The Often Complicated Ministry of the Apostle Paul

February 22, 2018

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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?

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End Times or Something Else?

February 15, 2018

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In Mark 13 we find Jesus in Jerusalem having just left the Jewish temple with a group of his disciples. This temple—marvelous in scope and structure—was the pride of the Jewish nation having been fabulously rebuilt by Herod the Great beginning around 19-20 BC (and not finally completed until 65 AD). Some of the disciples noted its size and magnificence (perhaps with an eye toward ruling from it with Jesus?). To this Jesus replied, “Do you all see these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” This statement sparked their curiosity. So later four of them approached him privately to find out more information. They asked, “Tell us when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus provides them a lengthy answer—an answer that even now continues to be widely and variously interpreted.

Many take these words of Christ as a vision for end times and certainly Jesus uses eschatological language, but there also seems to be more going on than just that. He says at one point, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (vs. 30). If he was speaking exclusively about end times, then how does this statement fit into that context? Obviously, we are still here and still waiting for his return. So, just what is he saying? Is it about the end times or something else?

Another Perspective

Mark wrote his account of the life of Christ around 65-66 AD. Let’s consider another perspective from someone who shared this same story a few years after Mark. Matthew wrote his gospel in the early 70s AD. It is interesting to compare his recollection of the disciple’s query to Jesus. He records it this way:

Tell us, they said, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3; Luke also gives his account in Luke 21.)

There is a nuance here in Matthew not obviously present in Mark. Matthew’s account seems to indicate that, yes, actually there is something else going on here. The same eschatological language is present indicating an “end of the age” conversation, but also there is something more immediate to consider, that is, when these huge stones are going to be turned upside down (along with any possible signs connected to either event).

So, as Matthew indicates, Jesus actually answered separate questions. The first is all about the temple stones being overturned and if any signs were to accompany that. The second is about end times. Why Matthew offers this slightly clearer account has to do with timing. He wrote his gospel after the first event—the destruction of the Jewish temple—had occurred. Mark wrote his before.

“The Abomination that Causes Desolation”

Politically, Israel had long been a hotbed of rebellion against Roman rule. Jewish terrorists or zealots continued to be a thorn in the side of Pax Romana. This led to an explosive confrontation during the sixth decade of the first century. In 66 AD the Jewish nation was in full revolt against Rome and managed to vanquish the Roman presence from the temple and make other small gains. Emboldened by these limited victories they continued to openly defy Rome. Eventually Rome had enough. Under General Titus troops were sent to crush the rebellion and crush it they did as brutally as possible. One of their targets was the Jewish temple—not only the pride and symbol of Jewish patriotism but one of the strongholds of the résistance. After they finished demolishing it in 70 AD, not one stone was left standing on the other—just as Jesus had foretold. In all of this destruction, chaos rampaged through Jerusalem. Jews savagely turned on Jews. Horrific events unfolded. It has been estimated that over one million died during this period. It indeed was an “abomination that causes desolation” as Jesus had said.

This is what happened before that generation passed away—about 40 years after Jesus spoke the words. Luke phrased it this way: “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (21:24). This then explains and puts into context his statements within the text such as “flee to the mountains;” don’t “enter the house to take anything out;” how “dreadful” it would be for “pregnant women or nursing mothers;” or “pray that this will not take place in winter.” If it were truly end times, why would any of that even matter?

As for signs of this impending doom, he shared several—wars and rumors of wars, persecutions; false prophets and the gospel being preached to the “world” (which according to Paul in Colossians 1:23 had occurred prior to 70 AD). He uses figurative language of judgment (Mark 13:24-27) to illustrate the total devastation that was to come for the Jewish people and nation. In fact, this was God’s judgment upon them. Never again would they have a temple. Never again would they be his exclusively chosen nation.

The End

After this discourse, Jesus responds to their other question about end times. About “that day” no one knows except the Father in heaven. There are no signs to foreshadow it. Matthew has Jesus speaking about it in terms of Noah’s flood. Everything will be as it usually is. He leaves his disciples (and us) with a warning—“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33).

Separate questions and separate answers. It is about the end times, but it is also about something else.

Other Viewpoints

But as might be expected, not everyone interprets this text the same way. Variations abound. One of the most interesting is called “preterism.” Full (or hyper) preterism interprets Mark’s story (along with all of Revelation and NT prophecy) as totally being fulfilled within the 70 AD time frame—including the second coming of Jesus. According to this view, he literally came during this judgment of Israel. What yet remains is the final coming of Christ and eternal judgment.

To further extrapolate, there is also a partial preterist viewpoint—which includes almost everyone else. This approach understands some of Mark 13 to apply to 70 AD, but not all. Partial preterists interpret the book of Revelation differently also—taking a-millennial, pre-millennial and post-millennial stances. With “end times” understanding, it can get complicated! The best advice is Christ’s: Always be alert and be ready!


