Archive for March, 2011

The TESTimony

March 31, 2011

…Stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.  This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God.  Philippians 1:27c, 28.

The sign to the opposition that we are going to be saved is our lack of fear or our confidence through faith.

I can hear the reactions of some of my friends who believe in other ethics objecting stringently to this.  When I hear someone object to the apparent “exclusive” nature of Christianity, it makes me frustrated.  God doesn’t exclude anyone, they do that themselves.  Jesus died for everyone, period.  If a person refuses to accept Him for who He is, how can they kick Him if doesn’t include them in the roster of guests for dinner?  In other words, everyone is invited to the great celebration dinner of the redeemed but only a few accept and attend.  At this dinner the only people who come to the feast are those who RSVP, which any wedding planner will tell you is only right.

It doesn’t make sense to me at all that someone would think they should be able to reject God but still get eternity.  He’s just supposed to save them anyway.  We seem to believe that if God is love, then He loves no matter what (true), which means He accepts them as they are (true) and demands no change whatsoever (not true) to remain with Him.  But let’s think of that ideal for a moment…

If one person doesn’t really like another, do they hang out after work or make plans to go on vacations?  I know a person who treats everyone as if they were there just for this person to use—even when they need to feel good about themselves.  It’s absolutely awful to be around people who think others should bend to their every whim.  Most people wouldn’t treat God this way on everything, but on certain issues they demand to be given “freedom” to be themselves.  The argument I hear most often is,  “If God didn’t want me like this, then why did He make me this way?”  forgetting all the while about that little radioactive spiritual isotope called “sin”.  With sin in the mix no one is who they should be, so the argument doesn’t work.

In the news recently cyber-bullying has been a hot topic.  The questions abound about it, of course, but the most asked question is what do we do with these people who bully others in school or the work place?  And, if a person is driven to suicide, should the people or person responsible be held accountable and charged with manslaughter?  It’s a tough nut to crack since how do we determine who started what and the mental state of the person who died?

In the case of the believers at Philippi, the rest of Philippi saw them as outsiders at best, a threat at worst.  Those who looked on them as outsiders probably left them alone for the most part.  Those who saw them as a threat took pains to harass, persecute, and in some cases kill the believers.  When Paul talks about them standing firm for gospel like he did, he’s referring to his imprisonment and public beating.  Sure God sent an earthquake which opened all the prison doors for them and brought several new converts to the faith, but that didn’t change the attitude of the opposition one bit.  The Jews in the region would have blamed Satan for the earthquake, the Gentiles would’ve thought a specific god brought it about.  In other words, the unconvinced remained antagonists despite the evidence to the contrary.  Paul healed the sick, cast out a familiar spirit and generally blessed a whole bunch of people.  None of it mattered to those who liked their lifestyle and hated anyone shining a light on their spiritual closets.

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him… Philippians 1:29.

The moment we forget what a privilege it is to not only believe in Him but to suffer for Him, is when we begin to find other solutions for our lives and use Him as a fall back.  If we think about the miracles that happened because of or for the disciples, it’s easy to think God will do these kinds of things every time.  But the bloody history of the martyrs doesn’t bear this conclusion out.  Every disciple died a horrible death except for John, who died of old age.  What does this snippet of truth tell us about God’s plans for those who follow Him?

Well, for one thing, it does inform us as to what the miracles were for—something to impress those watching about the truth of the disciples’ teaching.  In other words, if you want to get someone’s attention, do a miracle, which is what God did in the case of the Philippians.  Yet He didn’t keep Paul and Silas from being beaten in the meantime, thrown in the stocks and locked in a dungeon/jail.

We read these stories and gloss over the facts just like they are legends or myths we don’t really connect to at all.  The promise Paul made to the Philippians about suffering is tangible, if we let it be so.  No where in Scripture will you find God promising escape from the mundane or the problems that arise from living a daily life with sin as an ingredient.  We are not only promised mundane trials but suffering directly for our faith.  In almost every story, however, we are given a mere slice of the person’s life.  All we get to see is places in their lifetime where God did something extraordinary for them.  The rest of the time they went about the business of planting, harvesting, working, making babies and generally being alive.  To me this testimony is the real test in the i-mony because our daily routine speaks louder than what happened 20 years ago at our conversion.  If you want to get a glimpse of what it means to be an apostle on the scale of Paul, read his account of his trials in 1 Corinthians 10, where he recounts scores of problems, losses and struggles.  Yet in between all these, Paul went about making tents for a living, discussing Scripture in the synagogues and generally living out an example in front of the new converts.

Now I agree some people take these passages too far and actually try to provoke suffering for the gospel, but those efforts are misrepresenting Christ.  Jesus didn’t set about to provoke the world but to demonstrate the attitude and actions of heaven.  Our job isn’t to get in people’s faces for Christ but to be lights in the darkness.  Will a light shined in a dark place hurt the eyes of those who look directly into it?  Absolutely!  Will this mean those who are a light in a dark place will get negative reactions from the hurting eyes people?  Quite often.  Still a light is merely a tool to reveal what’s around us so we don’t hurt ourselves when we move and also tells us what is in the vicinity.  The purpose of a light is not to offend but to assist one in seeing reality.  A person truly changed by the Spirit of Christ will never shine a light into the eyes of someone else—like your obnoxious brother or sister did when you were kids.  This is rude, unkind, inconsiderate and hurtful for the gospel.  The purpose of the light is not to declare war on the people in darkness but to drive the darkness away for the people.

Those who disagree with or hate our reality in Christ will either ignore our light and turn their backs or fight us tooth and nail to make us turn it off.  Paul’s promise to the Philippians makes it glaringly evident suffering comes as part of the package with belief in Jesus.

