This is a manuscript of what will become, in some form, my Sunday evening sermon for May 19, 2013.
Scattered by Sin, Gathered by God
Acts 2:1-41; Genesis 11:1-9; Ephesians 2:19-22
The Spirit creates the church and is at the center of God's work in his church. We must pay attention to the movement of the Spirit and follow where God is leading.
Sin confounds people's understanding of God and scatters them from their faith.
"It was a dark and stormy night..." What associations do you make with this phrase? Usually, when we hear this phrase, it is used to setup something dark and foreboding, an event that will have lasting and negative consequences. Similarly, in the Bible, darkness is used as an image for sin and lack of knowledge of God.
Genesis, the beginning of the story of God's work among and for his people, begins on a positive note, on a bright and sunny day, but quickly turns the page towards a dark and stormy night. The reason for this is sin--and the consequences of sin. We know the story--how God creates the world, culminating with the creation of human beings. He places them in a garden of perfection. But no sooner does this happen than sin creeps in, and Adam and Eve disobey God, leading to a worsening and worsening condition until even after the Flood, when human beings had occasion to start over afresh, sin has taken such a hold that violence, arrogance, and pride are the rule. Godliness is nowhere to be found.
Sin continues to stretch out in the Genesis story. Eventually we arrive at Genesis 11, and we see the people who began building their Tower in Babel following their own sinful desires in trying to pridefully attain glory for themselves at God's expense, building a tower to stretch high to the skies, to reach the very palace of God, perhaps to even take over the running of the world from God. After all, if we can tame God, if we can understand God, if we can know God by our construction, or even according to our own construction, what kind of gods are we? If God can be known like that, what kind of god is that? Where is the strength of that god? Where is the might and power of that god? It is in our own hands...in our own making.
Pride comes before a fall, we say...and sin scatters us, away from God, confusing our ability to even find him.
We all know the scenes of sin that follow, both in the Bible, and in our lives: For the nation of Israel, century after century of struggle, from the call of Abraham, who never quite gets it right, through the patriarchs, during the conquest, throughout the time of judges, and into the period of the kings, the exile and beyond. We know this pattern in our own lives, too: the struggle, the pride of not relinquishing our own wills to God's will because we know better, we want what we want, we don't believe God's way could possibly be the best way.
We struggle with our views towards others, with accepting those who are different than us, or who think differently than us; we struggle to help those in need without painting them with a broad brush of laziness; we snap at family members rather than extending them the same grace that was extended to us; we hold to lifeless traditions, our own Towers of Babel, rather than listening to the fresh leading of God.
So we wander through life, until either on our own, or with others, we begin to build a tower, a dark tower, during the dark and stormy period of our lives. We build this tower up, and up, and up...and the whole time, even though we think we are the ones doing the building, it is the tower that is controlling us, keeping us locked up in our sin, as we pridefully try to advance our way to God.
We need God to rescue to us, to destroy our tower of sin and disobedience, to take our away our pride, to show us that we are nothing without him but we are everything with him. As a song that was popular in my youth says, "You and me and God make 5." There is exponential growth when we turn to God, but turn we must, and abandon our old ways, we must.
Sin confuses us. It confounds us. But God brings clarity out of confusion. Where sin scatters, God gathers. He gathers us by his own Spirit.
God, through the gospel and his Spirit, bring clarity to confused people and gathers the scattered.
Our reading in Acts 2 began on the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival. The Jewish people were gathered in Jerusalem. At the beginning of the book of Acts, we see the disciples gathered together, waiting for further instructions from Jesus who told them to wait for the "promise" from the Father. As they waited, they prayed. They waited expectantly. It was unclear to them what the promise was, but they waited. And on the Day of Pentecost, the promise was given.
The day started out like normal. The disciples were gathered together in one place. The only thing different than usual was the festival day. But then something very unusual happened. There was a sudden sound and a stunning visual. Things were happening that could only be described as metaphors. But it was a spiritual event. Something really happened. And suddenly, the apostles were preaching.
And the preaching sounded good! Everyone gathered heard a gospel message that called for a response. We know from later in this story that thousands responded to the message that day, resulting in thousands of baptisms for the forgiveness of sins.
