Posts Tagged With: suffering

Revelation 15: Victorious by Death

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Today’s short chapter is largely a preparatory one.  Seven angels come forward to the heavenly temple to receive bowls filled with the final acts of judgment from God.  These will be poured out in the next chapter.  Also in the scene is a collection of people standing beside a glassy sea.

There, by the glassy sea, stood the people who had won the victory over the monster and over its image, and over the number of its name. (14:2)

What strikes me is that this group are those who have won.  But remember this is a heavenly scene.  They have won but they won by dying.  Death is what brought them victory.  Being willing to die is how they won.  The battle was for their souls.  Would they give up their integrity and faith to stay alive through compromise or would they show the forces of evil that God has greater power over their souls than that.  Every time a person is willing to suffer rather than give in to compromise another victory is won for the Lamb.

What did you notice today?

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Revelation 14: Living with End-Time Vision

The conflict in John’s visions lets up for a moment, and now things are about to get loud!

John has a new vision, this time of the Lamb and the 144,00 marked on their foreheads for rescue and reward.  Standing on Mount Zion in the ideal city of God safely away from the pressing of the grapes of God’s wrath outside of the city (14:20).  So the praise erupts.  A thunderous, cascade of harps and a new song just for the moment.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this scene?  How does one ensure he will be there (14:4-5)?

  • Avoid sexual immorality
  • Follow the example of Jesus aggressively
  • Be ready to suffer and sacrifice
  • Speak with utter truth and purity

These qualities would have been especially poignant for the original recipients of this book.  Life in the Roman Empire where they were being progressively pushed towards life-and-death decisions made them daily have to determine whether they were willing to remain unspotted like the 144,000 of this vision (maybe recent Christian martyrs like Antipas who had been faithful unto death, 2:14?).  A little lie about their beliefs could save them some harassment.  Avoiding oppression through participation in the religious cults of the Empire and the trade guilds (unions) of their towns would also place them into sexually immoral situations, for sure.  Were they ready to follow Jesus’ example of holiness even to the point of sacrifice?

Many of us are not in the same immediate threat of physical harm and economic marginalization because of our faith.  But the pull to engage in a culture that is far too sexual and dishonest is still very real.  One can stand out too much in business and culture.  One can be too religious, right?  The call to faithfulness is one we need to hear too.

Begin with the end in mind

Begin with the end in mind

Maybe it helps to think like the second angel mentioned in this chapter:

Babylon the Great has fallen!  She has fallen! (14:8)

Remembering that apocalyptic literature is stated in code, Babylon is certainly a reference to Rome.  As Babylon was the immoral and barbarous nemesis of the people of God in the last part of the Old Testament, likewise Rome is to the nascent Church.  The trouble is that Rome had not fallen.  In fact, when John is writing this Rome is a great height of power.  She still has the ability to make her mark on these Christians (14:9) and to kill.

Maybe the point is that to live faithfully in the midst of hard times requires end-time vision.  We must remain focused on how things end, not how they are right now.  We must bear in mind where each of the forks in the road leads in the end, not what they look like right now.  The Rome of our lives have fallen.  They are fading away.  The Lamb will win in the end.  A new city is coming where the harvest is gathered in for abundant living (14:14-16).  That was certainly one of the reasons for this whole book: the give end-time vision to a persecuted people so as to strengthen their resistance.  Often, we need that encouragement too.

What stood out to you?

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Revelation 10: Sweet but Sour

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“The Angel of the Revelation” by William Blake

Back in the sequence of the seven seals we came to an interlude between the sixth seal and the seventh that spoke encouragingly of the sealed 144,000 and the numberless masses.  Today we come to another interlude at the same point in this new sequence of seven trumpets.  This break in the action of judgment is also intended to be a message to the Christians directly, but this time about their responsibility as witnesses.

A giant angel holds a small, opened scroll in his hand.  John is told to take this scroll and eat it, and he does.  Then John is told the prophecies of punishment on the evil of the world will continue.  A logical conclusion is that this scroll contains the visions of Revelation 10 and 11, revelations that must be given to the Christians directly before we can return to the seventh trumpet at the end of chapter 11.