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The Profit

March 29, 2011

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  Philippians 1:21.

Paul couldn’t know the outcome of his chains exactly.  God only told him not to worry about standing trial in Rome, so that’s what he did.  But he was conflicted with the whole thing…

To say Paul just rode the wave of human emotions without any strong feelings at all, I think would be a big misreading of this text.  He wasn’t stoic about the false teachers or his detractors rather he knows God can work all things for the good.  It’s kind of like knowing that a disaster won’t be the end of the story instead it becomes a catalyst to better things.

I probably read the key text with a specific filter over my spiritual eyes, for I see these words as a mandate for everyone.  Paul claims somewhere else whether we live or die we are the Lord’s so what happens to us is immaterial as far as the big picture goes, though it might be painful in the short game.  At the same time we don’t simply breeze through the trials with complete calm or no reaction whatsoever.

A good question to ask is:  If we are supposed to be completely calm and easy about the trials, why does God promise us comfort?  Why would we need Him to reassure us of His presence through the Scriptures and the Spirit if our hearts weren’t in turmoil?

Paul didn’t rejoiced over the bad things people were saying about him or false teachings they espoused, but over the fact the good news of salvation got preached at all.  He makes his argument here because the news of these people distressed him so he found comfort and joy in the one positive coming out of the whole mess.  Even through his imprisonment and chains he found a way to look for God’s hand in the depressing reality.  This means he knew the depressing reality not that he felt nothing.  There would be no reason at all to even speak of such issues if he didn’t experience, process and solve them as problems.

Yet, towards the end of chapter 1 he warns the Philippians For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him but also to suffer for Him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.  verse 29, 30.  The word “struggle” means what to us?  Well, what do you contend with in your life that makes you “struggle” with it?  Paul tells us point blank he had struggled in the past and had another one now one in the present.  Folks, the path of the Christian goes directly through the cross, a place of death, humiliation and struggle.

I guess one of my struggles in the past was to look at these heroes of Bible legend as simply human beings with the same realities we have (except we have running water, electricity, toilets, affordable soap, deodorant and a host of other things they never even imagined).  No matter what we believe about ourselves or them, the truth is they struggled to maintain their confidence in their own calling and mission at times.  Acts claims they never wavered in their trust in God, but we know for certain that Paul struggled with the wisdom of coming back to Jerusalem after the Jews arrested him in the temple (see Acts 21:27ff).  If Paul wasn’t discouraged or afraid his situation compromised God’s work through him, why would the Lord come to him with reassurance and hope?  No, we read these stories and forget what God’s actions on behalf of the apostles implies.  Just to emphasize my point:  If God came to reassure Paul, it was because he needed it.

He says something strange that I had to chew on for a few days (a couple of weeks actually) to make sense for me.  For I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. So does this sentence make you wonder what he’s talking about, or do you innately know?  Here’s the questions that popped into my brain-thingy:  Is he talking about being delivered from a death sentence and chains, or, is it simply he believed something would work out either now or for eternity?

It appears from the context that he doesn’t consider either option—martyrdom or release—as anything but deliverance.  He has two concerns that keep him conflicted:  If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.  Yet what shall I choose?  I do not know!  I am torn between the two:  I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

His struggle here isn’t about dying for Christ because he says,  I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or death. So we’re not dealing with a man conflicted about the trial and possible death, rather he’s worried about the churches he’s planted being firmly rooted and brought up in Christ.  That should give us pause to consider what we value while on earth.  Is the church of God and their well being of utmost importance to us, right up their with going to be with Christ?  Or are we more concerned with what we can build in the here and now?

Whatever happens…

Paul is content with either outcome, for he sees profit in both.  Yet what he’s most concerned about is being assured the Philippians stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose them. This characteristic defines the body of Christ; the lack of it mars the image of the invisible God, the Son and Spirit, for they are one.  If we are to be the image of God, we must pursue and constantly encourage unity in the faith as well as standing together on His Word.  It is our greatest testimony to the world when they cannot divide and conquer.

The Important Thing is…

March 25, 2011

But what does it matter?  The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.  And because of this I rejoice.  Philippians 1:18.

What is the the “important thing” according to Paul?

That Christ is preached.

From the very first time I read these words till now I’ve been impressed with the thought that I don’t have to worry about the various denominations, weird doctrines or motivations of those who preach and teach the gospel.  Many of these people Paul spoke of were either for or against him in their presentation.  Almost anyone who knows the NT can attest to the influence of Paul so I’m pretty sure he was a galvanizing figure even in his day.  It isn’t that I don’t care or that I think Paul didn’t care about these crazy offshoot doctrinal rabbit trails kind of people, rather it’s not worth the energy it takes for me to worry about them.  Why?  Jesus predicted this type of craziness and confusion long before it happened—probably didn’t even have to get a prophetic vision or anything, knowing human nature as He did.

So many times I’ve heard other believers complain about this or that religion in either a plaintive voice or in resentment and I have begun to wonder lately to what end?  If the very Cornerstone of  our salvation predicted such things and instructed us not to be alarmed by them, then why bother being more than troubled?  We can’t solve the world nor can we stop the nature of the sin which destroys all it touches.

How often do we believe it’s our duty to police other Christians?

I grew up in a church that was exclusive, narcissistic and wholly taken with its own doctrinal position to the point we weren’t allowed to associate with other “religions” (which meant other Christian denominations oddly enough) because they might pollute our spiritual purity.  I don’t agree with their stance but I don’t consider them non-Christian or heretics exactly just misguided and conceited.  I can judge their attitudes and doctrine as to whether or not they conform to Scripture as I understand it, but I don’t have the right to judge either their salvation or connection to God.  To tell the truth, my current connection to Christ comes through several very godly people within the that church who brought me to the foot of the cross, so I have a hard time condemning anyone who can do that.