But when we look at who heard the preaching, who it was who responded, we see something even more amazing than the thousands of conversions. We see Jewish people from many nations, perhaps even from "all" nations, gathered and hearing gospel preaching! And they heard the gospel preached in their own language!
Think about this...Jewish people from all nations gathered to hear the gospel...God's people who were scattered from Babel through the introduction of different languages...the long struggle of sin and pride...and now the gathering of God's scattered people through a common language given by God.
How was this common language achieved? How were a diverse people, united in ethnicity but divided by language, able to hear preaching in their own languages? How did God gather his people that were scattered by sin? He did all this through his Spirit.
After the demonstration of power, Acts reveals to us that the Spirit descended upon the apostles. They were filled with the Spirit and they began to preach. Their preaching was heard in other languages, but these were not scholars who spoke. These were not linguists or translators or experts in foreign languages. These were ordinary men, whose only claim to fame was that they were plucked out of their regular lives by Jesus and they began journeying with him. These were farmers and schoolteachers, office workers and factory workers, nurses and hospital staff. Yet by the power of God, by God's own Spirit, they preached in the language of others as the Spirit gave them utterance.
And it is the same Spirit, at the end of this story, that is given as a gift to those who are baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. This Spirit is the promise the disciples were told to wait for. It is the promise of God. It is the promise "for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."
When Peter acknowledges the Spirit as the promise for all whom the Lord calls to himself, he is stating that the Spirit is the fulfillment of prophecy. The call from God is a call unto salvation and it is given by the Spirit. This is what the prophecy from Joel is about. The preaching was heard only by those who received it. To the rest, it sounded like babble. It sounded confused. And so they accused the apostles of being drunk.
But Peter said, "We are not drunk at all! This is the work of the Lord. This is what was spoken through prophecy." And he dug deep into the well of scriptural prophecy and spoke about the promise of God given to the prophet Joel, who spoke about the great outpouring of God's Spirit that would happen in the last days, where God, by his Spirit, would create a community of people for himself who would prophesy about him. The prophetic preaching would be so powerful that it would lead people to call upon the Lord's name. And in this calling is salvation. And in salvation is the Spirit. This is the promise, the promised Spirit, given to all who call upon and are called by the Lord.
So you have received the Spirit in your baptism, as have your children, all generations, and those who have been scattered by sin have been gathered by God through his Spirit. God gathers those who had once been scattered.
God dwells among his gathered people, who become a spiritual temple for him, not an idolatrous tower for themselves.
But what does this gathering look like? If our sin and scattering can be described as a tower, something that we build for ourselves against God, then God's gathering of us can be described as a temple. After all, a temple is one location where God chose to dwell among his people, the Israelites. And it's also the location he chooses to dwell among us.
In Ephesians 2:19-22, the apostle Paul describes the Spirit as building the church into a temple where God dwells. And he uses the same "scattering and gathering" language that we see in the Tower of Babel/Day of Pentecost stories: We are no longer strangers and aliens but are now fellow citizens. Here, the church is described as a building, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone. This whole structure is growing into a holy temple for the Lord, and this structure, this temple, the church, will be the Lord's dwelling place...by his Spirit. So we see yet again the promise of the Spirit, indwelling us, dwelling among us, building us and shaping us to be the people and church God desires us to be.
We are God's building project, his building, his temple, where he dwells, growing his people into maturity.
What are the signs of God's dwelling among us?
But what are the signs of this maturity? How do we know we are being built up? How will we know that God is dwelling among us?
From the story of the Tower of Babel, we see that the presence of God among us brings the awareness of sin. God did not allow pride and arrogance to take hold. If we are at all self-aware and dependent on God, we can be sure that if we listen to him he will point out the pride and arrogance, the sin, that rests in our lives. Is your awareness of sin increasing? I am not asking about your feelings of guilt, for guilt is not an attitude of the Spirit. But if your awareness of sin is increasing, you can be assured that God's Spirit is dwelling among you.
From the Day of Pentecost story in Acts, we see that, combined with an increasing awareness of sin, as the opposite of guilt, God's dwelling among us by his Spirit will also lead to repentance from sin. As we become more aware of our sin, our pride, our arrogance, we will turn away from those things and turn to God, cling to him, in repentance. Just as the the people who heard Peter's sermon became aware of their own sin, they also realized that they needed to repent...and repent they did. Are you turning from sin in your life? Then know that God's Spirit is active in your life.
