Galatians 5:13-15 — Returning to the pig sty

For most of this book, Paul has been addressing those who thought they needed to turn to the law for their salvation.  And while Paul strongly disagreed with them, I think he did understand one of their huge concerns:  If we are no longer under law, then aren’t we just free to do whatever we want?  If we are no longer required to follow the law, why not just live for yourself?  Why not sleep with whoever you want?  Why not just do whatever sinful things which bring you pleasure?

And for the rest of this chapter, he addresses those concerns.  He starts by saying,

You, my brothers, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another in love.  (13)

“You were called to be free!” says Paul.  Free from what?  Free from the law, certainly.  Free from trying to follow the law in order to be accepted by God as his child.  And free from the condemnation of the law because we can’t keep it perfectly.

But we’re also called to be free from something else.  We’re called to be free from the life of sin that was destroying us.  We were living in the pig sty of our own sin.  For years, we indulged our sinful nature.  What do I mean by sinful nature?  I mean a heart that lived in utter rebellion against God and lived to please itself.  But by indulging that sinful heart, we made a mess of our lives.  We messed up our relationships, we messed up our marriages, we messed up our health, we messed up almost everything if not everything in our lives.

But Christ died to set us free from all that.  He gave us “heart surgery,” removing our heart of stone and giving us a heart of flesh.  (Ezekiel 36:26)  In other words, instead of having a heart of rebellion that was utterly hardened toward God, Jesus gave us a new heart that was soft and responsive to him.  And as we follow him, he leads us into freedom from all the sins that were destroying us.

Still there are remnants of that old heart or sinful nature within us, the habits and attitudes that were formed while we were under its control.  And those are things we’ll be fighting for the rest of our lives.  But Paul says don’t give into them.  More importantly, don’t indulge yourself in those old habits and attitudes.  Why go back to the pig sty in which you were so miserable when you were set free from that?

Instead, Paul says, “Serve one another in love.”  Do you want the joy that comes from the freedom you have gained from the law and from sin?  Then start serving others in love.  As you revel in the love God has for you, start sharing that love with those around you.  We were designed to have relationships in which we bless each other with the blessings we have received from God.  That’s what brings us joy, not going back to the pig sty.

Paul then says,

The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (14)

In short, “Are you worried about keeping the law?  If you’re using your freedom as you should, to serve others, and not yourself, you will fulfill the law.”

On the other hand, if we insist on going back to the pig sty, Paul warns,

If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.  (15)

How about you?  Have you found the joy that comes from the freedom Christ has given you?  Or are you going back to the pig sty?  Which will you choose?

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Galatians 5:7-12 — Abolishing the offense of the cross

I mentioned not too long ago that many people find Christianity narrow-minded.  They take offense at the idea that it is only through Christ’s work on the cross that we can be saved.  Paul calls this, “the offense of the cross.”

And it was this offense of the cross that the Judaizers were trying to abolish, though perhaps for different reasons than the people who try to do so today.

It seems the Judaizers were most concerned with how the other Jews perceived them.  And the other Jews were offended by the message of the cross because it welcomed anyone into God’s kingdom who came to Jesus by faith.  No longer was circumcision or rigid obedience to the law required.

These Jews were probably offended for a couple of reasons.  First, they took the Mosaic covenant and all its laws very seriously.  It set them apart as God’s people.  But now, Paul was saying that through faith in Christ, and totally apart from trying to keep the law,

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (3:28)

In short, the law they took such great pride in no longer set them apart as God’s special people.  Rather anyone who came to God through Christ would now be declared as God’s people.

This was something the Jews simply could not accept, particularly because of their pride.  And that was the second reason they took offense at the cross.  The Jews took pride in their identity as God’s chosen people.  And they were proud of how much more “righteous” they were in the eyes of God than the other nations because of the law God had given to them.  This despite the fact that they never could keep it perfectly.

In the same way, pride is the great barrier to people coming to Christ today.  Pride in their own religion.  Pride in their own “righteousness” before God.  And so for Christians to say, “Your religion is not sufficient.  Your ‘righteousness’ is not sufficient” is offensive to them.

But by clinging to these things, they don’t draw closer to God, they actually cut themselves off from God.  Paul said of those who taught the need for circumcision,

The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be...As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (10,12)

Paul had said earlier that those who taught a false gospel were under God’s divine curse (1:8-9).  Here he repeats that, and then he gets very sarcastic and says, “If you’re going to get circumcised, you might as well go all the way and castrate yourself.”

That would have been shocking to the Judaizers because getting castrated would get them cut off from the Jewish congregation (Deuteronomy 23:1).  But Paul was saying, that’s exactly what you’re doing if you let yourself be circumcised, you’re cutting yourself from God’s people.

That’s true of anyone that rejects the cross of Christ and tries to obtain salvation through their own religion and own righteousness.  You’re cutting yourself off from God and his people.  And if you dilute the cross of Christ to please them as the Judaizers did, you risk cutting yourself off as well.

The cross is offensive to many people.  But we cannot be concerned about trying to please them.  We need to preach the gospel, no matter what flack we catch from people because of it.  The question you need to ask is, “Who am I trying to please?  God or people?”

