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!


When Jesus is in the Neighborhood

February 1, 2018

silhouetteThe gospel of Mark was the first written account of the life of Jesus. He starts it this way:

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (1:1)

Using a reference from Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3) he introduces John the Baptist as a new prophet foretelling the coming of the Messiah. From there—as Jesus is baptized by John—Jesus quickly and rightfully takes center stage in Mark’s narrative.

In Galilee

The story unfolds as “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (1:14). The Nazarene starts at home to introduce himself as Messiah and to share the good news of God’s kingdom. He first went into his own neighborhoods teaching and healing. This is the focus of the first eight chapters of Mark.

The reaction Christ received was mixed. Some came to faith. Some opposed him. Many were skeptical. A few from his neighborhood—who knew his family well—completely dismissed him as trying to rise above his station in life. No way the son of Joseph the carpenter could ever be anything more than that.

Reading these chapters offers us a fascinating glimpse into what happened when Jesus went into those neighborhoods to proclaim his purpose and mission. As we observe, it would also serve us well to read ourselves into these texts. Just how would we have responded?

What Happened When Jesus Was in the Neighborhood

  • He demonstrated his power over the created order. Repeatedly in Mark’s narrative, the ability of Jesus to override and alter the created order is presented. From healing the sick, to exorcisms, to raising the dead, to calming the sea, to multiplying food, to even forgiving sins—Jesus did what no other could. Obviously this was an imperative for Christ in order to verify his claims of Messiahship and kingdom. (Later Peter in Acts 2:22 would affirm the essential role of these miracles in this regard.) The miracles gave Jesus a platform from which to speak and serve—and he did!
  • The people were amazed, but the disciples were stupefied. Repeatedly Mark notes how the people responded in amazement—and not just over his miracles, but also in reaction to his teaching. “At this they were completely astonished” is how Mark phrased it on one occasion (5:43). Why wouldn’t they be? They had never seen nor heard anything like this! (2:12) As a result Jesus became a must-see event with crowds flowing from every corner of the neighborhood to see him, hear him, touch him and be healed by him. Perfectly placed in the center of it all were his closest disciples, but instead of being transformed, they appear dumbfounded—not able to absorb the true meaning of the situation. Jesus asked them at one point, “Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see and ears but fail to hear?” (8:17-18). As we read ourselves into the text these questions remain crucial.
  • The compassion of God was on full display. Three times (1:4; 6:34; 8:2) Mark notes how the compassion of Christ motivated him to action. It was through the lens of this compassion that Christ viewed his neighborhood. While some stood by debating who was clean or unclean according to tradition, Jesus was “moved by compassion” to actually intercede and change lives. We should never underestimate the depth of God’s compassion and seek to always be instruments of it (Psalm 147:3; Luke 15:20; Ephesians 4:32).
  • The duplicitous nature of Christ’s enemies was revealed. From the start, Jesus posed a threat to some within the neighborhood. Among those who should have immediately and instinctively recognized and embraced him, these teachers of the Law and politicians instead opposed him. They even plotted to kill him (3:6) while trying to discredit him with accusations of collusion with Satan (3:20-30). Jesus knew them perhaps better than they knew themselves. As he confronted them he exposed their hypocrisy and evil agendas. They honored him with their lips, but their hearts were far from him. Ouch. Not a place any of us ever want to be.
  • The significance of simple faith was most evident. From the desperation of the woman with the blood disease (5:34) to his reaction to the Syrophoenician woman’s plea (7:24-30) it was clear that Christ put a high premium on simple faith. “Don’t be afraid, just believe” is how he succinctly stated it before bringing the dead back to life (3:36). Can it really be that simple? Some thought not—adding traditions to commandments until faith became burdensome. Jesus ably cut right thought that red tape—bringing back the rightful place of uncomplicated faith in response to God. Our challenge is to keep it that way—not being afraid to just believe—even when (or especially when) all evidence points otherwise.
  • Expectations need to be reset (8:31-9:1). Even as the excitement of Jesus being in the neighborhood unfolded; even as those healed were celebrating; those fed were satisfied; and those amazed were wondering what was next, Jesus shifted gears. It would not always be this way. He would not always be with them. Difficult days were ahead and tough choices would need to be made. Following him beyond the neighborhood necessitated a willingness to sacrifice. That was the real expectation of discipleship. It would not always be healing and feeding. There would be loss. He himself would die. But it was not to end The Story, only to further it. Anything lost would be more than recovered. No shame in that at all. The kingdom was coming with power—expect it, but also know what that truly meant. That remains a challenge for us to this very day.