We also see, in Paul's description of the church in Ephesians 2:19-22, that the presence of the Spirit will lead to spiritual growth and maturity and unity in the church. Do you find your relationships with others in the church growing? Is your ability to overlook faults and flaws in others increasing? Are you more focused on God's work than on the church's traditions? These are all signs of God's activity in your life.
We can continue to discern these things...and discern we must, for God calls us not only to salvation but also to a life of obedience. Let us move from our towers of sin to the temple of God, letting him fill our lives, both individually and as the church. Let us look for his leading, to follow him at all times without excuse.
We find the Spirit's movement among us, both in our lives and in the life of the church, as we listen to God. It's in our listening that we find him. And it's in our following that we obey him. Let us live up to the call of God in our lives. Let us keep our focus on him, repenting from sin, growing in grace and maturity, and obeying the word of the Lord.
This is a manuscript towards my Sunday sermon (for May 5, 2013)
Acts 16:9-15: Every Home a Church
Conversion to the gospel results in lifestyle of discipleship. Fight for your faith by embracing lifestyle discipleship over decision-oriented faith.
Why do so many leave the church? Especially young people?
- crisis hits, people bail
- young people leaving in droves--some because of hypocrisy they see; others without explanation
- churches struggle with stagnation, there appears to be no life--churches have become museums obsessed with the past and not looking ahead to the future
- when these troublesome times hit, we become concerned with numbers and budgets, things we can look at objectively, things we think we can solve objectively
- why do these things happen?
Perhaps one reason is that we focus too much, or even exclusively, on the decision-point of faith, and we neglect the "weightier" matters of how the gospel converts us and calls us to a whole-life transformation.
For example, we see the pattern of salvation in Acts. In Acts 2, Peter preaches, many "obey the gospel." The same happens with the Samaritans and the eunuch in Acts 8 (with Philip). It happens again with Cornelius in Acts 10. This becomes the pattern for Paul's ministry in his journeys. He most often began by entering a city, seeking out a synagogue, and preaching. As a result, many would obey the gospel, believe and be baptized. Thus, we draw a conclusion that faith is about a decision-point. Conversion is not seen as a process, but as a moment of turning from wrong to right. Rightly, we argue that baptism is instantaneous--when one realizes their sin before God they ought to turn to him and be washed from sin in baptism. But this pattern can lead to abruptness, where we often believe that he preaches an isolated sermon, leading to a decision point, where people respond. Further teaching then takes on the role of strengthening doctrinal understanding about the church while largely ignoring ethical issues about how we should live. We point to some of the big sins, the taboo ones that every Christian should "know" to avoid, but we don't address how ongoing conversion and transformation happens. As a result, many are never fully converted. They live a life hoping that their sins will be forgiven while never growing into the fullness of discipleship in Christ.
Maybe the problem is that we haven't really been converted. Maybe the problem is the gospel has not led to the conversions of our lives.
Back in the 1980s, John MacArthur wrote a book called The Gospel According to Jesus. In this book he detailed a doctrinal argument that was making the rounds among conservative churches. The argument was known as "The Lordship Controversy" and it sought to define the question of salvation of faith through grace. Because, in these churches, the acknowledgment that a person had been saved was that they had received Jesus as Lord and Savior, the question arose about what this meant. In an effort to protect the doctrine of salvation by grace, the idea made headway that this reception was not a gift, and that to acknowledge Jesus as Lord was merely to acknowledge his position over you. Works that would result from a transformed life could not be trusted as evidence of salvation because we cannot earn our salvation. So the pendulum swung too far in one direction. In an effort to uphold doctrine, and to protect salvation by grace, works were overlooked and the Lordship of Jesus over our lives, and discipleship was underemphasized.
We find these same issues in our tradition, though not the same questions. We have followed Paul's paradigm to a "T", but almost to a fault. Though we emphasize a "sixth step of salvation" (faithfulness to the end), we realize from our history that this step was added much later as a necessary corrective to an earlier oversight.