Remember the words of Paul who said,

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. (1:10)

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Galatians 5:7-9 — Getting cut off

If there is one thing I hate, it’s getting cut off in traffic.  To be cruising along the road, and to have someone cut in right in front of me.  At best, I have to break suddenly to avoid an accident, at worst I’d have to get into another lane entirely.

And here, Paul gives a similar picture.  The Galatians were running the Christian race, headed for the goal, running in grace.  And suddenly someone swerved in front of them hindering them from their goal.  Worse, it forced them to swerve off the path of grace and onto the path of law.  So Paul says,

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.  (7-8)

In other words, “You were doing so well.  Who was it that got you off the path of grace and onto law?  It certainly wasn’t Jesus.  He called you to the path of grace through faith in him.

He then said,

“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”  (9)

The traditional interpretation of this passage is that this false teaching of these Judaizers would quickly spread if the Galatians didn’t watch out.  It strikes me though that there is another application.

If we start letting in the idea that we must keep the law in order to be accepted by God even a little bit, it will start to dominate our whole way of thinking and our whole way of life.  And instead of walking in joy and humility, knowing that we are already accepted though we don’t deserve it, we’ll slowly start walking with either feelings of condemnation for not being able to keep the law, or feelings of pride for thinking that we’re able to do so.

It kind of reminds me of the words of Yoda in Star Wars:  “If once you start down the dark path, forever it will dominate your destiny; consume you it will.”  yoda

Yoda wasn’t entirely correct.  Anakin Skywalker ultimately was able to escape the dark path, but before he could do so, it made a total mess of his life.

And so Paul told the Galatians, “Don’t give into circumcision.  If you do, it won’t stop there.  You’ll need to keep every other law perfectly in order to be accepted by God, and every day, every hour, every second, you’ll have to worry about keeping it perfectly or you won’t make it.  It will come to totally dominate your way of thinking and keep you from the freedom and joy God wants you to have.”

You may ultimately escape that path, but it will wreck havok not only in your life, but possibly in the lives of those around you, particularly if you start walking around in pride judging them for not “measuring up.”

How about you?  Are you walking each day in the grace of God?  Or are you walking each day in pride or feeling under God’s condemnation?  Don’t let yourself get cut off.  Remember that we are already accepted as his children.  And as you do, you’ll find yourself living this life as God intends, in the freedom and joy of a child of God.

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Galatians 5:2-10 — Severed from Christ, fallen from grace

I don’t know about you, but I think most people looking at today’s title would think, “Wow!  What terrible thing must a person do to be severed from Christ and fall from his grace.”

In fact, we often use that phrase, “fallen from grace,” in society today for people who once used to be seen as honorable but who fell into utter disrepute because of something they did.

But the whole context of this passage is not murder, or rape, or bribery, or some other such vice.  Rather the context of this passage is legalism.  By trying to become righteous before God through keeping the law, we become severed from Christ and we fall from his grace.

Paul wrote,

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. (2-3)

In other words, it’s all or nothing when it comes to the law.  If you are determined to become justified before God through the law, it doesn’t stop at circumcision.  You have to go all the way and keep every single law in the Old Testament or you’re not going to make it.

It’s also all or nothing in the fact that if you are determined to be justified before God through law, Christ’s death has no value to you at all.  It’s not like the Judaizers were saying, that Christ plus works equals righteousness before God.  It’s either obey the law perfectly, or put your faith in Christ and have his righteousness credited to your account.  There is no in-between.

That’s why he tells the Galatians,

You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.  (4)

The word “alienated” in the NIV is translated much more harshly in the ESV.  It says you are “severed” from Christ.

Basically by turning to the law to make yourself righteous before God, you turn your back on Christ.  You’re telling him, “I don’t think your work on the cross is enough,” and in doing so, you spit on all his suffering that he endured there.

Some people such as the Mormons teach, “By grace you are saved after all you can do.”  But Paul clearly states that by putting any faith in your own works, you actually fall away from grace, not put yourself in it.

Paul then says,

But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. (5)

I believe here that Paul is talking about how the hope that we have, that though right now we struggle with sin, the day will come when we will be made righteous not only in our legal standing before God, but in reality.

In Romans 8:23, Paul talks about how we groan while we are in this body, longing for the day when we will receive our new bodies.  Why?  For one thing, we will no longer face sickness or death.  But I think the other thing is that once and for all we will be free from sin in our lives.  That’s the righteousness we hope for.  And anyone who has that hope will not indulge in sin.  Rather, they will live day by day trying to please the one who saved them.  Not because they have to earn their salvation.  But because they’re rejoicing that they have already received it.

And so Paul says in verse 6,

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

How about you?  Are you still trying to earn God’s favor in your life?  Is that why you’re trying to do good things?  Or do you believe that God has already made you righteous in his sight, and look forward to the day when you will be made perfect?  And is it from that belief that you love God and want to please him?

How are you living your life?

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Galatians 4:21-5:1 — Children of promise

In this passage, Paul makes a very interesting allegory to drive home a simple point:  We are children of God based on His promise, not children of God based on our keeping his law.

He talks about the story of Hagar and Sarah found in Genesis 16-21.  God had promised to give Abraham a son, but after years of waiting, Abraham and Sarah had started to lose hope that God would keep his promise.  So Sarah suggested that Abraham have a child through her slave Hagar (something atrocious to us, but perfectly normal back in those days).