“Jesus went around teaching from village to village” (6:6). Imagine him teaching in our village! Actually we do not have to imagine because he is! He remains in our neighborhoods—the same compassionate Savior challenging us to follow him.

Are we?

 


Why Be Wretched?

January 11, 2018

wretched

First, let’s set the context—without it the story is difficult to discern. The Roman church of the apostle Paul’s day had some complications. Jewish and non-Jewish Christians did not play well together. Outside forces factored in (Jew’s banishment from the city of Rome by Emperor Claudius around 49 A.D. for approximately five years), but inside factors were driving the tension. The Jewish church wanted the non-Jewish church to honor and keep the Law (as in the Torah, Law of Moses). For them it still held substantial meaning even as they followed Christ. It was their heritage and embedded securely within their identity. No way they could worship God without it being somehow a part of the process. Circumcision, the Jewish calendar, dietary practices, etc. were simply too deeply ingrained to abandon. Paul understood. He was Jewish. It was not an issue as long as Christ was honored and followed above it all. One small item however—the non-Jews were exempt. The Law and those cherished practices were basically meaningless to them. They did not come to Christ through it. It did not enhance their relationship to Christ. In fact it actually got in the way. They were not expected to honor it. But this irritated many Jewish Christians. They wanted church done their way and so the struggle of which Paul’s divine correspondence addresses. Numerous lessons for us to learn in this letter, but for now let’s consider Romans 7-8.

The Law’s Failure

Or more precisely stated—our human failure. In this text Paul expertly affirms the purpose, strength and significance of the Law while at the same time detailing its weakness.

The Law itself was good—God’s covenant to us for generations. It was his marriage contract, but it expired. A death—Christ’s—annulled it and his resurrection ushered in a new contract/covenant, one vastly superior. The Law’s failure was that it could not release us from condemnation. It only served to remind us of our weaknesses. The Law was not at fault for this—we were. Sin used the Law to exploit our weaknesses and remind us of how truly wretched we are. Just like Paul, it left us conflicted and guilty—never able to extract ourselves from the consequences of sin regardless of how diligently we tried. So while we may want to be right, we end up wrong—evil always right there with us as Paul described it. That is not a good position in which to remain and just a quick glimpse at the Jew’s historical relationship with God demonstrates it. So, why desire that status quo? Why force that on other unsuspecting folks? Why be wretched when there is another option?

That option, of course, is Christ. In him there is absolutely no condemnation. He did what we could not; what the Law could not—set us free from the life of sin and death. Through him and God’s Spirit our sinful nature can be defeated. No more living in constant conflict! Instead we develop the mind of the Spirit. He empowers us. Our obligations are met as we live as more than conquerors. That is the story of the text! Incredible!

But let’s be honest—are we actually living this story?

Still Clinging to the Superficial?

The message is clear. Christ has done the job for us. In him we are set free. Our sinful nature no longer has to hold us captive. Life in the Spirit is something altogether more and wonderful. So why do we continue to find ourselves stuck in the middle of the wretched disconnect of knowing what is right and actually doing right?

