You Belong

October 11, 2018

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Ephesian church was troubled from the start (see Acts 19) and continued to experience challenges both typical and atypical to infant New Testament churches (see 1 & 2 Timothy and Revelation 2:1-7). The apostle Paul invested two years personally ministering to this group—developing a close, special relationship with them, while also foreseeing some of their future problems (see Acts 20:13-38).

One problem in particular was the challenge of harmonious assimilation for all into the new concept of a multi-ethnic faith community that the church was. This community in Ephesus was largely made up on non-Jews, but the long shadow of God’s covenant relationship with the Jews remained. The non-Jews were having a difficult time accepting their placement within the church due to not previously enjoying that covenant relationship—exacerbated, no doubt, by many Jews who had the same difficulty for them for the same reasons. So Paul speaks to this; speaks to placement and position for all in God’s community.

Chosenness (1:3-14)

Paul uses language such as “chosen,” “predestined,” “adopted,” and “included” to underscore his point about placement—about how God specifically planned for non-Jews to join the Jews in covenant with him. Furthermore this was God’s decision before creation—to one day create a multi-ethnic faith community, which was brought about by Christ and sealed by the Spirit. It was to be a community that would mirror the unity of God himself. Everyone within this community would become “God’s possession.” History did not matter, in that; God’s adoption now trumped it. The non-Jews in Ephesus had the same access to the promises and blessings of God as the Jews, who came to God in faith through Christ. They were chosen. They belonged.

God is Able. You are Able (1:15-2:10)

Next Paul speaks about power and empowerment. The city of Ephesus was an epicenter of religion in ancient Rome, where in most superstition and magic played a major role. Lots of gods to possess, impress, appease and appeal to for favors, but for the Ephesian Christians that was supposed to be all over. Christ supplanted and exposed all of that through the power of his resurrection—the same power available to the Ephesian Christians to enable them to live out their placement in the kingdom (something Paul would explore more in 4:17-5:33). No need to return to the “ways of the world” along with behavior related to that. Their life in Christ was alive with power beyond what they could imagine (3:20-21). Being placed thusly and empowered accordingly, God had specific plans for them as his “workmanship.” God was able and so were they.

Peaceful Reconciliation (2:11-122)

In this section Paul reinforces the idea of placement, while also emphasizing the need for peace, harmony and unity in the new multi-ethnic faith community. His words also speak directly to identity. Formerly the non-Jews were excluded from the covenant—“foreigners” is the term he uses. But Christ changed that. He demolished the barriers of separation inherent with the Law in order to create this new community—the church. Hostility should no longer be the defining force between the Jew and non-Jew in this community. Instead peace and reconciliation should. This would call for new thinking about identity. No one is an alien, stranger or foreigner anymore. Everyone who comes to Christ in faith belongs as “citizens”. Paul imagines it as a kind of new temple with Christ as head and foundation—with all others being an integral, connected part of the building. For this to be realized, Jews would have to no longer primarily self-identify as Jews. The same would be true for non-Jews. Their primary identity would be as citizens of God’s kingdom–Christians. This then would allow the hostility to end and a united community of peace and harmony to emerge emphasizing reconciliation instead of hatred and division. Truly a place of belonging! Paul would urge even more specifically this kind of unity in 4:1-6 appealing to them to “make every effort” to bring it about.

But it would not be easy. Generations of suspicion, prejudice and hatred would have to be overcome. These feelings ran deep and the transformation into self-identifying primarily as a Christian—even before ethnicity—would take time. And this not just in Ephesus, but in almost every New Testament church. Yet it was completely necessary if the church was going to make an impact.

The Good News that they preached—centered of course on Jesus—included reconciliation; becoming part of a community where the old ways of thinking, identifying and behaving were replaced by a new paradigm. Here everyone–regardless of race, background, social status, gender was welcome to follow Jesus equally together with the same access to the Father through the Spirit. Former identities would be replaced and redefined through Jesus. Cultural pressure points and social conditioning that brought division would be overcome by the grace of Jesus lived out in the community. Everything would change—all relationships—between Jews and non-Jews; slave and free; men and women; husband and wife; children and parents. Destructive personal behavior would be put away and be replaced by healthy, others-centered actions. People would be “made new in the attitude of your minds” in order to “put on a new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (4:23).

This was God’s plan. To this they were chosen. Through Christ they belonged completely without reservation. He empowered them in this process and through his Spirit to be able to actually live reconciliation out and create this community of peace and harmony. And what a witness it would be! It would literally change the world.