The detail that caught my attention is that the scroll tastes sweet but then it turns the stomach sour.

“Take it,” he [the voice from heaven] said to me, “and eat it.  It will be bitter in your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.”  So I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand, and I ate it.  It tasted like sweet honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach felt bitter. (10:9-10)

That God will see the faithful through these horrible days of judgment is sweet indeed.  They can rest assured of the protection their seal affords.  Yet, the message of chapter 11 will remind them that they must first suffer.  They are not saved from death, they are victorious through death.  The immediate, emotional realization of this fact will turn their stomach.

We are again reminded that while Revelation is definitely a book of hope and good news, it does not promise a pain-free, comfortable ride through the choppy waters of persecution.  One has to take up his cross before receiving a crown.  

When have you experienced the bittersweet nature of divine revelation before?

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Revelation 5: Worthy is the Lamb!

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God is on His throne in magnificent light.  He is at the center of all things.  He is given the praise that is due him from the twenty-four elders, a symbol of all of God’s people signified by the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Church.  The powerful beasts bow before him.  If this is a concert or a show, the house is pumpin’ now.  There is lots of energy.  The stage lights are high and hot, and we the masses are in the dark watching this unfold.  The hall is loud as those gathered on stage pour all of their spirit into praising God.

Then someone new is introduced and, though it is hard to imagine, the scene erupts with even more praise.  The volume increases.  The back lights of the stage light up to reveal a chorus of angels more than can be numbered that join the elders in praise.  The strings of harps fill the air with melodious sound, and the air is rich with the smell of incense.  The Lamb has just stepped into the circle of praise.

We were expecting a lion because of what one of the elders had said:

Don’t cry.  Look!  The lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has won the victory!  He can open the scroll and its seven seals. (5:5)

But in a poignant bit of irony, the Lion has become the Lamb.  Let there be no mistake, the Lamb is powerful like a lion, but his work up until now has always been more like a lamb.  One must be a lamb before they can be a lion.

As the Lamb strides up to the throne to take the sealed scroll from God, song after song of praise is sung in his honor.  Sometimes the best thing to do in life is just to stop and praise before the moment gets away.

We do not yet know what is on this scroll, though we can see that it has writing on both the front and back indicating this is a full message.  We can tell from the seven seals that the writer of this scroll wants to keep its contents well guarded.  John was told at the beginning of chapter 4 that he would be shown what would be coming in the future (4:1), so we assume this scroll contains the future destiny of someone or even the whole world.

There has not been a lot of talking during this scene.  Singing has dominated.  However, all of the conversation up until now has focused on one thought: who is worthy to open this scroll?  The one who takes this scroll must be deserving (5:2).  As the Lamb walks onto the stage, the worthiness of the Lamb is their greatest point of praise:

You are worthy to take the scroll; You are worthy to open its seals; For you were slaughtered and with your own blood you purchased a people for God. (5:9)

The slaughtered lamb has now deserved to take the riches and the power. (5:12)

As the Lamb comes into the light emanating from God we see it possesses all power (horns) and wisdom (eyes) but that it also has the wounds of death on it.  As surreal as it seems, the Lamb has died and is now lamb-that-was_slainalive again.  In fact, this is precisely what has made the Lamb worthy to take the scroll.  If it were only power that made one deserving, maybe one of the four creatures could have done it.  It was the Lamb who “won the victory” by being “slaughtered” (5:5, 9).  A people were purchased for God “with [his] own blood” (5:9).  The Lamb is “now” deserving because it has been “slaughtered” (5:12).  The Lamb is worthy because it has died.

This is a big theme in the book of Revelation.  Suffering comes before praise.  Power is purchased with blood.  The way to overcome is by laying down one’s life.  Victory comes through sacrifice, not battle.  We will see this idea come back often this month.  The recipients of this book needed to hear this.  And we do too.

