[Sept 30]—Intimate Union, Part Two

            Yesterday we introduced Paul’s discussion in chapter 6 by reminding ourselves of God’s standard in the area of sexuality: No sexual activity—in thought or deed—outside the boundaries of biblical marriage, which is defined by the Bible as one man with one woman united for life. This sounds so narrow-minded and judgmental to the modern ears, but we can’t soft-pedal what the Bible says about something, especially something that has such a meaningful impact—both good and bad—on pretty near everyone in the human race.
            Before we move on in the passage, however, I need to maybe correct a common misunderstanding about this issue. God is pro-sex. The Bible is pro-sex.  The Church should be pro-sex. I won’t go into detail here for obvious reasons, but check out passages such as here, or the entire book of the Song of Solomon. God’s main instrument in his anti-adultery program is frequent sexual activity between husband and wife. He doesn’t just encourage it: He commands it.
            Let me give two illustrations about the Bible’s view towards sexuality. First, it’s frequently compared to a fire in Scripture (like here). Within its proper confines, fire is a wonderful thing: In a fireplace, in a barbecue pit, on a stove, etc. However, if you let it outside those proper confines, if you just “set it free,” then its destructive capability is immeasurable. Or think of a garden versus a jungle. A garden is where a person puts up a fence, breaks up soil, plants, weeds, fertilizes, and keeps careful watch over what’s been planted. That’s the difference between a garden and jungle. If I’m carefully pulling up weeds in a garden, would you say I’m “Anti-plant”? Of course the opposite would be true: I take careful care of a garden because I love plants. This is the same sense in which the God of the Bible is pro-sex as he created it to be.

            Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at Paul’s arguments against sexual immorality for the Christian. Notice that this is for the believer, not the nonbeliever. I don’t want lost people to hurt themselves, but if I was talking to a nonbeliever this would not be a main point of interest in our conversation. But for a follower of Christ, the expectations are really different.
            First, in answer to their (partially true) slogan “I have the right to do anything,” he points out that “not everything is beneficial.” God created everything in this world as good, but sin has entered the picture and distorted everything. God created food, and we overeat and eat things not good for us. God created stone and wood, and we make weapons and kill others with them. He created sex, and although in and of itself it’s a good thing, it’s like fire: Really good within its proper confines, extremely dangerous and incredibly destructive outside them. Everything that the Lord created as good we have a tendency to misuse.
            Second—in answer to the same slogan—he says “. . .yes, but I will not be mastered by anything.” God created sex as a good thing, but outside of its proper confines it’s not just destructive but addictive. It provides a “high” that’s not easily duplicated by any drug on the black market. But a believer has to not just “go with the flow” and let his natural desires control him. Any natural desire—for food, to be a parent, for friendship, etc.—can become an idol. I think I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Anything that controls you besides Jesus Christ is an idol.
            Third, he introduces another (partially true) slogan: “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” In fairness, there’s debate among biblical scholars as to where Paul’s quotation of the Corinthians ends and his own response begins; some say the quote ends after “food,” and his response is “and/but God will destroy them both.” Quite frankly, where you come down on that question really isn’t all that important.
            It is true that God created food for the stomach and the stomach for food. But there are two problems with this: 1) The analogy of food and sex is not perfect. We absolutely have to have food or we die. 2) Even if you maintain this analogy for the sake of argument, eating food has to be maintained within its proper boundaries just like sex has to, otherwise we’ll be weighing 600+ pounds apiece.
            But there’s more to this response. The body doesn’t belong to sexual immorality but to the Lord. If you’re a believer, he owns you twice over, first by creating you and second by redeeming you. You belong to him, and he belongs to you (in the sense that you’re associated with him, not in the sense that you own him).
            This leads into the most heartbreaking aspect of sexual immorality in the life of a believer who falls for this trap. It’s not just an issue of you belonging to the Lord; you are—now and forever—united to him through the Holy Spirit. When you indulge in sin, you’re bringing sin right into his temple. He lives inside of you. He experiences what you experience. When you click and go to that website, he has to go there with you.
            That, and that alone, should be enough to motivate you to stay away from this.

Lord Jesus, I know all too well how easy I can fall. In fact, I’d fall in a heartbeat without you holding me up and protecting me from temptations I’m not strong enough to resist. Give me wisdom, strength, and a healthy low opinion of my own righteousness. Please.

