What Healthy Church Leadership Looks Like

October 25, 2018

HCL

What healthy church leadership looks like. This is one way to consider Paul’s first letter to Timothy in the New Testament. Paul’s beloved church at Ephesus—the one he personally spent three years nurturing after its troubled beginning (Acts 19)—was in more trouble. Just as he had foreseen (Acts 20:29-31) “wolves” even from their “own number” had arisen to “distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”

Unable to go himself, Paul sent young Timothy to counter these false teachers and restore the Ephesian church to health. It was a tough task. In the letter Paul continually urged Timothy to “fight the good fight;” to not “let anyone look down on you because you are young;” to “command, and teach;” and to “set an example” to the church. Paul knew Timothy needed such encouragement. To counter established and embedded leadership within in a church—especially if that leadership is unhealthy—took courage and persistence. Timothy struggled. The task even seemed to make him ill, but Paul prodded him to persevere.

Truth had been distorted by the unhealthy leaders in Ephesus. Their worship time was affected. Certain restrictions were being enforced that were unhealthy and unauthorized. Some women of the congregation had been negatively influenced, exploited and were acting out in unhealthy ways. Benevolence was being mishandled and taken advantage of. People in general were being mistreated. Leadership’s love for money was a driving force in the unhealthy spirit.

Timothy was to avoid all of this, speak soundness into it, while living out a contrasting healthy leadership style before the church. This was Timothy’s task—to teach about and to live out what healthy church leadership looks like.

The Character of Healthy Leadership

Since the church in Ephesus had such a distorted and unhealthy leadership structure, they needed clarification on the kind of character God values in his leaders. This is where Paul’s instructions in 3:1-12 are so important. Paul shares character sketches of the kind of people God is calling to lead his church both as shepherds and special servants. Leading God’s people is noble—highly needed and valued, but only for those who feel called and those who have the right heart and character.

Paul first speaks to elders. He outlines how those who desire to shepherd the flock must have a character beyond reproach. This character must be seen not just at church but also at home—in his commitment to his wife and family—and in the community. He must have the right temperament; the ability to discipline himself in all situations; know how to treat and welcome people and know how to teach. He should have healthy motivations; not given to addiction, extremes or flattery. He needs experience and sound judgment. These are the kind of men God needs—healthy and servant-minded—to shepherd God’s flock. Healthy leaders who will produce healthy churches—something not happening at Ephesus.

Next Paul offers a similar description of the healthy character of deacons (and either their wives or deaconesses). Those who serve the church in this way are also to be people who are worthy of respect; self-controlled, honest, clear minded and properly motivated, experienced in serving, trustworthy, not trouble makers—demonstrating their faith at home within their family.

All of this is what healthy church leadership looks like. It is the way leadership “ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth,” Paul remarks.

Again, contextually this is not what leadership looked like in Ephesus. Again, Timothy’s ministry there was to change that. To take Paul’s teaching, live it out, teach it, and bring about the changes needed within that church.

In our context we read and learn; we also are to live it out and teach it. Healthy church leadership is all too vital. As leadership goes, so goes the church. Ephesus is an example of what happens when it all goes bad. We do not ever want to be there. That is why Paul’s teaching remains ever crucial. It remains crucial when churches look to identify and add leadership. It remains crucial for those who are called to leadership. It remains crucial if churches are to be healthy.

Practical Applications

Lived out, this kind of healthy leadership also includes being:

  • Purposeful: Healthy leadership understands their purpose—to shepherd the flock—and intentionally lives that out. They are purposeful in protecting, nurturing, guiding, loving and caring for the sheep.
  • Progressive: In that, they have vision for the sheep and plan for ways to continue the growth of the sheep. They are forward thinking. They do not let the sheep remain in same pasture until there is no more food to sustain them.
  • Present: Shepherds stay with the sheep. The only reason they leave is to go find the one lamb that has wandered away. This is the only way the shepherd will know the sheep and they will recognize his voice.
  • Prayerful: This may be obvious, but it still needs stating. Healthy leaders spend much time in prayer for those they lead.

Healthy leadership like that Timothy was to teach and demonstrate (and what we continue to need in churches now) is to be:

…diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Preserve in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (4:15-16).