What element of this chapter really captured your imagination?

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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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John 16: Sorrow into Joy

You will be overcome with sorrow, but your sorrow will turn into joy.  When a woman is giving birth she is in anguish, because her moment has come.  But when the child is born, she no longer remembers the suffering, because of the joy that a human being has been born into the world.  In the same way, you have sorrow now.  But I shall see you again, and your hearts will celebrate, and nobody will take your joy away from you. (16:20-22)

Oh man, I hope so!

All of us have sorrows that weigh us down in a heavy way.  All of us need release from something that seems to be our master.  Like Jesus’ analogy here, all of us have times when we think our “babies” will never be birthed.  I am thinking of a particular trial in my life that seems particularly unending and hopeless.  You should think of what your sorrow is too.

I cherish the reminder that joy will eclipse sorrow, that suffering will be forgotten and celebration will be the final word.  Many days I feel foolish believing that can be, in the situation I am thinking of.  But I hang on to hope, and cherish passages like this one.

How about you?

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1 Peter 5: Comfort for the Suffering

Peter ends this letter to a group of suffering Christians with great consolation.  Line after line offers hope and promise of comfort and reward.  An altered frame of mind maybe helps us with our expectations and desires but today’s comfort brings solace to the heart.

1.  Peter begins by reminding his recipients that their reward for standing up under pressure is an eternally durable one.

And when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that won’t wither away. (5:4)

The toned, flexible, capable bodies of our youth age and wither.  Crowd approval fades.  Financial stability and market shares lessen with time.  But there is a glorious reward coming to those who stay true to the faith even in the face of persecution that cannot be taken away and will not lessen in value.

2.  Suffering is also easier to face when we are convinced that God is one on our side.

Throw all your care upon him, because he cares about you. (5:7)

It can be easy to give into the belief that God is not on our side, that He has had a hand in our suffering or at least has failed to stop it.  Peter reminds his readers that God cares intimately about them and their problems.  They can fall to their knees and pour out their prayers to him.  No matter the emotion — fear, resentment, anger, hurt — God wants to hear their heart’s cry.

3.  No one wishes misfortune on others, but suffering is easier to face when you know you are not alone.

Resist him [the Devil], staying resolute in your faith, and knowing that other family members in the rest of the world are facing identical sufferings. (5:9)

Persecution is the worst when you think you are the only one being subject to it.  You begin to think there is something particularly wrong with you.  Or the injustice of the situation seems all the worse.  Peter reminds them that what they are going through is not unique.  There are many others suffering the same fate.  Strangely, there is comfort in numbers.

4.  Paul’s last word of all about suffering in this letter is that better days are coming.

Then, after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who called you in the Messiah Jesus to the glory of his new age, will himself put you in good order, and will establish and strengthen you and set you on firm foundations. (5:10)

When you are in the midst of hard times it is so easy to become myopic and think this is all that life is.  Every day will be filled with pain.  Each new person will treat you as harshly as the others.  Every phone call will be bad news.  Each new turn is a bad turn.  Peter reminds them (and us) that God gets the last word, and for those who in Christ, that last word is one of blessing, strength and restoration.

What is the one point about suffering you most needed to hear this week? 

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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 Peter 3: False Expectations Produce Disillusionment

It is interesting that no New Testament writer nor Jesus ever talked about living life in a predominantly Christian culture.  Maybe that was because the Romans were so powerful, so dominating that they could not imagine life beyond the Roman Empire (can those of us who live in America imagine a post-American world?).  Or maybe this was a realization on their part that true Christianity will never be the dominant culture of a whole community.  Christianity has always been and is intended to be a “contrast community” to whatever is the prevailing way of life.  But what about medieval Europe when the Catholic Church was essentially the government?  What about John Calvin’s Geneva during the Renaissance period?  What about 1950s America?  Weren’t these Christian cultures?  I would still argue that you had enough humanity mixed in with the divinity that what existed was not completely what God intended.  The medieval Catholic Church spawned the Crusades.  The Calvinists marginalized non-Calvinists.  The 1950s in America were a low point for race relations, even between Christians.