That said, churches or people who teach they are the only way to Christ are dangerous and divisive for they seek to kill off any other perspective but their own.  We don’t have to agree with the methods, attitudes or doctrinal urges of another person or organization to accept them as family in Christ.  If there’s one thing I’ve gleaned from this passage and being brought up exclusive, it’s how dangerous and dry the walk with Christ is when we refuse to expose ourselves to the big picture.  It would be like someone preaching that only primary colors are of God, which makes any other color godless and therefore those who use them should be shunned as playing with Satan’s crayons.

Paul makes a pretty bold statement about men he personally disagrees with in doctrine and presentation, he isn’t worried about them.  Yet notice he does see their error and point it out without hesitation.  Again, this is an important part of being solid in the Word.  To be accepting of those who differ from us doesn’t mean we ignore what we consider their mistakes to be nor do we refuse to speak up for fear of causing trouble.  Paul’s struggle for freedom from the law in the church is legendary, causing a big major conference in Jerusalem to determine whether or not he was right.  That should tell you how important he considered this new radical view of God to be.

His detractors were Jewish in origin, mostly, and dead set against the freedom from the law Paul preached as sacrosanct.  These men used his chains as evidence of God’s disfavor instead of recognizing them as a testimony to the gospel’s influence.  The reason he languished in chains awaiting trial came directly from his teaching that the old system of obedience was dead and buried with Christ.  The new way of righteousness came exclusively through Christ’s grace; meaning grace allows for God to live in humans who are bathed in the blood of Jesus.

Here’s another illustration from Paul’s own writings.

In 1 Corinthians 15:29 he makes an odd argument for the resurrection which seems incongruous to his other teachings on the subject of salvation.  Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead?  If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? Without missing a beat or arguing the doctrinal accuracy of such a practice Paul moves on to establish his real point, the truth of Jesus’ being alive and well.  We know the Scriptures say …man is destined to die once, and after that to face the judgment… which is as an effective argument against being baptized for the dead as could be given.  Yet nowhere in the rest of his letters does Paul troubleshoot this “erroneous” practice directly.

Does this mean he agreed with them?  Not at all.  But it does speak heavily on the side of tolerance where innocence and love prevail.  Why would Paul tolerate such a “false” practice to continue?  I don’t know, though I can speculate.  May be since these people did it in love and concern for those who died not knowing Jesus, he left them alone, for who knows, God might actually honor their faith.  From what I understand of NT teaching, I doubt it, but I’m not God, nor even a Paul, so I don’t have the authority to draw any conclusions.

What does this have to do with Paul’s statement in our key text?

Merely that quarreling over interpretations of vague Scripture references is useless.  The essential things of God are plain in His Word, those things we are not required to grasp are more obscure—e.g. last day prophecies, for instance.  I trust in God for the things I don’t understand in His Word because of what I do understand in the gospel message.  In other words, the truth I get is so effective and works so well, the other stuff that I struggle to get a handle on is accepted because of what I do know.  I don’t personally practice the law according to the legalistic way I was brought up, because I don’t want to be bound to a dead system.  The freedom here is that Scripture affords us leeway in these things—Paul’s argument for foods and Sabbaths in Romans 14 for example.

Those who teach the Word of God out of false motivations will get their reward on the Day, so they’re not our responsibility or concern.  If confronted by them, we must defend the gospel as we know it, but the moment the discussion goes into semantics or quarrelsome territory, we are told to walk away (read 2 Timothy 2:23).  And this is exactly how Paul could walk away from his detractors and basically ignore them for the most part.  If they preached Jesus crucified, resurrected and as the salvation of all men, he could rejoice; and therefore, so should we.

 

Lifestyle Witness

March 23, 2011

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.  James 3:17, 18.

As believers our greatest witness is living in contrast to the world’s values.  In fact, probably the most effective form of confronting the sin of the world is to be a light of difference in the face of their darkness by who we are.  Words mean nothing without contextual weight, the same with the gospel and truth of the Word.  If we preach the Word of God without giving people the context of why it’s so important to change, they won’t be convicted to accept it.

I don’t believe the gospel will ever be effective in the world if all we do is preach against the sin.  Instead our lives should show what living in harmony with God looks like so the world has something with which to compare.  The most effective difference we can be is consistently loving, merciful, forgiving, gracious and moral (by Christ’s standards of course), since these things are in direct contrast with the world at large.

Notice that heaven’s wisdom isn’t based on an incredible philosophy which brings us power, prestige or any sort of influence over God.  Instead it changes our very being—and I meant the word “being” in an active tense not merely as a descriptive term—in order to make us like God.  The subtle difference between Christ and other gods is we don’t attempt to be like Him in order to be God, but for the purpose of mirroring the nature of His character.

John 1:5 claims that even though the Light (Jesus) came into the world, the world couldn’t understand it or grasp it.  That’s important to consider because it explains why they crucified and rejected Him.  It also will explain why those who follow Him will experience the same type of rejection, resistance and ultimately have to die to the world in order to continue living in Christ.

But look at our text above for a moment.  What defining characteristics stand out?  Do you see anywhere that we will conquer the world for Christ either by military or aggressive witnessing practices?  I don’t.  Now don’t get me wrong, I believe in preaching the Word in season and out of season, but I don’t buy into the fact we have to be confronting people constantly about their sin.  If our lives are lived in harmony with the wisdom of heaven, our very lifestyle and attitude will do that far more effectively.  What testifies to peace more:  A man who fights for it or who is at peace?  Again, what is the best example of peace:  A person who preaches it as a means to establishing a kingdom they feel comfortable in or one who simply is peaceful and peaceable?

