“Life that is Truly Life”

January 20, 2015

LifeTruly_lThe title is a little phrase snatched from the context of the apostle Paul’s concluding statements in a letter he wrote to his young protégé, Timothy the evangelist, who at the time was in the ancient city of Ephesus trying to sort out a mess of a church.

To many people across the world this letter we call 1 Timothy is likely unknown or obscure. Certainly Christians are more familiar with it, but even to many of them this phrase (from 1 Timothy 6:19) is probably not something they often consider.

It is just there in Paul’s instructions to Timothy on what to teach to the wealthy members of the Ephesian church. Apparently, among the other problems facing this infant church, an unhealthy attitude toward money existed.

Reading the immediate context you get the idea those with money were not using it to God’s glory or to further God’s kingdom. Reading the greater context, you get the feeling others in that church were using the church for their personal profit. Either way, it was not good news.

So Paul instructs Timothy to work to redirect some hearts and practices by encouraging them to “take hold of life that is truly life.”

By making this statement Paul is necessarily indicting the “life” being lived by many (rich included) in the Ephesian church. It is a contrast statement. Their (the Ephesians) approach to life was not “truly life.”

That is a fairly bold statement. How would that come across in our culture? Probably as judgmental and unwelcome. We pretty much pride ourselves on making our own way—rugged individualists that we are.

Who is some long dead, dusty old preacher or anyone else, for that matter, to tell me what life is all about?

Yet, if we ever honestly (brutally so) take personal inventory, how is that really going for us? How really is our life?

Contextually Paul shares three points that I think connect to his “truly life” statement.

  • It has to do with contentment. “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (6:6) is how he put it. Again, this was a contrasting statement—set up against the confusion; friction; and hurt put upon that church by people who were anything but content. The point? We can have it all, but without a God-laced contented spirit, can we enjoy it?
  • It has to do with hope. Real hope as in something true and meaningful after we are done with this world. This is found in one place- “God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (what a great statement—6:17). Everything else is uncertain and temporary. Which is better to build a life upon?
  • It has to do with helping others along the way. Serving, sharing, being generous—that is part of “truly life” according to this teaching (6:18). Self-absorption; self-consumption; and self-centeredness isn’t.

“Truly life” leads us to “lay up treasures” as a “firm foundation for the coming age.”

Awesome.

So, if Paul is to be believed—“life that is truly life” not only allows us to live now in the abundance of the blessings God has given for us to enjoy, but shapes us to do so with a contented spirit and a generous heart in full certainty of an even better future ahead. And it also helps us to avoid many unpleasant situations, which rob us of peace and joy.

Where can I sign up?

Oh yeah, at the foot of the cross.

“ For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-37)

 


Stuck in the Middle with Jesus

January 13, 2015

Middle crossIt was the middle ground; the high ground; the holy ground.

There he was—humiliated, exposed, and dying—up on that hill in-between two thugs. It was bloody ground; unwelcoming ground; it was holy ground

It was holy only because of him. The innocent lamb at the slaughter. He shouldn’t have been there; did not deserve to be there; but there he was. God in the flesh—up there on the middle cross dying under the devastating weight of my sin.

Literally, volumes have been written about Golgotha. I am not going to uncover anything new. I will just share what I see right now:

  • The middle ground—between the thieves. Symbolism aplenty. Jesus in the midst of all of us sinners. We surround him. Will we hold him in contempt as one thief did or will we recognize the Son of God among us and seek his grace as the other one did? Another view of the middle ground—where we are called to live, daily. (See a host of Scripture references—1 Corinthians 9:27; Galatians 5:23; Philippians 4:5; Titus 2:2; 1 Peter 1:5.)
  • The high ground—I think Jesus lived his life here. He never lowered himself to engage in or respond to the manipulative tactics used against him by his enemies. He could have called down legions of angels, but amazingly he refrained. He always did the right thing even though he was tempted otherwise. Of course, we all know the discipline this requires because we have been asked to do likewise. “Let us do good unto all men,” is the exact wording of the Golden Rule type, take-the-high-ground expectation (Galatians 6:10).
  • The holy ground—the best way I know how to express one truth this reveals to us is exactly how Peter did: “But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Being holy is not about being better than anyone else; it is about doing my best to be like Jesus.

I am just as broken as the two criminals who died with Christ that day on Calvary, but I do not want to be stuck in my brokenness—I want to be stuck right in the middle of God’s love with Jesus on that high, bloody, holy ground of grace, forgiveness, mercy, and pardon.

It is my only hope.


Five Steps to Effective Bible Study

December 9, 2014

I’ve quite often heard how Bible study can be intimidating–and I get that. Everything about the Bible–its length; its historical time-frame; it’s language; it’s subject matter; Bible-studying-theit’s message; its divine inspiration–makes it not only unique but also incredibly challenging for many just to pick up and read.