Were we really expecting that the way of Christ would be the norm?  Christ himself was not accepted by the majority of people he encountered.   Nonetheless, yes, I think part of the problem with suffering that comes from persecution is that we have been expecting Christianity to be the norm.  We had convinced ourselves that our culture (I am especially thinking about western countries) was predominantly Christian in the past and this is the way it still should be.  Of course, we were forgetting that American Christianity was heavily influenced by the hate of the 50s, the revolt against authority and the glorification of individual in the 60s, the lifestyle experimentation and redefinition of the 70s, the greed of the 80s, the rootless angst of the 90s, the exploitation and celebrity idolatry of the 2000s, and now the fear of outsiders in the 2010s.  We pine away for the better days of yesteryear, but the reality of those days do not actually measure up to our memories.

Peter gives different instructions for what to expect from society, instructions that presuppose a different way of seeing reality, instructions that would be good to remember today in a world that is increasingly more hostile to institutional Christianity and the way God has called His people to live in this world.

Sanctify the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to make a reply to anyone who asks you to explain the hope that is in you.  Do it, though, with gentleness and respect.  Hold on to a good conscience, so that when people revile your good behavior in the Messiah they may be ashamed. (3:15-16)

Maybe part of our perceived suffering comes from false expectations.  We are expecting to be the “moral majority.”  We want to be the ruling class.  We want our way of life to be the norm.  That only makes any rejection of our ways feel like the beginning of the slippery slope to moral degradation.  It makes demeaning caricatures of Christians on television feel like disenfranchisement.  It makes us feel marginalized and persecuted.  But maybe God has always imagined that his people will be a set apart people, a “chosen race,” a “holy nation,” “strangers and resident aliens” (2:9, 11) different from the cultural norm and therefore easy targets for derision, or questioning at least.

With that change in perspective our job in life is very easy: be ready to explain our alternative way of thinking and living.  And by all means enter into that dialogue with kindness, gentleness, and respect.  Leave the fiery rhetoric to talk show hosts.  Refuse to stoop to the demeaning attitudes and labeling that our opponents use.  Avoid any tactic that resorts to power and coercion and legislation to enforce our thinking and behavior.  Above all, we should be the people who do all of this with such goodness that people will be ashamed at how ugly their approaches look in comparison.

What do you think?  

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1 Peter 2: Overcome Evil with Good

For the recipients of 1 Peter a big part of their suffering had to do with injustice.  We can read between the lines of this chapter to see that pagans in their communities were “speak[ing] against [them] as evildoers” (2:12), likely “insult[ing]” them (2:23) and producing something “painful” in their lives (2:19).  They had every right to fight back, trade insult for insult, and stoop to the level of their slanderers.  They were likely even tempted to do so.

Our suffering today comes from many places, including the misdeeds and maliciousness of others.  People talk bad about us behind our backs at school and work.  People even assassinate the character of others at church.  Whether in word or by looks or even simply by exclusion, pain is produced in our lives that we do not deserve.  How is a Christian supposed to respond faithfully to that sort of suffering?

Peter starts by reminding us that long before we were “rejected” and “insulted,” Jesus suffered the same treatment.  Jesus became the proverbial cornerstone in this house of rejection for which we are the “living stones” (2:4-5).

The Messiah, too, suffered on your behalf, leaving behind a pattern for you, so that you should follow the way he walked.  He committed no sin, nor was there any deceit in his mouth.  When he was insulted, he didn’t insult in return, when he suffered, he didn’t threaten, but he gave himself up to the one who judges justly. (2:21-23)

In the face of injustice, Jesus relied on his Father to bring justice, he didn’t try to produce it himself.