This is what healthy church leadership looks like.

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Remember These Things

October 18, 2018

Everything

The story of the second epistle of Peter is quite fascinating. Likely written to the same collection of Christians and churches in some provinces of Asia Minor as his first letter, Peter sets out to correct some misunderstandings and expose some false teachers. There is urgency to his writing due to his impending death—foretold to him by Christ (1:14). So, he writes asking his readers to “make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things” (1:15).

God Empowers (1:3-11)

Before he addresses the heresy, character and accusations of the false teachers and their destructive work among these churches, he begins the correspondence by reminding them just how incredible is the power of God at work within them (and us). He does so, no doubt, to provide reminding fortification to these Christians that God empowered them to do his will; provided for them to do his will; and invited them to fully participate in his will. To this end they should get after it, adding the tools God provided for them to get it done—knowledge; self-control; perseverance; godliness, brotherly kindness; and love. These virtues would empower them to overcome evil while producing within them the divine nature. These virtues also stood in stark contrast with the character of the false teachers, who were “nearsighted and blind” having “forgotten that he has been cleansed of his past sin.”

These virtues would also enable these Christians to ensure their “calling and election” even as the false teachers attempted to undermine it. It would also ensure that they would not fall into their traps and snares. The end result would be a welcome—not to the kind of folly represented in the false teaching, but into the very eternal kingdom of God. In order for these churches to withstand the false teaching being pushed upon them and to be able to expose the false teachers for who they were, Peter knew they needed to know they could—that God empowered them with everything they needed, not just for that specific challenge, but for all challenges.

Peter’s Purpose (1:12-21)

Here Peter states why he is writing with urgency and begins to address some of the accusations of the false teachers hurting these churches. One of the methods they used to attempt to destroy Peter’s influence was to claim that he and the other apostles simply made up their teachings about Christ. So Peter reaffirms and restates his case as an eye and ear witness to everything he had shared about Jesus. He was there. His message was not some “cleverly invented stories” as the false teachers propagated. Further the prophets also give witness to Christ. They did not make the stories up either, but spoke from God as the Holy Spirit led them. Listen to them, not the false teachers. Peter’s word and the prophet’s word—a much better and reliable witness than these false teachers—whose character and intent Peter would expose and shred to pieces in the next section.

False Teachers Exposed (2:1-22)

As Peter exposes and takes down the false teachers—“springs without water and mists driven by a storm”—it becomes clear how they operated and what their aim was. Their goal was to destroy any and all of the healthy influence and teaching they had received from Peter and the other apostles and replace it with a self-serving, “freedom” based doctrine that allowed them to exploit these churches in order to achieve their goals—basically stated—money and sex.

These teachers operated smoothly, of course, using familiar terms while twisting them at the same time (it seems likely that one example of such would be the purposeful mishandling of some of Paul’s teaching—perhaps Romans 6 on grace and freedom—since Peter mentions Paul and how some of his teaching is “hard to understand”—3:15-16). The stories of the false teachers were the ones “made up”—not what Peter witnessed to them. He makes it clear that these teachers stand in shameful condemnation

But these teachers had found a standing in these churches through their secretive agendas and accusations. Another such accusation claimed that there really was no real reckoning coming. After all, nothing much had changed over the generations, so God really was not going to bring about any kind of judgment. This accusation coupled with a false understanding of freedom would open the way for the false teachers to justify their actions—a way to reframe their evil agendas in a way to actually put God’s stamp of approval on them. Peter was having none of this. He mentions three Old Testament examples of God’s reckoning (along with God’s rescue for the righteous) and affirms it is coming for the false teachers.

Next Peter exposes their ungodly character. He does not hold back in describing just how depraved they were–arrogant, blasphemers, carousers, blots, blemishes, adulterers, greedy, and accursed. He compares them to Balaam—something no one would ever welcome. Their teaching was useless and destructive—just a means to get what they really wanted—exploiting and deceiving the church to gain money and sexual favors. They boasted in freedom, but yet were truly slaves to their lusts. In a stark illustration, Peter describes them as pigs returning to the mud and dogs returning to their vomit. Once enlightened perhaps by the knowledge of Christ, these teachers now had returned to the vile filth of the world and were attempting to drag these churches down with them.