If someone were to decide to randomly start reading the Bible and flipped it open to, say, 1 Chronicles 26 or Revelation 18, well, good luck with that.

It is not that these biblical texts cannot be understood–they can. But unlike a novel or a good historical read or even a text-book, to effectively read, study and understand the Bible takes some preparation.

And that is not as big a deal as you might think. With all of the resources we have available now in biblical scholarship, preparation is frequently just a click away. It is now easier than ever to find the Bible study tools needed to assist us (such as introduction information on individual books of the Bible; historical and cultural background information on biblical cities; biblical language helps; etc)

Of course I am sort of a geek when it comes to Bible study. It is something I truly enjoy and I know not everyone shares this passion. But regardless of your passion (which I believe would increase with more effective study) or knowledge level here are five steps to help you to enjoy more effective Bible study.

  • Never approach text with an agenda. Yep, I start with a negative. Far too often we open up our Bible to find a verse to support something we think we already believe. This does not engender healthy Bible study. No text was ever written simply as a “proof text” for us to parse and use to win a debate or prove a point. When we bring our agendas into Bible study Scripture gets twisted and taken in all sorts of never-intended ways. Granted it is difficult if not impossible to go into Bible study unfiltered. We all have our biases to sort through, but appropriating biblical text to use for our own personal agendas is not a profitable Bible study method.
  • Let text speak in context. This is the key that unlocks the amazing teaching found in the Bible. In order to understand what Scripture is teaching now, we must understand what it first taught then–when it was originally written. To do so means digging into context–all about the original recipients; their situation; the world in which they lived; about the person who wrote the book and their purpose in writing; and what is going on in the surrounding text itself. (This is where all those resources mentioned earlier help out.) It is too easy to take Scripture out of context and make it mean anything we want (see first point). By anchoring text in context we can avoid that while unpacking a treasure trove of teaching within the text of our study. Scripture comes alive by realizing it was first given to real people struggling to live out their faith.
  • Get to know the Bible one book at a time. Recently we had a guest speaker, Dr. Cecil May, Jr. make this point at my church. Instead of bouncing around all over the Bible–take it one book at time. Let that book’s text speak in its context. Get to know who wrote the book; why it was written; the folks who first received it. Learn their story and the story in the book. It is a wonderful approach.
  • Then understand that there is a greater narrative within the Bible. In one sense the Bible is one story–an incredible narrative about the Christ. Each book in both testaments tell something of his story–some more than others, but it is undeniable that his story is the Bible’s story. So as you journey through the Bible one book at a time you will begin to see the connective thread of the story of Jesus. Understanding this larger narrative will open up the Bible in new and exciting ways.
  • Wrap up Bible study in prayer. To borrow a phrase, Bible study and prayer go together like “peas and carrots.” Pray before you start; during; and after. “Pray without ceasing.” To borrow another phrase, pray that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for those who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19).

Bible study can be exciting, enjoyable, enlightening, and even entertaining. The Bible is an amazing and surprising book. The reasons to study it are eternal. It is forever God’s inspired Word (2 Timothy 3:16). It is one way we get to know him. I hope these five steps will encourage you to study and help you get more out of your time with God’s Word.


Truth, Propositional and Relational

February 14, 2013

The excellent article below was written by Cecil May, Jr. who currently serves as a Dean at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama. Brother May is a highly respected scholar of the Word, educator, and preacher. The article first appeared in the February 2013 publication, Preacher Talk. It is presented here with his permission. Brother May’s email is cmay@faulkner.edu if you would like to contact him about the article. 

A frequently heard postmodern statement is “Truth is not propositional; it is relational.

It is worthy of notice that much of postmodern writing and conversation, including this sentence, is self-contradictory. “Truth is not propositional; it is relational,” is itself a proposition. Is it true?

It is important to understand that Christian truth is personal and relational. Jesus is a person and he is truth personified (John 14:6). Jesus said in a prayer to his Father, “And this is eternal life, that they know you are the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

In order to know “the only true God and Jesus” we must know what Scripture tells us about them; or better said, what they tell us about themselves in Scripture. But an unbeliever can know everything Scripture says about Jesus and still not have eternal life. It is one thing to know about him and another to know him. Jesus told the Pharisees, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). There is a real person to whom the facts in Scripture speak, and we know him, the living Christ by faith. Christian truth is relational. It also brings us into precious relationships with others who by faith follow Jesus Christ to eternal life.

