The Often Complicated Ministry of the Apostle Paul

February 22, 2018

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The brief New Testament letter of 1 Thessalonians offers us a fascinating glimpse into the often-complicated ministry of the apostle Paul. His transition from hardcore Jewish legalist and Christian persecutor (see Acts 9:1-2 & Philippians 3:5) to special missionary and apostle to the Non-Jews came with baggage. Some in his former community did not appreciate his conversion and new emphasis. They opposed him at almost every stop along his missionary journeys—even seeking once to kill him (Acts 23:12-35). More often this opposition metastasized in the form of fierce criticism within the local church context in an attempt to undermine his credibility and authority. Such was the case in Thessalonica.

Dangerous Duty

Acts 17:1-15 chronicles the story of Paul’s experience in Thessalonica. After initially finding quite the receptive audience in the local Synagogue among a few Jews, some God-fearing Gentiles along with several prominent women, things turned ugly. “Jealous” because of Paul’s success, some Jews in the city rounded up some “bad characters” and created a mob scene by rushing to the house where they assumed Paul would be. This led to false accusations and more chaos before city officials. A man named Jason, who had hosted Paul, caught the brunt of the trouble. Paul, along with his traveling companion, Barnabas, was able to slip away after nightfall and escape to nearby Berea. This should have been the end of the story, but upon hearing that Paul was teaching in the synagogue there, the Thessalonian Jews followed him, “agitating the crowds and stirring them up.” Once again, Paul had to make a hasty departure—this time to Athens.

As a result of this dangerous duty Paul had to abandon his ministry in Thessalonica much sooner than he desired. This is evident when reading the first Thessalonian letter. Also evident is the continued attempts to harass Paul’s name and create doubt within the church about his motives and authenticity.

The Letter

It is a masterpiece of Paul’s writing. He wonderfully lifts up the Thessalonian Christians for their steadfastness in the face of opposition. He expressed his joy over the health and growth of the church in spite of the difficulties. He reminded them they were chosen by God to be his people and upheld them as a model church. He had some teaching to do as well in correcting some eschatological misunderstandings. He also addressed some moral concerns and church matters common to all infant churches, which were not necessarily related to the other circumstances.

He does express his regret in not being able to stay with them longer, but recognizes that in spite of that, his ministry among them was successful. His only agenda while among them was to share Christ and do God’s will. He reminds them that he and his team did not burden them in any way financially, but worked to support themselves. He was proud of their progress in the faith—much like a parent with a child. He wanted to make it clear to them that he and his efforts were above reproach unlike those who opposed him. He longed to be able to return and spend more time with them.

“Hard Pressed on Every Side”

This is how Paul described his ministry in 2 Corinthians 4:8. That too was in a context of heavy criticism and challenge to Paul’s authority in a local church context. Like in Thessalonica, some in Corinth were attempting to undermine his ministry. To defend himself against those critics whom he labeled false teachers, he reluctantly shared his substantial resume and concluded with this:

Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I do not feel weak? Who is led to sin and I do not inwardly burn? (See 2 Corinthians 11:1-33 for the full context)

Slammed for leaving Judaism; opposed for introducing the gospel to the Gentiles; criticized for receiving support to spread the gospel and accused of preaching merely for financial gain; made fun of because of his appearance and lack of speaking eloquence; accused of teaching cheap grace; characterized as being a paper tiger—bold to write letters, but timid when face-to-face; and finally arrested for his proclamation of Jesus to all people; Paul’s ministry was indeed often complicated with forces opposing him from both within and without the church. Yet he constantly carried with him the daily  concern for all the churches.

The Thessalonian situation was certainly a part of this concern. Specifically his critics in that city and within that church accused him of exploitation, greed, and deception, of impure and improper agendas. The point of the criticism—like all of it—was to destroy Paul’s influence within the church so a takeover could occur. This happened repeatedly in Paul’s ministry. The motivation for the takeover varied. Sometimes it was monetary gain. Sometimes it was doctrinal. Sometimes it was ego. Envy and hatred were among the driving forces. It was never healthy.