A Witness Still Needed

The parallels between Ephesus and us are numerous. We continue to live in a world intent on hostility, where peace and reconciliation are drowned out in other, louder, destructive and hate-filled voices. The challenge of self-identifying first and primarily as citizens of the kingdom remains especially when we are pulled to identify in so many other ways. It often runs headlong into cultural conventional thinking. But the call remains—we are to be made new, completely, not partially new. While the world seeks to divide, our message and actions are about reconciliation, peace and acceptance. We cannot afford to “follow the ways of the world”—allowing that to set our agendas. We must make “every effort” to maintain unity. We must be a welcoming force–inviting aliens, strangers and foreigners to discover the blessings of citizenship in Christ. We have to be open for the power of God to work within us in ways we cannot ask or imagine. What a transforming force this beautiful multi-ethnic, welcoming, united faith community can still be! I think you would agree that there is a huge need for this in our current climate. I pray we are up for this wonderful challenge.

Advertisements

Can We Still Celebrate Us?

May 22, 2018

Honestly I hesitated to even write and post this article. It is complicated in the churches of Christ these days (starting even with how we tag ourselves–is it with a big “C” or a little “c?”). Recently the Christian Chronicle (the major newspaper of our tribe) featured articles detailing the complications.

But complications among us is absolutely nothing new. Just check out our history–complications almost seem to be what has defined us. For a movement that originated from a call to “go back to the Bible” and rally around it–historically we have not been that unified.

But we endeavored and actually at points in our history, thrived, even in spite of our complications. I celebrate that history. It was forged by people of tremendous faith who were dedicated to following Jesus to the best of their ability and understanding. At our best we were a movement dedicated to honoring God and his Word; a body who highly valued church and what that meant; an evangelistic people who were driven to share the Good News about Jesus; a church who sincerely desired restoration and revival. At our worst–well that is where the complications come in. They divided us. We could not agree on how to interpret Scripture. We drew lines. We hurt people.

Today, I see both our best and worst tendencies being replayed. I see growing, vibrant congregations making huge differences in their communities for Christ. I see dynamic faith being lived out daily. I see sacrificial hearts practicing pure religion in reaching out to the most vulnerable in our society. I also continue to see churches dividing over our complications; unhealthy rhetoric fueling these complications; and to me anyway, an imbalance–more focus on the complications than on the Savior–in some cases.

It is the imbalance that gets to me. Either I must double-down on the “old paths” or I must embrace whatever change is next–not much middle ground. Even the majority of our brotherhood gatherings now seem to parrot this approach. Depending on where I am I will either hear about how the church is going into apostasy and full of heretics or how the church must embrace a completely new identity or be doomed.

Is there any place left that just celebrates us? That simply highlights who we are and the good kingdom work being done through our churches across the globe–without having to dredge up the complications; without having to be accusatory; without having to make any statement other than “Christ and him crucified?”

Perhaps there is no room left for middle ground anywhere in our ever increasingly hostile and partisan culture. Maybe I am only kidding myself in still seeing some merit in our traditional approach to Scripture while also realizing that some evolution and change is necessary and healthy (always has been–our movement has been far from static). And maybe I am only dreaming to think that we can look past our complications, get over our differences through the grace of God, love and accept one another just as we are and find a way to celebrate us together again in an uplifting and encouraging fashion.

My favorite historical figure in churches of Christ is T.B. Larimore. He lived during a time of explosive complications within our body–yet he steadfastly refused to participate, choosing rather to emphasize Christ in his preaching and celebrate his beloved church wherever he went. Often he found that middle ground difficult to navigate due to the consequences of the complications coming at him from every direction, but he soldiered on. I like what he was saying then:

My position is to preach the word wheresoever and whensoever Providence directs or duty demands. Always hew to the line, but never hack toes or chop fingers intentionally.

My earnest desire is to keep entirely out of all the unpleasant wrangles among Christians…I propose to finish my course without ever, even for one moment, engaging in partisan strife with anybody about anything.

Shall I now renounce and disfellowship all those who do not understand these things exactly as I understand them? They may refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with me; but I will never refuse to recognize or fellowship or affiliate with them–NEVER. 

I propose never to stand identified with one special wing, branch, or party of the church. My aim is to preach the gospel, do the work of an evangelist…

Is there a place among us today for keeping out of all of the wrangles of our current complications, of not engaging in partisan strife; of just preaching Christ without hacking off toes; of celebrating the best of us and our history while at the same time striving to learn how to be even better in sharing Jesus as a church with our world?

If so–that is where I want to be.