Through Hagar, Abraham got his first son, Ishmael.  But this was a son that came not based on the promise of God and his provision.  Rather, it was based solely on human efforts.  Later though, Sarah did give birth to a son named Isaac.  His birth was a total miracle, a total act of God, as Sarah was 90 years old when she gave birth.  And it was through Isaac, God told Abraham, that He would keep his promise to make Abraham into a great nation.

Paul then says those who try to be justified by the law are symbolized by Hagar and her son Ishmael.  They are not trying to receive the blessing of God based on God’s promise and God’s work.  Rather, they are trying to achieve it through their own human effort.

But there’s a problem with this.  Children born of a slave are slaves themselves.  So people who try to be “children of Hagar,” justified by their own human efforts, will in reality only find themselves enslaved by the law of sin and death.  In other words, the law can’t save them at all.  All it does is point out their sin and condemn them to death.  (4:24-25)

On the other hand those who are trying to be justified before God by his grace are like Isaac, children and heirs of God based on God’s promise and God’s work.  Because of that, we are no longer enslaved by the law of sin and death.  We have been set free, and are now true children of the most high God.  (4:26-28)

But just as Ishmael, the child born of human efforts, persecuted Isaac, the child born of God’s promise, so the Judaizers persecuted the Christians.  In particular, the Judaizers tried to shut out the Galatian Christians until they agreed to put themselves under slavery to the law like the Judaizers were.  (4:29)

So Paul speaks very strongly here:

What does the Scripture say?  “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”  (4:30)

In short, “Get rid of these false teachers.  They are children of the slave.  And they will never share in your inheritance.  They have no part with you.  They are trying to exclude you when the reality is that it is they who are excluded.”

And then he reemphasizes,

“Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.”  (4:31)

He then charges them,

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again under a yoke of slavery.”  (5:1)

Let us never forget that.  Christ set us free from the law, not so that we would go under it all over again, but that we would truly be free from it forever.  He set us free so that we could live as children of God, knowing that we are already accepted by Him, and not worrying about whether we are good enough.

How about you?  Are you living with the peace and joy of a child of God?  Or are you still living like a slave burdened by all the rules of religion?

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Galatians 4:14-20 — Zealous for what?

In this passage, we see two kinds of zealousness.  One that leads to good and one that does not.

We see here that the Galatians used to be zealous for Paul.  Because of the gospel he had preached and the joy that had filled their hearts as a result, they were willing to do anything for him.  (14-15)

Paul himself was zealous for the Galatians.  You see it in every word, the hurt he felt because they had been deceived by the Judaizers.  He said ,

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! (19-20).

He was so zealous for them that he told them the truth, even though they regarded him as an enemy for doing so (16).

But then there was the zealousness of the Judaizers.  Paul said of them,

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you [from us], so that you may be zealous for them.  (17)

When he says, “They want to alienate you from us,” the “from us” is not actually in the text, and so the ESV puts it, “They want to shut you out.”  The idea is that they were saying “You’re not really one of us.  You’re not really a Christian.  If you want to really be ‘in’ with Christ, you need to listen to us.”

But in doing so, they were locking up the Galatians under law all over again, and stealing the joy and blessedness God intended them to have.

In short, these people were zealous to win over these Galatians, but it was not for the Galatians’ ultimate good.

And so Paul tells them,

It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you.  (18)

Paul’s telling them, “Be zealous.  That’s a good thing.  When you were zealous for me, showing your love and caring for me because of the joy that was in you, that was good.  I’m zealous for you too.  I want to see Christ formed in you such that you become more and more like him.

“But these people are not looking out for your good.  And by being zealous for them, you’re losing your joy and blessedness.”

So there’s two questions I think we need to ask.  First, there may be some charismatic leaders around us, who are filled with zeal.  But where are they leading you?  Are they leading you closer to God?  Or are they stealing your joy by what they are teaching you?

Are they teaching you truth, even though it’s painful to hear?  Or are they leading you astray?

Second, what are you zealous for?  Are you zealous for Christ and to know him?  Are you zealous to see Christ formed in the lives of others that they may know his joy?  Or is your zeal leading you in the wrong direction?

Zeal once led Paul to persecute the church.  Zeal once led the Galatians back to a life of slavery under the law.  Where is your zeal leading you?

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Galatians 4:14-16 — How to lose our joy (and blessing)

You can really see how perplexed Paul is with the Galatians in this passage (actually going all the way to verse 20).

When he had first come to the Galatians, he had had some sort of physical problem, and yet, though it caused no small inconvenience to them, they still received him with great joy.  Why?  Because of the gospel that he had preached which set them free from sin and brought them new life.  Having heard the message and received it, they were filled with God’s inexpressible joy and a deep sense of his blessing.

So filled with this joy were the Galatians that it overflowed in their love and concern for Paul such that they were willing to do anything for him.  Paul said,

I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.  (15)

But having been infected with the teaching of the Judaizers, everything had changed.  All their joy was gone, and now they looked at Paul with suspicion.  They wondered if he had really told them the truth of the gospel.  They wondered if he had perhaps left something out that could actually keep them from salvation.