The Day of the Lord (3:1-18)

In this last section Peter deals with one more accusation, that is, that the return of Christ is not going to happen. This was the claim of the false teachers—the scoffers—who had infiltrated these churches. Not true is Peter’s response calling them to remember the days of Noah. Jesus will return Peter affirms, but is being held back by the Father, who is patient beyond our understanding and desires to give everyone in every generation the opportunity for salvation. God’s patience is not merely measured in days and years. He is not thusly limited, but even so “the day of the Lord” will come—most certainly and unexpectedly.

When he comes the heavens and earth will undergo a fiery transformation—elements laid bare; stripped clean; evil destroyed. What remains will be “a new heaven and new earth, the home of righteousness.” No place here for the false teachers and what they are peddling. So Peter asks in light of this information, “what kind of people ought you to be?” He answers his own question, “You ought to live holy and godly lives.” (Both the question and the answer still vitally pertinent and true today.) Don’t listen to the false teachers. Jesus is coming, but God is patient. Embrace his salvation and live it out in purity and peace. Don’t listen to the false teachers. Listen to the apostles—to Paul—not to the distortion of Paul offered by these “ignorant and unstable” teachers. They are out of control and headed for destruction—don’t follow them! Guard against them. This is what Peter wants them to remember.

 


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.


The Often Complicated Ministry of the Apostle Paul

February 22, 2018

2cor4_8-9

The brief New Testament letter of 1 Thessalonians offers us a fascinating glimpse into the often-complicated ministry of the apostle Paul. His transition from hardcore Jewish legalist and Christian persecutor (see Acts 9:1-2 & Philippians 3:5) to special missionary and apostle to the Non-Jews came with baggage. Some in his former community did not appreciate his conversion and new emphasis. They opposed him at almost every stop along his missionary journeys—even seeking once to kill him (Acts 23:12-35). More often this opposition metastasized in the form of fierce criticism within the local church context in an attempt to undermine his credibility and authority. Such was the case in Thessalonica.

Dangerous Duty

Acts 17:1-15 chronicles the story of Paul’s experience in Thessalonica. After initially finding quite the receptive audience in the local Synagogue among a few Jews, some God-fearing Gentiles along with several prominent women, things turned ugly. “Jealous” because of Paul’s success, some Jews in the city rounded up some “bad characters” and created a mob scene by rushing to the house where they assumed Paul would be. This led to false accusations and more chaos before city officials. A man named Jason, who had hosted Paul, caught the brunt of the trouble. Paul, along with his traveling companion, Barnabas, was able to slip away after nightfall and escape to nearby Berea. This should have been the end of the story, but upon hearing that Paul was teaching in the synagogue there, the Thessalonian Jews followed him, “agitating the crowds and stirring them up.” Once again, Paul had to make a hasty departure—this time to Athens.

As a result of this dangerous duty Paul had to abandon his ministry in Thessalonica much sooner than he desired. This is evident when reading the first Thessalonian letter. Also evident is the continued attempts to harass Paul’s name and create doubt within the church about his motives and authenticity.

The Letter

It is a masterpiece of Paul’s writing. He wonderfully lifts up the Thessalonian Christians for their steadfastness in the face of opposition. He expressed his joy over the health and growth of the church in spite of the difficulties. He reminded them they were chosen by God to be his people and upheld them as a model church. He had some teaching to do as well in correcting some eschatological misunderstandings. He also addressed some moral concerns and church matters common to all infant churches, which were not necessarily related to the other circumstances.

He does express his regret in not being able to stay with them longer, but recognizes that in spite of that, his ministry among them was successful. His only agenda while among them was to share Christ and do God’s will. He reminds them that he and his team did not burden them in any way financially, but worked to support themselves. He was proud of their progress in the faith—much like a parent with a child. He wanted to make it clear to them that he and his efforts were above reproach unlike those who opposed him. He longed to be able to return and spend more time with them.