[Sept 29]—Intimate Union, Part One

            I’ve mentioned this before, but I feel a little weird teaching the passages from Scripture about the dangers of legalism. In every age it seems like the Church is following the example of the stereotypical generals who are busy fighting the last war instead of the one they’re in right now. The Church in America has a lot of problems, but excessive legalism seems to be a problem of a couple of generations ago, not today. Again, sorry for repeating myself, but this appears to me to be like someone mounting a modern crusade against Polio or against “separate but equal” water fountains.
            In stark contrast, today’s passage and the rest of chapter six—it seems to me—could not possibly be more applicable and timely. I can’t claim universal knowledge of all the cultures and societies of the world, but as near as I can tell America is one of the most sexualized cultures in the world. There are things being shown on TV and in the movies which would've been (literally) unthinkable just a generation ago. Pornography has moved out of seedy theaters and “adult entertainment” stores (where at least you had to overcome the obstacle of possible embarrassment) into people’s homes. Seeing and watching and participating in absolute filth has never been easier or more convenient: Just a click of a mouse can lead to some really addictive problems.
            If there’s one area in which the Church needs to be more counter-cultural, I’d submit this as the number one candidate. Unfortunately, waaaay too many churches are abandoning biblical standards on this issue, and the others which actually believe the Bible’s warnings on this are too quiet about it.
            The church in Corinth had a lot of the same problems we have today, which is why I think it behooves us to study it carefully. The only reason why we aren’t doing a more thorough examination of the whole book (like we did with Romans) is because I’ve addressed a lot of its themes elsewhere on the Blog. But this one area—sexual immorality—is one in which the present-day church needs to look carefully at Paul’s words to the church back then.
            Today’s passage starts with verses which we looked at regarding the topic of homosexuality, and it’s one I think is the most applicable concerning it. But Paul lists a host of sins here, and among them (along with theft, greed, drunkenness, slander, and swindling) is sexual immorality. Just to be clear, he lists “adultery” as distinct from the more generalized “sexual immorality.” Adultery fits under the broad category of “sexual immorality.” The Greek word translated as “sexual immorality,” btw, is pornoi, from which we get the word “pornography” and all its permutations. It was traditionally translated as “fornication,” which meant non-adultery-type sexual immorality, usually bearing the connotation of two people engaged in non-married heterosexual activity. Conservative biblical scholars today are pretty much agreed that a much better translation of pornoi is “sexual immorality,” which covers everything not holding up to God’s standards.
            Just to be clear, his standard is restriction of sexual intimacy—both in thought and in deed—to marriage (which btw is between one man and one woman united for life). That’s his standard. As Jesus pointed out to us when discussing divorce, the Lord’s pattern for this was established with our first parents: One man united with one woman for life. Anything other than that is falling short of God’s standard.
            In verse 12 Paul quotes what’s probably a popular slogan among them: “I have the right to do anything,” or more literally “All things are lawful for me.” He has two answers to this, which we’ll discuss tomorrow. In the meantime, we’ll look at this: His responses fall under the heading of “Yes, in a sense you’re right. But there are other things to consider.”
            First and foremost we need to talk about the sense in which the popular slogan is correct. The Lord has forgiven our sin, and we’re justified before him. As far as God’s court system is concerned, I am now, and forever, found “not guilty.” The other sense in which it's correct is found in the more literal translation: “All to me is allowed.” Traditionally the first part of the verse has been rendered “All things are lawful for me.” Yes, all things are lawful for you if you’re talking about food or drink. We’re no longer under the dietary laws found in the Torah. And even if you define “things” in the sense of “activities,” then it’s mostly correct. As C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape put it, the Lord put a surfeit of pleasures in this world, and he only put any kind of restrictions on a tiny tiny tiny minority of them. I particularly love intimate times with my wife and watermelon and cantaloupe and chocolate milk and going to a hockey game and reading a good murder mystery novel and. . . well, I could go on and on, but I probably lost you a ways back.
            But there are some activities—a very few—which God has placed some restrictions on, and this is one of the “biggies”: No sexual activity—in thought or deed—outside the boundaries of biblical marriage, which is defined by the Bible as one man with one woman united for life. That’s his standard, and you can argue with it, but as Paul put it in another letter, “anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God.”
            We’ll get into the rest of chapter 6 tomorrow.

Father God, this is probably my sneakiest enemy, my Achilles Heel, the biggest chink in my armor. Above all other areas, this is the one in which I need to plead “Lead me not into temptation.” I desperately need your grace not just to forgive, but to keep me from even being exposed to this. Please. Oh please. 

[Sept 28]—Discipline and Restoration

            If anyone ever tries to tell you that the Bible is a book mainly written for children, I’d submit today’s passage as exhibit “A” in counter-evidence. I’d also like to submit it against the notion that the modern Church is so much worse off than the 1st century one. I’m always in favor of bringing the Church closer to her Lord’s standards and closer by his side. But whenever anyone says “I sure wish today’s Church is more like the Church of the 1st century,” I feel like responding “Which church do you want us to be more like? The Corinthian one? The Church in Laodicea? How’s about the Galatians?” There are great churches today, and pretty good churches, and churches which are about to be “spit out” of Jesus’ mouth because they’re disgusting to him.
            Speaking of disgusting, my initial response to this chapter: “Eewww!!!”
            I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, especially when it comes to believers, so let’s be charitable and say that the “father’s wife” this man was sleeping with was his step-mother, not his blood mother. The verbiage could mean “living with” or “married to.” As Paul indicated though, this was something even the pagans would never practice. Let me clarify and repeat: The nonbelievers in Corinth, the “Sin City” of the 1st century, were disgusted by the practices of the church there. The believers—in this area, at least—were being put to shame by the pagans among them.
            So what did Paul tell them to do?
            This is where we come to the topic of church discipline, something that’s almost unheard of today. We’ve discussed this a bit before, but besides Matthew 18:15-20 this is the main passage about the topic. Before we get into what this is referring to, we need to be clear on what it’s not talking about.