The Jews attempting to cripple Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica were just another group pressing hard against Paul. They were among those making a career out of opposing the gospel; of opposing Jews who expressed faith in Christ; of opposing inviting Gentiles into a relationship with God through Jesus. The idea that they “always heap up their sins to the limit” (1 Thessalonians 2:16) was Paul’s way of saying that they were leaving no stone unturned in their fight against him and the gospel. They were going to use every measure and go to any extreme to stop the spread of Christianity.

Paul was willing to endure it for the sake of the church (see 2 Timothy 2:10). And about all of these complications that were pressing on every side? Here is the rest of that story:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Paul was opposed but never defeated. All attempts to short-circuit the gospel failed. God cut through the complications. He still does. There is no time for pity-parties in the kingdom. Capturing the singular passion and purpose of Paul is our challenge. We still have God’s treasures in our jars of clay. Nothing can stand against that all-surpassing power. Paul understood. Do we?

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End Times or Something Else?

February 15, 2018

Jtemple

In Mark 13 we find Jesus in Jerusalem having just left the Jewish temple with a group of his disciples. This temple—marvelous in scope and structure—was the pride of the Jewish nation having been fabulously rebuilt by Herod the Great beginning around 19-20 BC (and not finally completed until 65 AD). Some of the disciples noted its size and magnificence (perhaps with an eye toward ruling from it with Jesus?). To this Jesus replied, “Do you all see these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” This statement sparked their curiosity. So later four of them approached him privately to find out more information. They asked, “Tell us when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus provides them a lengthy answer—an answer that even now continues to be widely and variously interpreted.

Many take these words of Christ as a vision for end times and certainly Jesus uses eschatological language, but there also seems to be more going on than just that. He says at one point, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (vs. 30). If he was speaking exclusively about end times, then how does this statement fit into that context? Obviously, we are still here and still waiting for his return. So, just what is he saying? Is it about the end times or something else?

Another Perspective

Mark wrote his account of the life of Christ around 65-66 AD. Let’s consider another perspective from someone who shared this same story a few years after Mark. Matthew wrote his gospel in the early 70s AD. It is interesting to compare his recollection of the disciple’s query to Jesus. He records it this way:

Tell us, they said, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3; Luke also gives his account in Luke 21.)

There is a nuance here in Matthew not obviously present in Mark. Matthew’s account seems to indicate that, yes, actually there is something else going on here. The same eschatological language is present indicating an “end of the age” conversation, but also there is something more immediate to consider, that is, when these huge stones are going to be turned upside down (along with any possible signs connected to either event).

So, as Matthew indicates, Jesus actually answered separate questions. The first is all about the temple stones being overturned and if any signs were to accompany that. The second is about end times. Why Matthew offers this slightly clearer account has to do with timing. He wrote his gospel after the first event—the destruction of the Jewish temple—had occurred. Mark wrote his before.

“The Abomination that Causes Desolation”

Politically, Israel had long been a hotbed of rebellion against Roman rule. Jewish terrorists or zealots continued to be a thorn in the side of Pax Romana. This led to an explosive confrontation during the sixth decade of the first century. In 66 AD the Jewish nation was in full revolt against Rome and managed to vanquish the Roman presence from the temple and make other small gains. Emboldened by these limited victories they continued to openly defy Rome. Eventually Rome had enough. Under General Titus troops were sent to crush the rebellion and crush it they did as brutally as possible. One of their targets was the Jewish temple—not only the pride and symbol of Jewish patriotism but one of the strongholds of the résistance. After they finished demolishing it in 70 AD, not one stone was left standing on the other—just as Jesus had foretold. In all of this destruction, chaos rampaged through Jerusalem. Jews savagely turned on Jews. Horrific events unfolded. It has been estimated that over one million died during this period. It indeed was an “abomination that causes desolation” as Jesus had said.

This is what happened before that generation passed away—about 40 years after Jesus spoke the words. Luke phrased it this way: “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (21:24). This then explains and puts into context his statements within the text such as “flee to the mountains;” don’t “enter the house to take anything out;” how “dreadful” it would be for “pregnant women or nursing mothers;” or “pray that this will not take place in winter.” If it were truly end times, why would any of that even matter?