Christian truth is also propositional. Any sentence intended to state a truth is a proposition and that describes  many Christian truths. Jesus’ statements, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), are often cited to show truth is relational. But they are propositions, and if they are not truth, there is no basis for saying truth is relational.

Simon Peter’s statement to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), is a proposition. If it is not true, any relationship people may think they have is not with Jesus, but with an invention of their own subjective imaginations.

“Jesus is Lord” and “God raised Jesus from the dead” are propositions. They are true and they must be believed and confessed if we are to have a relationship with Jesus and God. “Because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9)

Jesus himself asked, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). Propositional truth  becomes relational truth when we trust and obey.


We Are All in it Together

September 20, 2012

From the archives:

 

To say that the Corinthian church had problems would be more than a slight understatement. Even though they were God’s church, they weren’t acting much like it. They allowed personalities, noncritical issues, and jealousies to divide them. They forgot the wonderful and imperative principle of unity. They were splintered and hurting. They needed a strong dose of spiritual medicine and the Apostle Paul provided it.

In 12:12-26 he reminds them of a crucial and basic truth. It is all about unity. In essence his message to them was “We are all in this together.” We still are:

  • Everyone is Extremely Important. By using the human body to analogize, Paul demonstrates the essentiality of every member. The weak, the feeble, the struggling are just as significant and necessary as the strong and vibrant. The church cannot function in the fullest sense without any of them. Every single person is needed in God’s church. We don’t dare think otherwise. Instead of allowing our weaker parts to fall away, we should be fighting for their souls.
  • We are Not in Competition. Our eyes do not compete with our ears. They each have their place and function and both contribute vitally to the well being of the body. Shouldn’t it be this way in the church as well? Our ministry efforts should support one another. Each of us should be in the glorious business of encouraging one another. Why should anyone ever feel threatened by the good work of others? Rather we should be rejoicing and giving God all of the glory and praise for the fruitful labor of those in Christ’s body.
  • God Put Us Here. Just where he wanted us to be (vs. 18)! Who are we to question his wisdom? It is an arrogant act to bind where God has not bound and draw lines of fellowship and acceptance that have never existed. To mistreat or turn away from our brothers and sisters because of jealousies or pettiness (or any reason) is totally out of place in God’s church.
  • We Need Each Other. No one should ever be so presumptuous as to think or say otherwise. In this context Paul emphasizes that even the weakest  among us is “indispensable.” Yes, some among us will struggle and stumble, but God wants us to allow them space to grow and encourage that process within them. We will not make heaven alone. We need each other and we need to express it. Let’s love and encourage our brothers and sisters all along our journey together to heaven!
  • Let Division Never Be! This was Paul’s foundational message to Corinth. Division on every level is damaging. Are personalities, jealousies, pride, prejudice, and issues really worth the hurt and pain of division? The wounds and scars of division run deep and call for long recovery. It ought not ever be in God’s house. We are all one in Christ Jesus.

Christ paid the ultimate price for this unity. We do not have the right or authority to tamper with it. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body” is how Paul states it in this text. We are all in it together. What a marvelous blessing. Let’s demonstrate it!


Be Last? Really?

August 22, 2012

The infant church in the New Testament had its share of struggles. “Disputable matters” erupted in the new congregations creating friction and division.

In Corinth there was confusion over food (among many other things). Shopping for a cut of steak took on new meaning there. It was quite likely that the steak purchased in the butcher shop or ordered in the restaurant had originally been connected (literally) to an animal that was ritualistically slaughtered in one of Corinth’s many pagan temples. Some Corinthian Christians could not stomach this thought and refused to eat this “tainted” meat. Others had no problems and enjoyed their meals. Controversy arose and people got hurt  in the fallout. Who was right? Who was wrong? The Apostle Paul dealt with it in his first letter to them (chapter eight).

In Rome scandals arose over food and holidays. Some in this church were vegetarians. Others were not. Some enjoyed celebrating special “holy days.” Others thought every day was the same. All of this may have been part of the general Jew/Gentile divide that defined this church, but the consequences of these differences were hurting people. After laying out his theological foundation in the first part of his letter, Paul practically addressed this situation in chapters fourteen and fifteen.

Any of this sound familiar? Not the specifics (can’t recall when the last time I questioned where the steak I was eating originated), but the general situations? Churches still struggle over disputable matters. We are after all, just folks. We may be being perfected by the grace of God, but we are not quite there yet. So what to do when good folks disagree?