·         It’s not talking about the conduct of nonbelievers. If someone’s not a follower of Christ, their personal conduct—the specific sins they’re committing—is not all that much a concern. A lost person is a lost person who’s a lost person. We’re not their judge, and our response to them is a message of faith in Christ, grace, and repentance (no matter what specific sins they’re guilty of).

·         It’s not talking about a believer who’s struggling with a certain sin. Someone might be struggling with sexual immorality or greed or idolatry or any other type of sin. All of us are “works in progress,” and none of us are sinless before him.

·         This isn't talking about punishment. The person who experiences this sort of thing probably sees it as punishment, but that’s as far away from its purpose as it could be. There’s a reason it’s called “discipline.” The purpose of discipline is not punishment. It’s restoration. If you read 2 Corinthians, you read that the church did what Paul commanded. Actually—as typical for this church—they went too far in the opposite direction. They cast this guy out of the church, he repented, and. . . the church refused to take him back. Paul told them straight-out that now that he’s repented, they should forgive him and take him back.

            But if someone is involved in a public flouting of God’s standards (Paul specifically lists some more public sins in vs. 11), and they refuse to repent (and that would entail stopping it), then the church leadership—for the sake of our Lord’s name, as well as for the sake of the church’s health—has to 1) Approach the person in private, 2) Lovingly call upon him to repent, 3) Bring it before the church, and 4) Then disassociate the church from that person. That means you don’t eat with him or associate with him in any way. Obviously, the instant that the offender repents (at any stage in this process), you immediately halt the procedure and bring the person back into fellowship.
            Again, I can’t emphasize enough that the point here is restoration, not punishment. But when someone is acting this way, to ignore it like the proverbial elephant in the room is not the loving thing to do. It doesn’t show love towards our Lord, it doesn’t show love towards the church, and it doesn’t show love towards the person who’s doing this.
            To put it on a more personal level, Solomon told us “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” So is there someone you need to “wound” today? Or do you need to be on the receiving end? And if someone does pull out the “knife,” then what’s your reaction?

Lord Jesus, I know for myself that I need constant correction from your Spirit. If I stop listening to your Spirit’s rebuke, then please send some real friends who’ll love me enough to wound me in love. That’s your grace at work. 

[Sept 27]—Foundations and Buildings

            In yesterday’s passage Paul was talking about how he and Apollos were co-workers on a single project: The Corinthian church. Paul started it by preaching the Good News, leading people to Christ, doing some basic discipling, and keeping up with their spiritual well-being. Apparently Apollos had come behind him and helped the believers grow in their faith, making sure they understood the basics of the faith, possibly organizing them and helping them appoint leadership, etc. As Paul put it, “[He] planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”
            But now he shifts from farming imagery to building construction. Although the immediate context deals with the situation in Corinthians, I believe that this has applications which we need to consider in our own lives. Here’s how I summarize what he’s teaching here:

·         From the moment you received Christ, you began building. Some people receive him as a child, while others wait until their later years. As we’ll see in a moment, all believers go to the same Heaven, but the earlier you believe in Christ, the better, since that’s more time you have to serve him down here.

·         There’s only one foundation upon which you can build. Obviously there’s “no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

·         You don’t choose which foundation you’re going to build upon, but you do choose which materials you build with. This is an extremely important distinction. You choose whether you build with “gold, silver, costly stones,” or “wood, hay or straw.” What do these different materials represent? Wood, hay and straw are inexpensive and easy to get. Gold, silver, and precious stones are costly and difficult to get. Living for Christ takes some effort. It takes some sacrifice. It means denying yourself daily and following Jesus.

·         One day, on the Day of Judgment, all of the structures we’ve built will be tested by fire. What is this fire? Most likely it’s the all-seeing eyes of the Lord Jesus. When the apostle John saw the Lord in the 1st chapter of Revelation, the formerly meek-and-mild Son of God had “eyes [which] were like blazing fire.”  I think that one day these eyes will pass over the works that I’ve supposedly done for him and in his name. If I’ve been only pretending to sacrifice for him (like Ananias and Sapphira), then he knows. If I’ve made a show of worshipping and evangelizing and praying, then he knows.

·         You’ll be rewarded far beyond your wildest dreams based on what survives the inspection.
Whatever your sacrifices you’ve made for your King, you’ll one day look upon them and say “It was all worth it.” If there are any regrets on this Day, it’ll be us saying “I sure wish I'd given more back then!”

·         Again, this is super-important: What’s at stake here is not anyone’s salvation. The absolutely worst-case scenario for anyone at this Judgment is for them to spend 70-80 or more years (supposedly) serving their Lord—baptized as a young child, going to church every Sunday, singing in the choir, giving to charity, etc.—and at the end of it all, with one sweep of the Eyes, it’s all dust and ashes. “But yet [they] will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” Yes, if anyone has received Christ, they’ll get into Heaven. They just won’t enjoy it as much as some others.