As for signs of this impending doom, he shared several—wars and rumors of wars, persecutions; false prophets and the gospel being preached to the “world” (which according to Paul in Colossians 1:23 had occurred prior to 70 AD). He uses figurative language of judgment (Mark 13:24-27) to illustrate the total devastation that was to come for the Jewish people and nation. In fact, this was God’s judgment upon them. Never again would they have a temple. Never again would they be his exclusively chosen nation.

The End

After this discourse, Jesus responds to their other question about end times. About “that day” no one knows except the Father in heaven. There are no signs to foreshadow it. Matthew has Jesus speaking about it in terms of Noah’s flood. Everything will be as it usually is. He leaves his disciples (and us) with a warning—“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33).

Separate questions and separate answers. It is about the end times, but it is also about something else.

Other Viewpoints

But as might be expected, not everyone interprets this text the same way. Variations abound. One of the most interesting is called “preterism.” Full (or hyper) preterism interprets Mark’s story (along with all of Revelation and NT prophecy) as totally being fulfilled within the 70 AD time frame—including the second coming of Jesus. According to this view, he literally came during this judgment of Israel. What yet remains is the final coming of Christ and eternal judgment.

To further extrapolate, there is also a partial preterist viewpoint—which includes almost everyone else. This approach understands some of Mark 13 to apply to 70 AD, but not all. Partial preterists interpret the book of Revelation differently also—taking a-millennial, pre-millennial and post-millennial stances. With “end times” understanding, it can get complicated! The best advice is Christ’s: Always be alert and be ready!


The Servant of the Lord

February 12, 2018

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From our reading in Isaiah and Mark, it is all about the Servant of the Lord. Here are some selected points of discussion.

