foster disciplines that feed our faith and cherish faith-stretching experiences; when we replace worry with trust; and when we uproot a life of selfish ambition and carnal gratification.

Which heart-soil is yours?

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Luke 7: Faith & Need

A Roman centurion, a Jewish widow, and a woman of ill repute evoke deep emotions in Jesus.  Meanwhile, the Pharisees lurk everywhere around in the shadows and they stir up Jesus’ anger.  This surely is the Gospel of Luke.

A Roman centurion believes that if Jesus just says the word his slave will be healed from afar, especially because the centurion believes he is unworthy to entertain this great rabbi in his house.  Jesus was “astonished” (7:9) by this level of faith yet to be encountered amongst the Jews and heals the slave.

Jesus walks up on a widow — about to hit one of the lowest rungs of their society — whose dead son is being carried out to be buried.  Jesus sees this and is “very sorry for her” (7:13), so he raises the boy back to life.

“Anointing Jesus’ Feet” by Frank Wesley

A woman of “a known bad character” (7:37) barges into a dinner party at a Pharisees house and anoints his feet with costly oil and her tears of repentance.  Jesus falls all over himself praising her for the hospitality she gave that Simon had not.

There are two things Jesus responds to: faith and need.  Unfortunately, the more religious you are the less you need faith.  Religion has a way of making us far too sure of our own righteousness.  Sadly, the higher up the social ladder we are, the less we need or at least sense that we need.  But when we realize how much we need, how unworthy we are of blessing, how unholy we are Jesus opens the doors of his blessings.  At these moments our hearts are open to receive great love and in response show great love.

So the conclusion I draw is this: she must have been forgiven many sins!  Her great love proves it!  But if someone has been forgiven only a little, they will love only a little. (7:47)

What caught your eye in this chapter?

Categories: Luke | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Luke 4: First Words

Can you identify what book begins with the following classic first lines?  Answers are at the end of the post, if you wish to quiz yourself.

  1. ”It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
  2. ”Call me Ishmael.”
  3. ”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
  4. ”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
  5. ”You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”
  6. ”It was a pleasure to burn.”
  7. ”You better not never tell nobody but God.”
  8. ”In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
  9. ”Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
  10. “All children, except one, grow up.”

Sometimes the first lines of a book or the first words of a character let you know all you need to know about that book or character right from the start.  Remember this first line from Darth Vader in Star Wars?

“Commander, tear this ship apart until you find those plans.”  

Today, Luke gives us Jesus’ first public words in his adult ministry, a quote from the beginning of Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to tell the poor the good news.  He has sent me to announce release to the prisoners, and sight to the blind, to set the wounded victims free, to announce the year of God’s special favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

More about that later.

Sin is big and pervasive.  We are kidding ourselves if we think sin only affects our relationship with God, as if it is some cosmic, spiritual black dot on our heavenly record, which if not dealt with will adversely affect our afterlife in some way.  Sin affects every square inch of our lives.  Sin has a spiritual effect, to be sure.  But it also has social, physical, and psychological effects on life here and now as well.

Think about Adam and Eve and effects of the first, prototypical sin:

  • They are declared guilty and are cursed by God for their actions (spiritual)
  • They are separated from God’s presence, alienation begins between the two of them, and Adam is placed in a position of dominance over Eve (social)
  • They suffer a loss of innocence and feel shame and fear for the first time, all the while trying to shift blame off out themselves (psychological/emotional)
  • The physical hide then must cover themselves, they will experience pain in childbirth and in their work, the ground will be less fertile, and they begin to decay and die bodily (physical)

Sin is an all-encompassing problem that affects all corners of our life.

Now, back to Luke 4.  Jesus arrives on the scene.  Interestingly, Paul will call Jesus the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45; c.f., Romans 5:12).  We have the start of something new as Jesus steps back into the synagogue in Nazareth, his childhood home.  Luke makes it clear this is a fulfillment of prophecy: “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your own hearing” (4:21).  Like a good opening line, we are introduced to the redemptive ministry that will be Jesus’ sole concern for the next three years.  This is Jesus’ raison d’être: I came to reverse and release, heal and forgive, to make new.  True to Luke’s concern for the marginalized, the people mentioned here are the harassed, harried, and undesirables.  For the rest of the book we will watch Jesus accomplish this mission in his short life.

The interesting thing, though, is how Jesus’ declares his redemptive mission will be equally as pervasive as the sin he has come to address.  If sin affects all corners of our lives, Christ’s salvation will cover just as much ground.  Jesus has come to reverse the curse every human has been under since we moved east of Eden.  Notice how all four areas of life in the diagram above are also found here in this statement from Luke 4:

  • Announce the year of God’s special favor (spiritual)
  • Release to the prisoners (social)
  • Set the wounded victims free from “oppression” as the NIV says (psychological/emotional)
  • Recovery of sight for the blind (physical)

Salvation is not only a matter of forgiveness of sin.  Jesus has come to save every inch of us, our relationships, and our world.  Salvation is an all-encompassing solution that affects all corners of our life. 