            I heard a youth pastor submit an illustration which I think explains this last point really well. Imagine a 5-gallon pitcher vs. a 12-ounce pitcher (or if you’re really into the metric system, imagine a milliliter cup vs. a 10 liter bottle). You fill up both containers to the brim. Both are filled up to maximum, but one only holds a little and the other holds a lot more.
            You see, we all go to the same Heaven, and we’ll all be filled to the brim with joy and ecstasy. But the more faithful you are and the more you sacrifice for him down here, the more you’ll enjoy it once you get “up there.”
            And of course the converse is true. The more I spend my time, energy, and other finite resources in things that don’t have eternal significance, the more I’ll regret it one day. And if I actually put a lot of energy into a “front” so that I look good to others, that’s worse than useless. I’m just setting myself up for a major “loss” when I meet my Savior face to face.

“Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
       Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
                                                      --C. T. Studd

Lord Jesus, this is both exciting and sobering. Help me to live for you, to build with the stuff that lasts, so that I can glorify you more and more and more. By your grace. 

[Sept 26]—“Nobodies” Working in Harmony

            What was the first issue—right out of the box—that Paul called the Corinthian church out on? Unnecessary divisions in the church, setting up factions based on which leader one supposedly followed: One person “says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’”      
            Today, instead of focusing on the general problem (schisms in the church), I’d like to focus on today’s passage which deals with a root-oriented solution. In other words, since they were quarrelling about leaders in the church, Paul here is calling upon us to reexamine how we look at heroes in the church. Here’s what I glean from this:

·         The messenger or leader or any other human being is nothing compared to the Big Picture. “What, after all, is Apollos. .  . [or] Paul?” Or anyone else involved in ministry of any type? They’re all just servants whom God uses, nobodies compared to the Big Picture. Glorifying our Lord is not the most important thing. It’s the only important thing. The Big Picture is not any person’s ego, or how many followers he has, or how famous he is. The Big Picture is being obedient to what he's called you to do, whether it's preaching in front of millions or raising your family in the training and instruction of the Lord. 

·         Ultimately the only One who can bring eternal success is the Lord, not any human being. Paul compares it to farming: One person plants, another waters, but it’s God “who makes things grow.” We can plant, water, weed and do whatever else we like, but unless the Lord causes it to prosper, our efforts are “chasing after the wind.” The Psalmist presented a general principle which is applicable in so many areas of life, but which is particularly applicable in any type of ministry or leadership in the church: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.” Unless he’s behind it--and by “it” I mean any endeavor you attempt--you’re ultimately wasting your time. At best, it’ll be dust and ashes someday.

·         One servant is not in competition with another. This is so important that I have to repeat and expand for emphasis: No true servant of the Lord is in competition with any other servant of the Lord. “The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.” Billy Graham—the foremost evangelist of the latter half of the 20th century—was not in competition with any other evangelist, and he’d be the first to tell you so. Nor is he in competition with any other preacher or Bible teacher or any other believer who’s involved in ministry. This principle as stated by Paul merely echoes our Savior: “Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.”

            Let me try to be as clear as possible: My pastor is not in competition with any other pastor who’s doing what God wants him to do. If any Bible-believing and Bible-following church is growing and succeeding, then every believer (whether a member or not) should rejoice in that success. If any such church is under attack from the Enemy, then that’s an attack on all of us.
            And just in case there are any pastors reading this, I have an important reminder. I’ve actually heard pastors in the past refer to “my” church. The church to which you’ve been called is “your” church only in the sense of association, not possession. It does not belong to you. It belongs to Another. So if the Lord chooses to prosper another church instead of “yours,” keep this in mind. Remember the latter part of vs. 8: “They will each be rewarded according to their own labor.” You be faithful to the task to what he’s called you to do, and let the Lord worry about the numbers.
            Clear enough?

Lord Jesus, waaay too often I’ve seen my church struggling while another prospers, and I’ve fallen into this trap. The church does not belong to me or any other man. It belongs to you, and I need to act accordingly. From you and through you and for you are all things, amen. 