  • Who wrote Isaiah 40-66? There is little doubt that the prophet wrote the first 39 chapters, but questions abound about the latter half of the book. It details events that happened 150 years after Isaiah’s death, that is, the return of the remnant of God’s people from exile in Babylon. The judgment of God to Judah in the form of Babylonian conquest and captivity that Isaiah had earlier foretold was over. Chapters 40-66 seems to speak in present tense about the exiles return along with the complications connected to that. Since Isaiah was long gone—how could he have written it? Three main theories exist. One, as a prophet, he simply saw the future via divine intervention and wrote about as if he were present in it. Two, using Isaiah’s own notations in 8:16; 29:10-12 & 30:8-9—he sealed up some of his prophecies, which were passed along among his disciples during the subsequent years—which were then later unsealed and used by disciples/scholars/prophets contemporary to the remnant return. Three, someone other than Isaiah living after the period of exile wrote it, making it another work altogether and not really tied to Isaiah at all. To add to this discussion, an almost complete scroll of Isaiah containing all 66 chapters was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran in 1947. This scroll was one thousand years older than any previous Isaiah manuscript, being dated to 125 BCE. It demonstrated at that point at least, Isaiah was considered one book written by one author. Even more significant, the New Testament seems to have few problems attributing the entire book to Isaiah. (Here is but a small sample–Matthew 8:17; 12:18,21; Luke 2:32; Romans 2:34; 10:20; 2 Corinthians 6:7; 1 Peter 2:22.)
  • Who is the Servant of the Lord? Isaiah introduces us to him in chapter 49 and he becomes central to the narrative. God had not forgotten his promise to his people. Throughout captivity and exile a remnant had remained. They were returning (the time period of Ezra and Nehemiah) to their homeland to renew their calling as God’s people—a light to all nations. But stubbornness among them still remained. They claimed God had ignored and given up on them during captivity. Isaiah countered by insisting that he most definitely had not—that the judgment and exile was all a part of God’s plan for something bigger and better to emerge from the Jewish people to bless all nations. This is embodied in the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, Christ Jesus our Lord. He would be the suffering servant (chapter 53) that would finally accomplish God’s will for his kingdom to be a place for all nations and people. The second half of Isaiah is about hope—hope for all people, for a New Jerusalem and it is only possible because of the Servant of the Lord.
  • Is everything really possible for them who believe? So says Jesus in Mark 9:23. Contextually this flows out of a conversation with the father of a young boy possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus is petitioned to help. The father says to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds by stating, “If you can?” and then makes the firm affirmation of the place of faith for believers. So, is this a context specific remark only applicable to that situation or does it have a broader scope? Either evil spirits no longer possess us as they did in Christ’s day or we do not recognize them as such. Is this just a statement by Christ in connection to them? If it goes beyond context, then are we limiting the power of God to work within us due to lack of faith? Other texts (Romans 3:20-21 for example) indicate that God is ready to accomplish within us more than we “ask or imagine.” Could it be that we are not asking or imagining enough?
  • Can anyone “not one of us” serve the Lord faithfully? This was the concern of some of Christ’s disciples as recorded in Mark 9:38-41 (this story occurs only in Mark’s gospel). They witnessed someone not from their group exorcising demons in the name of Jesus and “told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus countered that, explaining that anyone serving in that way was “not against us” but rather “for us.” No other information is provided except in the following discourse Jesus warns about “not causing one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” This seems to be a direct reference to the man casting out demons and the disciples attempt to stop him. Often we can drift into an exclusive attitude about who can and who cannot effectively and faithfully serve the Lord. If you are one of us—you are in. If you are not among us—you are out. Perhaps this brief story is included in Scripture to cause us to reconsider this kind of thinking and to realize that ultimately God knows who is in and who is not. Obviously, false teachers have existed from the very genesis of the church, but this story reminds us to be careful about making sweeping judgments as to whom God can use in his kingdom.
  • Divorce for “any cause?” Jesus was swept up into a controversial and somewhat convoluted debate over divorce in Mark 10:1-12 (see also Matthew 19:1-12 & Luke 16:18). It centered on different interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 among the Pharisees. This OT text deals with a man’s right to divorce his wife because of “finding something indecent about her.” Two schools of rabbinical thought had emerged and been codified by the time of Christ around this phrase. One interpretation saw it as pertaining to any woman who had been sexually unfaithful during the time of engagement. If this was proven, the intended husband could divorce her (Joseph with Mary for instance). This was the minority view. The second had morphed this statement to mean basically anything a man found unfavorable about his wife—from bad cooking to a bad hair day. This approach was the widely accepted norm as divorce for “any cause” (Matthew’s account include this language ). To fortify this view the practice of Moses concerning divorce was also mentioned. Interestingly, Jesus does not really answer the question directly. Instead he attributes the action of Moses as a compromise because of stubborn hearts and harkens all the way back to the original concept of marriage from the beginning—one man for one woman for life. By so doing he effectively does answer their question without engaging in their debate over rabbinical teachings. Can a man divorce his wife for any cause? No, he cannot. Instead he needs to honor the original marriage covenant. Later privately he offers a further explanation to his disciples offering marital unfaithfulness as an exemption to the Genesis account. Notable here is that he includes the possibility of a woman being able to divorce a man—something not allowed under Jewish law at that time—and something that unfortunately would be needed as the gospel extended beyond the Jews. Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 (which predates the book of Mark) concerning the different marriage situations in Corinth. What if an unbelieving spouse leaves the believing spouse? Paul indicates that the believer—be it a man or woman—“is not bound in such circumstances.” No, a divorce cannot be sought for “any cause,” but there are exemptions. Both Jesus and Paul spoke into the complex situations of their context and complex situations continue to exist in our context as well.

 


Rethinking the Value of Money

October 30, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #7

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

While not addressing money specifically within the context of the Corinthian lawsuit, it is not much of a leap to conclude that some kind of monetary value was at the core of this dispute. Paul’s divine advice to “take the loss” implies that someone would lose something of value and at a personal sacrifice. In teaching this as the kingdom solution in this specific situation, he clearly placed the value of the kingdom over the monetary value disputed in the lawsuit. For the kingdom’s sake; in order not to be defeated in pursuit of and spread of the kingdom; be wronged, be cheated and take the loss. In so teaching, Paul is putting forth a revolutionary way of thinking about money and possessions. They (and the pursuit of them) do not come first—the kingdom does.