 

* Quotes are from two books: The Man From Mars Hill: The Life and Times of T.B. Larimore by J.M. Powell and Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church by C. Leonard Allen

 

 

 

 


Dreaming of Daniel

April 19, 2018

daniel-facts

The book of Daniel is fascinating on many levels. It shares the compelling story of Daniel along with his friends as they overcome great obstacles to their faith in a strange and oppressive culture. It includes incredible stories of God’s rescue and of dreams and visions. It offers answers to some questions while leaving others open to a vast array of interpretations. Overall it presents a message of hope—to all generations—of God’s ultimate rescue for his people—things may seem hopeless, but better days are ahead.

Then and There

To understand Daniel, the book and the prophet must first be understood within the context that produced both. Daniel shared his prophecy primarily for his immediate audience—those in his time and place. Ripping the stories out of that context is not helpful to discovering their meaning.

Daniel’s story begins right after Babylon’s first attack on Jerusalem (see 2 Kings 24). Among those things seized in this attack were “some of the articles from the temple” (1:2) such as gold and silver cups (5:2). Also taken were people from the royal linage of David including Daniel and his three friends (known best by the names of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) who play a significant role in the book. This was not an uncommon practice for conquering nations—take back the best the defeated country has to offer to serve the center of the empire at home.

The bigger picture in which Daniel was caught up was the fact that Judah was done. All of the previous prophecy and warning against impending doom was coming true. Because of their rebellion and sin, God’s people were being punished. Babylon was God’s chosen instrument. For the next seventy years, Judah as a viable nation would not exist. Many of her people would live in exile pushed to serve foreign gods in a strange land. What would become of these people? Did there remain a word from the Lord to them? This was the then and there. This is specifically what Daniel addresses. Everything that flows out of the book flows out of this context.

Faithfulness in Exile

Two of the most well-know Daniel stories focus on unwavering faith in the face of immense pressure. From the start Daniel and his friends established their commitment to remain true to the Torah (chapter 1) and as a result gained some favor. But this did not shield them from future pressure to compromise their faith. Both the fiery furnace (chapter 3) and the lion’s den (chapter 6) were the result of them not caving into pressure but rather remaining faithful to their God and his will. In both cases, God rescued them dramatically—sending a powerful message to the Babylon king and to anyone else who may have been listening.

God has not forgotten his people. God will reward faithfulness even in exile. God is not cowered or neutered by Babylonian might. The Babylonian king—regardless of how it may appear—is not the most powerful force in the world after all. God is still very much at work in the world to bring about his ultimate will.

One message is clear from these stories (and all of Daniel’s stories)—hope remains. Do not give up. Remain faithful. God is planning a rescue.

Dreaming of Better Days

King Nebuchadnezzar did not realize it but that is exactly what he was doing—not for himself and Babylon however, but for the people of God. His dreams (chapters 2 and 4) along with his son, Belshazzar’s “hand” written message (5) and Daniel’s own dreams and visions (7-11) all serve a similar purpose. While each contain different details, they all serve to further this story within the Story by proclaiming God’s ultimate deliverance of his people into a kingdom that far overshadows any that has come before it-including the mighty Babylonian empire

They all establish several significant truths:

  • There is only one God and none of Babylon’s kings is it. Regardless of how exalted these kings thought they were—God was more so. It took Nebuchadnezzar some time in the pasture to discover this while his son, unfortunately for him, never discovered it.
  • Human kingdoms will almost always turn beastly. Images of beasts and horns are aplenty in Daniel. Don’t get lost in them. They all signify human arrogance and abuse of power. Nothing about this has changed since Daniel’s day. Power continues to corrupt governments. Nations still arrogantly act as if all history depends upon them. If Daniel teaches us anything—it is that this is to be expected.
  • No kingdom but God’s is forever, however. Human kingdoms come and go (Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Roman—to name those covered by Daniel) but God’s kingdom outlasts them all—including whatever kingdoms exist now and in the future. God will tame all of these beasts.
  • “The Story” remains God’s focus—and he is active in pursuing it. Daniel speaks of the “Son of Man,” “the Ancient of Days,” “Gabriel” and “Michael, the great prince” all participating in the story he was sharing. That story was about “The Story”—the coming kingdom of God in which true redemption would be found. It was the promise of those better days ahead in Christ Jesus. We should expect God continuing his work today among the nations to continue writing “The Story” in us.
  • Like Daniel (chapter 9)—we must learn to be patient in the midst of our place in the story, and to trust God to ultimately bring full justice to this world—once for all establishing his eternal kingdom in his timing.