“Hard Pressed on Every Side”

This is how Paul described his ministry in 2 Corinthians 4:8. That too was in a context of heavy criticism and challenge to Paul’s authority in a local church context. Like in Thessalonica, some in Corinth were attempting to undermine his ministry. To defend himself against those critics whom he labeled false teachers, he reluctantly shared his substantial resume and concluded with this:

Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I do not feel weak? Who is led to sin and I do not inwardly burn? (See 2 Corinthians 11:1-33 for the full context)

Slammed for leaving Judaism; opposed for introducing the gospel to the Gentiles; criticized for receiving support to spread the gospel and accused of preaching merely for financial gain; made fun of because of his appearance and lack of speaking eloquence; accused of teaching cheap grace; characterized as being a paper tiger—bold to write letters, but timid when face-to-face; and finally arrested for his proclamation of Jesus to all people; Paul’s ministry was indeed often complicated with forces opposing him from both within and without the church. Yet he constantly carried with him the daily  concern for all the churches.

The Thessalonian situation was certainly a part of this concern. Specifically his critics in that city and within that church accused him of exploitation, greed, and deception, of impure and improper agendas. The point of the criticism—like all of it—was to destroy Paul’s influence within the church so a takeover could occur. This happened repeatedly in Paul’s ministry. The motivation for the takeover varied. Sometimes it was monetary gain. Sometimes it was doctrinal. Sometimes it was ego. Envy and hatred were among the driving forces. It was never healthy.

The Jews attempting to cripple Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica were just another group pressing hard against Paul. They were among those making a career out of opposing the gospel; of opposing Jews who expressed faith in Christ; of opposing inviting Gentiles into a relationship with God through Jesus. The idea that they “always heap up their sins to the limit” (1 Thessalonians 2:16) was Paul’s way of saying that they were leaving no stone unturned in their fight against him and the gospel. They were going to use every measure and go to any extreme to stop the spread of Christianity.

Paul was willing to endure it for the sake of the church (see 2 Timothy 2:10). And about all of these complications that were pressing on every side? Here is the rest of that story:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Paul was opposed but never defeated. All attempts to short-circuit the gospel failed. God cut through the complications. He still does. There is no time for pity-parties in the kingdom. Capturing the singular passion and purpose of Paul is our challenge. We still have God’s treasures in our jars of clay. Nothing can stand against that all-surpassing power. Paul understood. Do we?


The Servant of the Lord

February 12, 2018

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From our reading in Isaiah and Mark, it is all about the Servant of the Lord. Here are some selected points of discussion.