Our efforts to distinguish ourselves from others have left us with an anemic faith. Churches have struggled to have anything left to give younger generations. These folks, many of whom are our own children and grandchildren, are not looking for entertainment, as we often criticize them for, but for authenticity in faith. They recognize that faith is more, MUCH more, than simply making a decision, trying to live morally as culture defines it, and attending worship services and Bible studies. And when they do not see the Spirit of Jesus alive in the church, they look elsewhere. Beyond seeing Jesus as Savior alone, they see him as both Savior...AND Lord.
Which takes us back to the Bible. An emphasis only on Paul's evangelistic approach misses the bigger pattern. The real pattern is seen when we combine the pattern of apostolic preaching and Paul's missionary preaching with the pattern of the reception of the gospel in the life of the hearers.
- in Acts 2, the preaching led to baptism, which led to follow as seen in the devotion to ongoing teaching, breaking of bread, prayer, and house to house fellowship. There was conversion beyond the point of decision.
- in Acts 8 and 10, we see special cases where salvation is given to non-Jews, first to Samaritans and "God-fearers" (who were converts to Judaism), then to the Gentiles themselves. But in Acts 8, we see the Jerusalem leadership sending Peter and John to the Samaritans for follow up teaching (8:25). In Acts 10:48, we see Peter staying on for several days, likely to include follow up teaching as the Gentiles needed to learn how to integrate the gospel with their lives. There was conversion beyond the point of decision.
- we see this clearly laid out in Paul's example in Acts 16. Here, Paul follows his usual pattern of going to a city and looking first for Jews. He typically begins in a synagogue, but in Philippi, there evidently was not one. So they look for a place of prayer, which is possibly like a non-commissioned synagogue, where women met because there were not enough men to commission a synagogue. Here, Paul meets with several women. He speaks with them, which we should understand to mean he preaches the gospel to them. Lydia They are converted. And there is conversion beyond a point-of-decision. There is conversion beyond there initial response. There is ongoing, lifestyle discipleship as a result of their conversion.
Conversion beyond the point of decision sounds obvious. But have we experienced this? Let's note one thing about Lydia's conversion--it was a work of the Lord. And Lydia's conversion was defined by a changed lifestyle. Far from seeing Jesus only as a Savior who took her sins away, she recognized that she was entering into a new kingdom, with a new Lord, the Lord Jesus, and that her life would be forever changed as a result. No more would meeting quietly with the women at the riverside suffice for her religion, but her relationship with Christ required more drastic transformation. She invited the apostles to stay with her, to use her house as a base of operations for their work, which they did for some time.
Note this: Rather than simply "go to church," Lydia became the church. Now, I don't say this to discourage us from showing up here, but rather to encourage us to seek to grow daily in our faith. Previously to her conversion, Lydia no doubt had an active faith, but it was based around observance of the law and in particular the worship requirements of the synagogue. But after her conversion, her faith was more active, it grew, because she saw herself as a part of God's kingdom, a part of God's mission, to redeem and save the world through his people. The gospel changed her life and she experienced a whole life conversion as a result. She began to live a lifestyle of discipleship that went beyond a decision-point faith.
And this is seen in two different ways: the conversion of her household, and her commitment to hospitality. Lydia was either single or had an unbelieving husband. But the context of the passage indicates she was likely a wealthy woman, and as the leader of her household, she had property enough to invite Paul and Silas to stay in her household, to allow it to become a beachhead for ministry and mission. Her household was probably also a place of business, and as such would have had servants, and their families and even children. And it was through Lydia that the entire household found faith. Part of Lydia's whole life conversion through the gospel to discipleship as a follower of her Lord was to take responsibility for the faith of her household.
One of the more troubling aspects of religious culture today is the idea of "church shopping," where folks will attend churches that "meet their needs" and once a church supposedly no longer does so, they begin looking around for a new one. Folks, let's draw a line in the sand and grow up on this one. No church will ever be perfect, and the church is not responsible to single-handedly raise your children, or mine, in the faith, or to serve you the programs, lessons, and activities that you want. Instead, biblically, the church is to nurture the faith of each one, to minister to one another in love and grace, to do the gospel follow up that we read about earlier in Acts where disciples went house to house and listened to the follow up teaching of the apostles. But if you are not here, you are not able to be nurtured...or to nurture.
