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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The Legacy of Choseness

January 18, 2018

chosen

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

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

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

All About Context

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

Is God Unfair by Choosing?

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

We have Grace to Share

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

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

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

Our Choseness

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

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

See any similarities?

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

So what can we learn from this:

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

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

 


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?

 

 


Revolutions Change Everything

November 14, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #9

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)

Throughout this series of lessons, the idea that revolutions change everything has been a consistent thread. Revolutions by nature transform—they makeover what came before. Think of the recent entertainment “makeover” trend. Whether it was personal physical makeovers or the transformation of an old house—the results are always dramatic. Never featured in these programs is the person who lost only five pounds or the house that simply got a fresh coat of paint. That would attract no viewers. Instead the makeovers are revolutionary; the changes dramatic; leaving us astonished by the outcome.

Bring that idea into our next text of this study in Romans 12. Contextually Paul has finished his remarkable historically and theologically based presentation on God’s eternal will for the church to consist of both Jew and non-Jew. The first eleven chapters of Romans expounds upon his “there is neither Jew nor Greek” statement in Ephesians and expertly demonstrates the biblical case for it. It could only happen through Jesus—not the law. None are perfect. All (both Jew and Greek) deserve death (the “wages of sin”) but through Christ Jesus none (both Jew and Greek) are condemned. Having completed his thorough presentation of this, he turns to its application. What does this mean personally? What does it look like practically?

His answer? It kind of looks like a revolution!

Be Transformed!

One thing it is not, and that is to resemble is the way it was before—before Christ. Conforming to the old pattern—life without him—is not acceptable. Being completely transformed into new thinking, new goals, new behavior, and a totally new life is the result of “no condemnation” in Christ.

Everything changes. In the Roman context that started with how a Jew and Gentile thought of and treated each other in Christ. It also meant a great deal more which Paul details in chapters twelve through fifteen.

It can’t really be a revolution if only some things change. It cannot be a transformation if conforming to some patterns of the world linger. Like with the makeovers there must be a notable difference, such as, a Jew and Gentile eating together. This is the witness of the revolution in Christ—something astonishing, which can only find its reason in God.

This is what is so incredible about the Sermon on the Mount. The content of that message had not been heard before in that way. Little wonder those who heard Christ firsthand were astonished at his teaching (Matthew 7:28). In it he reset how we view the values of heaven. In it he announces the revolution that transforms everything!

Roman Echoes

There is little doubt and no mistake that Paul had this sermon on his mind in this section of Romans. Read particularly Romans 12:9-21 and echoes of Christ’s sermon abound. Paul understood this is the way of the transformation. This is what it looked like lived out—just as Jesus first proclaimed.

Not conforming, but transforming through a continuing devotion to renewal in Christ leads naturally and logically to embrace the way of Christ. It leads to the Sermon. It leads to a makeover. It leads to substantial, sweeping changes in all facets of life.

Not surprisingly it first leads to unblinking, honest self-evaluation. Before he ever recalls Christ’s teaching, Paul first urges an inward focus:

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment in according with the measure of faith God has given you. (vs. 3)

Considering the racist tension in the Roman churches this was solid advice. Jews were not superior to non-Jews. Neither were Gentiles better than the Jewish Christians. All were sinners in need of Christ. So, for them, the revolution had to begin with an honest assessment of how they thought of themselves and their place in the kingdom, which, as Paul stated, was based not on heritage or ethnicity, but on the gifts of God.

Another way to understand this is—how can everything change for me; how can this transformation take place within me; how can the revolution be personally embodied if I think I do not need it? That it is just for the other guy? No way I can move forward fulfilling God’s kingdom plans for me if this is how I think.

True transformation demands that I give up those old notions that tend to entrench stubborn but damaging behaviors in order to accept the newness of the kingdom, which then enables me not only to see myself differently, but others also. The kingdom revolution creates therefore a place where there is neither Jew nor Greek, which Paul describes as “one body with many members,” working together through a variety of giftedness, “so in Christ, we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Each belonging to all the others!? If that was not revolutionary teaching in the context of the Roman churches, nothing possibly could be!

But it all starts with that personal makeover—a revolutionary transformation that leads me to rethink everything the kingdom way and accordingly reframing relationships, community, and behavior. How I approach all of that simply no longer reflects my pre-revolutionary life. Everything changes.

It is in this astonishing makeover that we can make bold statements about the kingdom of God.