[Sept 25]—Worldliness

            This isn’t a word that we use much anymore, but it was pretty common in the semi-traditional church in which I grew up. In particular I remember my youth minister warning against “worldliness” several times.
            What does the term mean? I guess the best definition of a “worldly” Christian is one who’s (overly) concerned about the “things of the world.” The problem is that a lot of well-meaning believers have disagreements over what “overly” and “things of the world” are. Let’s look at those two aspects separately and try to think about them biblically.
            Some Christians—especially those of an earlier generation—basically translated this into “It’s wrong for a Christian to indulge in any ‘worldly’ entertainment.” Two of my favorite Bible teachers, Charles Spurgeon and A.W. Tozer, thought and taught that it’s sinful for a child of God to attend any theater plays (Spurgeon) or attend any movies (Tozer). To put it mildly, I disagree with them, although I’d probably place this sort of issue under the “disputable matters” category we studied a few days ago.
            Others, at least before the present day, used the word disparagingly to refer to Christians who’re too involved in the world’s affairs. If someone gets too caught up in politics, for example. Or if they’re too attracted to physical pleasures that the world offers.
            You might make the case that it’s wrong to watch any “R”-rated movie (no matter the cause of the rating), and I can certainly see a case for avoiding most if not all TV shows for moral reasons. We might disagree on what’s appropriate for a Christian to watch, but we can have a discussion on that.
            But words mean things. A Christian who watches certain movies and listens to popular music might be doing something wrong, but he’s not “worldly” in the biblical sense. The James passage above warns against "friendship with the world," and presents said friendship as being completely incompatible with friendship with God. The other times in Scripture which talk about this subject use the term A) Being “worldly,” or B) “Loving the world” (in a bad sense, not in a John 3:16 sense). Those are the passages I cite in today’s reading.
            Please read them again. Do you see anything about seeing R-rated movies there? Anything about what type of music a believer needs to listen to? What about how much he’s supposed to be involved in politics?
            If you see them, you’re seeing something I’m not. Let’s take a closer look at them.
            James, as usual, is rather blunt. He accuses any alleged believer who's a friend of the world of spiritual adultery, much in the same way that God condemned Israel through the prophets like Hosea. But a potential problem rests in the fact that James nowhere defines what he means by the term. We'll get to what he means by the "world" in a moment. 
            In the 1 Corinthian passage, Paul condemns them for being “worldly.” Here he means it in the same sense as “immature,” since he contrasts their character/behavior with “people who live by the Spirit.” By their behavior, they’re betraying themselves as “mere infants in Christ.” He’d love to talk to them of “deeper” matters, more “solid food,” but he couldn’t. He has to talk to them about issues that should've been resolved a long time ago. Instead of going into deeper theological lessons like in Romans, he has to tell them things like “Get along with each other! Stop acting like toddlers banging your spoons on a high chair!” When one of them declares that they’re more spiritual than someone else because they follow Leader X instead of Leader Y, then they’re acting like the world does. People of the world are always on the lookout for ways to one-up one another. That’s the sense in which they’re acting “worldly.”
            John's passage is a little trickier. John tells us not to love the world. Remember, he uses the world in at least three different senses: A) The physical world, B) The world of people in general, and C) “the invisible spiritual system of evil dominated by Satan and all that it offers in opposition to God, His Word, and His people” (MacArthur). This third sense is the one to which John is referring here. I'm also convinced, based on the context, that this is what James means as well. 
            John says what characterizes “the world” is “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” The “flesh” is not your physical body but your sinful nature (which is why the older version of the NIV translated it as “sinful nature” to make this point clear). It’s not talking about watching a movie as such or enjoying physical pleasures.
            Yes, if you’re watching a pornographic movie and lusting after the women treated as objects there, yes, you’re giving into the “lust of the flesh,” and “the lust of the eyes.” Satan likes to use our eyes as an inroad for sinful desires (like he did with Eve). That’s wrong.
            But the issue that these verses are addressing isn’t so much the media you consume as it is the heart attitudes that you indulge in. A man over a hundred years ago would never see a movie, but he could be in danger of falling afoul of this verse just as easily as anyone today. That’s where I part company with people whom I really respect (both today and from the past) who focused on the media or physical pleasures. I think they were focusing on the wrong things and pulling these passages out of its intended context.
            For “Pride of life,” once again MacArthur puts it much better than I can: “The phrase has the idea of arrogance over one's circumstances, which produced haughtiness or exaggeration, parading what one possessed to impress other people.” This crystallizes the world pretty well, don’t you think? “He who dies with the most toys wins.” No, as someone once quipped in rejoinder, he who dies with the most toys. . . still dies.
            Yes we have to be careful of what media we consume, especially if it's putting thoughts which conflict with Scripture into our heads. But the ultimate issue isn't the media itself. That's not my main enemy. My main enemy is me. I might need to stay away from certain media which feeds my sinful nature, but I have to keep my focus on the disease, not the symptoms. 
            This is the worldliness that I have to fight. My sinful desires. Letting my eyes and my mind set themselves on sinful things that draw me away from the Savior. Indulging in pride about things I possess or my accomplishments. And worst of all, acting like a spoiled child in my relationships with my brothers in Christ.
            Let’s fight this together, shall we?

Lord Jesus, I let the “world” get into my eyes, into my mind, and into my heart waaaaay too much. Whatever it takes, please clean house. 