Now that is something to get excited about!

(Answers: Pride and Prejudice; Moby Dick, Tale of Two Cities; Anna Karenina; Huckleberry Finn; Farenheit 451; The Color Purple; A River Runs Through It; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; Peter Pan)

How did you do on that little quiz?

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Luke 3: Baptized with The Holy Spirit

Another characteristic trait of Luke’s Gospel is his emphasis on the Holy Spirit.  Of course, we see this most clearly in Acts, volume two of the set, but there have been several time already where mention of the Holy Spirit has been made when it was not in Matthew or Mark.

The adult John was clearly a prophet, one who spoke necessary words even if they were confrontational, even if they would get him killed one day.  (I noticed today that verses 4-6 were first spoken by Isaiah, who tradition says was sawn in two; then John the Baptist, who was beheaded; then Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I have a dream” speech, who was assassinated.  People don’t usually like prophets.)  John came preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins and offered a water baptism that brought this to one’s life.  Yet he also says Jesus will do more than simply offer repentance and baptism for forgiveness.

To all of them John responded: “I am baptizing you with water.  But someone is coming who is stronger than I am.  I don’t deserve to untie his sandal-strap.  He will baptize you with the holy spirit and with fire.” (3:16)

The thing that was new with Jesus was not baptism, it was the gift of the Holy Spirit offered to all who would follow him and come into Christ through Christian baptism.  Baptism was the ritual; the Holy Spirit was the power and the result.  Even forgiveness was available through John’s baptism; it was the Spirit that was missing.  Remember Acts 19 (also written by Luke) where this was precisely the issue with a group of people baptized by John but who were missing the Holy Spirit?  To punctuate the point, in this chapter Luke includes Jesus’ own baptism in which the Holy Spirit comes upon him.

A life with forgiveness is wonderful, but we are destined to end right back where we were before.  We would be a people obsessed with forgiveness because of our permanent fallen state.  What we need is empowerment to become something better than what we presently are.  That is the importance of the gift of the Holy Spirit.  God not only forgives us, He empowers us by that Spirit to live a life that is progressively more holy and capable than it was before.

I wonder if sometimes we are guilty of still only preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3).  We emphasize the need to be washed clean of sin.  We encourage each other to turn from sin.  And, yes, we become obsessed with forgiveness because we have missed the part that we can actually become something different than an incapable sinner.  Acts 2:38, a verse ultra-familiar to many of us here, says:

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Have we forgotten about the last part?  And if so, are we missing the most important part?  Are we missing the one unique characteristic of Jesus’ baptism, the one part that is essential to becoming God’s people in a fallen world, the Holy Spirit?

I think so.

What do you think?

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Romans 8: Help In Our Weakness

21

In case we miss the answer we have been looking for since yesterday, Paul gives us the answer twenty-one times in Romans 8: SPIRIT.

Paul left us with a defense of Law; it is not the root of our problem.  But Law is also not the answer to our problem, because it lacks the power to move us past our own powerlessness.  What we need is a power outside of ourselves.  And this is exactly what God brings: the Holy Spirit of God living within us (8:9).

The spirit comes alongside and helps us in our weakness. (8:26)

Maybe you grew up as I did in a religious tradition too scared to talk about the Holy Spirit lest we be labeled as charismatic, as if that were some great sin.  However, when we neglect the Spirit we are left only with ourselves and we are back in the middle of the mess of Romans 7.

Christians are called to listen with attentive minds and hearts to the Spirit of God within us (8:5-6).  This Spirit will guide and empower the children of God to live in accordance of God’s wishes, as the Spirit is the first piece of the new life already given to us (8:14, 23, 26-27).  All that God intended in the Law becomes possible when we “live according to the Spirit” (8:4).

What verse caught your eye today?

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Romans 7: Law Is Not The Problem, Nor The Answer

After yesterday’s post it is tempting to think that the Jewish Law was the root of the Christians’ problem in ancient Rome, after all the commands of the Law are what allowed sin to tempt and enslave (7:9-10).  Of course, this message would not fly in a half Jewish church, not to mention the fact that it maligns something that came directly from God.

Paul makes it clear that he is claiming nothing of the sort:

So, then, the law is holy; and the commandment is holy, upright, and good. . . . We know, you see, that the law is spiritual. (7:12, 14a)

The Law itself is a good thing.  Guidance from God on how to live life righteously and wisely is never bad.  But the side effect of Law is temptation, incitement to sin, and ultimately enslavement.