So Paul asks them,

What has happened to all your joy…Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? (15-16)

The word “joy” there is translated “blessedness” in the ESV and “blessing” in the NASB.  But however you translate it, the Galatians had lost a precious gift God had imparted to them upon their believing in Christ.  How?

By returning to religion.  By making their salvation a matter of their own works and their own efforts, and causing the cross of Christ to lose its value to them.  (2:21)

The same thing can happen to us.  When we make our Christian lives all about “keeping the rules” of religion, we lose our joy and our blessing.  Instead, we start straining to earn God’s favor.  And in the process, one of two things inevitably happens.  Either we become proud because we are “succeeding” in our efforts (as if someone could actually earn God’s favor by their works).  Or we become utterly depressed and despairing because we realize it’s impossible to keep the rules perfectly.

Either way, we lose the blessing and joy of God in our lives.

But when we realize that our salvation is by grace alone, it does two things.  It keeps us humble and it keeps us grateful.

We are humble because we realize that we did nothing to deserve God’s favor in our lives.  We see that all we deserved was God’s condemnation but how he has showered us with his grace and mercy anyway.

More, we become filled with joy and gratitude at this grace and mercy we have received.  As a result, the blessedness that comes from Christ flows not only in our lives but through our lives touching the people around us.

What kind of life are you living?  One of pride?  One of defeat and despair?  Or one of blessing and joy?

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Galatians 4:8-12 — Going back to worthless religion

Many people wonder why Christianity is so “narrow-minded.”  Why can’t all religions be considered equally valid ways to God?

I will admit that most if not all religions have some good in them.  Most preach avoiding evil and doing good, although there is some difference in the definition of the those two terms.  (But not as much as you would think, as C.S. Lewis has pointed out in Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man).

The problem is that all religions and their rituals are mere pictures of who God is.  In the case of Judaism, it’s a pretty good picture, as God specifically gave the Jews their laws and rituals as a picture of himself and of Christ.  In the case of others, the pictures are much more distorted, many to the point where you can barely recognize God for who he truly is at all.  Because of this, none of the laws and rituals they present can in any way bring us closer to God.

Even in the best of them, namely the Jewish laws and rituals, they are not the reality of Christ nor of salvation. The Jewish rituals, sacrifices and festivals, wonderful pictures of Christ and his sacrifice on the cross though they are, are not Christ himself.  They are not his sacrifice on the cross itself.

As a result, they have no power to save.  And if these rituals, sacrifices and festivals, ordained by God himself, are powerless to save anyone, how can the rituals, sacrifices, and festivals ordained by other religions be any more effective?

And so Paul says,

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God–or rather are known by God–how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you. (8-11)

Paul speaks specifically here to the former gods and religious practices of the Galatians.  And he says, “Before you were saved, you were slaves to things that were not gods, forced to follow rituals and religious celebrations that could not save you.  But now you know better.  You actually know God now.  And he knows you.  You are in a real relationship with him as his beloved children.  Why then are you going back to what is weak and powerless?

“Oh, sure, you’re not going back to your old gods and religious practices.  Now you’re turning to Jewish religious practices to save you.  But these are just as powerless to save you as your old religious practices were.  They were just the ABCs of getting to know God.  Helpful in their own way in that they help you see your own sin and need for a Savior.  But they can’t actually save you.  All they can do is make you miserable because you see you can’t keep the rules perfectly and deserve to be condemned.  You know this!  Why go back to them?”

He then says, “Look, I became like you.  When I’m with you, I eat with you, eat your food, and break all kinds of Jewish customs.  So don’t be afraid to be like me.  Stop living by the rules of religion, but by faith in Christ.”

And that’s Paul’s charge to us.  Let’s get away from the pictures of Christ.  That’s all the Jewish laws and rituals were.  They have no power to save in themselves.  So let us come into relationship with Christ himself.  And let us rejoice in the relationship we now have with God as his children because of what Christ has done for us.

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Galatians 3:26-4:7 — The wonder of adoption

It’s really amazing to me that God would actually adopt us into his family.  He could have accepted us as “pets.”  He could have recognized our status as people, and yet kept us at a distance as acquaintances.  He could have brought us into his household as mere servants or slaves.  He could have even accepted us as friends.  But he did more.  He adopted us into his family and now recognizes us as his children.

Paul tells us,

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (3:26-27)

He says here that we are all sons of God through faith in Christ.  What he is saying here must have stunned some of his original listeners.  Because back in those days, only literal sons had the right of inheritance.  But he makes it clear that all Christians, whether male or female, now have that right that once only belonged exclusively to the sons.  Not only that, Paul said,

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  (3:28)

Previously, the Jews considered all non-Jews outsiders.  More, they looked down on women.  And of course, being a slave was never considered a good thing.  But Paul says that in God’s eyes, all who belong to Christ now belong to him and he recognizes us all as his children.  All of us have been clothed with Christ’s royal robes of righteousness and are now identified with him.