[Sept 24]—Wisdom of God and Men

            Part of the problem with interpreting the epistles is that it’s like we’re only hearing one side of the conversation. If you were listening in on a phone conversation but could only hear one side, you could figure out what the other person’s saying, but it takes a little work.
            The issue that Paul’s addressing here is that the church in Corinth—allowing the surrounding culture to influence them—put a high premium on “wisdom.” They’d listened for far too long to charismatic charlatans who sounded really “deep” and spoke really eloquently but who led them astray.
            Greek and Roman society and culture valued philosophers, people with greater than normal insight into the human experience and metaphysical questions (like “What’s the greatest good in life?). Paul experienced this personally when he went to present the Good News (or at least open the door for it) at the Areopagus, where they all “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” Now, if you were here during our study of Proverbs, you know that not only am I not against the study of philosophy, I believe that every Christian should be, in the most literal sense, a philosopher (literally a “lover of wisdom”).
            But there’s all the difference in the world between God’s wisdom and man’s. Mankind looks at a man hanging on a cross—so badly beaten that he’s barely recognizable as human—as the epitome of foolish. “If you want to win in this world, you need X,” and X might be any number of things, like money, or sex appeal, or good PR, or strong military might.
            But God looks at his Son hanging on a cross and says “My plan is working perfectly.” And guess what? I think I’ll take the wisdom that fashioned the world and set the planets into perfect orbit over anything that any man can come up with. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” On God’s “worst” day, he’s still wiser and stronger than anyone on their “best” day. It was this wisdom that effected our salvation. To the world, a man hanging on a cross might elicit pity at best and scorn at worst, but to us it’s the salvation of God, our salvation.
            You see, he loves doing things in a certain way so that only he gets the glory. He loves to choose unlikely instruments in order to accomplish his plans. He takes an exiled prince who’s herding sheep to lead his people out of Egypt and be the conduit of his Law. He takes another shepherd, the “runt” of the family, and makes him king of the nation.
            And the Corinthian Christians could testify that he continued this pattern with them. Sure, there might be a prominent or wealthy citizen among them or two or three. But most of them—and history matches this pattern—would have been drawn from the “dregs” of society. Our Lord loves to take nobodies, the has-been’s and never-was’s, pull them out of the bottom of the pit, and turn them into his beloved heirs. Once again, we have a huge gap in perspective: The world sees them as dregs, and he sees them as the brightest jewels in his crown.
            Why? Why does he choose to work this way? The passage gives a simple enough answer: “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” If he chose the important people--the VIP’s—all the time, then people might give credit to the human agents. But he prefers to use people that no one else would choose so that there’s no way that people can give credit to anyone but him.
            Most likely you can testify to this in your own life as well. One of the surest marks of increasing grace in a person’s life is a clearer awareness of how unworthy you are of that grace. A less mature—quite frankly, a more ignorant--believer has to fight off the inclination that he’s doing a favor to Jesus by saying “yes” to him. A more mature believer says “I’m an unworthy servant; I’ve only done my duty.”
            And of course there’s a wonderful word here for the nobodies, the has-been’s and never-was’s: You’re a prime candidate for him to use in a mighty way. You might say “But I can’t speak well,” or “I don’t know enough about the Bible,” or “I’m so weak in this area.” His response: “Perfect! That’s just who I’m looking for!”
            Are you hearing him say this right now? If not, you’re probably not listening.

Lord Jesus, the longer I walk with you, the more I see just how much you’re carrying me on this journey together. How boundless your grace, how matchless your mercy, and how surprising are your choices! Whatever you’re asking of me, the answer’s “yes.” 

[Sept 23]---Divided We Fall

            As we’ve hammered home again and again, the Corinthian church was undoubtedly the most screwed-up local body of believers in the 1st century. Paul starts off with words of gratitude and hope and then spends the rest of the book raking them over the coals.
            And what’s the first problem he addresses, before he gets to anything else? Church divisions. He appeals to them in the name of the Lord Jesus (the Husband of the Bride who bled for her) that they put aside petty bickering.
            Now, we need to approach this with wisdom and knowledge of what the Bible says on this topic. Not all unity is good, and not all disunity is bad. The builders of the Tower of Babel were unified. Germany was mostly united behind its “Leader.” People can be unified in a bad purpose. If Christ hadn’t come, all humanity would have been unified under his wrath and all of us would end up in the Lake of Fire. He didn’t come to bring peace on earth but a sword which will divide families.
            And the Bible certainly isn’t against disunity when the issue is important enough. I mean, we just finished reading a couple of days ago in the book of Romans a warning from Paul about false teachers. They’d been presenting a message contrary to what he (Paul) had proclaimed, and he flat out told the believers in Rome to “keep away from them.”
            So what were the issues over which these believers were fighting? Did anything in the last two paragraphs apply to what was happening here? Um, no. Here the issue was supposed loyalty to a certain leader or teacher. Paul calls them “quarrels” over who was a follower of certain leaders: Someone might say “I follow Paul,” while another claimed to be a follower of “Cephas” (Peter), Apollos, or even (supposedly) a follower of Christ (as opposed to all those heretics over there who follow Paul or someone else).
            He rattles off a series of “no brainer” questions: 1) Is Christ divided? (NO), 2) Was Paul crucified for you? (as wonderful and important as he is/was, the answer’s a resounding NO), or 3) Was anyone baptized in the name of Paul? (Um, NO).
            Let’s take a look at the 1st question for a moment. The point he could be making is that we’re all children of God through faith in Christ, all baptized by one Spirit into the Body. Or he could be making the point against the followers of “Christ”: No, Paul or Apollos or Peter weren’t crucified for you, but they're all servants of the same Lord. And in the case of Peter and Paul, their writings have the same authority as those from Christ’s own lips (that’s what an apostle is). But even Apollos, who wasn’t an apostle and who didn’t write any Scripture (unless you think he wrote the book of Hebrews, which is a possibility), inasmuch as he was teaching accurately from the word of God, he also was teaching with Christ’s authority. Christ isn't divided in his Body, nor are his true servants divided amongst themselves.
            We’re going to talk a little more about our attitude towards leaders in a few days when we examine chapter 3. But for now, let’s talk a little bit about unity and division. Jesus said that “a house divided against itself will fall,” and even though in context he was speaking about Satan’s “house” and kingdom, the principle still applies generally to the church as well (along with a whole host of other areas in life). On issues like the Good News, or the nature and work of Christ, the reality of Heaven and Hell, and other essentials, we can't negotiate or compromise. These are “hills” we must “die on.”
            But we need to pick our battles carefully. And especially something so foolish as picking one leader over another leader (when they’re both serving the same Lord) is not just bone-headed. It’s damaging to the Body of Christ. And anyone who hurts the Bride had better be prepared to deal with her Lord. He takes these things very seriously, you know.

