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?

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End Times or Something Else?

February 15, 2018

Jtemple

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 Kingdom Perspective

November 13, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #8

 Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 1 Corinthians 6:7

At the heart of the lawsuit that “defeated” the Corinthian church was a self-centered short sightedness. Lost in the dispute was the greater good and larger vision of the kingdom. It is not difficult to see why. Likely an injustice had been done; feelings were hurt; rights were violated; money or something of monetary value was likely involved (which always seems to ratchet up the stakes); the church had failed in peacefully resolving the issue; and as a consequence all thoughts of the kingdom were shoved aside. No kingdom revolution breaking out here—just business as the unbelieving world defined it—thus their defeat.

Which is why into this Paul reintroduced the kingdom perspective. There was another way to handle this dispute—a revolutionary way of taking the loss; being wronged and cheated—for the sake of kingdom peace and prosperity. Nowhere else would this be put forth as a solution. Yes, the kingdom is more important than personal rights. Yes, the kingdom is worth more than monetary gain. Something bigger than just me is going on here.

It is an Eternal Perspective

Another way to frame the Corinthian dispute is to view it through an eternal verses temporal lens. Those engaged in the lawsuit were merely reacting to and being driven by the moment. That, then, led to disastrous results. The kingdom perspective, which Paul taught, had the eternal component. Making decisions based upon that perspective changes things—how we feel, react, process, and behave in any given circumstance. He would remind the Corinthians of this in another letter:

Therefore do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Contextually Paul offered this kingdom perspective to the Corinthians as a part of his teaching on his ministry of reconciliation and how he personally processed challenges. Applying it to their earlier lawsuit problem it fits in seamlessly with his advice to take the loss. The lawsuit should have been considered a “light and momentary” trouble. Being wronged and cheated—the revolutionary kingdom approach—would have merely then been an investment into achieving eternal glory, which in comparison made the loss insignificant. This could have been done only by swallowing up the seen into the unseen and discerning the eternal out of the temporary. Once the bigger picture was given precedent, the lawsuit along with the heated emotions that triggered it, would have faded away in favor of the values of the kingdom.

Nothing to Gain Here

Recall Christ’s teaching about gaining the entire world but losing our souls in Matthew 16:25-27. This reflects the temporal versus eternal tension also. If we give into the moment to gain its rewards, but lose sight of the eternal will and perspective of God, what have we really accomplished? Was winning a lawsuit against another believer while bringing defeat and shame upon the church really worth it? Not much upside to that from a kingdom perspective.

Peter certainly had the kingdom perspective in mind when he wrote concerning end times:

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed it’s coming. (2 Peter 3:11-12)

He speaks of the ultimate temporal versus eternal tension that will be permanently resolved on the day of Christ’s coming. The treasure we lay up on earth? Gone. Our light and momentary problems? Over. All the losses we endured for the kingdom’s sake? Rewarded. This is the overarching and revolutionary backdrop upon which to place our entire approach to life. Holy and godly living combined with an ever-present anticipation of the kingdom fully coming completely changes things. With this type of kingdom perspective even the idea of a lawsuit would have never surfaced in Corinth. In the big picture of the kingdom there was nothing at all to gain from it.

Not My Will

Of course, Christ personified perfectly this kingdom perspective. It is what governed his life; it is how he came to make personal decisions; it is what enabled him to carry out completely the will of the Father. Note what the Hebrew writer says of him while encouraging us to “fix our eyes” on his example:

Who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not lose heart. (Hebrews 12:2-3)

What joy was found in a Roman cross? Absolutely none. It offered nothing but excruciating agony. In the moment no one desires that—even Christ. But he knew joy within it from the kingdom perspective. He took the loss so that we could achieve greater glory. That was the only way he could approach and finish it. The moment itself was too disheartening (as are many moments) but against anticipating the “joy set before him” he endured it. He gave up his rights; he did not insist on his way. He subjected his will to the Father’s (Luke 22:42) so that none of us would be defeated.

So to conclude this section of text—the simplest way to understand the kingdom perspective embedded within it is for us to let the Father’s will have preeminence in all we do—even if that means taking the loss; being wronged and cheated for the kingdom’s sake. It is not about insisting on getting my way and pursuing my rights; creating strife, division, or turmoil in the body of Christ; about temporary gain at the cost of the kingdom. It is about discerning the difference between temporary and eternal while living holy and godly lives with that framing and driving our decisions; it is about knowing that the only way to overcome the defeatism of the moment is to invest ourselves and our recourses into the eternal. It is about fixing our eyes on the unseen—on Christ—and always living in the moment with the eternal in mind. This is the kingdom revolution that indeed changes everything!


Lord Come Quickly: Four Reasons Why!

December 5, 2013

More than ever I hasten the return of Christ. Here is why:

1. I will be able to fold up my tent. Paul’s analogy of the body as a tent in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 connects to me. This old body I have now–with its creaks and groans– is not the one God intended me to have. It is only temporary– a tent to use while camping out in this present world. I am ready to fold it up and realize something much greater. Paul says it best: “We know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrections bodies in heaven” (2 Corinthians 5:1 MSG). I long for this– cannot wait for this twinkling eye moment when Jesus comes again.

2. I will be forever free. Right now I know only but a partial freedom. Certainly in Christ I have been freed from sin, but in this world I continue to live in the tension of the flesh–of the fallen creation. Temptation still comes calling. The tug of my sinful nature constantly remains as I struggle in the domain of the “ruler of the kingdom of air” (Ephesains 2:2). But once Jesus completely crushes the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15) and ushers in the new heavens and new earth I will be forever free indeed. Free of all of the limitations; temptations; and frustations of the flesh–oh what a glorious day! Like the creation itself, in eager expectation I long for the time when I will be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). No more tears. no more sorrow- just joy of liberation!