Whenever we go to buy a car, we get a test drive, right?  Our lives are the world’s test drive for Christ.  If we are sour-faced, lazy, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately followers of Jesus, then the world will wonder what the advantages of serving Him are.  Now the list of negatives isn’t limited to what I’ve written in the previous sentence, of course, but I’m trying to make the point for serving the gospel through example.  If we truly love God, it will show up in the way we approach everything in our lives.  If we have faith God will provide for our needs, we will live without fear in a world riddled with it.

Preaching the principles of the kingdom of heaven only goes so far.  Without some kind of demonstration of God’s provision, how will anyone know our faith actually works to the good?  What we believe has to be seen by everyone as a living testimony to the truth of it, otherwise, why bother?  Paul and his companions worked night and day, according to him, in order that the church would gain by their example—and of course not to be a burden on them as well.  In other words, instead of just preaching about being self-sustaining and independent, Paul and the others lived it out, showing by example what they meant.

Of course in saying we need to be an example to the world and other believers, we open ourselves up for quite a bit of pharisee-ism as well.  The things of God are only illumined—or understood—within the context of the Spirit of God’s revelation.  Too many times a leader who is charismatic or good at theology builds a foundation on some obscure interpretation of Scripture, or, they take a well known truth and put a different slant on it for whatever reason so that it becomes doctrine.

Don’t be sidetracked by seemingly “important” revelations.  “The main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things.”

There’s more to say about this subject, for sure, but my main objective here isn’t to get into an exegesis of this text, rather, I used the text to redirect our thinking to what I believe a true witness should be like.  Too often we think the point of the gospel is to harass the world about their sin into repentance.  Since that never works to change anyone’s heart, it seems to me the best way to “sell” our point of view would be to demonstrate its advantages.  Just like none of us will buy a car unseen or without test driving it, so we shouldn’t expect anyone in the world to just come to Jesus because the Bible says so—or more likely, we think the it’s the strength of our arguments that do the trick.

What did Jesus tell His disciples?  “They will know you are My disciples if you love one another…” The best sermon ever preached is a life dedicated to God in love.

As a Result

March 19, 2011

Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.  As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.  Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.  Philippians 1:12-14.

When someone uses the word “really” they are trying to persuade those who are either listening or reading.  The people in Philippi probably were saddened and even horrified that Paul ended up in chains and he sent this to assure them that God was using even this to bring glory to Himself.  The fact that the whole palace guard along with the anyone connected to them knew the “why” of his incarceration stands out as a not so subtle reminder of just how powerful our Savior is.  We limit Him to certain methods and what we consider to be “tried and true” but He uses the seemingly innocuous, mundane, out of character and broken to bring glory to Himself.  The very thing the enemy causes in order to destroy the image of God in His creation is what our Master uses to bring even more glory to Himself.

It isn’t strange to me to read Paul’s words anymore.  I mean, it used to seem like a man out of touch with reality talking when I read how he gloried in his suffering, but now it seems strange to me that those who claim to follow Christ develop any other attitude.  For one thing, it’s so clear in Jesus’ teachings that those who follow Him will have tribulation that anyone who believes suffering to be evidence of God’s disfavor must be avoiding the gospels.  But there are whole denominations or sects of Christianity that teach reward in monetary and possession terms as a sign of holiness.

If it sounds like I have a problem with riches let me assure you:  I don’t think God has a problem with us being wealthy, we do.

We all know those people who touch a product and just seem to generate money from it.  They have a gift, it’s not by accident.  I must admit, I don’t have that particular gift because I’m not any kind of salesman, but when I see these people operate, I definitely admire their skill.  At the same time, those to whom making money comes easily forget they have a gift for it rather than it being something just anyone can do.

Let me give you another analogy to clarify where I’m coming from with this.

My sister-in-law, Theresa, has a green thumb.  I think she could grow flowers out of rock if she wanted to, she’s just that good with them.  Part of it is that she loves it, part of it is doing gardening just comes natural.  I never grew anything in my life but potatoes out of a cup when I attended grade school, and these got moldy before we planted them.  I’m sure I could learn, because Dad did it all the time and I helped him, but it doesn’t come natural to me to think about plants except when I’m ready to eat.  Now take this idea and apply it to farming in general.   Why are some farmers more successful than others?  Do they have better soil or seed?  Sometimes that’s true.  Yet, why does one person succeed over another?

The truth is, in my grasp of such things, we are subject to the luck of the draw—who gets the the short or long straw.  I grew up in a his-hers-and-ours kind of family.  Three of my older brothers and all of my sisters were abused terribly by Dad’s second wife, while my younger brother and I prospered under a mother who loved the living daylights out of us.  She hugged us everyday, told us how much we mattered to her and generally celebrated us being hers to raise for a time, complaining we grew up too fast.  Two of my sisters were molested from babyhood till they were adolescents or older by their mother’s husband; while I never knew what it was like to treated as anything but a kid.

Now I could grow arrogant about my good fortune and scorn those who have it less so, but that wouldn’t be honest.  My life as a child was a gift having nothing to do with me.  Some people grow wealthy though they don’t deserve to gain it.  I’ve known incredibly bad people who made money just by being in a room it seemed; others who tripped and just made a success out of something ordinary.  The tides of human interest grow hot then wane with the course of the wind, yet some believe these things are guided in detail by God’s hand.

The Word says differently.  Proverbs All hard work brings profit… And, You see a man skilled in his work?  He will work before kings, he will not work before obscure men.  Yet Ecclesiastes speaks the opposite side of the coin:  Like a fowl caught in a snare or a fish in a cruel net, so men are caught by disastrous times.  Just as no one can predict the day of his or her death, so no one can predict the outcome of their efforts or lives.  I’ve witnessed people who have lived their whole lives on credit and handled their money very badly never fall down into poverty or lose their income.  At the same time, I’ve known those who were incredibly frugal live on the edge of poverty without relief.

