The Often Complicated Ministry of the Apostle Paul

February 22, 2018


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?


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?



Four Ways to Protest–Kingdom Style

September 25, 2017


protest clip

Jesus was not overtly political, but his teachings were dangerously subversive to existing cultural, social and political norms. His enemies easily recognized it—so much so they colluded to kill him.

He leaves then a legacy of protest in the form of his kingdom teachings. It is not, however about taking knees, political posturing, engaging in social media warfare, patriotism or lack thereof.

What he taught was radical, revolutionary, and scandalous even—it eventually changed an empire.

Want to protest? Want to really make a kingdom difference? Really want to change the world for the better and shake power bases to their core? Forget about boycotting. Try this:

  • Identify first with the kingdom. Not with a sports team; not with a political party; not even a nation—with the kingdom of God. Seek it first. Treasure above all else citizenship in the kingdom for which Christ died. Put behind you the old way of identification and be made completely new in your thinking—new goals, new priorities, new ways to relate to others. Let go of the anger and replace it with grace. Let go of the bitterness and let grace abound. Protest loudly through the quiet gentleness and mercy of Christ.
  • Love your enemies. Really. Stop yelling at them—if even on social media. Stop escalating the fury. Just stop. Step back. Turn the other cheek. Pray for those who you dislike. Disarm those who oppose  you with the love and compassion of God. It is a quite subversive and potentially transformational protest. Jesus did it willingly on the cross and it changed the world forever.
  • Go the extra mile. Jesus meant it literally when he spoke it. He still does. Don’t return evil for evil; shout for shout; anger for anger; or hate for hate. Give back what is completely unexpected and then some—an extra mile’s worth of blessings. Protest the kingdom way and do it willingly, joyfully, in the name of Jesus and for his sake—making the teaching about Christ that much more attractive in the process.
  • Be faithful unto death. Don’t ever quit protesting. Don’t give up. Be salt and light. Don’t grow discouraged. Our citizenship in God’s kingdom trumps all! The Spirit of God empowers. Our life here is but a vapor. Bigger and better things are in store. It does not matter our nationality; the colors of our flags; what political party is in power; Jesus just wants to find faith when he comes. And faith is the victory!

The original kingdom protesters changed an entire, brutal, ungodly empire without political power, social media, ballots or bullets. They were the poor, the meek, the pure, the persecuted, the hungry and the thirsty who stood up to tyranny, injustice, sin, corruption, persecution, hatred, bigotry, and hardship of every kind by simply faithfully living out the kingdom of God. It was a protest of the humble and helpless that was empowered by the scandal of a cross. It was the protest of the kingdom and it changed everything.

Could that happen again?

(Bible verses referenced include: Matthew 5-7; Luke 18:10; Ephesians 4:20-5:1; Philippians 3:20; Titus 2:9-10; James 4:14; Revelation 2:10; 21:1-4)



Haters Gonna Hate

December 16, 2014

Tis the season to hate?

Sometimes it seems that way.

Haters hated on Johnny Football’s first start. Haters hated on practically everything from every angle in Ferguson, MO. Haters hated on the recent election results; Haters hate on the Christmas holiday; Haters hate on churches that do not meet their expectations; Haters hate. That is what they do.

Jesus told us so.

Not often do all four of the gospel accounts share the exact same information in almost the exact same way (this is largely due to the fact that John’s gospel is written from a different perspective than the others), but on this topic they all have Jesus saying basically the same thing to his disciples.

It goes something like this: “Get ready. The world hated me and they are going to hate you too.”

(For the exact statements read Matthew 10:22; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; and John 15:18 along with the surrounding context.)

So from Jesus–haters are going to hate.

They are not going to dialogue; reason; discuss; contemplate; be patient; act lovingly; or extend grace.

They are going to react; rage; accuse; scream “Crucify him! Crucify him!;” throw stones (see Stephen’s story in Acts 6-7); and behave generally in a very angry and aggressive way.

The result is not pretty, nor is it intended to be. “Hate stirs up strife” a wise man said long ago (Proverbs 10:12). Hate is a tool to intimidate and bully–and to spread misery.

Think about hate’s role in the Christmas story. King Herod was a hater. He heard a rumor about a baby who would be king and instead of investigating, he hated. Hating was easier. Lots of innocent babies died as a consequence. Joseph and Mary with their newborn fled to Egypt to escape his hatred.

Hating hurts. The Bible equates it with murder (1 John 3:15). The families who lost their baby boys to Herod’s hate can attest to that.

Hatred originates from the first hater. His purpose according to Christ is to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). Hatred accomplishes that quite efficiently. No matter how it is presented or justified–hate is hate and it produces nothing worthwhile.

But there is another way, of course. The rest of Proverbs 10:12? “But love covers all offenses.”

Love has absolutely nothing to do with hate (please read the 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 definition of love).

The counter to haters gonna hate is that lovers gotta love.

This will produce something worthwhile–even if we disagree about sports, politics, race, and religion. It will create an atmosphere of mutual respect where healthy dialogue can occur and real progress can be made on what separates us.

Love seeks redemption; reconciliation; peace and goodwill toward all.

It originates with the first lover. His goal is for every person to experience “life to the full” (the rest of John 10:10). Love can make that happen. Hate cannot.

Haters were jeering at him; spitting on him; whipping him with a cutting lash; They put him on a cross to die. This time he did not escape (he could have). Neither did he hate back. Instead Jesus loved–and it continues to cover all offenses.

Think about this the next time you are tempted to hate; the next time you are prompted to straighten someone out on social media with cutting words; the next time you think someone is attacking something you hold dear; the next time the election; the game; or the decision of church leaders does not go your way.

There are healthy ways to handle all of that. Hate is not one of them.

Yes, there are haters who are going to hate.

But let us be lovers of Christ who will love each other and (uh oh) even our enemies.

It might not be easy surrounded by a culture of hate, but Jesus has our back. Haters gonna hate, but against it, “he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

Tis the season to spread the love of Christ.


Could This Happen Here?

August 20, 2013


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!