Lord Jesus, you’re the Wisdom of God in the Flesh. Please help me carefully distinguish between essentials, nonessentials, and my personal opinions. If I’m damaging the Body in any way, please point it out to me so I can repent and change, by your grace. 

[Sept 22]—Words of Hope

            Now we come to the book of First Corinthians. Just a heads up before we get into it: I’m not going to be talking about every verse or passage here, just pick up some themes. I’m also not going to spend too much on the background on it, except to say that Corinth was one of the most degenerate cities in human history. Paganism, religious syncretism, and sexual promiscuity were ubiquitous. Las Vegas can call itself “Sin City” all it wants, but it’s Mayberry compared to this place.
            And unfortunately, as so often the case, the atmosphere from outside seeped into the local church, and there was an imminent danger that pagan Corinth was affecting the church waaaaay more than vice-versa. Almost the entirety of the book is Paul reaming them up one side and down the other, castigating them for screwing up so bad it wasn’t even funny. Pretty much each chapter is another major problem that he’s addressing.
            But before he starts talking about their problems and lets fly the artillery, he starts out with a positive note, and it’s something we need to focus on, especially before we read the rest of the book with all its denunciations and censure.
            He introduces himself as “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” and this is extremely important. In fact, I don’t think we can overemphasize this. He started the church at Corinth—in fact, he personally led many of them to Christ. But on top of that, he’s an apostle. Literally it’s a “sent one.” These were individuals who were called to be special representatives of Christ to speak for him in an utterly unique way. Each of the books of the New Testament was either written by an apostle or a direct protégé of one. When these men spoke and wrote, it carried the full weight and authority of Jesus Christ himself. Let me repeat and clarify: The words of Paul are just as authoritative for us as the words of Jesus found in the Gospels. As we proceed in the next few chapters and he’s castigating them for something, keep in mind that he’s not submitting his personal opinions about their behavior. Every word he writes comes from the Throne itself.
            And of course we have the usual blessing: Grace and peace to them from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. As someone pointed out to me long ago, this is not a random greeting. “Grace” must precede “peace.”  And it must come through the Lord Jesus Christ.
            But here we come to the words of hope to these messed-up and mixed-up believers. Paul had started the church in Corinth and every time he thought of them, he thanked God for them. He'd seen the Lord’s grace in action in their lives. No matter where they were right now, and despite the fact that they were nowhere near where they were supposed to be, they also were not where they used to be.
            He also acknowledged that in the spiritual gift department, they enjoyed an embarrassment of riches. No matter what else you could say about them, you couldn’t accuse them of a dearth of spiritual gifts.
            But these last two verses are what I really want to focus on today even though I’ve discussed them a bit before. Please keep in mind that he’s going to spend the next 15 chapters blistering their behinds (figuratively) like wayward children. But no matter what else, he knew that in the end they would be found to be standing firm. Yes, they had some major areas that needed to be corrected immediately. But on the day when Christ would have all humanity stand before his Judgment Bench, all the sincere believers among them would be found blameless.
            Why? Because of their faithfulness? Oh, please. On their own they were about as faithful as Hosea’s wife. If their blamelessness before God was to be based on their own faithfulness, they might as well be packing suitcases for Hell right now.
            But no. It was the faithfulness of God working through his Son Jesus. It was all his faithfulness. It was the righteousness of Christ which would cause them to be declared blameless before the Judgment Seat. He called us, and he will keep us.
            Please please please don’t misunderstand me. None of this is written to encourage us to give into sin (if you need more on this, I’ve written on this here). In fact, if you take it as such, then at the very least you’ve severely misunderstood the very nature of grace. And these verses must be taken into context of the really harsh rest of the book. But when we do sin, we know that his faithfulness is our only—but sure—hope.
            Aren’t you glad?

Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, and I’d be a fool to claim any other. Thank you so much for covering me by your grace, your mercy and your blood. That’s my only hope, but it’s a sure one. 

[Sept 21]—To The One. . .

            Well we did it. We got through 16 chapters of the book of Romans. As I’ve stated before, if you held a gun to my head and told me to pick my favorite book of the Bible, it’d have to be this one. Let’s see what Paul has to say to them (and us) in these last few verses.
            I know that I ended yesterday’s verse with vs. 20, so I guess I shouldn’t include it with this one, but I love it too much to exclude it. He starts with a wonderful promise (“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet”), then with an intended blessing: “The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.” That’s the essence of the Good News—God’s unmerited favor shown towards us through Jesus Christ. Sorry if you've heard this before, but someone told me a long time ago that grace stands for “God’s riches at Christ’s expense,” and that’s a great way to put it.
            He takes a moment to send greetings from the people who are living and working alongside him. There are just a few that I’d like to note: Timothy (whom he considered a son, about whom he said “I have no one else like him), Tertius (who was Paul’s amanuensis for the letter), and Gaius (with whom Paul and others were staying).  Even though he wrote the letter under the inspiration of the Spirit, behind him were countless servants who (humanly speaking) made it possible.
            Per usual, Paul squeezes 10 pounds of theology into a five-pound bag. These last three verse summarize (or at least touch upon) the main points of Romans. What do we learn about God and ourselves?