“A Pattern and a Promise”

This could be how best to consider Daniel’s story. Perhaps instead of trying to pinpoint each vision; each prophecy; and each dream to some point, place or person in history—maybe Daniel should be understood as a message for all of history as we find ourselves living it. Jesus referred to Daniel to address corruption in his day. John uses Daniel to confront the oppression in his time in the Revelation.

Daniel offers us a pattern, that is, as long as the earth stands, evil people will seize power, corrupt nations and oppress God’s people. He also offers us a promise—through this, God will never forget his people, always be working to finish The Story and ultimately one day slay all the beasts. Then his kingdom will flourish forever. Like Daniel and his contemporaries—we remain in the journey—as aliens and foreigners in this world. Again, like him, our call is to remain faithful in the exile.


Listening to Leviticus

April 12, 2018

leviticus

The Old Testament book of Leviticus can initially come off as a stale book of codes and regulations for a people and a time long removed from us. Because of its details and some repetition it can be a tedious book to read. But there is far more to the third book of the Bible than this!

Leviticus is an important part of The Story! It is set right after the Exodus and its purpose is to instruct Israel on how to be holy. Consider the events leading up to Leviticus. God had dramatically delivered his people from bondage. He had established a covenant with them—He as their God and they as his people. It was a watershed moment for the Hebrew people! Yet, they immediately violated that covenant. From the start it did not go well. There was a disconnect that had to be corrected. God is holy—so must his people be—set apart and uniquely his in heart, in worship and in behavior. So Leviticus offers God’s instructions on holiness in order to lift up Israel as his holy nation.

Outside of the Tent

The Leviticus narrative begins with God calling Moses “from” the “tent of meeting” (Leviticus 1:1). This “tent of meeting” was the pre-tabernacle place where God dwelt among his people. It was pitched outside the community to symbolize how God could not dwell among them due to Israel’s rebellion and breaking of the covenant (Exodus 33:7,9). At this point Moses was not even allowed in the tent—also signifying the unclean nature of Israel. They were all outside the tent in need of instruction and guidance on how to be a people who could approach the holiness of God. The book of Leviticus provides just this guidance.

How to be Holy

Leviticus offers three avenues of instruction to Israel on how to become God’s own people—holy and set apart for his purposes.

  • The first centers on certain rituals—sacrifices and celebrations designed both to honor God and remind his people of his grace and salvation. The first six chapters of the book detail several types of sacrifices, which both thank God for his blessings while also acknowledging sin and guilt before him. Later in chapter 16 the “Day of Atonement” is detailed—for the purpose of sin offering, but also again to remind Israel of God’s faithfulness and holiness. Then in chapter 23 God establishes several special days and celebrations to be kept and honored within Israel—all for the purpose of reminding them of his mercy and grace along with their place before him and within The Story. All of these events would continually place God at the center of daily life within the Hebrew community. These rituals were designed to lead his people to a higher appreciation and understanding of God’s place among them and their responsibilities to him. This was God giving them his calendar—how to order their life around him. There remains a great need for this now and listening to Leviticus demonstrates that.
  • The second is about those especially chosen to administer God’s gifts among his people—those called to be priests. In two sections (8-10 & 21-22) Leviticus highlights the purpose, place and character of those who would serve as intercessors between God and man. The overriding factor within this information is God’s call for his priests to maintain the highest moral character possible—demonstrated not just by the detailed instructions, but also by the failure of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. The dramatic end to their story served to illustrate how God would not tolerate his special servants compromising their call. This sent an unequivocal message to Israel that God’s call to be holy was not to be taken lightly by anyone, especially priests. His priests were to be the conduits through which his people could learn, grow and approach him. All of the rules associated with them may seem to us like overkill, but in order for Israel to reflect the holiness of God and truly be his people, the priests were a key component to making this happen. God only wanted the best from them—to honor their call among his people. Not by accident he asks the same of us—his priests—today (see 1 Peter 2:9).
  • The third avenue to holiness in Leviticus is the general call for all Israel to be pure. Within this is a call to be ceremonially clean, that is, free from elements that would contaminate and therefore create separation from God (such as contact with bodily fluids, skin disease, mold and mildew, skeletal bones, and eating certain foods—see 11-15). All of these prohibitions were not given arbitrarily. They protected Israel against disease and health concerns along with keeping them ceremonially clean before God. Any Hebrew contaminated could not come into the presence of God, so provisions were made for cleansing. It was another way for God to remind Israel of who he was and who they were called to be—not to mention his way of protecting them from devastating disease. Also within this overall call of purity was the challenge to be morally and sexually clean (see 18-20). No way Israel could be who God called them to be through immoral conduct. So detailed instructions were offered to guide them. Once again these instructions not only protect them spiritually but physically as well. It would still do us well to continue to listen to Leviticus in this regard.