And the faith that is needed begins in the household. How often do you talk about your faith in your own home? How often is the gospel mentioned or taught? Is the Bible opened and read from regularly, or is it a relic, relegated to the shelf until Sunday, if someone remembers to grab it on the way out the door? Is prayer a part of family unity, or is it an add-on so that God will sanctify a meal? Is worship with the church seen as a regular and normal part of your family life together, or is it something that you get to if everyone wakes up in time and feels like it?
I don't say any of this to chastise anyone or make anyone feel bad. I raise questions to help us think through the idea of gospel conversion. If we understand our baptisms, that we have died to an old life and been raised into a new life, that we have left behind an old kingdom and entered into a new kingdom, then what could be more important than serving and loving our own families into gospel growth?
We can start small. For parents, share a Bible story or passage at the dinner table before prayer. Pray with the children before bedtime. Read the Bible together in the evenings. Find a church member you can get to know better and begin to spend time with that member or family as a family. For married couples without kids in the home, you can do the same--except perhaps add to it this: find a younger couple you can help mentor in the faith. For children in the home, witness about your growing faith to your parents and siblings by being the example God calls you to be through the gospel. For those who have not-yet-Christian spouses, or not-yet-Christian members of your family, be diligent in both prayer for your family members and in your example to them. Pray fervently and expectantly for the conversion. Let God lead through prayer to draw your family closer to him. But most of all, let the gospel convert your whole life. Let your home function as a small church, nurturing one another in gospel growth.
The second aspect of gospel conversion we see in Lydia's life is the opening of her home to hospitality. Hospitality is a gift to others, because we truly open ourselves and make ourselves available, and even vulnerable, to have others in, to feed them, to care for them, and to serve them spiritually while they are among us. Hospitality to others reminds us of the hospitality that God showed to us through Jesus in salvation, and of the hospitality that Jesus reminds us to have as a sign that we know him as Lord (in Matthew 25).
How might we be hospitable? Through the mentoring I've already described, but also through other means. Having people over, for sure, but not only that: feeding them and caring for them might mean going *to* them in their time of need. It might mean hosting Bible teachers in your home. It may mean caring for orphans by becoming foster parents. It may mean going to serve orphans in Haiti. Hospitality is not only opening your house, though certainly it includes that. Hospitality is opening the house of your heart, to let the love of God flow through. This only happens when you have received whole life conversion through the gospel because of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Church, fight for your faith by embracing lifestyle discipleship over point-of-decision faith. A point-of-decision faith never grows beyond what was initially there. It keeps you trapped in a cycle of feeling smug and arrogant while never growing. It holds onto the past and blames others when things are not achieved. It is fearful. Instead, let your life be converted completely by the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Become a disciple in your entire life.
The most dangerous thing in our churches today is not the fight over marriage equality, it is not the threat of atheism, and it is not the supposed rise of the Islamic faith. The biggest threat in our churches is a so-called faith that only claims forgiveness while living a life that has nothing to do with Jesus the Lord. The biggest threat in our churches are people with a dead faith who masquerade as Christians while living as though they are the Lord. Jesus is King, not you. Not me. We may win a cultural battle or lose one, but these things will come and go. But God is eternal. Our faith is forever.
Don't be on the outside looking in. Over and over we see in Acts the same process--preaching followed by conversion. But don't neglect the follow up! Because in the follow up we see that the pattern we need to fold in is our own: hearing, believing, baptism, and gospel growth. Let every home where there are Christians become a church. Let those small churches grow and develop in their faith. Let them become places of hospitality. Let the work of God move outwardly into our neighborhoods, schools, and places of work. Let God's mission to redeem the world happen through. Let a lifestyle of discipleship, gospel growth, and hospitality spring forth, in the Lord Jesus' name.
This is the core of my sermon for Sunday. I'm working with the theme of "renewal from God." I use the Isaiah text as the base for the sermon, describing the Israelite context of exile because of idolatry, but with the promise of renewal. I then look at how this theme plays out in the narrative arc of Luke that covers the last week of Jesus' life. His "triumphal" entry is actually a death march. But it ends in life. Similarly, we are called to die in order to live.
Isaiah 40 (1-5, 18-31); Luke 19:28-23:56; Philippians 2:5-8
This is a beautiful, though neglected passage. We are probably familiar with parts of it. The beginning verses are sung by a baritone in Handel's Messiah to introduce a turning point in that piece. The ending verses of this oracle are often seen on postcards and posters, standing alone, separated from the rest of this speech by and about God.