I lived in San Francisco for a time years ago.  One day a musician friend of mine who played backup sax for Kenny G gave me this advice,  “You are a good musician, Jon, but it doesn’t matter.  There are a million guitarists out there on the streets better than you at everything—songwriting, playing, singing—and they will never make it, though they try their whole lives.”

Being good at something doesn’t make us successful, does it.  While hard work might bring profit, it can also bring on a heart attack, there’s no way to know or guarantee the outcome here.  Out of the billions of people on this planet, only 1-2% out of roughly 2% of the population make any kind of big splash in society.  This is the outcome of the kingdom of darkness not God.  In a dog eat dog world, sometimes the diseased dog rules the pack.  Look around the world and ask yourself if the dictators who rule their countries with selfish ambition and for their own profit do so out of good political will or evil?

In a perfect world, one side would always win.  In a world agonizing over a broken relationship with their Creator, both sides of the coin are true.  In other words, evil times will hurt good people who serve God faithfully.  Daniel was a prince in the palace of Jerusalem who ended up being taken into captivity and was made into a eunuch—something a good Jew would find awful even to contemplate, since Daniel’s name would be lost in posterity (no children to carry on the family).  Again, Ecclesiastes 7:13-18 explains that we are made of two natures and to deny the one exists in the favor of the other is insanity.  Both exist in us, if you don’t believe me, read Paul’s lament in Romans 7 & 8 where he cries out for deliverance from his own nature.  Fortunately for him as well as us, Jesus came to rescue us from this condition.  Humanity has a split personality so both realities will work out true.  Our deliverance from the results of sin only finds its ultimate expression in glorification and never this side of the new earth.

Back to Paul.

Paul languished in chains for defense of the gospel, yet some among the Christian brothers used his circumstances to advance their own agenda instead of Christ’s.  Instead of looking at the results of his imprisonment (the whole palace guard being aware of the reason he was standing trial—Jesus), they began to teach those they could influence to denounce Paul’s teaching as heretical and that he was under God’s judgment as a result.  Of course, from Paul’s point of view these people were deceived and missed the reason why he was in chains, but that didn’t deter them one iota.  By their words they demonstrated their hatred of Paul’s ministry and contempt for the grace of God.

If our reward for a life lived for Christ is in the new creation, whether we win or lose in the carnal man’s mind becomes immaterial.  Judging our circumstances by anything but God’s Word will bring worry, distress and discouragement.  Unless we know we have been disobedient to His Word in a direct way, most of the consequences we experience as a result of living here have nothing to do with our own actions or choices.  A drunk driver makes a choice and we choose to cross the street or drive at the same time he or she does and die or become crippled as a result.  We are not allowed to know the future except as headlines so beating ourselves up over a choice we couldn’t know the consequences of is foolishness.

A bad doctrine will blind us to God’s reality and as a result we will suffer more for the mistake.  May be not in loss of life or persecution, but if we cling to bad theology our understanding of what is happening around us will be skewed.  We need to take everything in life on this planet in the context of Scripture.

The Fruit of Righteousness

March 17, 2011

…Filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.  Philippians 1:11.

Here’s a thought for today:

What is the best way to praise and glorify God?

To be filled with the fruit of righteousness through Jesus.

How do we get this fruit?

Paul answers this in several ways within this book, one is chapter 2:5-11 where he tells them to change their attitude to the that of Christ.  In Roman 12:1-3 he tells them to be transformed by the mind of Christ right after he tells them to offer their bodies as living sacrifices to God.  The old sacrificial system required an animal to die—to shed blood, for without blood there could be no forgiveness of sins.  In the new system we don’t need to die or shed any blood at all since Jesus did both for us.  Yet we are to sacrifice ourselves on the alter of the cross, getting rid of selfish ambition and vain conceit.

Though most people who study the Word will know this, it’s good to remind ourselves of it again:  What is fruit?

It is the way we live or actions and attitude we live out.  Sometimes this fruit can be faked, as in people put on the actions of righteousness without the heart change preceding it.  That’s a pretty bad move because if we focus first on our actions instead of the heart, what comes out is bad fruit—even if we’re doing good.  Putting on a “God-face” for those in church or the world around us might seem like it gains us something, which it does temporarily, but in the end God calls us a goat versus one of His sheep.

The real fruit grows best from a heart given over to God’s love.  This condition of the heart leads us to be hungry for the things of God and His company rather than what we can get out of Him.  The purpose of coming to God through Christ is reconciliation, which then produces peace, joy, faithfulness, goodness, love, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control.  Just like a tree when its roots are put into good soil, so we will thrive when planted back into the field of God.

We were in the heart of God before we came to Him, before we even knew Him He loved us, therefore our attitude should be like His even in this respect.  We fall in love with God which leads us to love His creation.  Love motivates (produces) the fruit.

Most of us have heard the proverb:  “Imitation is the best form of flattery.”  In God’s case we call it “praise.”  We can talk all day about propriety and morality but unless we grow in our love for God and in His attitude, it’s merely talking politics or lifestyles.  The surest form of praise and glory we can give to God is not words but heart changed to His image.

A Prayer for Love

March 17, 2011

And this is my prayer:  that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.  Philippians 1:9-11.

A knowledgeable love, one which grows in depth and understanding.  To be able to love not only God but one another with an insight given by the Spirit of Truth.  This prayer might get dismissed or glossed over when we read it because it doesn’t say anything obviously profound about the nature of God to some minds.  But it is more profound in its simplicity than many of the seemingly “heavier” doctrinal statements put together.