Of utmost importance, though, is that we face the injustice that comes our way with the spirit of Jesus.  Many people have noticed that few New Testament letters seem to echo Jesus as closely as 1 Peter.  That is especially clear in today’s chapter.  We must not give our offenders any reason to think they were right about us.  We are to keep such good conduct, even in the face of injustice, that people are impressed with our virtue and maybe even begin to believe our God is real (2:12).  It is our virtue that will “silence foolish and ignorant people” (2:15), not our well-crafted defenses nor by trading insult for insult.  If all we do is take our licks when we do something wrong, there is nothing special about that.  The higher calling is to “bear patiently” with unjust mistreatment (2:20).  That is testimony to a special spirit.

In fact, Peter bottom lines it for us this way:

This, after all, is what came with the terms of your call. (2:21a)

Deep down at the core of what it means to be a Christian was the reality that following Jesus will inevitably bring rejection, injustice, and suffering.  Maybe we were looking for the “get out of hell free” card, but it comes with the cost of discipleship.

What did you learn today about suffering?

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1 Peter 1: This World is Not Our Home

How is a Christian supposed to respond to suffering and persecution?  This is the main theme of 1 Peter, therefore all of my posts this week will focus on the answer Peter gave to the churches in Asia Minor.  There are many other great ideas in this letter, but because this same question is a perennial one with Christians still today, even in a country like America, I will limit my thoughts to this theme.

Is this world as it is your home?  

How we answer this one question may explain why we experience certain situations as suffering.  If this world and the way we think life is supposed to be lived here and now is what we embrace as “home” anything that endangers that state of life will no doubt be greeted as an enemy to be opposed.  An economic downturn is a travesty because we cannot have all we have become accustomed to.  If life here and now is supposed to be getting progressively easier and more comfortable, old age and career setbacks are anathema. Diseases and death are the ultimate foes because they end this life and tear us from this world.  Think about the prayer requests you have heard lately and ask yourself if they don’t reveal where our real home is.

But Peter describes our experiences here and now very differently.  He calls his recipients “God’s chosen ones who lives as foreigners” (1:1).  In tomorrow’s reading he will call them “strangers and resident aliens” (2:11).  For Peter the answer to the initial question is a resounding “no.” This world is not our home and, therefore, we should not expect to be comfortable here.  We are on our way back home with our father and in the mean time we should be sure not to be “squashed into” the pattern of this world (1:14). The “rescue of our lives” is coming (1:9), “a rescue that is all ready and waiting” (1:5).  That is a very different mindset and it makes a whole world of difference.

This mindset can be used to rationalize a total detachment from this world and an apathy to anything and anyone not waiting for the great heavenly train to “back, back, train and get your load.”  As we will see that is not what Peter would advocate either, but this mindset can help us to face hard times with faithfulness and even celebration (1:6).  If this world is not our home, the twists and turns of fate (or crowd approval) need not leave us feeling uncertain about our future and the quality of life to come.  Retirement plans may dwindle.  Knees and hearts may give out.  Our very freedom can be taken away.  However, because of our second birth as the children of God, we have an “incorruptible inheritance, which nothing can stain or diminish” and nothing can endanger that fact (1:3-5).

There is a better Kingdom coming, and until that reality becomes true to us the setbacks that our present, self-centered fiefdoms suffer will seem excessively oppressive.

What do you think?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Peter’s Letters

The author of 1 Peter is almost certainly the Simon Peter of the Gospels; only a few have doubted this.  On the other hand, if there is a letter included in the New Testament that was not written by the person who it claims to be written by (“pseudopigraphic,” is the technical term), 2 Peter is our best candidate.  It is rather different in style, language, and theme from the first Petrine epistle.  The mention of persecution in 1 Peter makes a date in the 60s AD more likely, and by that time in Peter’s life he is traditionally placed in Rome, where he will die by the Emperor’s order in the late 60s.  The cryptic mention to being in “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13 is most likely  referring to Rome, as we will see in Revelation.

The apostle Simon Peter is absolutely a classic Bible character.  He ranks up there with Abraham, Moses, and David.  Jesus is in a class of his own, of course.  Peter is well-known, including much of his psychology.  He is a full character.  Impetuous Peter!  If we go to the Gospels to learn about Peter, we must end that character study with a good look at his letters too.  This is where his changed heart comes out the most.