Isaiah is known as the prophet of hope. Though more than half of the book is composed of judgments against Israel, Judah, and the nations, Isaiah was also the book used by the New Testament church and by the early church to explain Jesus. It is filled with prophecies of the Lord's Anointed, of his Messiah.
The judgments portion of Isaiah is found mainly in chs 1-39. The remainder of the book addresses prophetically the experience of the Israelites during and after their exile and details promises that God makes about his Messiah and about the mission of Israel to the nations.
But why is there this theme of comfort? The words of comfort, "Comfort, yes, comfort My people," says God, come at a turning point in Isaiah. Just as the words are sung in the Messiah at a pivotal point, so these words come at a pivotal point in Isaiah.
Chapter 40 is this pivot point in this book and follows a historical narrative about Isaiah and King Hezekiah. This story bridges the judgment portion of Isaiah (1-35; 36-39) and with the messages of hope (40-66) and details that faith in God is the key to a good life. The words of Hezekiah, though spoken by him, are also prophetic and close out the message of judgment: "The Lord's word you spoke is good. Let there indeed be peace and righteousness in my days." Though Hezekiah speaks selfishly without thought for the promised destruction and exile, which Isaiah preaches prophetically about in chapters 40-55, his words are prophetic about the comfort and strength God will give to his people when he brings them back from exile.
Renewal is around the corner. After darkness comes light. After judgment comes hope.
Renewal comes only after we have tasted other things and realize that it is only in God that we will find the strength and comfort we desire. Renewal comes only after we have seen the darkness and have lived in need of judgment. In Isaiah's case, the needed renewal was the hope promised to them in the face of idolatry.
During the exile, as judgment, God shattered the pride of Israel (v. 2, 18ff) and made them dependent on him. This was a prelude to the promised renewal: "Let us wait...and be renewed!"
Isaiah shows the ultimate act of pride is to create an idol that we then worship. But idols of our own making cannot compare with God, and neither can our pride. God shatters this pride—of ourselves, our church, our doctrine—but doesn't leave us with nothing. He freely offers to renew us by his strength and grace. But renewal comes when we wait...in humility, trust, and dependence on him.
Waiting in humility, trust, and dependence, waiting to be renewed, is the opposite of the attitude seen in 40:18-26 where the workman sets himself up as the creator of his own god. The passage is a contrast between the workman who thinks he creates his own destiny and God, who actually does create...and arranges...and calls forth...and displays. It is God who works! It is God who strengthens! It is God who comforts! It is God who renews!
It is our pride that puts us ahead of God and it is this pride that God calls us to let go of in order to seek renewal from him.
Where do we see this pride in our lives and in our church experience? Pride in ourselves? our plans, as we seek our own destinies? Pride in our church? “We don't really need to follow the word of God to reach out to others; we belong to the true church.” Pride in our doctrine? “We don't need to follow Jesus; we merely need to hold to the correct doctrine.” Do we claim to worship the true God, while it may be that we have built or made a god in our own image?
Do we rest on that pride, like Israel did, and become dependent on ourselves rather than God? This is what Israel was guilty of, and their pride led them to the wrong focus, where they were exiled as they learned once again how to trust God.
What we pridefully hold onto--the idols we create; the pride we live by--distracts us from God, but God overcomes those things—he gives power to the weak to make them strong and is not weakened himself. He promises that those who wait for him will be renewed.
We see this waiting comfort and renewal in the life of Jesus. In the last week of his life, Jesus enters Jerusalem seemingly in triumph (Luke 19:28ff). Yet the narrative arc in the Gospels of his last week shows us that Jesus' mission was always to be a mission of rejection by people, until the work of God was complete. From the "triumphal" entry to the conflict with religious leaders to the tightening of the instructions to the disciples to a torturous night in the garden to the arrest and suffering and, finally, to death.
"Triumph," as we see it, leads to death. But death leads to resurrection. To renewal.
In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul describes hymnically what Luke described narratively. Jesus died so that we might live. As we follow him, we die to live. And in that death, which is made when we are buried with Christ in baptism, where we die to ourselves by being linked to his own death, we find renewal, renewal that comes when we are raised with Christ, out of the waters of baptism, into a new life. This is comfort! This is strength! This is renewal!