Other instructions are given with the book—concerning taking care of the poor; social justice; and honoring God in all relationships—that would be key to Israel representing the holiness of their God within their community of nations. It all connected back to the holy nature of God and how he desired his people to honor, be led by, and embrace this holiness in their daily lives. It was to be their identity as they lived and settled among the nations. It would be the way they would bless the other nations and direct them to their God—the one true God. The reason for Leviticus was to make this clear and show them the way to accomplish it.

It Worked!

The book that follows Leviticus in the Bible is Numbers. In Numbers 1:1 this is what we read: “The Lord spoke to Moses in the Tent of Meeting…” From outside of the tent to inside of it! Moses made the transition (as did all Israel). How did that happen? By listening to Leviticus.


Wisdom for the Ages

March 29, 2018

wisdom

Solomon—especially gifted by God—is famously one of the wisest men who ever lived. He requested and God granted him an extra measure of wisdom (1 Kings 3), which he shared through “thousands” of proverbs (1 Kings 4:32-34), which others sought out. Many of these are now collected for us in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Solomon wrote most, but not all of them. Together they represent God’s wisdom addressing a wide range of subjects. This wisdom is about more than just knowledge; it is more about applied knowledge—that is, using the wisdom to inform and live out God’s will in all aspects of life.

It is important to understand how the literature of Proverbs differs from other parts of the Bible. Proverbs is, fittingly, in the category of wisdom literature. It offers guidelines, probabilities, and insight, but unlike the law and prophecy sections of Scripture, it speaks about probable and possible outcomes—not commands. (For instance, while it is generally true that a child who is brought up in the way of the Lord will never depart—Proverbs 22:6—there are exceptions). The Proverbs should not be approached as a book of formulas therefore, but as they were intended—a collection of applied wisdom and a general guideline for wise, godly living.

Our specific weekly Bible reading of Proverbs 6-24 is part of the heart of the book—full of applied wisdom covering a wide swath of subjects. Topics such as justice, poverty, debt, sex, family, generosity, marriage, friendship, vocation, character, alcohol and forgiveness are addressed. In one way this section can be used as a reference—looking up each subject to hear a wise word about it from the Lord.

Wisdom for the ages! Let’s check some of it out:

  • Avoid the sluggard syndrome. Don’t become lazy and fearful. The sluggard is presented in Proverbs as someone so lazy they will not exert the energy to feed themselves or so fearful that even a rumor of a roaming lion will entice tremain in their perpetual slumbered state. The end result is ruin (Proverbs 6:6-11; 13:4; 19:24; 20;4; 21:5, 25-26; 22:3; 24: 30-32; 26:14-15). Instead of a sluggard lifestyle, the Proverbs point to the ant as the example of industrious labor.
  • Avoid seduction. Adultery; the allure of illicit sex is a topic to which wisdom is applied (Proverbs 6-7). This is a father speaking to his son—teaching him the folly of empty, gratuitous sex. These words remain ever true to our contemporary setting.
  • Embrace wisdom. Of course, this could be the purpose statement of all of the Proverbs, but in chapter eight wisdom’s significance is especially highlighted. Here wisdom speaks for itself and advises: “Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not ignore it” (vs. 33). We would still do well to heed.
  • “The fear of the Lord.” This is a theme of the Proverbs (9:10) but it is more about reverence and awe than it is about being afraid. It is about being drawn to God to learn from him, not about hiding in fear from him. Being drawn reverently to him is how we begin our journey of wisdom and knowledge.
  • The tongue—a source of blessings and curse. All throughout this segment of the Proverbs, wisdom advices proper use of the tongue, while also warning against the trouble the misuse of words will bring. Just consider chapter 10 alone (vss. 11, 13-14, 18-21, 31). All true wisdom for the ages.
  • Discipline brings maturity; the lack thereof brings folly. This is another major thread running throughout Proverbs. The wise man understands the value of a disciplined life; while the foolish man avoids it and runs into folly and ruin. Discipline teaches, corrects and matures. The undisciplined receive no such parameters and therefore are destined to error and trouble. (10:23; 12:1; 15:12; 21:11).
  • Pride leads to ruin. Wisdom shines light upon pride and exposes the traps it contains. (11:12; 13:10; 16:18; 29:23). Pride continues to lead to destruction.
  • Justice is encouraged. It should not surprise that wisdom and justice go together (8:20; 17:23; 18:5; 21:15; 29:7, 26)). Justice—like wisdom itself—originates in God. The righteous seek it, while the wicked seek to subvert it.
  • Avoid drunkenness. An entire section is dedicated to warning against the effects of strong drink (23:29-35; also 20:1 & 23:20-21). Alcoholism and drunkenness continues to do much damage throughout all generations. The wisdom of the Proverbs applied would limit such damage.
  • The way of the righteous is also highlighted all throughout the Proverbs. It is usually contrasted with the way of the wicked (see for example 11:5-11). This also illustrates the “probable” nature of the Proverb. In each comparison, the righteous realizes a positive outcome, while the wicked are forecast nothing but trouble. While this is generally true, it is not guaranteed (this side of eternity anyway). Some struggle with the Proverbs as a result, but the purpose, context and style of literature must be heavily considered.