Could it be that we have never really moved beyond the superficial to fully embrace the Spirit-led life? Could it be that we continue the worn out practice of attempting to measure our faith by our own merit? In our hearts do we find some comfort in measuring our Christian performance by some standard other than the grace of God? Actually we are prewired to do this. It is not the Law or the same situation of our text, but it is the exact same tendencies. And as long as we go here—we lose. We will never be able to develop a deeper relationship with God or fully develop within us the Spirit-led life. And we will forever be failing even as we redouble our efforts to work harder to take up the slack. The story here is—it is not up to us to tackle our sin problem. We are unable to take up the slack. Christ has already done that. What is up to us—is to follow him.

Now this may come across as too fine a nuance, but it is actually much more than that. Following him does not become about what we do, but who we are. The Spirit resides within totally remaking us from the inside out. It is not about a law, it is about a life—a discipled life fueled by faith. God’s nature becomes our nature instead of our sinful nature. His will becomes our natural default, not merely a set of facts to remember. Our relationship with him empowered by and through his Spirit supersedes all else. The Spirit enables us to realize a deeper level of commitment—not based upon performance, but upon what Christ has delivered: no condemnation; sonship; adoption; the inheritance of the Father. This reconstructs our very makeup. We begin to yearn—not for things of this world—but for what is to come in Christ. Apart from Christ we cannot even begin to define our life. It makes no sense without him. We cannot even fathom being separated from the Father.

Everything else—not our approach to Christ—becomes superficial. No more hesitation on selling completely out to him. If not, then it goes back to this—“O wretched man that I am”— that is, either always guilty and hopeless on one hand or self-righteous and sanctimonious on the other.

What does that accomplish? Nothing healthy. The Romans are evidence of that. Is this who we really want to be? Why stay here when there is amazingly more to experience in Christ?

Wretchedness?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.


Being a Kingdom Citizen

December 15, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #12

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

The context from which the Apostle Paul’s instructions in Romans 13 originate is crucial in understanding the text. Overall, he continues with the practical application of his theological presentation in the first eleven chapters. That presentation demonstrated unequivocally God’s eternal will in giving the non-Jews the same access to his blessings the Jew enjoyed for generations. It was no longer about genealogy or racial pedigree. It was now about Jesus and in him all are saved. Therefore the infighting; the prejudice; the judging; should stop and each should learn to accept the other in Christ. He is the transforming agent. Learn to view yourself as “living sacrifices” to God through him. Embrace the transformation as kingdom revolutionaries. Forget about the old and embrace the newness Jesus offers. Live daily as citizens of the kingdom!

That concept—citizens of the kingdom—is definitely in play in the Romans 13 text. Beyond the overall context of this letter, there is another to consider that was a major contributor to the strained situation in the Roman churches. This was the civil disobedience evident among parts of the Jewish community in Rome. It had earlier created the banishment of the Jewish population of Rome under Emperor Claudius in 49 A.D. (in which Apulia and Priscilla were caught up- Acts 18:1-2.). Knowing this and the damage it caused the Jews, Paul realized that this type of rebellion against established government would be counterproductive to spreading the gospel and to the reputation of Christians within a community. He did not want the church to get caught up in such civil unrest. This was not the kind of revolution Paul envisioned or desired for Christ followers.

A Kingdom View of Government

So he lays out how the kingdom revolution looks lived out within the parameters of the Roman governmental system. At this point in history Rome was an Empire, not a republic. It was not a democracy. Citizens had some rights (such as Paul). Non-citizens did not. It was not a representative government. No elections (as we understand them) were held. Justice could be fair, but it also could be brutal. Quite often rebellions broke out to challenge the “Pax Romana” in oppressed areas within the Empire. Some groups like the Zealots thought it was their birthright to overthrow Roman rule. Paul’s presents quite a different (and revolutionary) alternative in Romans 13:1-7. It is primarily about being a citizen of the kingdom first. Nations come and go. Governments change. Being a citizen of God’s kingdom enables a different perspective about governments and empowers the revolutionary values of the kingdom to be lived out effectively within any type of governmental system. From the text we learn:

  • A positive picture of government. It is to be seen as established by God for the purposes of punishing wrongdoers and as such it serves God’s purposes.
  • Rebelling against the God-ordained government equals rebelling against God and brings about a judgment.
  • “Everyone” is to submit to the governmental powers and not be in rebellion against them. Considering their context this was wise advice because Rome could and did act swiftly to eradicate rebellious and subversive activity (think Jerusalem in 70 A.D.) The Christian’s responsibility within their governmental context is to “do what is right” – not just for fear of punishment but because it is the right thing to do (“conscience”- vs. 5)
  • Doing what is right includes paying the various taxes required by government and paying your debts.