In case we didn’t quite get his point, he then draws an analogy between us and children in those days.  In those days, a child was no different from a slave practically.  That is to say, he had no true access to his inheritance even though he was an heir to it.  Rather, he was put under guardians or trustees  and he remained under their authority until the day his father formally recognized him as his son and heir.  (4:1-2)

In the same way, before we were adopted as God’s children, we were like slaves.  We were put under the guardianship of the law and had no right to any heavenly inheritance.  We were told, “Do this, and do that,” by the law, but while it generally guided us in the right direction, we could never keep it fully and as a result, had no rights as God’s heirs.  (4:3)

But that all changed the day God formally adopted us as his children and made us his heirs.  The process started when he sent his Son to purchase (or redeem) us as his own through Christ’s death on the cross.  And now when we put our faith in him, he formally adopts us as his children.  (4:4-5)

Not only that, he gives us his Spirit of his Son who cries out from within our hearts, “Abba, Father.”  In other words, God in Trinity cries out this new relationship we have with him.  A relationship not of a beloved pet, or an acquaintance, or a slave or a servant, or even a friend, but as a son and daughter of the King.

So Paul concludes,

So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.  (7)

How do you see yourself?  How do you see God?  Do you see him as your Father and yourself as his beloved child and heir?  He sees us in that way.  It’s time that we see things the same way He does.  So don’t ever put yourself down as worthless or unworthy.  You are a child of the King.  Let’s start living that way.

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Galatians 3:22-25 — What the law is and isn’t. What the law does and doesn’t do. (Part 3)

We saw yesterday that the law was not some alternative way God developed to bring about salvation, but rather was something that was meant to lead us to Christ.  Paul goes into further detail in the next few verses.

Paul said,

But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.  Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. (22-23)

A lot of this is similar to what Paul wrote in Romans 7-8.  And basically what Paul says there is that before the law came, people were not really aware of what sin was.  They just lived their lives, blissfully unaware that a lot of their behavior was displeasing to God.  God then brought in the law to show the people, “This is the way to live.”

The problem was, the law didn’t cause people to say, “Oh, really?  I didn’t know.  I’m sorry.  I’ll live your way now.”  Rather, for many, it stirred up an even more rebellious attitude toward God.

And even for those who were repentant and wanted to please God, they found that they still weren’t able to keep the law.  Their sinful nature still had such a hold on them, it was impossible for them to keep the law.  They were in bondage to sin.

Still, what the law did do was help put some restraints on sin until Christ came.  The new NIV puts verse 23 this way,

Before the coming of faith, we were held in custody under the law.

In other words, for those Old Testament believers, the law couldn’t make them perfect, but it did help them from going completely wild into sin.  Staying with the new NIV in verse 24,

So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.

A guardian back in those days was someone who was in charge of supervising the life and morals of boys.  Wherever the boys went, the guardian went with them to make sure they didn’t get into trouble.  It was also his duty to take them to and from school, thus putting them in the hands of the true teacher.

That’s what the law did for Old Testament believers.  First, it helped keep them out of trouble (although not all trouble, because all still sinned).  Second, it eventually led people to the true teacher, Christ.  How?

Through the law, God gave the Israelites many pictures of a Savior to come through, among other things, the sacrifices, the Passover feast, and the Day of Atonement.

These things in themselves could not save them from their sin.  But through these pictures, Moses and all the Israelites following after him until the time of Christ saw Jesus and what he would do on the cross (John 5:39, 46). And as they did, they put their faith in him.

The law in itself then, couldn’t make save them.  But it led them to put their trust in Christ, though they of course didn’t have all the details yet because Christ hadn’t come yet.  And it was on the basis of that faith, not keeping the law itself, that God saved them.

So then, we come to the ultimate point of this passage.  Paul said,

Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.  (25)

With the coming of Christ, faith has truly come with all the details filled in.  We are no longer like the Moses and all the Old Testament believers forced to look at the pictures.  Now in Christ, we have the reality, and thus the law is no longer needed as our guardian.

Rather, we look solely to Christ for our salvation.  And through the Holy Spirit whom Christ gave to live in us, we start to naturally do the things that are pleasing to God.

So as we go through life, let us not put all our focus on trying to keep a bunch of rules.  Rather, let us look each day in gratitude to the cross, and walk each day under the guidance of God’s Spirit.  That’s the true Christian life.

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Galatians 3:15-25 — What the law is and isn’t. What the law does and doesn’t do. (Part 2)

We talked yesterday about what the law does not do, namely, it doesn’t replace the covenant God made with Abraham.  God’s covenant with Abraham was a one-way contract solely based on God’s promise, not on anything Abraham or any of his descendants did.  Because of this, nothing could ever supersede it.

Paul continues this theme on why this is so in verses 19-20.  He said,

The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator.  A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one.

When Moses went up the mountain to get the ten commandments, the people were so frightened by God that they told Moses,

Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die. (Exodus 20:19)

And so while Moses approached God, the people stayed at a distance from God.  (Exodus 20:21).  All the words God spoke to them had to go through Moses.  God spoke to Moses, saying “Tell them to do this, this, and this.  If they do, they will have life.  If they don’t, they will die.”  And Moses passed on all this information to them.

But think about this a minute.  Why did God need a mediator to pass on any information at all?  It was because the law was a two-way contract.  Both sides had their part to fulfill.  And if the Israelites did not keep their part, all the blessings promised to them in this covenant would be void.  Ultimately, that’s what happened.  Because they repeated broke the covenant, God did away with it.  It was an utterly fragile covenant.