The last recorded instructions Jesus gave to Peter alone were to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19).  That he does in grand style in 1 Peter.  Churches in modern-day Turkey that Peter had either started or ministered to in a special way (1:1) are now experiencing harsh treatment in their society.  The recipients are clearly Gentile Christians (with maybe some Jewish Christians thrown in), as they used to live an idolatrous pagan lifestyle (4:3).  Now, because of their devotion to Jesus, they refuse to live in the same coarse way that used to.  As a result, their pagan neighbors heap abuse on them.  This persecution is certainly social versus political; systematic persecution of Christians in Asia Minor by the Roman government won’t start for another twenty years after the death of Peter.  Peter’s recipients were mocked and even harmed physically, but the greatest suffering would have been social ostracism and the economic marginalization that would come from being shunned by their pagan society.  What is the faithful response to suffering a follower of Christ is supposed to give?  This is the main theme of 1 Peter.

Second Peter is either written by Peter at a very different time and place than First Peter (and a convincing case can be made for this) or as more and more conservative scholars are willing to accept, it was written by a disciple of Peter “in the spirit of Peter” or as a way to honor their master.  Efforts would have been made to convey what Peter would have said; good pseudopigrapha did not try to deceive readers and pass unorthodox views off as apostolic.  Regardless, 2 Peter addresses a group of false teachers akin to the early Gnostics we have seen previously this year.  Of special importance in this letter is Peter’s exhortation to his recipients to vigilantly hang on and prepare for the certain coming of Jesus.   

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2 Corinthians 12: Strength Shown through Weakness

Today’s passage is as good a verse as any to declare a theme statement for 2 Corinthians.  It is also foundational to my own worldview and one I remind myself of a lot, especially when I feel unequal to the task or particularly oppressed.

A thorn was given to me in my flesh, a messenger from the satan, to keep stabbing away at me.  I prayed to the Lord three times about this, asking that it would be taken away from me, and this is what he said to me: “My grace is enough for you; my power comes to perfection in weakness.”  So I will be all the more pleased to boast of my weaknesses, so that the Messiah’s power may rest on me.  So I’m delighted when I’m weak, insulted, in difficulties, persecuted, and facing disasters, for the Messiah’s sake.  When I’m weak, you see, then I am strong. (12:7b-10)

The point is not for us to appear strong.  The point is for people to see in us a power beyond us, the power of God.  That means we have to face, admit, and acknowledge to others our weakness.  That point when we feel like we can’t go on anymore, but then there is always a little more strength for the next day — that point may be the most blessed one of all, if we are willing to face it with faith.  I pray that we will.

What verse did you see in a new way today?

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2 Corinthians 1: Humbled by Suffering

Paul knew his fair share of suffering during his life.  We will hear about a lot of this in 2 Corinthians.  Paul also knew that the Corinthian Christians had and were going to face sufferings of various kinds.   We all do.  It is part of the human condition.

Naturally any time suffering is present we ask that nagging question why.  The truth of the matter is that there are many reasons why we suffer, and no one reason can explain all cases of suffering.  Sometimes we may have no clue whatsoever for why we suffer.

Paul shares with us what he had determined was the reason for his suffering, at least in the situation he was discussing:

You see, my dear family, we don’t want to keep you in the dark about the suffering we went through in Asia.  The load we had to carry was far too heavy for us; it got to the point where we gave up on life itself.  Yes: deep inside ourselves we received the death sentence. This was to stop us relying on ourselves, and to make us rely on the God who raises the dead. (1:8-9)

It would appear that at least sometimes God brings or at least uses hard times to humble our pride and cause us to face our own inadequacy.  Only then are we ready to really let God take over.