·         He is able to establish us. That means we’re safe and secure, not just safe in the arms of Jesus, but as safe as an arm of Jesus. Even though we might fall from time to time, we don’t fall very far or very long. Not because of our strength (duh!), but because of his.
·         He establishes us “according to” the Good News about Christ. It’s in line with, and empowered by, the Message. This Message “is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.” It’s how God saves us, not just from the penalty of sin, but from the daily power of sin, and ultimately from the very presence of sin.
·         It was a “mystery hidden for long ages past.” Remember, the word “mystery” isn’t referring to something we figure out on our own like a detective novel. No, it’s something so deep and so beyond our understanding that any human endeavor to unwrap it only ends up in frustration. It’s something that God’s hidden from us, but has now revealed it to us.
·         Tense is important: It was hidden, but now it’s been revealed “through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God.” There are lots of things that we’re never going to figure out about God, such as the nature of the Trinity, the human/divine nature of Christ, how his sovereignty interacts with human choices, etc. But the Good News of Christ has been revealed to all humanity—at least in the sense of being available to all—and is now being spread to the furthest reaches of the earth. We certainly don’t understand everything about our salvation, but we know enough. 
·         Why was the Message given to us? Why were we saved? Well, yes, God loves us and didn’t want to see anyone perish. But another big reason—which we tend to overlook—is obedience.  Depending on how you translate it, you could render it “the obedience that comes from faith,” (which is certainly biblical) but literally it says “the obedience of faith,” meaning that the Message is not just an offer to be accepted but a command to be obeyed (like here).
·         The Greek language didn’t have parentheses, but if it did, Paul would've used them. He started verse 25 by saying “Now to him who is able to establish you. . .” and finally closes his thought in vs. 27 by answering who this “him” is: The only wise God. To him be glory forever and ever through Jesus Christ. It all started with him in eternity past, it’s sustained by his grace, and the end of it is to give him glory through his Son forever and ever. That’s what it’s all about.

Father God, what else can I add to this? It all started with you, and everything rolls back around to give you the glory you deserve. With everything I am and everything I do, I want to add to that chorus of glory. In Jesus’ name. 

[Sept 20]—Division, Wisdom, and Victory

            As you might have noticed, we’re wrapping up the book of Romans with just a few short verses to go. Remember when I said that Paul started out with the “heavy” material and ended the book with slightly lighter fare? Well, I misspoke: Maybe I should have said “heavi-er” material, because even in these “housekeeping” type of verses, there’s plenty to absorb and digest.
            I’ve mentioned this before, but I really think that the common nostalgia lots of Christians have for the 1st century church is a bit overdone. Human nature hasn’t changed, and God certainly hasn’t. All of the problems we see today are pretty much the ones the church struggled with 2000 years ago.
            Case in point: Paul warned about false teachers and pseudo-Christians who’d snuck in and introduced bad teaching, which had caused division in the church. Sound familiar? He tells the rank-and-file believers reading this to stay away from them. Don’t listen to their “smooth talk and flattery.” This was a danger back then, and it’s a danger now.
            That brings us to something that the modern American Christian desperately needs to hear: When it comes to God’s truth, ignorance is not bliss. Paul tells them in vs. 29 that he wants them to “be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.” Not ignorant. Innocent.  Jesus was referring to this distinction when he told us to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” According to vs. 19 in today’s passage, these con-men are targeting “naive people,” so by not being discerning you’re opening yourself up to deception.  
            Keep in mind that bad teaching does more than lead individual Christians astray. It also tends to divide churches. Christians who should be united in the truth instead bicker over issues that should've been settled long ago. And the Devil watches and laughs.
            So what does it mean? It means when someone presents some teaching that sounds new, you need to carefully examine it in the light of what God’s word says. And if it doesn’t match up, then drop it. Don’t indulge in it.
            And near the end of this book, he presents a glorious promise right after these warnings. False teachers will always be with us, but ultimately the source of all their “teaching” will find himself under the boot. Of course, we know that at the end of history as we know it, the longstanding war between Satan and our Lord will culminate in Satan being tossed into the Lake of Fire. And I can see why that’s part of what Paul’s referring to here.
            But I think we can experience some of that ultimate victory right here and now. When he told the believers in Rome that the God of peace (ironic title considering the rest of the verse) will “soon” crush their Enemy beneath their feet, I don’t think he was just talking about the end of the Age. When we’re discerning about good and evil--listening to the good and shunning the bad--that’s a good way to put the Enemy under our feet right here and now. He sometimes attacks frontally, but most of the time in the Age his most dangerous weapons are lies.
            And of course covering all of this is God’s grace. We desperately need his grace—his unmerited favor-- to discern truth from lies, turn away from these lies and towards our Father, and to crush our Adversary beneath our feet.
            If we listen to our Father, we can’t lose.

Father God, it seems like I constantly need my ears unplugged and my heart softened. Help me to be deaf to the Enemy, listening only to your voice.