Paul wants for them (and so us) to grow exponentially in knowledge and depth so that their love may become richer and based on a solid reality.  Once we accomplish this task, we can discern between what is best and what is misses the mark.  These three verses are densely packed.  Truth mixed together in such a way that without the other, the one would not survive or make sense.  Yet our growth in it takes us slowly through the steps of recognizing God in new and profound ways.  The whole enchilada doesn’t just plop itself down on our plate and we just get it all at once.  That’s why it’s called “growing.”

The only way to grow our love is through knowing more about the person we’ve become interested in and catching glimpses into who they are.  Our love and respect for God and trust in Him won’t grow by itself or “naturally” because these things only increase where we know more—as we know more and understand what it is we know (two different things, believe me) we have a more informed love.  The work it takes to get to this place is pretty simple—basically hang out in His Word, with His people and submit ourselves totally to the Holy Spirit’s presence.

Knowing stuff about someone is one thing, understanding them is another.  Unless we know the “why” of a person we might tend towards a mistaken judgment of them—in which case it wouldn’t matter if we made the error on the positive or negative side, we still don’t get them.  When we don’t grasp what makes a person tick in their personality we jump to conclusions without information to back it up, which informs our conclusions about who and why they are, which then forms a judgment.

Paul’s desire for the Philippians carried an incredible weight, for he longed for them to know God not only in the Savior facet of His being but in totality.  God is multifaceted and when we get hung up on one side of His character or personality to the exclusion of others, we miss out on an opportunity to increase our love.  These things grow in tandem not in isolation, though our grasp of one might grow faster than another, depending on our gifts.  It would be like a tree growing branches without very many roots.  The higher the tree, the deeper the roots have to be to support it.  The strongest trees, however, are found in a grove or forest where their root system can mingle together and hold onto one another for support in rough weather.  Without strong roots, however, a tree falls over at the first sign of a high wind.

Through this method of love alone we find the ability to discern what is best.  Think about it:  if our love for God abounds because we know His inner workings—or His mind, then we will be able to tell the difference between what is best or not good enough.  Once our minds take on the mind of Christ, we see things from His inner vision, creating a filter by which we judge between righteousness and sin.

Paul blesses the Philippians in his prayer beyond just merely speaking words, hungering for them to know God intimately.  This should be our prayer for one another as well.

Since I Have You in My Heart

March 12, 2011

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.  God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.  Philippians 1:7, 8.

I’m always kind of amazed when I read about his obvious love for the different churches—possibly because the perception of who he was tends towards the tough, no-nonsense church planter we all read about and appreciate so much.

What struck me most about the text was his obvious affection for the people in Philippi.  When he said,  I thank my God every time I remember you…” he follows it with It is right for me to feel this way about all of you. My modern mindset goes immediately to wondering if Paul was trying to find justification for his devoted affection for the church at Philippi; but that is just it, he doesn’t need it nor is this his reason for saying such a thing, as far as I can tell.

These people showed their concern for Paul while he was in chains awaiting trial in Rome.  They went out of their way to send him a message and “care package” in order to encourage the apostle.  In this way they demonstrated not only their concern for his circumstances but their heart for him.  Mere sympathy is not enough, nor is empathy, for we as the body of Christ must be connected enough to feel one another’s pain.  If I stub my toe, my whole body reacts; the back stiffens, the teeth clench, etc.  From miles away, Philippi felt Paul’s pain and took steps to comfort him.  Instead of just sending him a note on a card, they went the next step to taking up a collection for his possible needs.

No wonder he held them in such high regard and declared them to be in his heart, for they shared his passion.

In his current situation Paul could not leave the house, though he could receive visitors.  Chained 24/7 to a guard and not able to earn his way for nearly two years meant he had to depend on the charity of others—most notably the church.  A couple of people figure prominently in his life during this time, Timothy and Luke for starters.  They supported and helped him survive while he awaited trial, doing what they could to encourage him.  Yet later in this letter he mentions there were others in Rome who actually put him down for being in chains, in fact, going so far as to denounce him for them.  The people of Philippi also come into the picture as prominent players in the scene on the side of blessing.

I think sometimes we forget the apostles were human, and even though they believed strongly due to irrefutable evidence, these men suffered pain and discouragement just like us.  I’ve also noticed that when I want to dispel my own depression or discouragement, encouraging someone else inevitably does the trick.  When we speak courage to others, it speaks to  us as well.  When we pray for others, it lifts us up to God’s heart where all find the source of contentment.

Paul finishes off his greeting with a wish and a prayer:

And this is my prayer:  that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

I pray this prayer for those who read this blog and everyone I know since I hold you in my heart.

What is in Man

March 10, 2011

Now while He was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs He was doing and believed in His name.  But Jesus would not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all men.  He did not need man’s testimony about man, for He knew what was in a man.  John 2:23-25.

I sometimes forget this passage and what it signifies for those who believe in the Name of Jesus.  It’s easy to get sidetracked by people’s opinions and begin to trust them too much; to get so blinded by the praise or criticism of those who have no heart or love for God—and even those who do.

The good or bad opinion of someone given over to belief in us because of something we’ve done for them or in front of them is not all that trustworthy really.  Three years after Jesus began His ministry, thousands rejected Him outright.  If He judged Himself according to their fickle opinion of Him, He would be one very confused man/God.

But He didn’t.

I went to Vine’s Expository Dictionary and found the word which in the NIV is rendered “entrust” and in the KJV, “commit” to find the word meant “to be entrusted with” or “to commit to one’s trust.”  Young’s Concordance gives another word “confide” to expand our grasp of what is being said here.  In other words, Jesus wouldn’t trust the flaky, transient nature of human good will for He knew how volatile and inconsistent it could be.  He had the Father’s testimony so human perspective meant nothing as far as what He knew or thought of Himself.