When my sons were quite young — toddlers, I guess — they would sit down determined to fix a toy, unravel some string, or do up a button. I would offer to help but they would have nothing to do with it.  Most of the time all that happened from their attempt at independence was that the toy became more broken, the string more tangled, or the button remained unbuttoned.  Only when they were thoroughly frustrated would they come to me for help.  It could have been much easier, but they had to learn their limits.  Sometimes we are no different from my sons: independent to a fault, only to end with frustration. Sometimes suffering is intended to show us we can’t do everything ourselves.

Paul also knows that no matter how much suffering may come our way there is as much or more comfort available in God as well.

Just as we have an overflowing share of the Messiah’s suffering, you see, so we have an overflowing share in comfort through the Messiah. (1:5)

God is willing to let us fall until we realize we can’t do life on our own.  But this same God who wants us to learn a lesson is also right there to bandage our wounds, help us get up, and carry us along.  God is as much a comforter as a teacher and master.

What caught your eye in a new way in this chapter?

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Ephesians 3: Ministry Is A Gift!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What stood out to you today? 

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Matthew 10: The Crown & The Cross

How will we know when God’s Kingdom has come?  What will it look like?

Jesus tells us in this passage:

As you go, declare publicly that the kingdom of heaven has arrived.  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse people with skin diseases, cast out demons. (10:7-8)

As we progressively fill out our understanding of the “kingdom” Jesus was talking about, this passage is immensely helpful.  Kingdom has very little to do with what takes place in a church building.  Here we see that “kingdom” describes a state in which a person lives.  Kingdom-life is marked by wholeness.  Kingdom-life is when all is as it should be.  When Kingdom arrives in a person’s life, oppression is ended, provision is present, cleanliness is restored, dead things others had given up on are brought back to life, and hope returns.  Now that sounds like a kind of life to preach about!

But before we can enjoy life under the Crown, we must take up our Cross:

Anyone who doesn’t pick up their cross and follow after me doesn’t deserve me.  If you find your life you’ll lose it, and if you lose your life because of me you’ll find it. (10:38-39)

There is very little in this chapter that makes sense apart from the principle in this passage.  Jesus is sending his disciples out into Judea to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6).  He warns them sternly that their mission is not an easy one.  It will be subsistence living.  Dangerous people will surround them.  They will be dragged into court on trumped-up charges.  Their work will even bring strife in their own families from those who can’t accept their new calling.

God will provide for them.  And there are worse things than suffering physically for the Kingdom.  But if the crowds can’t all accept Jesus, why do they think the crowds will accept them, his servants?

The disciple isn’t greater than the teacher; the slave isn’t greater than the master. (10:24)

Jesus wears the crown of his kingdom today.  But first he had to take up his cross at Calvary.

We his disciples will have to do the same.

What crosses must we take up today? 

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James 1: Learning to Rejoice in Suffering

Scholars who study the book of James say this letter defies any attempt to structure and organize James’ thoughts.  Again like Proverbs, James jumps from topic to topic.  This is the kind of book where one verse or small passage in a chapter will catch the eye and speak to the heart.  Because of that, I imagine each of us will have different reactions to each chapter.

In chapter one I was drawn to the way Wright worded verse 2:

My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy.

I remember reading this verse for the first time, in the New International Version:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.

I remember thinking, “What? Are you kidding?  Be glad about hard times?  No way!  Surely not!”

But I had missed the first two words, “consider it.”  In other words, choose to think of it as a blessing.  This is not a reaction that comes naturally.  That is why I like Wright’s way of saying it, “Learn to look at it with complete joy.”  This is a frame of mind that comes with time and training.

May we learn little by little that the fires of life aren’t meant to burn us up, rather they refine us and make us pure!

When did a hardship turn out to be a great blessing?

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Hebrews 5: Experience Required

Although he [Jesus] was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.  When he had been made complete and perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, since he has been designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. (5:8-10)

Maybe it was because of the discussion I had with Umm Muhammad on yesterday’s post that I was especially drawn to these verses today.  Let me anticipate the questions: If Jesus is God, can God learn to obey (and does he need to)?  Was Jesus not already “complete and perfect” before the cross?  Are these verses somehow diminishing the moral quality of Jesus?