While this teaching indeed was revolutionary, it was not new nor did it originate with Paul. As usual Christ was there first.

Life is not about Possessions

In three landmark texts, Jesus puts forth clearly the kingdom perspective about money and possessions. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19-34) he warns against hoarding and trusting in wealth, offering the kingdom alternative of “laying up treasure in heaven.” He speaks to divided loyalties if money and possessions are our goal. He points to God’s care of creation as evidence for God’s care for us. He will provide all we need. No need to worry or fret. The key is in seeking first the kingdom and it righteousness. When the kingdom truly comes first everything changes including how we think about the value of money and possessions.

He addressed this topic again in Luke 12:13-33. The occasion for this was a question about inheritance. Jesus response is vividly clear on the kingdom approach to money and possessions:

Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.  

He then shares a story about a farmer, who coming off a bumper crop decides to build bigger barns to store it, while celebrating in and trusting in his windfall. Jesus labeled him a “fool” for relying on his wealth while not being “rich toward God.”

And lastly, there is the conversation between Jesus and the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-30. Replying to the young man’s question about what he yet needed to do “to get eternal life,” Christ bluntly told him to sell all of his possessions and give the money earned from it to feed the poor. Christ then spoke to the spiritual challenges related to being rich. This doubles back to his previous teaching. It is difficult to serve both money and God.

That is, unless we embrace the kingdom way of rethinking the value of money. Then things can change—like taking the loss in a lawsuit that threatens to defeat our kingdom purpose and goals.

A Kingdom Approach to Money

Before going further, it must be acknowledged that having wealth and possessions is nowhere in itself condemned in Scripture. Riches in themselves are neutral—neither good nor evil. It is our attitudes about them and use of them that muddy up the water.

Consider Paul’s directive to Timothy about the wealthy within the Ephesian church:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God who richly provides us everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

Notice the echoes of Christ’s teaching? This text followed an earlier one in which Paul put the “root of evil” not on money itself, but on the “love of money” while warning against the idea that contentment comes through financial gain and chasing riches at all costs. He labels that “foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin” (1 Timothy 6:5-16).

So absorbing all of this—what is the kingdom way when it comes to money and possessions?

  • First of all, we are not to be greedy and covet them—Exodus 20:17; Ecclesiastes 5:10; Luke 12:15; Colossians 3:5
  • They are not to define us nor are we to put our trust in them—Matthew 6:20; Luke 12:15 1 Timothy 6:17
  • They are to be shared; there is a communal responsibility that comes with them—Luke 6:30; Acts 2:45; 4:32
  • They are a means to support and carry out kingdom goals—Acts 16:1-2: 2 Corinthians 8-9.

The key to rethinking the value of money and buying into this revolutionary teaching is all about our priorities. As Jesus said, “For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If seeking first the kingdom is what we treasure above all else—using our resources the kingdom way will not be an issue. Lawsuit problem solved!

When it comes to our attitudes and use of money and possessions, we reap what we sow. The Corinthian church most definitely reaped the turmoil and strife of a non-kingdom approach. The kingdom way would have us thinking of how to use our money and possessions as investments in God’s heavenly goals—sowing the seeds of the kingdom.

“God loves a cheerful giver.” This is exactly what the kingdom revolution produces—revolutionaries who refuse to allow money and possessions to define and control them, but who invest themselves first into the kingdom, trust God above all else and generously use their resources for kingdom purposes in order to bless others. With this perspective—taking a loss is not even processed that way—it is just another investment into the kingdom of God.


Redefining Personal Rights

October 19, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #5

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

The Corinthian Situation

These words were among those written by Paul in response to a letter he received from a lady named Chloe who was a part of the infant church in Corinth. Being a first generation church it was experiencing severe challenges transitioning from a secular worldview to a kingdom one. Chloe detailed those challenges to Paul and he responded. We know that response as the New Testament letter of 1 Corinthians.