Divine Common Sense

Another way to consider the Proverbs is as divine common sense. Solomon being gifted a special dispensation simply approaches life situations and topics sharing a measure of common sense to them. “Wise sayings” is how the Proverbs are defined and that is an accurate definition.

The first seven verses of the book provide an overview and what the Proverbs are all about but one text perhaps sums the point of the Proverbs up best:

Pay attention and listen to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach, for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart and have all of them ready on your lips. So that your trust may be in the Lord, I teach you today (22:17-19).

The Proverbs are wisdom for the ages—all ages—for us here and now. It would serve us well to pay attention and put this wisdom to work in our lives.


A Marriage Theology

March 15, 2018

marriage-prep

In his first correspondence with the “church of God” at Corinth, the apostle Paul dives waist deep into the Corinthians marriage troubles. These were not typical marriage troubles—more like extreme marriage troubles, as in an extreme misunderstanding of what constituted holiness within a marriage.

Two overriding circumstances drive Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7—both are vital to understanding this text:

  • Apparently the Corinthians somehow had come to a conclusion that all sexual activity was immoral—even within marriage—that abstaining from sex even when married was the best choice to avoid defiling God’s temple, the body. This is what Paul first responds to (7:1—not to “touch” means not to engage in sex with), which provides the framework for the rest of the chapter.
  • “The present crisis.” It is crucial to realize that Paul’s answer to their marriage questions were framed by some type of urgent crisis—specific to that situation. The crisis is not identified for us. Some have speculated it could have been famine, persecution or some other challenging circumstance. Whatever it was, Paul makes clear it would be easier faced alone if at all possible. Perhaps if this crisis had not existed at that moment, his answers might have been different. There is no way for us to know, but this does have significance to unpacking this section of Scripture.

Moving into the text, it is vital to know how these two points inform and frame every bit of marriage theology Paul shares.

Enjoy the Marriage Bed (1-9)

Immediately Paul counters the idea that sex even within marriage is unholy. The extreme idea of the Corinthians that sex was somehow too dirty even for husband and wife was incorrect. Rather—couples have a responsibility to one another in this regard. They belong to each other in this way, so enjoy—do not withhold sex from one another. What they were promoting was not holiness—it was dangerous. Satan could seize it and create real trouble.

Understanding the nature of the flesh and of Satan, this was Paul’s best advice. He did not command it so, but conceded it. In his opinion the best practice was celibacy, but he knew not everyone shared that gift with him. (At this writing Paul was single, but he might not always have been so—Acts 6:10; Philippians 3:4-6.) To those who did not share this gift—the “unmarried and the widows” Paul advised them to marry rather than “burn with passion.” The overall point of this section—enjoying sexual relationships within marriage is a natural part of that relationship. While singleness may be preferable considering the current crisis, marriage is preferable to singleness if temptation and lust are the alternatives.

One note—the word rendered “unmarried” in verse 8 is only used by Paul in Scripture and only used here in this text—four times (verses 11, 32, & 34 also). He uses it to differentiate the unmarried from the widows (who obviously are unmarried). The meaning of the word for Paul would have likely included those who had been divorced. Our versions translate it using our broad term for all unmarried, but contextually Paul seems to use it in a different way, which would have included those divorced.

Christian Couples (10-11)

Out of the idea that abstaining from sex within a marriage might be a godly approach, some Christian couples apparently took it a step further to consider dissolving their marriages altogether. Paul speaks to this next. He references Christ’s teaching (Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12) to reinforce the marriage bond. Absolutely these couples should honor their marriage vows—no reason to consider divorce even under the current distress. Even if separation occurs—work it out or remain single. No drastic changes needed to occur considering the circumstances.