Paul then says, “But God is one.”  That is to say, God is only one party and the only party responsible for doing anything in the covenant he made with Abraham and his descendants.  Abraham didn’t have to do a thing to obtain his blessings.  So the covenant with Abraham was totally different from the covenant based on law.  It was totally unbreakable because it wasn’t dependent on what we did, but on what God did.

In short, a fragile, breakable covenant can never supersede one that can never be broken.

What, then, was the purpose of the law? (19)

Logical question. Paul answers,

It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.  (19)

In other words, it was a temporary way to deal with sin until Christ came. Hundreds of years passed between the time of Moses and the time Christ came.  And God needed a way to deal with sin until then.  The law was that way.  But in saying that, Paul makes something very clear.  He asked,

Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? (21)

Put another way, “Is the law is then an alternative way to salvation?”

Answer:

Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. (21)

Paul’s saying here that the law is not an alternative way to salvation because if it were, there would have been no need for Christ.  All we would have needed to do is keep the law.  But the truth is, no one can keep the law, and so it has no power to give life to anyone in itself.  Rather, all it does and is meant to do is lead us to Him who can truly save us from our sin.

How does it do that?  We’ll continue on this theme tomorrow.

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Galatians 3:15-25 — What the law is and isn’t. What the law does and doesn’t do.

A lot of times, people look at the ten commandments and other laws that God gave in the Old Testament and they think, “This is what makes us righteous in God’s eyes.  If I want to have eternal life, I have to keep these rules.”

But that way of thinking shows a misunderstanding of what the law is and isn’t.  It shows a misunderstanding of what the law does and doesn’t do.

So Paul goes into detail about what exactly the law is all about.  He writes,

Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.  (15-17)

The first thing that Paul says is that once a covenant has been established, one simply cannot set it aside.  The word “covenant” probably holds the idea of a will.  When a person makes his final will and then dies, it cannot just be set aside.  Why?  Because it’s a one-way “contract.”  All the terms are set by one person. And its execution is based on one person’s “promise.”

That’s how God made his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15.  When he confirmed it, it wasn’t dependent on anything that Abraham did.  It was solely based on God’s promise. In Genesis 15, we see God making promises to Abraham and telling him about his descendants’ future.  Then God, appearing as a smoking firepot and blazing torch, walked through the pieces of some animals Abraham had cut in half.  That may seem strange, but in those days, it was the common custom of two people making a covenant.  After making the covenant, usually both parties would pass through the pieces, with the implicit meaning of, “If I fail to keep my end of the bargain, may I be put to death.”

But in this covenant God made with Abraham, Abraham didn’t walk through the pieces, only God did.  It was a one-way contract.

And according to Paul God’s promises were made not only to Abraham, but also to his seed, that is Christ.

Paul’s interpretation of Genesis 12:7, 13:6, 15:18 and other verses which cover God’s promises to Abraham is very interesting.  Obviously “seed” or “offspring” (as the word is translated in Genesis) can be plural or singular and it appears that in Genesis, God was speaking with the plural meaning in mind.  But Paul seems to say that while that the blessings of the covenant would come to all of Abraham’s true children, the promise was made specifically to Christ, and that it is through him, all of Abraham’s children would be blessed.

Paul then makes clear that one thing that the law doesn’t do is make the promises of God to Abraham and us dependent on our ability to keep the law.  Why?  Paul tells us in verse 18,

For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

In other words, if the blessings of God depends on our keeping the law, then it is no longer a one-way covenant based on God’s promise.  Rather, it’s dependent on our actions, and how well we can keep the law.  But that’s not the basis on which God gave Abraham these promises.  It was a one-way contract based on grace.  And because it was a one-way contract, God cannot simply set it aside.  He must keep his promises, for that is his nature.  What he says he will do.

The thing to remember then is that the law was never meant to replace God’s covenant with Abraham and make the blessings God promised to Abraham and his spiritual offspring dependent on keeping God’s law.

What then was the purpose of the law?  We’ll look at that tomorrow.

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Galatians 3:6-14 — The true children of Abraham

As I look at this passage, I can’t help but wonder if Paul thought back to the argument Jesus had with the Jews in John 8.  Because essentially, it’s talking about the same issue:  who are the true children of Abraham?

To the Jews, it was they who were the true descendants of Abraham.  He was, after all, their forefather and what’s more, they had and followed the law of God given through Moses.  And so when Jesus said that if they held to his teaching, they would know the truth and the truth would set them free, they immediately answered,

We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?  (John 8:33)

And that started a long conversation about who the true children of Abraham were.  Jesus pointed out, “You guys still sin.  You claim to be free as children of Abraham, but you are still slaves to sin.  But I am the one that can set you free from sin so that you will no longer be slaves to sin, but true children of God.”  (John 8:34-36)

When the Jews continued to insist that they were true children of Abraham, Jesus told them,

If you were Abraham’s children…then you would do the things Abraham did.  As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. (John 8:39-40)

In other words, when Abraham heard God’s words, he believed them.  He took them by faith, and that’s what saved him.  That’s what made him a child of God.  But the Jews proved themselves to be not true children of Abraham because they didn’t accept Jesus and his words by faith.  Instead they rejected him.

And that’s what Paul is saying here in Galatians.

Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.  (6-9)

Paul is saying here, that Abraham himself was not credited as righteous by his keeping the law.  The law had not even come into existence yet.  Further, if you look at his life, Abraham fell into sin from time to time.  But ultimately, he was justified by God because he had put his faith in God and His promise.

All true children of Abraham are the same way.  We may fail.  We may sin.  But we are not credited as righteous because we keep the law perfectly.  Rather, we are credited as righteous because we put our faith in Jesus.

In fact, Paul says that if we try to earn this status as “righteous before God” through our works, we actually put ourselves under a curse.  For,

Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law. (10)

And as I said, no one keeps it perfectly.

But Christ took our curse for us.  More, Paul says,

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (13)

By dying on the cross, he took all the curse of the law upon himself, taking all of God’s wrath toward us upon himself.  Paul then tells us that Jesus redeemed us, that is, he bought us out of slavery to sin and Satan’s kingdom.  And now, the blessing of salvation that Abraham received is available to us if we do what Abraham did:  simply believe in the promises of God.

In short,

No one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”(11)

How about you?  Are you a true child of Abraham, putting your trust in Jesus?  Or are you still trying to make yourself right before God by your own efforts?  No one can truly say they are saved if can’t truly trust God for their salvation and insist on trusting their own efforts or qualifications.

Who or what are you trusting in for your salvation?

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Galatians 3:1-5 — Starting by faith, continuing by faith

It is so easy, especially in Japan, to fall into the trap of trying to follow “the rules” after becoming a Christian.  After all, every other group the Japanese are a part of, whether it’s a school club, a company, or even their own families have their own “rules” to follow or “obligations” to fulfill.  And so upon becoming Christians, many people try to find out, “What are the rules?  What’s expected of me?  Do I have to read my Bible every day?  How long do  I have to pray every day?  How much am I expected to serve in the church?”

And if they fail to keep the rules, they start feeling guilty.  They start feeling like they’re bad Christians.  What’s even worse is when other people start throwing their expectations on these new believers.  “Well, a real Christian would never drink alcohol.  A real Christian would never miss church on Sunday for any reason.  A real Christian needs to give 10% of their income to the church.”

That’s exactly what was happening in Galatia.  The Judaizers were coming to the Galatian Christians and saying, “Well yes, you start the process of becoming a Christian by putting your faith in Jesus.  But after that, you have to be circumcised.  And from that point on, you can’t be eating pork or any other “unclean” foods.  Don’t forget to keep the Sabbath too.”  And so on and so forth.

And these people were speaking so authoritatively, that the Galatians were buying it.  So much so that Paul exclaimed,

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? (1)

He then asked,

I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? (2)

And again,

Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? (5)

The obvious answer was that they received the Spirit and all these blessings from God not through their own efforts to keep the law, but by simply believing the gospel that had been preached to them.

So Paul then asks,

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? (3)

In other words, we don’t just start our Christian walk by faith and then shift over into a life of keeping the rules.  Rather, we continue living our whole Christian lives by faith.  Our Christian lives start by grace and they continue by grace.

We never ever reach a point where we start living by law, attempting to keep God’s rules by our own efforts.   Our lives are never to come to a point where we are to focus on rules.

Instead, our lives are to focus each day on Jesus Christ.  To walk closely with him each day, learning to hear his voice, and then putting our faith in him, doing the things he asks us to do.   And as we believe him and step out in that faith, he gives us the power to do what he asks.  That’s the Christian life.  Not keeping a bunch of rules.

So how are you living your life?  Are you living your Christian life focused on the rules and doing your best to keep them?  All that will lead to is a life of guilt and condemnation, because none of us can keep them perfectly.

Focus on Jesus Christ.  Learn to draw near to him.  Learn to hear his voice.  And learn to follow his leading.  That’s what it means to live by faith.  And that’s what the Christian life is all about.

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Galatians 2:21 — The main problem with a gospel of works

Throughout this chapter, Paul has kind of been on the defensive, fighting the claims that God’s gospel of grace leads to a promotion of sin.

But here in verse 21, he goes on the offensive.  He says,

I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

In short, he was saying to these Judaizers, “If we need to keep the law in order to be righteous before God, what was the point of Christ’s death?  God could have just kept the old system, and Christ would not have had to come at all.  Are you telling me that God let Jesus get punched, whipped, beaten, bloodied, battered, and crucified…just to put us back under law again?  That’s ridiculous!”

Yet many people hold this idea today, particularly in the cults where they say, “Yes, Jesus died for your sin, but that’s not enough to pay for your sin.  You have to work for your salvation as well.”

But Paul totally debunks that view, saying, “That’s ridiculous!  It is simply impossible to do enough to earn your salvation.  If it were possible, God would have never sent Jesus in the first place.”

Paul’s argument also debunks the idea that Jesus is just one of many ways to God.  That people can get to God through Buddhism, or Hinduism, or through one of the countless other religions in this world.  If it were possible, God would have just used those methods.  Why let Jesus suffer as he did if there was another way?  It makes no sense.

So let us do away with the idea that there are other ways to heaven.  And let us do away with the idea that we can somehow earn God’s favor through our own works.

Jesus suffered on the cross because there was no other way for us to be made right before God.  Let us never spit upon what Jesus did for us on the cross by claiming there is another way.