Let us give up pride. Let us give up idols, recognizing them for the worthless things they are, and remember the life of our Savior, who entered in triumph for us, not a triumph for himself, but a seeming triumph that led to his death. But with God is always the great reversal--where death seems to reign, there is life. And that life is a life of comfort and renewal through the Holy Spirit.
Paul has spent a good portion of this letter discussing the mind of Christ and what that means practically. The mind of Christ requires humility, obedience, and service to others, as exemplified first and foremost in Jesus, and secondarily in Timothy and Epaphroditus.
However, there are always those who do not understand life in Christ and seek to bind their version of Christianity on others. Paul is aware of these tendencies among these Christians, and warns of the dogs, evil workers, and mutilators. Paul used similar words in Galatians (1:7, 9, 12; 5:12) and 2 Corinthians (11:13; 2:17) to describe the Judaizers, and textual evidence suggests these are the opponents here as well. What is not clear is whether they have a strong foothold in the church.
The issue of mutilation pertains to the Judaizers’ belief that one must become a Jew first to be saved. Thus, circumcision must be undergone for the Christian convert to be successfully (wholly) saved. Judaism rested on its laurels, its privileges, and believed that only those who met the particular ethnic and religious standards of Judaism could enter into the people of God.
Yet, Paul points out that these privileges did not produce humility and service to God. Instead, these privileges actually promoted national prejudice. True worship was indicated not by one’s nationality but by spiritual worship, boasting in Christ, and humility. True spiritual worship is characterized not by a mark in the flesh but by an attitude of the heart.
Paul looks to himself and shows that he had all the advantages of a natural-born Jew. He was not a proselyte, and he emphasizes his Hebrew heritage (a hearkening back to antiquity), his standing as a Pharisee, and his approach to the law (which was another boundary marker for the Judaizers). For Paul, these things, though once viewed as privileges and the paths to salvation, he now views as trash in light of knowing Christ.
Knowing Christ is experiential knowledge, not facts or knowledge about Christ. For Paul, to know Christ will unlock the meaning of life. Knowing God in the Old Testament was to understand his revelation of himself (see Isaiah 11:2; Habakkuk 2:14). Paul’s concept of “gaining Christ” is present and future, not past. He understands he must constantly be looking ahead, understanding the real value of earthly things (trash).
All this centers in righteousness (v. 9). Paul distinguishes between the righteousness that comes from the law and is one’s own righteousness and the righteousness that comes from Christ. This righteousness that is not wearisome because it cannot be attained through work (trial and error and constant failure—the law) is ONLY found “in Christ”—it is not attained by keeping laws, no matter how humble, obedient, or sincere one is. It is the faith OF Christ, that Christ gives, a response to the forgiving love of God. It rests in Christ, whose faithfulness God accepts in our behalf.
This Christ is the one Paul wants to know, and share in his sufferings, and he desires to attain the resurrection of the dead, where there will be eternal, unbroken fellowship with Christ.
Paul knows (v. 12) that this requires singular dedication, and that he himself has not attained this yet. But the mark of maturity is perseverance—to press on, press forward, to obtain this eternal result. Paul forgets the way he used to view the world through Hebraic privilege and strains forward to what lies ahead, with his new focus of knowing Christ. Jesus Christ initiated this process (v. 12) and Paul “takes hold” of it (makes it his own). Paul is clear that he himself has not arrived at this point of perfection; do some of them think they have?
What Paul has described is the perspective of the mature. Maturity is knowledge gained by long experience, resulting in firm conviction and maturity of thought and conduct. Perhaps some believed themselves to be mature when they were not, and Paul suggests that God will teach them what he really requires. He ends in v. 16 with a call to keep progressing.
Telling God's Story: A Parents' Guide to Teaching the Bible, Peter Enns (Olive Branch Books, 2010).
This is an outstanding book. At only 99 pages, it can be a quick read, but it is packed with solid and useful information. Enns wrote this book as a guide for parents who desire to teach their children the Bible. He presents a threefold approach: in the early elementary years, focus on the story, life, and mission of Jesus; in the middle school years, focus on the "hook and hangers" of the Bible, specifically, the "pegs" of the larger story that they will be able to "hang" later knowledge upon; and in the high school years, begin to flesh out the Bible in more detail.