Mixed Marriages (12-16)

The next question Paul considers is the validity of marriages in which a Christian is joined to an unbeliever. Are these marriages sacred? Should a Christian remain in them? Paul answers in the affirmative—if at all possible—except in this situation he has no direct teaching from Christ to reference. Instead he offers his apostolic advice based upon the overall circumstance and what is best for the family. The presence of the Christian within this type of marriage brings a sanctifying aspect to the union—to the unbelieving spouse and to their children, if present. Like the leaven Christ mentioned—the believer could be God’s instrument to bring salvation to the rest of the family. So Paul instructs the believer to stay within that marriage. Of course the unbeliever may see things differently and abandon the marriage. If so, Paul advises the believer to accept that for the sake of peace. In this situation the believer is not bound to the departed unbeliever and would be free then to pursue remarriage.

Stay Where You Are (17-24)

After answering their specific questions Paul offers some general advice to all of the Corinthians. Again, considering the overall context of the crisis, he suggests the best course is for everyone to remain exactly as they were when called by Christ. If married—stay married. If single—remain that way. Don’t try to abandon your ethnicity—nothing to gain in doing so at this point. He even advises slaves to not seek their freedom unless an obvious opportunity arises. From Paul’s perspective this was the least complicated situation from which each person could most effectively serve God. He stated this was his rule for all the churches, but he also knew not everyone would be able to keep it. Already in the text he has make exceptions and he will continue to do so.

Never Married? (25-35)

Now Paul addresses the “virgins” or those never married. Once more he has no direct word from Jesus to consider, so he offers his own judgment based upon the “present crisis” and encourages those never married to stay that way if at all possible. He realizes not all can accept this and once more allows for marriage (while again instructing those married to remain so), but foresees potential trouble for such marriages. This could mean the coming of persecution; the effects of a famine—whatever the crisis was—Paul thought it to be impending and being single with no dependents would be the best way to face it. Being single under these circumstances would also be the best possible way to serve God with “undivided devotion”.

To Those Engaged (36-38)

Some in the Corinthian church were engaged. What about them? Paul leaves that decision up to those in that relationship. If for reasons of conscience, age, or self-control, the decision to marry is made, so be it—marry. But if the decision is made to not marry, that too, is permissible. Couples should feel no compulsion—in such stressful times—to honor their engagement. Both are good, but being consistent, Paul concludes being single is the better option.

Christian Widows (39-40)

He concludes his marriage Q&A in the same manner. Christian widows would be best served to remain single—she would be “happier” is his judgment. He acknowledges their freedom to remarry, instructs them if they do so to only marry another Christian, but fortifies his instruction to remain single by speaking as one who has “the Spirit of God.” This was Paul’s way of putting the divine, authoritative apostolic seal on his teaching in this text. In his ministry Christ did not address all of these specific situations, but Paul, inspired by the Spirit of God has the authority to do so—creating a marriage theology consistent with and flowing from that of Christ.

Now?

As we go about applying these teachings to our own current situations, it is imperative that we understand their context of impending crisis. The takeaways for us remain: It is less complicated to serve God as a single person. Not all have the gift of celibacy. Marriage is holy and honorable including the sexual component—commit to make it work in every way. However if abandoned or widowed—the marriage bond is broken. Remarriage is possible, but don’t rush and if desired–find a good Christian mate. The overall goal is to make sure God is served first whether married or single.

 


Out of Job’s Ashes

March 8, 2018

job-suffering

The Old Testament book of Job is somewhat of a mystery. It includes quite the unique story told in an unusual way compared to the rest Scripture. In it Job is both the protagonist and antagonist as the center of the story and of the storm surrounding him. It is rich in dialogue—between God and Satan; between Job and his friends; and between God and Job. The focus is about human suffering and why God allows it, yet a definitive answer to this dilemma is never offered. In the end it is about trust—as in—will God be trusted above and beyond the suffering with all of the accompanying questions. There is much to unpack in Job’s story and indeed out of his ashes there are numerous life lessons to learn.

The Prologue (1-2)

The book begins by firmly establishing Job as a righteous man—a guy who did everything right by his family, his friends, his community, strangers, and by God. Even though Job was not a Hebrew, he worshipped their God. He was from the “land of Uz,” which remains a rather mysterious place—no one is exactly sure of its location. The historical context of the book also remains unknown, with best guesses placing it at some point before Moses. Who recorded this story also is a mystery. What we do know is that Job was a good man—about the best around in his day.