Well, let’s listen to Paul’s divine advice:

  • “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” (1 Corinthians 8:8)
  • “Be careful that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”  (8:9)
  • “Therefore if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again.” (8:13)
  • “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” (Romans 14:1)
  • “For none of us lives to himself alone…” (14:7)
  • “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down upon your brother?” (14:10)
  • “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification.” (14:19)
  • “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.” (14:20)
  • “So, whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.” (14:22)
  • “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good to build him up.” (Romans 15:1-2)

Now these are just selected passages in these two contexts. Go read the entire texts. Get a feel for yourself what is happening in these churches. Read the above sentences in their original context. When I do here is what I discover:

I see that some in Corinth were acting condescendingly toward others. They were insensitively flaunting their “knowledge” and harming other Christians by eating idol meats. I can just see what was happening. “Hey check this out! This prime rib is incredible. I got a terrific deal at Dionysus Meat and Deli! Want a bite?”

I see that in Rome, Christians were judging each other’s motives and actions while refusing to be a people of peace and encouragement. You kind of get the impression that fingers were pointing and tongues were wagging in this church.

Looking more closely at the text here are some further points:

  • Paul first directs his instructions to the stronger Christians. The stronger ones are those who have a broader understanding of the situation, that is, they know that all the fuss over food and holidays is, in itself, not really that big of a deal.  The meat is not tainted; whatever diet you choose is fine and keeping a special day holy is entirely a matter of conscience—as long as these choices are made sincerely, based on personal faith, and honor God. (Those who are weaker do not have this understanding) So Paul speaks to the “strong” first.
  • Since they know this, they—the strong—bear more of the responsibility in maintaining peace among the issues.
  • So he appeals to them—in an astonishingly sacrificial way—to give up their rights to practice these freedoms if their practice does, in fact, injure the faith of the weaker Christians. He instructs them not to even speak about the issues.

It is this last point that merits further discussion. It is a difficult teaching and has all kinds of bearing on what is happening in our churches today and I think it is a key to us maintaining congregational health. Instead of me just plowing my way through my brothers and sisters on some issue because I can, Paul is calling me to think more of them than my own preferences. I am to subdue the exercise of my freedoms for the sake of others—if it comes down to that. For someone who values my way pretty highly, that is hard to swallow.

But if I can do it—the glory it will bring God is amazingly productive and healing to a fractured church and delivers a powerful cross-reflective message of  love and tender compassion to world absent of such.

Can we be this kind of person in our churches today?

It says not just that, “I am second.” It says, “I am last.”

And we all know what Jesus said about those who are last.


“We Will Understand It Better By and By”

March 14, 2011

The melody still echoes vividly in my memory. I was in college and visiting the Tipton Street Church of Christ in Kosciusko, Mississippi. The rich voices and harmony of my brothers and sisters singing:

Trials dark on every hand,
and we cannot understand
all the ways of God would lead us
to that blessed promised land;
but he guides us with his eye,
and we’ll follow till we die,
for we’ll understand it better by and by.

With tsunamis crashing down; gas prices skyrocketing up; crises in the Middle East; civil unrest in the States; cancer being diagnosed in my family and friends; and consistent attempts to marginalize the message of Christ, it is certainly a time of “trials dark on every hand.”  Part of me desires immediate answers and solutions- just like Job. But- just like Job- those answers are not for me to wrestle with now. (See Job 38-42.) Instead I am called upon by God to live by faith.

I recognize that this seems a poor solution by some- maybe even a uninformed substitute for reality. But to me it is the only context through which to process life with any hope at all.  Outside of faith, the answers often still do not add up- leaving more questions. Plus there is nothing to hope for beyond what we have. God promises more. In him there is hope beyond our trials.

Consider Paul’s counsel in Romans 8:16-39. God promises:

  • Sonship- The Spirit testifies that we are God’s children. We are the sons and daughters of God. Amazing to consider, but true. He adopted us (Ephesians 1:5) and placed us into his family (1 Corinthians 12:18). No matter how dark the trials get we are assured the blessings of God’s family.
  • Inheritance- One of those joys is our promised inheritance which is equal that of Christ himself. Imagine the immense riches awaiting all God’s children! But also know this- it may also mean an equal share in the suffering of Christ. Heaven, however, Paul next reminds us- will be worth it.
  • Future Glory- Compared to the glory of eternal treasure that awaits- our trials are truly minimal (see also 2 Corinthians 4:17). Granted, this is a faith perspective. Job did not think his trials minimal, but eventually through faith was able to realize a greater perspective and rediscover his ability to trust God.
  • Victory- We are “more than conquerors.” Only through a faith perspective can we comprehend this. In Christ we have resources and certain promises that disasters, recessions, terrorism, injustice and disease cannot diminish. Nothing can separate us from the wonderful, eternal consequences of God’s love.

I freely admit. I do not understand it all now, but I put my faith in him who does.

By and by, when the morning comes,
when the saints of God are gathered home,
we’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome,
for we’ll understand it better by and by.