At the same time, everyone has to trust someone else sometime as far as perspective is concerned, otherwise no one would ever take advice or become wise.  The difference between what John is saying here and the human experience is this:  Jesus didn’t believe His own press.  In fact, I doubt He really listened to it much, if at all—unless, like in Nicodemus’ case, He couldn’t escape the comments.  But if we read that story in the very next few verses of John 3, we see Jesus deflecting Nicodemus’ praise or “testimony” about Him by redirecting him immediately into truth.  It’s almost as if He says non-verbally,  “Yeah, yeah, thanks.  You’re impressed but not convinced or committed, what good is that?”

Nicodemus happened to be a very influential man who’s support could garner Jesus much goodwill in powerful circles, yet Jesus wasn’t impressed by this man’s connections or good opinion of Him; which is very disturbing when you’re the one handing out the compliments or praise.  I doubt Nic was used to anyone not stopping to listen when he chose to criticize or praise because the rich and powerful get used to being deferred to automatically by the rest of the world.  Even people who disagree with a powerful person react to them out of a knowledge of the place they hold in society.  A vehement over-reaction to a leader’s words or deeds usually tells the tale of the powerless screwing up their courage to confront or counter whatever that person in power represents at the time.

Jesus didn’t do anything but redirect Nic’s attention to truth.  He wasn’t interested in the man’s opinion of Him nor impressed by his status in the world for what He wanted from Nicodemus was beyond him at the time.  Jesus works on the heart before anything else.  A person’s actions might change to adjust to society’s demands for a public peace all the while harboring deep seated brokenness behind the smooth words or facades of social decorum.  True change, however, always begins in the heart of a person’s being.  Anyway, the only change worth anything at all is one where the thoughts precede the action taken.

We’ve been warned by the Master in several places to beware of the praise from fellow humans.  When one thing is true, the other side of the coin is too:  Beware of the criticism of others as well.  The good or bad opinion is meaningless without a healthy relationship to go along with it.  Anyone who praises us declares their authority to do so, which means they are giving us their opinion based on what they think it’s worth to us to hear their praise.  If we look at praise in this way, we can see John’s slant a bit clearer.  A man who accepts another man as good does so with a sort of socially accepted authority to do it, which in turn testifies to society’s right to give or take a person’s worth.

Jesus didn’t need man’s testimony about man because He already knew us to be broken, fallen and blinded by sin’s effects.  To gain the good opinion of the masses is like having the river smooth out for a time because eventually we know there will be rapids and they will test our ability to survive.  A crowd of people can turn ugly on quickly if what they want is thwarted and Jesus knew the good will of those who “believed in Him” didn’t spring up from deep roots.  Public opinion goes with the miraculous and celebrates the facades.  However, when we get too powerful, those who watch those of us who reach the pinnacle of human wealth and power will celebrate our downfall just as much.  The good will of the people in Jesus’ POV was too fickle to depend on for His identity or work.  He refused to even ride the river of human opinion about Him—good or bad.

And here is where we meet the lesson we need to take away from this text.

We cannot depend on the praise or criticism of anyone but must check and balance these against God’s Word.  It is not enough for a brother or sister in Christ to confront someone else about their sin, for they must be willing to continue the journey to wholeness if they take this step.  If anyone one of us feel the call to confront another about their life or brokenness, it means we are being called to journey with them as they heal, grow and step away from what is dragging them down.  The call to “make disciples” is one which signifies teaching the disciplines of Christ, not merely bringing someone to God’s Word and letting them run amok or flounder.  The discipline of Christ is to be wise toward God, and this takes time and input from someone with knowledgeable experience to guide.

Yet here’s where we make our mistake the most often:  If the praise of other humans makes us feel good about ourselves, we will be devastated by their criticism.  In other words, the moment we accept their praise as valid and authoritative, we open up our hearts to receive the criticism the same way.  The moment we put value on someone’s good opinion of us is the same moment they hold sway over our self-worth.

I don’t think Jesus was conceited or self-absorbed, which is another danger to navigate in these tricky waters of self-perception.  This is precisely why I believe both the gospels and the apostles commanded us to find our worth through the eyes of God via the cross.  Our worth to God is infinite and should be calculated by the price He was willing to pay for us—His Son.  Jesus’ Father declared at His baptism,  “This is my Son, I love and I’m pleased with Him!” Deciding His worth based on the tide of human feelings would have put God’s opinion on par with man’s.  With God as His witness, Jesus already had all the praise He needed to be confident in His worth.

And so do we.

How Real Is Jesus?

March 7, 2011

…Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.  Philippians 1:6.

So how real is  God to us?

How much do we really believe the stories and teachings we read in the Bible?  I mean, our understanding of what we believe should define how real our view of the God in Scripture is—and when I say “define” I mean demonstrate in action.

How far do we take our faith in Christ?

When we read the stories of how Jesus raised the dead, healed the sick, fed the hungry and generally blew away all the natural laws we thought were set in bedrock, how much do we take them to heart for our own lives?

The promise above is crazy unless God can really fulfill it.  There’s no point believing in a God who can’t perform or take our lives to their final outcome, is there?  Think about it:  If God performs miracles, then what’s standing in the way of our moving forward on the path set before us with confidence?