The Legacy of Choseness

January 18, 2018

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Romans 9-11 is not easy treading. These chapters represent the core of the apostle Paul’s response to the struggles of integrating both Jew and non-Jews equally into the Roman churches.

In this text Paul reveals his own struggles for his people; expressing his passion for Israel, while also explaining why Israel is now about more than genetics. It is a fascinating section of Scripture, which offers us an incredible glimpse into how a sovereign God operates to accomplish his will, which includes exploring the notion of God’s choseness.

In my faith family–the churches of Christ–the idea of choseness (or election) has not historically been a topic of much consideration. We have tended to dismiss these ideas in opposing Calvinism and/or the doctrine of predestination. Yet when we read Paul in these texts it sounds like God is up to something that seems fairly similar.

All About Context

Just as a reminder—what Paul is teaching flows directly out of the situation in Rome—a situation over which the Jewish Christians there were stumbling. Paul masterfully weaves history, Scripture, and theology to present the case that it was always God’s intent to include non-Jews into his covenant of promise. If the Jews had been paying close attention to the prophets they would have known that God had long planned to take the wild olive branch and graft it onto the cultivated olive tree. He did what he had to do with whom he had to do it for all of that history to play out—so when Jesus arrived to accomplish it, all would be ready. This was no slight to Jewish people however. It was supposed to be an honor—they were actually chosen for this—to be God’s instrument to share his Good News. And even though they did stumble over this, God still has not forgotten them. Those branches that died falling off the olive tree can very well be brought to life again and grafted back. God desires for all Israel to be saved. So it is a win-win situation. God’s grace is extended to all people of every nation with that cultivated olive tree—Jewish nation leading the way. Being chosen has its privileges.

Is God Unfair by Choosing?

This was a question asked of Paul in reply to his teaching by those in the Roman church. After all, from the womb God chose Jacob over Esau. In the Genesis narrative we witness this approach repeated often. On the surface it seems quite unfair. Paul’s answer was startling. God is God and we are not! God is his sovereignty has the right to do what he wants—to show mercy upon whom he desires. None of this redemption story depends upon our efforts anyway (9:16). It is all God-originated. Everything he has and continues to do is for the express purpose of furthering this story. How he has decided to do it is not for us to question—just as the clay does not question the mastery of the potter. It is not unfair at all—it is how we got to where we are. Our call is to not stumble over this, but embrace it; to trust explicitly in God and find our place within The Story. If God has chosen us—what exactly does that mean?

We have Grace to Share

Contextually it meant that the Jewish people had the wonderful privilege of being God’s instrument to share their covenanted blessings with others. How could others hear without the preacher sharing it with them? Who better to share than those most acquainted with faith? Yet some within the Jewish community refused their calling and election—so God rejected them. But as God extended his blessings to others, he still did not forget Israel. He did what he had to do, but continues to hold the door open for their full return. It is called grace—exactly the result of everything God set out to do. Every choice; every action of kindness or sternness; everyone chosen to be involved along the way; all of it for this:

So, too at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer works, if it were, grace would no longer be grace. (11:6)

There will always be the remnant chosen by grace or else everything God accomplished is for naught.

Our Choseness

Now consider what Peter says in light of the Romans text:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9; See also Ephesians 1:3-14)

See any similarities?

We are here—a people of faith in the exact same way Israel was—because God chose us. He chose to create us a little lower than the angels; took care of our sin problem when we could not and arranged a way for us to enjoy a full relationship with him through Christ Jesus. He elevated us above our own status based only upon his desire for us—nothing we ever did or could do. Just like he chose Jacob from the womb based upon his sovereign will he chose us. We are now a part of royalty—a people made holy—for God’s special use, that is, to speak his praises into the dark world yet aware that they have been chosen too. (Which by-the-way is exactly what Paul was trying to get the Jews in the Roman context to understand.)

So what can we learn from this:

  • We are now the chosen of God
  • The promised blessings for the chosen will occur, but individual participation in them still requires a faith response
  • Being chosen does not shield from failures and difficulties
  • The chosen still are to answer a missional call
  • All of this is predicated upon the act and will of God. He alone makes it all possible—so that none of us can boast in our choseness. And the NT makes it even more abundantly clear that what motivated him to do so is his deep and abiding love for us (John 3:16; 1 John4: 7-8)
  • Like the Jews–we can reject our choseness, but God will never give up on pursuing us

We do have a legacy of choseness. It should excite and motivate us. We should rejoice in being God’s elect and get on with the serious business that involves. By faithfully living it out and sharing it with others—we give witness to  The Story among those yet aware of the grace they also have access to in Christ Jesus.