This is all connected back to the previous verses about doing what is “right.” Couple this with other NT texts (Mathew 22:21; John 18:36; 1 Timothy 2:1-3: 1 Peter 2:13-17) and it is clear. Citizens of the kingdom do not take up arms and rebel against earthly governments (even if they can be unjust and cruel—like Rome). That is not the revolution to which we are called. Instead our revolution involves doing the unexpected in this situation—submitting; obeying the laws; living quiet lives, but in so doing upending the injustice and revolutionizing our communities anyway.

Love is What Fuels the Revolution

It is not through swords, spears, bullets or ballots that Christ’s revolution triumphs. It is through the “continuing debt to love one another” lived out within the citizens of the kingdom (Romans 13:11-14). It is our debt to our world. All of the commands are good—to be embraced and practiced, but it is love that truly demonstrates the presence of God in us. Living out God’s love is the power that fuels the revolution and it will (and did in Rome’s case) transform even nations. Nations know how to handle hostile rebellions, but they do not know what to do with cheeks turned and love returned for hate. Evil is not used to good in reply. The revolution of God is weaponized through love. The essence of that is Christ on the cross. If we can capture that kind of love—even in our small doses—we will revolutionize our worlds.

Paul understood this perfectly, so he urges immediate action. The hour had come for the Romans to wake up; stop all of the unproductive bickering; the sin that continued to hinder them and recognize the time for revolutionary action was at hand! Darkness needed light shining within it!

Revolutionary Clothing

He moves from one metaphor to another—and a fitting one to close our study. “Rather clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.” This brings us full circle back to Galatians 3:26-28. It gets back to identity. Not Jew, not Gentile, not male, nor female, not slave, not free, not black, not white, not Republican, not Democrat, not even American—our primary identity is in Christ. We wear his clothes. We reflect his values. Our citizenship is first and foremost in his kingdom. We seek it first. As a result we are transformed into disciples who follow his unorthodox and revolutionary teachings—turn the other cheek, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, take the loss, be wronged, go the extra mile, etc. We understand how “blessed be” is this approach. We also understand how subversively revolutionary and incredibly powerful it is. It changed the world once and it will again and again as we live it out.

Perhaps we need to freshen up our kingdom wardrobe and do some waking up of our own. “Because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” Have no doubt about it. There is a revolution going on!


The Kingdom Response

December 4, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #11

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

Revolutions typically bring about the unexpected. Think about this definition of revolution: “a sudden, complete or marked change in something.” Being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” definitely fits into this definition. Jesus certainly lived it out. His resurrection literally changed everything and following him—as his disciple while living out his revolutionary teaching will make us over completely his image. This then empowers us to go out to “test and approve” the will of God in our lives—demonstrating the sudden, complete and marked change the kingdom has made within us.

And one way to very noticeably demonstrate this transformation is in how we react and respond to circumstances around us—particularly when those circumstances are not so favorable.

Good and Evil

Since the fall in the garden the story of mankind has played out amid the tension between good and evil. We conform to the “pattern of the world” when evil triumphs over good in our lives. Everyday we deal with some type of temptation. We all know the struggle—a struggle we would surely lose if not for Christ. The revolution he started overcame the enemy (1 Corinthians 15:58). Christ in us is greater than he “who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

Having thus been made over and empowered by his grace and through his presence, we are to continue to carry out the revolutionary tactics of not repaying “anyone evil for evil,” but overcoming evil with good. This is the divine guidance of Paul, which frames our text of study in Romans 12:17-21.