In his popular level commentary on Hebrews in the For Everyone series, N. T. Wright explains this passage using a story about a rich business owner and his son who has just graduated from college and is now ready to take his spot in the family business.  One might expect the father to place the son in a posh corner office with a high position and the pay grade to match.  But the father does not.  He puts the son at an entry-level position and has the son rise through the ranks learning the business as he goes.  As a result, when the son does rise to upper management he is a far better leader who understands his trade and his workers better.

Wright said it this way: blood made the man a son, but experience made him a boss.

"Christ in Gethsemane" by Michael O'Brien

Many scholars think the Hebrews author is thinking about Jesus’ Gethsemane experience when he or she writes this.  Jesus’ ultimate act of submission was to face the reality that within hours he would drink the cup of God’s wrath and to humbly accept this propitiatory role though he wished otherwise.  When he had “completed” the journey to that point or finished the course, he had arrived “perfectly” at the point of pure obedience.  Perfect in this context means everything was in place and nothing was lacking, not that Jesus was somehow imperfect or morally deficient before this point.  Furthermore, the Hebrew author emphasizes the point that obedience is a “learning” experience, even as it was for Jesus.  Through a lifetime as a human, Jesus was learning the ins and outs of obedience: that it truly is the best route; what it means to obey in a fallen world; what humans must face to faithfully obey; to feel the true temptation that comes with humanity but also the transformation that comes with obedience.  Can an omniscient God know these things?  That would seem logical.  So it seems the knowledge that comes through experience was still required, at least for Jesus.

To mimic Wright’s conclusion above, blood made Jesus a son, but experience made Jesus the perfect high priest.

Personally, I am ever so thankful that my Savior truly understands in the most intimate ways what my life is like.  That actually makes me love him and respect him all the more.

What caught your eye in this short chapter?

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Acts 14: Sacrifices for God

They [Paul and Barnabas] warned them [the disciples in Galatia] that getting into God’s kingdom would mean going through considerable suffering. (14:22)

It sure will.  It seems everywhere Paul went on this trip he was either chased out of town or beaten half to death. In no time at all the crowd in Lystra goes from wanting to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas to wanting to kill them.  They went from being the object of sacrifice to the sacrifices themselves.  God’s mission necessitates sacrifice.

I am struck, though, how Paul and Barnabas go back through the cities where they are persons non gratis to reinforce the core message of the Kingdom to the new converts (14:21-23), and part of that core message is that disciples have to be ready to sacrifice.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this the “cost of discipleship,” not always something we hear a lot about in some Christian circles these days.  But how can we share with any credibility the story of a suffering Savior if we are not willing to suffer ourselves?

When was the last time you saw the Kingdom advance by suffering or sacrifice?

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Acts 5: Celebrating Suffering

We want to run away from hard times.  We pray for them to stop.  We do all we can to avoid them.

I am not sure that is all bad.  I don’t think we need to go looking for trouble; it has a way of finding us just fine without our help.

But the apostles in today’s passage endure a sound beating and berating at the hands of the Sanhedrin and what do they do?  Celebrate!

They called the apostles back in.  They beat them and told them not to speak in the name of Jesus.  Then they let them go.  They, however, went out from the presence of the Assembly celebrating, because they had been reckoned worthy to suffer disgrace for the name. (5:40-41)

Is there anything to celebrate in suffering for Jesus?  Several things, actually.  We better understand our Savior, who suffered greatly in life.  We are reassured of our devotion when we are willing to suffer.  We can be confident that we are perceived of as a threat to the power brokers of this world if they are willing to take the time to push us down.  We will no doubt develop perseverance, patience and character as a result of our suffering.  We will become stronger through adversity.  But the biggest point of all is in the last clause of v.41: we know we love the name and reputation of Jesus more than our own welfare and interests if we endure persecution to the point of suffering,  In addition, we are reassured that God had enough confidence in our ability to faithful endure suffering that he allowed it to come our way.

It will take some time to retrain the heart to these realities, but this idea is a wonderful one!

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