James 1:6-8 If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.  But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed about by the wind.  That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

James 2:18, 19, 26 But someone will say,  “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.  You believe that there is one God.  Good!  Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

Being afraid of failure stops me dead in my tracks.  I have always claimed to hate failing the Lord, yet I think using His name in this “motivation” sometimes masks the fact I don’t want to look like I believed in vain.  If that sounds unclear, let me make clearer:  I hesitate to risk at times because I don’t want to look foolish spiritually, and that is because I’m judging the success or failure of a spiritual venture based on the world’s profit/loss perspective.  For instance, every prophet, person or martyr who died for serving God looked like a failure right?  Jesus looked like a failure, as did most of the apostles, if you get right down to it.  I’m scared to look like I failed in the eyes of those I value because I’m afraid they’re right.  And what if they are?

We’re faced with choices in the Kingdom of Heaven’s Investment Firm that don’t serve to increase our standing in the world much, if at all.  I have to admit, it makes me really nervous sometimes to step out—especially since I’ve been chastised by good Christians for the apparent “failures” of the past.  Yet any adventure means risk; that’s why we call these journeys “adventures” because they aren’t safe nor are the outcomes sure beyond a calculated risk.  We have to step out in faith and hope that circumstances bring about success.  In Christ, however, how we judge success or failure isn’t based on the same criteria.  The disciples preached the gospel and were eventually martyred for it.  By 99.9% of people’s judgment about what makes a person successful or not, this outcome seems like a big setback.

Jesus, on the other hand (the right hand of the Almighty), sees their outcome differently.

A person who obeys His command to preach the word in season and out of season (a message sent through the apostle Paul) then dies for their efforts is celebrated as a hero in God’s kingdom.  Why?  Because they did the job and left the results to Him.  Working in God’s field means we aren’t worried about the harvest nor are we responsible for the profit margin.  The only problem for us comes when we care about the work so much that we begin to worry about the profit and take things into our own hands by using methods we know are tried and true in the human experience.  In God’s work, He gets all the glory for the outcome.  What we receive is bonuses for doing our part in that work, but in reality we aren’t ,needed just included.  Or may be I should amend that conclusion:  He could just “Wow!” the whole earth with a display of His power and dispel all doubt, but then most would serve Him without love, devotion or any real willingness from a heart given over to His way.

That last truth might sound like it’s a small problem in view of the greater issue of establishing the kingdom of God, but it’s not.  In fact, for Jesus, it was the most important issue about the judgment.  Remember the sheep and goats parable?  A lot of the goats were actually workers in the field of God along side the sheep.  The difference between the sheep and goats came down to being known by God—which is an intimate knowing of Him living inside us.  It might sound like a superfluous distinction but for Him it’s the most vital contrast.  A heart given over to His way of processing and living is different than someone who buys into the contest for the prize at the end of the age.  One does it for a reward at the end of time, the other does it because they want the reward of His presence now.  One wants the crown, eternal life and whatever loot they can garner through high performance, the other considers Jesus to be the reward.

With this contrast it’s easy to see why some lose their faith from lack of “evidence” when their prayers aren’t answered the way they expected.

What if God chooses not to heal?

What if God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way we asked them?

What if God doesn’t perform the miracles we put all our faith into believing?

Well, we need to ask this question:  Who’s in charge, God or us?

We need wisdom from heaven, that’s evident. 

James 3:13-18 Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.  But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.  Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

Anyone looking for the reward of eternal life alone misses the point of the gospel.  Jesus told the Jews,  “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say,  ‘Here it is,’  or  ‘There it is,’  because the kingdom of God is within you.” That word “within” would be better translated “among” or “in the midst of you” and the “you” is a collective pronoun not singular.  The kingdom of God is where the King is; and if the King is living in the hearts of His people, then there is where we will find the kingdom of God—among His people.  The Rich Young Ruler turned away from Jesus because he was looking for physical evidence of his own salvation through what he could earn.  In contrast, the adulteress followed Him gladly because the world held nothing for her but loss or Jesus’ acceptance.  The kingdom of heaven is nothing without a “king” to rule the “dom” part of this equation.

When I build a house, I can see the results pretty early on.  At first, however, it just looks like a bunch of dirt being piled in one place or another during the foundation phase.  Once the walls go up, it’s easier to see the structure for its potential finished look.  But even then what kind of trim or paint we use will change the final aspect of it.

So with the kingdom of God.  Without all the different personalities and perspectives in the church, we inevitably get a skewed outlook of Jesus.  The only complete picture is taken with the whole body of believers in a snapshot or painting.  To look at one believer with all his or her warts and brokenness the picture of Christ looks disjointed, broken and unwholesome.  Taken as a whole, however, with all these warty, broken people completing in each other whatever the other lacks, we see a beautiful picture of how the kingdom and mind of God works.  We don’t all have to agree to be one.  We don’t all have to look alike to be family.  We don’t all have to work in the same space to be accomplishing for the same goals and Master (Paul and Barnabas had to split over a “sharp disagreement” for example).

The outcome of the work of God is His responsibility.  Ours is to be faithful members of His body and continue working His works.

So how does God carry on this work in us?  How do we follow Him in faith through the ups and downs of our lives?

Just like any investment we will buy stock in the Kingdom of Heaven Savings and Loans in order to get a return on the “heavenly money.”  The problem comes when we dictate what that “return” should look like.  If Jesus told us,  “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world,” then being doubtful about our circumstances when it looks like we are going to fall is faithless.  If trouble and tribulation is a part of the experience of those who follow after Christ, then to expect something else is contrary to our faith in His Word.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or sword?  As it is written:  “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Romans 8:35-39.

In the body of Christ we find the reality of heaven lived out.  If we willingly take on the role of being visible for the Master with all our warts, sores and brokenness as well as growth in the wholeness His presence brings about in us on display, the presence of God in the body of Christ, making us whole individually and as a group, will demonstrate to the world how real God is to us.

How real is your God?  Can your God do this?