Why is that?  Why is Law by itself not the answer to our sin problem?

Law possesses no power within itself to save us from ourselves. It offers direction but no propulsion.  It tells us what to do — and it is right and that guidance is a blessing — but it does not give us a way beyond ourselves to do the very thing we know and often want to do.

I don’t understand what I do.  I don’t do what I want, you see, but I do what I hate. . . . For I can will the good, but I can’t perform it.  For I don’t do the good thing I want to do, but I end up doing the evil thing I don’t want to do. . . . What a miserable person I am! (7:15, 18b-19, 24a)

Law is not the answer. We (and the Roman Christians) need a supernatural power beyond ourselves to enable the life of righteousness and wisdom the Law describes.

The answer comes tomorrow.

What did you notice anew 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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Romans 1: Those Perverted Gentiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See, we were right!

Look what they come from.

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

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

We are so much better than they are!

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

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

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

What grabbed your attention in this chapter?

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Matthew 15: What Makes One Unclean?

Today’s post is more of a question than a thought.  Even if you are not the kind to give a comment I would love your input on this one.  Please consider.

Jesus argues with the Jewish religious leaders again in today’s chapter.  Today, the issue is eating with unwashed hands, an elaborate tradition they had developed in an effort to remain a ceremonially clean people.  Notice that is ceremonially clean.  They hadn’t developed this ritual to remain a physically healthier group.  Jesus’ disciples evidently weren’t as meticulous about this tradition as the Jewish religious leaders would have liked.  Jesus points out the error in their logic:

What makes someone unclean isn’t what goes into the mouth.  It’s what comes out of the mouth that makes someone unclean. (15:11)

What comes out of the mouth begins in the heart, and that’s what makes someone unclean.  Out of the heart, you see, come evil plots, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and blasphemy.  These are the things that make someone unclean.  But eating with unwashed hands doesn’t make a person unclean. (15:18-20)

In fact, a tradition could make a person unclean if it caused them to nullify or trespass against God’s law.  The Pharisees were doing exactly that with their unwillingness to honor their parents by devoting money to God needed to help their parents (15:3-6).  God’s desire is for honor, not donations.

So, I am wondering today what, if any, are the “traditions” we have in our churches today that miss the point and maybe even cause us to work against what God is really looking for?  What are the “unwashed hands” that we get up in arms about even though these are not the things that really cause moral problems?  

What do you think?  

Categories: Matthew | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Matthew 1: God With Us

Today we return to the life of Jesus.  Jesus is the center of our religion and very life, so it is fitting to return to the gospels every quarter.  In fact, that would be a great rhythm for life long after this year.  As a former student of Chris Dahlberg’s likes to say, as we age maybe it becomes second nature to concentrate on the red words.

Matthew starts his gospel very differently from Mark.  Mark got right down to business; from beginning to end of his gospel Jesus was a very active adult.  Matthew, though, spends two chapters just getting Jesus to adulthood and ministry.  There is very little action in Matthew 1 at all.  Mark chose to keep us guessing about Jesus throughout much of his book.  Like his disciples in the gospel, we really had to work to get that Jesus was divine.

Matthew, on the other hand, makes everything very clear right from this first chapter;

“Look: the virgin is pregnant, and will have a son, and they shall give him the name Emmanuel” — which means, in translation, “God with us.” (1:23)

From the beginning we are introduced to Jesus as God Himself, come to be with us once again.  Remember that if a person were reading the Bible page by page, they have just flipped from Malachi, over 400 years of divine silence where God’s presence was much more hidden.  That is no longer the case.  God is with us again, but in a new, strange, embodied way.

And we are introduced to the gospel right off:

She is going to have a son.  You are to give him the name Jesus; he is the one who will save his people from their sins. (1:21)

God has come in the form of Jesus to save us from our greatest oppressor of all: sin.  Already, in the first chapter Matthew has made it clear what kind of Savior this Jesus is too.  We are off to a very straightforward beginning.

What did you notice in this chapter that you had not noticed before?

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BONUS: James 1:14-15 – Sin Strikes One DEAD

I know some of you don’t read comments so I wanted to take a snippet posted today in the comments on James 1 and move it here.  Roberta Pledge offered this great acronym for remembering how sin originates and how to avoid becoming trapped in it.  Thanks Roberta!  Very memorable.

D for DISTRACTION, sin begins by  simply taking our eyes off of God

E for EVIL DESIRE, soon this distraction becomes an evil desire

A for ADDICTION, then it totally consumes our thoughts and actions

D for DEATH, whether spiritual, physical or both, the end result of sin is death

Roberta says: “When we understand where sin begins, we can pray regularly to see the distractions in our lives and stop our sin at that point.  A weed is much easier to pull before it is deeply rooted!”

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