The problems that plagued the Corinthian church were rooted in immaturity along with a lack of understanding (and embracing) of kingdom values. They had yet to be completely revolutionized. In the specific context of our scripture reference it was evident in their handling of some type of legal dispute among Christians. Instead of assisting those at odds and seeking a resolution within the church setting, this dispute spilled over into the greater community and into the secular court system. Paul was most displeased at this news.

“You have been completely defeated already.”

Instead of seeking outside counsel, Paul would have had them adjudicate the situation among themselves—making the case that the discernment of Christians (who are to judge the angels, he teaches) should be superior to that of ungodly outsiders. It was also a matter of perception—what kind of witness to the kingdom was this in their community? The entire situation was so shameful that Paul laments, stating how they were already defeated in their pursuit of the revolutionary values of the kingdom. Infighting? Lawsuits between Christians taken before unbelievers in the state court system? Not exactly the kind of kingdom revolution to which they were called.

So Paul offers another viewpoint on the situation and it, not unexpectedly, is quite different and revolutionary. If worse comes to worse. If the dispute cannot be resolved, then his divine advice was to take a loss, be wronged, and be cheated for the kingdom’s sake. If the dispute cannot be handled among the church; if a solution cannot be found within; do not take it to the courts; just take the loss. That is the kingdom way. The health, harmony, progress, and witness of the kingdom is worth far more than whatever gain was involved in winning the dispute.

Don’t be defeated by ungodly greed, revenge, and pursuit of personal rights at all costs. Allow kingdom values to reframe the approach even to the point of completely redefining personal rights.

While this was revolutionary then, it may be even more so for us now (with our deeply ingrained American “rugged individualism” and hard fought history of securing personal and civil rights). This revolution did not start with Paul however. As with all other kingdom related values, it has its roots in Christ.

Lose Life to Gain It

Embedded within the kingdom has always been a paradoxical idea about self-interests. It runs counter to our natural inclinations. Our nature calls upon us to pursue our self-interests above all else. If that means allowing a dispute with another Christian to spill over into court in order to prove my case and be vindicated—so be it—regardless of the collateral damage to the kingdom. But that is just not the kingdom way. Listen to Christ:

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for may sake will find it.  What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:25-26)

Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians simply echoes these words of Jesus. In the kingdom there is a different personal ethic at play. Pursuing the kingdom shuffles the deck. No longer are my personal rights preeminent. No longer do I seek my self-interests above all else. No longer do I insist on having my way. And even if it comes to it—I am willing to be wronged and to be cheated for the kingdom sake. What good is it to win a lawsuit if it defeats my purpose within the kingdom? Instead I lose my life and in the process find an entirely different and more meaningful way to measure and value my life.

This is the revolutionary attitude and understanding that put Christ on the cross.

Our Attitude Should Be the Same as His

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Just how tough are these words to process for us? My guess is about like those who first heard Paul’s teaching in Corinth. Who wants to be wronged or cheated? Who really considers other’s better than themselves? Is it even possible to not have selfish ambition?

Again the answers to these questions are found in Christ. He was wronged. He was cheated. His only ambition was to submit to the Father’s will for our sake—so that we could find our life in him. And we are to emulate his attitude!

For a couple of Corinthian Christians involved in a dispute this meant forgoing the lawsuit as well as redefining what personal rights meant within the kingdom context. What does it mean for us? Using this Corinthian text as our backdrop we will explore that in the next few lessons.

The ideas put forth here are only found in the kingdom of God. Nowhere else is such an ethic found. Nowhere else but in the kingdom of the humble, meek, pure, and redeemed.

 


When Bad Things Happen to Good Churches

January 23, 2015

Being in the preacher world I am well acquainted with bad things happening to good churches.

Division; immorality; financial difficulties; unhealthy leadership; strife and friction; ungodly agendas; even false teaching are among the bad things that often happen.

All are devastating. All are hurtful. All threaten to undermine the work of God’s kingdom. All happened to churches we read about in the Bible.