Satan took notice of that. In a fascinating snapshot of the supernatural, we eavesdrop in a conversation between God and Satan. God asks Satan, who was apparently roaming the earth in search of people to take down into his sinful web, what he thinks of Job and his righteous conduct. Satan doesn’t think much of it and does what he does best–accuse. Job is too protected by God, so a bargain of sorts is agreed upon. God takes down some protective hedges and Satan gets a shot at Job, but at first not personally. He can only attack him around the edges—and he does it very well. Yet Job stays strong and true to God. Then a second bargain is struck. Satan can harm Job physically, but only to a point. Job’s life is to be spared. This almost surreal situation (to us anyway) sets up the rest of the book. Satan hit Job hard. First his property, security, and serenity—then his body and his health.  It rocks Job to his core. Job cannot understand why he is suffering so. For him it made no sense. He was a godly man yet all hell (almost literally) had broken loose upon him. Why? This “why” discussion takes up most the book. It remains ever present as we face suffering of our own. This is also why this book remains so compelling—and so challenging.

The Dialogues (3-41)

Job’s despair was shocking to his friends. When they came to his aid, they barely recognized him—sitting in ashes, rejected by his wife and with only a broken piece of pottery to ease his suffering. How was this the same man whom they had known—a man renown for his righteousness, justice and goodness? Obviously something had gone terribly wrong, so Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite, and Elihu the Buzite determined to figure it all out. Just why was Job suffering so? This is at the heart of their prolonged conversations.

To understand these exchanges it is important to understand the assumption they were all (including Job) working from—a common assumption that continues to this day. That is—how everything in the universe operates according to a strict principle of justice. From their perspective, if you were about righteousness, you would be rewarded. If evil—then the proper punishment would follow (see 4:8-9; 34:11; 36:11-12). Under this assumption, Job was apparently not the man everyone thought him to be.

So, his friends set about to probe into his life, to expose his sin, and thus to help him accept it, repent of it, and escape his ashes. But Job insisted he had not sinned—that he was innocent (9:21). No way, according to Job, had he done anything anywhere to deserve the horror he was living. He could not process this being about the justice of God because he had done nothing to warrant it. In addition to his physical distress, this was ripping at his very soul. Eventually in these discussions and in his frustration he turns on God—accusing him of inflicting this pain for no cause (16:9; 27:2,8). He is confused and just trying to make sense of it all.

At this point in the story the last friend, Elihu, speaks up. He thinks Job is mistaken in accusing God and interprets suffering somewhat differently. He suggests it may a punishment not for sins committed but rather as a warning against committing future sins.

The point of all of this dialogue? Each segment represents an element of man’s wisdom in trying to come to grips with human suffering. Who among us has not asked why innocent people suffer? Who among us has not wrestled with the apparent injustice of it? The dialogues were their way of wrestling.

Then God enters the dialogue. In what may be the most amazing part of Job’s amazing story—God speaks up and answers Job, but not exactly how Job expected. Job’s perspective of how God operates in the world centered upon himself. From that limited viewpoint Job accused God of not holding up his end of the bargain. In answering, God opened up Job’s eyes to a universe much, much larger than his own circumstance. As God spoke about creation, about taking care of the natural order, about how things operated from his perspective, Job quickly realized he was out way of his league and repents. His accusations against God were unwarranted. He simply could not know enough to make such claims against God.

So why all the suffering? Even in all of the discussion, no clear answer is provided. God does seem to use two of his more impressive creations, though, to provide some direction. He speaks of the behemoth and the leviathan—two large creatures known to Job and his contemporaries. Using them to illustrate, he pictures creation as both ordered but also dangerous; the world as having justice, but not having perfection. Thus, the suffering—it is a part of this imperfect world.

For us, who still operate at times under the same assumption as Job and his friends that answer may seem to fall short, but Job was satisfied. The epilogue of the story (chapter 42) reveals that not only did Job recover, but ended up far more blessed than before.

Trust is the Takeaway

This is the point of Job’s story. It is not to answer the problem of human suffering; it is to trust explicitly in God throughout human suffering. Even though rebuked by his friends, Job did the right thing—he took his doubts, hurts, and questions directly to God. Suffering is a byproduct of our broken world. Satan orchestrates it—just as with Job. God’s answer to this dilemma is not to eradicate it, but to send this only son to enter it—to suffer just like us so that we can eventually escape it. In the meantime—trust! Trust in the infinite wisdom and justice of God. One day it will overcome and all suffering will cease. This may not fit into all of our assumptions, but like Job we are so limited in our ability to understand. So, we cling hard to him who does understand and trust him regardless of what other voices may be saying.

That at times will not be easy, but in the end well worth it (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Out of Job’s ashes comes a perspective that can see beyond the moment trusting God through it.