There are several layers to unpack connected to this teaching and it all has to do with our kingdom witness to the world. They, indeed, are watching. They are interested to see if our actions match our teachings—especially when we face evil hostility. How will we react? What will be our response?

I believe this set of teaching to be very critical to our living out the kingdom revolution. Like in the Corinthian lawsuit situation—our natural inclination is not to turn the other cheek, but to retaliate in kind and hurt those who seek to harm us. Yet, this is not part of the revolution of Christ. When we conform to the pattern of the world in this manner it completely undermines our ability to be revolutionaries—to bring about that marked and complete change in Christ. Returning evil for evil only perpetuates evil and changes nothing. It entrenches the damage evil does and passes it along. In Christ there is a revolutionary alternative.

The Kingdom Response

As Paul details it in this text:

  • Stop the vicious circle of evil by overcoming it with good. Don’t allow evil’s influence to warp our perspective and guide our thinking. Actually internalize the values of the kingdom to the point that they become our nature—our first response. So that when evil happens we can naturally respond with the grace and goodness of God. It takes that eternal outlook guiding us to not get lost in the momentary situation, but it is what fuels the revolution. It is Jesus stopping evil by overcoming it on the cross. It is us speaking blessings back to those who curse us. It is not responding like the world responds.
  • Doing what is right in the eyes of everyone. This speaks to our kingdom witness; to actually living out what we proclaim; to being that revolutionary in front of all. Hypocrisy undermines any attempt at revolutionizing a culture for Christ.
  • Not seeking revenge. All of these are tied together in this text. Doing right means a different response to evil. We do not strike back; we do not seek vengeance; we simply do not respond in any violent or threatening way. We leave all of that up to God who ultimately will bring justice to all. Instead we do the unexpected—the revolutionary.
  • Bless our enemies. Once more we see the influence of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Paul’s teaching. He also quotes Proverbs 25:21-22 to fortify his point. Instead of seeking to destroy our enemies, we offer them food and drink—revolutionary indeed! Again, nowhere else outside of the kingdom of God will this idea be found. Why? Because it is how evil is overcome by good; how the kingdom of God can make over the destructive world; and how we can demonstrate the response of God’s kingdom to evil to bring about positive change. The imagery from the Proverb demonstrates it vividly. The kingdom response to evil can generate a response of its own—an uncomfortable and perhaps even painful response like coals burning on our head—which then can give our enemies pause. It is a kingdom statement that can radically reverse the natural order of things even to the point of changing an enemy into a friend—and into a friend of Christ.

Contextually it is not difficult to see why Paul taught this to the Romans. Due to their infighting and judgmental attitudes toward one another, they were not consistently responding the kingdom way. It was time for them to do so—just as it is for us.

 

It is Not Okay

 

It is never right to return evil for evil. Period. No amount of justification can make it so. It is always the kingdom way to do what is right in all circumstances—overcoming evil with good. It is not impossible to do. It flows out of the transformation—the complete and marked change Christ creates within us. It can happen through his power and strength radically making us over as kingdom revolutionaries. Once made over we can discern the good and pleasing will of God in all situations—even the challenging ones—and put into practice his revolutionary teachings. Such is our calling as kingdom revolutionaries.


Revolutionary Action!

November 21, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #10

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

Contextually Paul wastes little time getting directly to the heart of the matter within the Roman churches—literally. It is the practical stage of the transformation. It is what the makeover really looks like. He is calling for revolutionary action—what living the revolution is all about.

Redirected Passion (12:8-16)

Or perhaps even better stated—redeemed passion. He begins with a makeover of what drives us—our passions—what we love and hate. Could it start otherwise? For things to change in Rome; for the Jew and Non-Jew alike to get on with the kingdom revolution; the “inward man” needed a makeover. Genuinely and transparently they needed to love each other. Unless and until they sincerely did no transformation could take place. Period.