3. Eveything will be made right. The coming of Jesus is the great corrective– the time when God’s justice will put things as they were created to be. We all live under a curse (Genesis 3:17) . Through sin, the deciver has twisted and tainted God’s gifts. This broken world that we now occupy was never God’s plan for us. We are created for somethng better. Scripture gives us glimpses of what is to come- of a place were God’s justice reigns supreme; where everyone prospers and realizes completely the blessings of fully living in God’s presence; where everything will be made new (Isaiah 65:17-25; 2 Peter 2:13; Revelation 21:1-5). With every newscast of some great injustice; with every report of global terrorism; with every plea to help poverty; I long for Christ’s coming. I yearn for the day when God will set everything right.

4. I will be with God. Right now I am encouraged to be surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1-2) as I continue my earth-bound journey. They encourage me to finish the race- to look to Jesus and not give up. When Christ returns I will be able to fully join them. Not just them, but be reunited with friends and loved ones who already completed their race. We all will be able to bask in the presence of God. We will need no light because he will be it. The Lamb will be beside him. We will all cry “holy, holy, holy” as the impact of the presence of God sinks in. (See Revelation 4-5, 21).

As John got ready to close his revelation of all he had seen through the Spirit of God he said this of Christ: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes I am coming soon.'” To that he added his own personal commentary, “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).

Yes, come quickly Lord Jesus!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Could This Happen Here?

August 20, 2013

Egyptian-Church-On-Fire

Reports emerging from the violence that is Egypt right now indicate that Christian homes and Christian churches are being intentionally marked as targets for terrorism (click here and here for details). 

As I sit in the relative safety of my office and peruse news of these events on the other side of the world it gives me pause. First, I feel for anyone in harm’s way. This kind of violence is tragic wherever it takes place. Second, I hurt to see those who profess Christ as Lord being persecuted for their faith. Third, I cannot help but wonder if the same thing could– at some point– happen right here in the heart of the Bible belt.

For, as the United States grows more secular; As religious terrorism spreads globally; it is not only possible, but likely probable.

This is not a welcome thought to consider, but should it really be that shocking? Not if we are familiar with the historical struggle of God’s people:

Dear friends do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering as though something strange were happening to you. (1 Peter 4:12)

Perhaps some of the Egyptian Christians currently under fire recall these words of Peter. I hope so because there is more:

But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (vs 13-14)

Yes, the glory God promises far out weighs the terror the world holds– this is a consistent and comforting biblical theme.

But it is one thing to acknowledge it and another to live it. Some in Egypt are living it. Please pray continually for them.

Include our nation in those prayers too. Egypt is not as far away from us as it used to be.

Lord come quickly!


The Apocalypse, Tornadoes, and Global Warming

May 26, 2011

As you know, the end of the world has been major media fodder for the last couple of weeks.  Harold Camping’s apocalyptic predictions along with the tragic rash of tornadoes have dominated the news. Some have speculated that there is a connection- that the violent weather is some kind of sign of end times and that we contributed to this string of deadly storms by aiding (through our growing carbon “footprint”) in climate warming.

Quite a bit to digest there.

The first part of this (the apocalypse) is not too difficult to sort through. As a believer in God and in the inspiration of Scripture I will trust God on this one. According to his Word only he knows when Christ will return and begin God’s plans for the end of times as we know them (Mark 13:32). Really, there are no definitive signs to clue us in on when this might be. The langauge many use to try to identify signs in Matthew 24 is mostly connected to an event already in the history books- that is the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Roman military in approximately 70 A.D. (Read the text. How is running to the hills going to help if the world is ending? What difference does it make if a woman is pregnant or what season of the year it occurs?) So, neither Mr. Camping, the apostle Paul (who thought Christ would return in his lifetime) or anyone else can accurately predict when Christ returns. He will come as a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2).

As for violent weather being a predictor of end times- again there is no such evidence in Scripture of this. Deadly storms are nothing new to history. Unfortunately they are a part of our fallen creation. According to the Bible our earth has been under a “curse” since the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:17). From a biblical perspective tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, etc. are a part of  a suffering creation.  A creation that according to Paul now “groans” and “was subjected to frustration,” but now eagerly waits for the time it will be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (See Romans 8:18-25).  This time will come when the new heaven and new earth is ushered in by Christ (Revelation 21:1-4; 2 Peter 3:1-13), but no where does Scripture indicate that weather will predict when this will happen.

Concerning global warming- well, who knows for sure, but God? Maybe we are contributing to an increase in violent weather by not being ecologically responsible or maybe we are not. Certainly there are facts, stats, and valid debate from both sides. I do believe that from a biblical perspective that we as believers have been called to not abuse the earth God has gifted us (see this post), but I am not sure any of us are smart enough to have all of the answers on this. I think back to what God told Job:

Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid out the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand who marked off it dimensions?… Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain and a path for the thunderstorm?… Does the rain have a father?… Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water? Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?  (Job 38:1-35)

Granted most unbelievers (and many believers) now view Job as more myth than reality, but I still believe. I believe that even with apocalyptic predictions and tragic weather and climate change and my own human weakness and failings- God is in control.

I believe he loves us all- every one of us and continues to work his redemptive will being very patient with us in our weakness because he so much desires all of us to find rescue in him (2 Peter 3:9). I believe that one day, the trump will sound, the clouds will part and the brilliance of Christ will emerge and all will be made right and wonderful. We will not have to be concerned then about storms or global warming. Oh glorious day!

So in all of the death, destruction, pain and confusion of storms (please keep praying for those affected) and in all of the climate debate and failed apocalyptic predictions- just keep faithfully hoping and praying- Come, Lord Jesus!