  • Who wrote Isaiah 40-66? There is little doubt that the prophet wrote the first 39 chapters, but questions abound about the latter half of the book. It details events that happened 150 years after Isaiah’s death, that is, the return of the remnant of God’s people from exile in Babylon. The judgment of God to Judah in the form of Babylonian conquest and captivity that Isaiah had earlier foretold was over. Chapters 40-66 seems to speak in present tense about the exiles return along with the complications connected to that. Since Isaiah was long gone—how could he have written it? Three main theories exist. One, as a prophet, he simply saw the future via divine intervention and wrote about as if he were present in it. Two, using Isaiah’s own notations in 8:16; 29:10-12 & 30:8-9—he sealed up some of his prophecies, which were passed along among his disciples during the subsequent years—which were then later unsealed and used by disciples/scholars/prophets contemporary to the remnant return. Three, someone other than Isaiah living after the period of exile wrote it, making it another work altogether and not really tied to Isaiah at all. To add to this discussion, an almost complete scroll of Isaiah containing all 66 chapters was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran in 1947. This scroll was one thousand years older than any previous Isaiah manuscript, being dated to 125 BCE. It demonstrated at that point at least, Isaiah was considered one book written by one author. Even more significant, the New Testament seems to have few problems attributing the entire book to Isaiah. (Here is but a small sample–Matthew 8:17; 12:18,21; Luke 2:32; Romans 2:34; 10:20; 2 Corinthians 6:7; 1 Peter 2:22.)
  • Who is the Servant of the Lord? Isaiah introduces us to him in chapter 49 and he becomes central to the narrative. God had not forgotten his promise to his people. Throughout captivity and exile a remnant had remained. They were returning (the time period of Ezra and Nehemiah) to their homeland to renew their calling as God’s people—a light to all nations. But stubbornness among them still remained. They claimed God had ignored and given up on them during captivity. Isaiah countered by insisting that he most definitely had not—that the judgment and exile was all a part of God’s plan for something bigger and better to emerge from the Jewish people to bless all nations. This is embodied in the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, Christ Jesus our Lord. He would be the suffering servant (chapter 53) that would finally accomplish God’s will for his kingdom to be a place for all nations and people. The second half of Isaiah is about hope—hope for all people, for a New Jerusalem and it is only possible because of the Servant of the Lord.
  • Is everything really possible for them who believe? So says Jesus in Mark 9:23. Contextually this flows out of a conversation with the father of a young boy possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus is petitioned to help. The father says to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds by stating, “If you can?” and then makes the firm affirmation of the place of faith for believers. So, is this a context specific remark only applicable to that situation or does it have a broader scope? Either evil spirits no longer possess us as they did in Christ’s day or we do not recognize them as such. Is this just a statement by Christ in connection to them? If it goes beyond context, then are we limiting the power of God to work within us due to lack of faith? Other texts (Romans 3:20-21 for example) indicate that God is ready to accomplish within us more than we “ask or imagine.” Could it be that we are not asking or imagining enough?
  • Can anyone “not one of us” serve the Lord faithfully? This was the concern of some of Christ’s disciples as recorded in Mark 9:38-41 (this story occurs only in Mark’s gospel). They witnessed someone not from their group exorcising demons in the name of Jesus and “told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus countered that, explaining that anyone serving in that way was “not against us” but rather “for us.” No other information is provided except in the following discourse Jesus warns about “not causing one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” This seems to be a direct reference to the man casting out demons and the disciples attempt to stop him. Often we can drift into an exclusive attitude about who can and who cannot effectively and faithfully serve the Lord. If you are one of us—you are in. If you are not among us—you are out. Perhaps this brief story is included in Scripture to cause us to reconsider this kind of thinking and to realize that ultimately God knows who is in and who is not. Obviously, false teachers have existed from the very genesis of the church, but this story reminds us to be careful about making sweeping judgments as to whom God can use in his kingdom.
  • Divorce for “any cause?” Jesus was swept up into a controversial and somewhat convoluted debate over divorce in Mark 10:1-12 (see also Matthew 19:1-12 & Luke 16:18). It centered on different interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 among the Pharisees. This OT text deals with a man’s right to divorce his wife because of “finding something indecent about her.” Two schools of rabbinical thought had emerged and been codified by the time of Christ around this phrase. One interpretation saw it as pertaining to any woman who had been sexually unfaithful during the time of engagement. If this was proven, the intended husband could divorce her (Joseph with Mary for instance). This was the minority view. The second had morphed this statement to mean basically anything a man found unfavorable about his wife—from bad cooking to a bad hair day. This approach was the widely accepted norm as divorce for “any cause” (Matthew’s account include this language ). To fortify this view the practice of Moses concerning divorce was also mentioned. Interestingly, Jesus does not really answer the question directly. Instead he attributes the action of Moses as a compromise because of stubborn hearts and harkens all the way back to the original concept of marriage from the beginning—one man for one woman for life. By so doing he effectively does answer their question without engaging in their debate over rabbinical teachings. Can a man divorce his wife for any cause? No, he cannot. Instead he needs to honor the original marriage covenant. Later privately he offers a further explanation to his disciples offering marital unfaithfulness as an exemption to the Genesis account. Notable here is that he includes the possibility of a woman being able to divorce a man—something not allowed under Jewish law at that time—and something that unfortunately would be needed as the gospel extended beyond the Jews. Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 (which predates the book of Mark) concerning the different marriage situations in Corinth. What if an unbelieving spouse leaves the believing spouse? Paul indicates that the believer—be it a man or woman—“is not bound in such circumstances.” No, a divorce cannot be sought for “any cause,” but there are exemptions. Both Jesus and Paul spoke into the complex situations of their context and complex situations continue to exist in our context as well.