Enns suggests this progressive approach against other approaches because it focuses on the main "person" of the Bible--Jesus Christ--and on God's redemptive story, rather than our own theories or concepts of what we want the Bible to be about. For example, he encourages us not to teach the Bible simply as "stories" or as character studies, because these are often reduced to moralistic life lessons having nothing to do with the redemptive backstory; nor should we teach it (to children) book-by-book, because this approach often requires more maturity and a longer attention span than children have; nor should we teach it defensively, as in the current "creationism vs. evolution" arguments.
Instead, we should see the Bible not as a book of rules or a manual for morals but as a complex and fascinating story with a beginning, middle, and end. Our role as parents is to slowly work through this material with our children, linking the different parts of the story together over time. The Bible does not address modern issues the way we would like it to, so we must remember that it is the story of God's deliverance of his people and it presents a vision of what it means to live in that context. We acquire wisdom for living as we understand The Story in deeper ways.
Enns concludes with a five chapter discussion of this overarching Story which is very useful and informative.
This is a book for all parents, regardless of how old your children are. Although Enns discusses a teaching program for children as young as elementary age, I can easily see that parents can pick up in the first stage and go from there. There is nothing missed by starting to teach a high schooler more in depth about Jesus. The program can either be compressed or modified as older children have questions.
I can also see value in this approach for church-based classes, even for adults. Beginning with Jesus, and his centrality to God's story, and then branching out into biblical narrative, and then into biblical theology, a teacher could present a congregation with a very rich understanding of the Bible.
I highly recommend this book for any believer.
This study guide includes teaching and questions about encouragement (from 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12) and servanthood (from 2 Peter 1:1 and Mark 10:32-45).
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Many people view obedience in the wrong light. They see it as something they “have to” do to keep God's favor, or to keep God happy with them, as though they were earning these things. Obedience is viewed as one's duty that they must to do to ensure God's continued blessings and salvation for them.
This comes from a wrong view of the gospel. God saves us through the gospel. Paul writes in Ephesians that salvation “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (2:1-10) so that no one may claim that they earned salvation for themselves or are more righteous than another. Instead, he clarifies the role of obedience and good works when he writes that we are God's “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” This means that our obedience emerges from our new creation in Christ.
We obey because we have first been saved. Our obedience, rather than being a duty to be performed, should be viewed as a gracious response to God for his grace shown to us. If we view ourselves as a “work” of God that he is continually shaping, we will view our obedience to him in a different light. That is, God is shaping us for him and our obedience allows us to conform more to the image he is creating us to be.
Peter connects these same things. In the early part of 1 Peter, he commands two things: Be holy in all your conduct; and conduct yourselves with fear during the time of your exile. He connects these two commands with the character and action of God so that our obedience to these commands is not seen as something we “have to do” but as a response to God. God always acts first and calls us to respond to him in obedience.
Therefore, we are to be holy because God is holy. We are to be like him. We are to conduct ourselves with fear because God the Father judges each one impartially according to their deeds and because we have been ransomed by the blood of Christ. Peter connects each command either to the character of God or to the gospel. Obedience is not something that stands alone; it is deeply connected to our connection to God. When we understand the gospel, we see these connections.
It has always been this way. Peter's basis for commanding holiness is found in the Mosaic Law, in the book of Leviticus. The law, as revealed first to Moses in Exodus 20 through the “Ten Commandments,” begins with a declaration by God of his own character and action on behalf of his people before he calls for their obedience to him through the legal requirements. Although these commands, that form the basis of the entire law, describe how one ought to relate both to God (the first four) and to others (the last six), they begin with this statement: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Character, rescue and redemption. These come first; the call to obedience comes second.
Absorb these scriptures and these ideas and let your thinking about obedience be reframed away from obedience as cold duty to warm delight as you obey God from a sincere and glad heart for who he is and what he has done in Christ.
This guide contains teaching and reflection questions about the biblical view of obedience. This teaching is from Exodus 20:1-17; Ephesians 2:1-10; and 1 Peter 1:13-21.
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This guide includes teaching and reflection questions on Luke 4:14-30.
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This study guide includes teaching and study questions from Isaiah 7:10-14 and Matthew 1:18-25. It also includes a section on "Encouragement," which is for a later time.
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