Driving this change would be a decided distaste for anything evil coupled with an overarching desire for the good, holy and righteous. Don’t fail to make the connections Paul is working for here. Revolutions change everything remember? Change here involves a Jew and non-Jew seeing each other through the kingdom perspective. The layers involved in this include how good and evil are viewed. No longer would the Jew view the non-Jew through a hate/evil lens and visa-versa. Instead sincere love replaces hatred and racism. In Christ it is all good! Cling to that! Cling to your brothers. Christ’s values become preeminent in relationships, not worldly values.

Therefore be devoted to each other as family—regardless of race. Part of the revolution is creating a new family and a new identity in Christ that trumps all others. It is a family not based on heritage, but on “no condemnation” in Christ Jesus. The bloodline that we all have in common is what Christ shed on the cross. Love each other deeply, transparently and sincerely in this family—without reservation—even to the point of honoring the other above yourself. In Christ we are all elevated! Live that out. That is indeed a revolution—not seen nor heard anywhere else outside of the kingdom of God. Be passionate about that—not about hating. Frame it all in Christ. It all flows from serving him.

Redirect all that negative emotion; all that passion twisted by evil values and transform them to reflect the values of Christ. What a difference that would make! Transforming—not conforming. This is the way revolutions spread! It is not business as usual. It is the revolution of the kingdom of God. Wonderful. Amazing. Different. Redeeming. Beautiful. Welcoming. Eternal. Cling to this!

Never Be Lacking!

Allow this positive passion to go deep within to create the kind of hope that endures even when challenged. The kind of hope that can even find joy when the pushback comes—and rest assured it will come. All revolutions face resistance. Pushback comes from being different; from doing things differently (such as Jew sitting down to a meal with a non-Jew); so be ready. Never be lacking in the kind of zeal that enables hope and joy to reset the challenges (this is a common New Testament encouragement—Hebrews 12:2: James 1:2; 1 Peter 1:6-9). No longer is the pushback—the persecution—crippling and disheartening. It can be processed as a “light and momentary” trouble. Our joy in Jesus outweighs it. Prayer is a significant part of this process too. It is how we express it all directly to God. It is the language of the revolution.

So much so that in the kingdom we can even redefine persecution itself. Incredibly it can be made over into an opportunity to bless the persecutors! (Notice the echoes of the Sermon on the Mount throughout Paul’s teaching here?) Talk about a revolutionary idea—this is it! Don’t speak curses back into the pushback—speak blessings! (How are we at this practice?) Find the losers around you—not the winners to identify with and associate with! Incredible! That is just not the American way (nor was it the first-century way), but it is the kingdom way. (If we have paid any attention to Christ, this should not be surprising however. It is exactly what he did—Matthew 11:4-6.) So the weak, the poor, the timid, the mournful, the outcast, the sick, the homeless, the meek, the hurting, the lost, the friendless, the sinner, those on the fringe—go bless them; go hang out with them. Intentionally befriend them. Do not care what anyone else thinks. Care what God thinks. Do it all together too—in harmony with one another and with the same goal in mind. Revolutionaries must be united in their pursuit of the revolution or it will not happen.

And for it to happen, Paul includes another bit of advice—get over yourself. He doubles back to verse 3 because he knew this needed to be reiterated. No one ever said revolutions were easy. As long as a Jew allowed any old prejudice to linger; who kept even a small portion of Jewish pride within; or the non-Jew hung on to similar attitudes—nothing would change. Not a chance any of this would happen. Therefore—let go of conceit. Forget who you once were. That was all meaningless and counterproductive to the kingdom. Transformation is transformation! The result is nothing looks like it once did and that includes the person looking back in the mirror.

God’s calls for revolutionary action! Action intentionally driven by the values of the kingdom of God. Action designed to further the kingdom. Action that is not unnoticed. Action that makes sense only through a kingdom perspective. Action that will continue to change the world. So, how about it? Are we up to it? Are we passionate about it? Are we a part of the revolution?