Just pick one: Corinth? Rome? Ephesus? Galatia? Colossae? They were all familiar with bad things.

Allow me to pick one–Ephesus–and roll with that (mainly because I am leading a study on Timothy at my church right now). We know quite a bit about this church. The first-century historian, Luke, details its riotous beginning in Act 19. The apostle Paul shares a rather emotional moment with its leadership in Acts 20. Later he pens letters both to the church and his protégé, Timothy, who was serving there (listed in the New Testament as Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy). And then this congregation is the recipient of one of the seven letters written to churches by Christ as recorded in Revelation 2:1-7. In terms of information about them—we have a broad context.

A broad context of bad things happening.

Bad things not only happened to the Ephesian church, but were first predicted to happen to them (see Paul’s statement in Acts 20:25-31). Ouch!

Turns out Paul was right—what he foresaw happened and it was bad. Unhealthy leadership with ungodly agendas did a number on this fledgling body of believers. Read 1 Timothy in particular, and you will start getting the picture. It is a picture of bad things.

To counter these bad things Paul sent Timothy. After Timothy got there and saw just how bad things were, Paul had to write a stay-there-and-do-the-job-I-sent-you-to-do type of letter. Hey, I have been a preacher at a good church when bad things were happening. Believe me when I say Timothy needed this kind of encouragement!

Of course, Paul gave him specific advice on how to handle the various bad things occurring, reminded him that he definitely was the man for the job, and encouraged him to keep his own nose clean as he sorted through the mess.

It is worth noting that in the midst of all of this instruction and confidence building, Paul uses the exact same phrase twice to preface a major point. It is:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. (1 Timothy 1:15 and 4:9)

Interesting. Various ideas have been floated out as to exactly why he turned this phrase, but I like to think it is one of those okay-now-listen-up-because-what-I-am-about-to-tell-you-matters-a-little-bit-more type statements. It is similar to when a parent calls the kid by his full name. Now it is time to pay closer attention!

So what was this crucial information Paul wanted to share and how does it help good churches currently dealing with bad things?

It all has to do with Jesus.

In both contexts Paul follows his preface with strong affirmations about Christ, forgiveness, and hope.

Could there be any more important information or any better way to counter the bad things while leading the church to a healthier place?

It all has to do with Jesus.

When bad things happen to good churches just double-down on the Christ! It may sound over simplistic in the always complex consequences of the bad things, but no surer foundation exists upon which to rebuild.

Bad things have a way of distracting; of bouncing off in all directions; of creating confusion in such a manner that we lose sight of the blessings of Jesus. He gets lost in his own church! The bad things discourage us; disappoint us; and divert us away from him and the hope he promises. They create a debilitating fog that clouds the joy of Christ, which prevents him from being exalted in his church.

Little wonder then in his letter directly to the church in Ephesus, Paul’s prayer was for them was “that you may know him better” in order to more fully realize the hope Christ offers by having the “eyes of your heart…enlightened” (see the entire context of Ephesians 1:15-23).

Discouraged because bad things are happening at your church?

Fix your eyes on Jesus more than ever! Get to know him even more. Teach, preach the forgiveness and the hope found only in him. Exalt Christ!

Not only will he provide you the strength (right, Timothy?) to navigate the bad things; he will create the healthy focus enabling your church to rediscover the good things.

He was the answer to the Ephesian church crisis.

It reminds me of what Paul “resolved” only to know while dealing with the bad things in the Corinthian church.

It was all about “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

When it truly is all about Him, bad things will not defeat good churches. They will hurt. They will disappoint. They may even discourage for a season. But better days are ahead. That is the essence of the hope Jesus offers.

Remember that letter Jesus wrote to the Ephesian church recorded by John in Revelation 2:1-7? Hear what he says to them then:

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance… You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 

Wow! Seems like the bad things were in their rear view mirror. They did not allow themselves to be defeated. This good church overcame the bad things in his name!

If (and God forbid) bad things ever happen to your good church cling to Jesus!

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (Ephesians 6:10)


Five Steps to Effective Bible Study

December 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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