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Galatians 2:19-20 — That we might be made righteous

We talked yesterday about how the Judaizers were basically accusing Paul of preaching a gospel that would make Christ out to be a promoter of sin.  That whenever they saw Paul or any other Christian fall in any way small or great, they would be quick to say, “See, this is the result of your gospel of grace.  You’ve become just like the sinners of this world.”

But Paul pointed out that even if he brought back the law and preached that people must keep it in order to be saved, it wouldn’t stop people from sinning.  The law has never produced any perfect people, aside from Christ.  All the law can do is point out that we are sinners in need of a Savior.

How then can we be made righteous before God, if not by the law?  Paul tells us in these next two verses.

For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (19-20)

What is Paul saying here?  What does it mean that through the law, I died to the law?  And why is that important?

In Romans 7, Paul talks about how the law has power over a person only as long as that person is alive (Romans 7:1).  As long as I live, for example, I have to pay taxes.  I am under tax law.  But the moment I die, I am dead to that law.  Now I’m sure the government will come after my wife to get any taxes I owe from her.  But the government can’t come to my corpse and demand taxes to me.  I am dead to that law.  It has no power over me.

Paul then says in verse 4 of Romans 7, that we died to the law through the body of Christ.  This is parallel to what Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ.”

What does this mean, though?

The law required a penalty for our sin: death.  But when Jesus came to this earth, he lived as a man under the law and he fulfilled it perfectly, never doing anything wrong.  And then he did something more.  Though he did nothing wrong, he paid the penalty for our sin on the cross.  When he died there, God put all of our sins on him.  (Isaiah 53:5-6, II Corinthians 5:21)

When God saw Jesus on that cross then, he saw everyone that Jesus was dying for.  When he saw Jesus on the cross, he saw me there, and said, “That’s Bruce.  He is now dead.  The law has put him to death for his sin.”  When he saw Jesus, he saw my wife and said, “That’s Satoko.  She is now dead.  The law has put her to death for her sin.”

That’s what it means by “I have been crucified with Christ.”

But what happened once we died there with Christ?  The law lost power over us.  We are dead to it.

We no longer have to worry, “I have to keep the law or God will nail me to the wall.”  We no longer have to strain under our own efforts to keep the God’s law, only to fail time and again, coming under its condemnation.

Rather, we start to see Christ living his life in us.  As the days go by, we start to see him directing our steps, whispering through the Holy Spirit the way to go, and not only that, but also giving us the power to do so.

And so living each day is no longer a matter of us changing ourselves, but rather learning to hear his voice and trusting him day by day.  And as we do, we start to find that we’re living lives pleasing to God.  We in short, start to actually live the righteous lives the law requires.

How about you?  Are you still trying to become righteous before God by keeping a bunch of rules?  Are you getting discouraged because you keep failing?

Or do you know the love of Jesus who gave his life for you?  Are you able to relax before God, enjoying his company, and learning each day to walk in relationship with him, trusting and loving him?

That’s the Christian life.  Is it yours?

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Galatians 2:15-18 — A promoter of sin?

One of the accusations Christians face, particularly from the cults, is that by adopting a gospel of salvation by grace alone apart from works, we actually promote sin.  After all, if we are saved by faith in Christ apart from trying to keep the rules, why keep any rules at all?  Why not just lie, steal, commit adultery, watch pornography, etc?  What’s to stop us from living that way if salvation is by grace alone?

Even Christians wonder this sometimes.  If we’re not living by rules, doesn’t that mean we can just live any way that we want to?  Don’t we simply have to have rules and keep them if we are to live the Christian life?  Isn’t the only alternative becoming like all the other people in the world, living in sin?

That’s what the Judaizers (those who said you must keep Jewish law in order to be truly Christian) were saying to Paul and the Galatians:  “By throwing away the law, you are lowering yourself to the standard of the pagans.  You’re becoming like them.”

And whenever they saw Paul or the Galatians either breaking Jewish law or flat out sinning (because all of us do fall even though we are Christians), they were quick to point to them and say, “See.  It’s just like we said.  You’re acting just like the pagans.  By this gospel of grace, you are actually making Christ a promoter of sin.”

In Paul’s words here, we see his response to these accusations.  He said,

We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.  (15-16)

In other words, Paul is saying, “We (that is, Peter and himself) are Jews, not Gentiles.  Yet we admit that we cannot be made right before God by obeying the Jewish law.  By ‘obeying’ the law no one can be justified.”

Why not?  Because in order to be justified by the law, you must keep it perfectly, and no one can do that.

And so Paul told Peter, “So we too, along with the Gentiles, realize that we must put our faith in Jesus in order to be made right with God.”

He then brings up the argument of the Judaizers.

If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners,does that mean that Christ promotes sin?  (17a)

Paul’s saying, “People are pointing to us as people who are seeking to be justified by grace, and saying, ‘Look at you!  Even though you say you belong to Christ, there’s still all this sin in your life.  This proves that your gospel promotes sin.  This proves that your Christ promotes sin.'”

Paul’s response?

Absolutely not!  (17b)

He explains,

If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. (18)

What does Paul mean by this?  I think he’s saying this:  “Let’s say that I do what you want me to.  I bring back the law and say, ‘To be a Christian, you must follow all these Jewish laws.’  Will that stop people from sinning?  Has it ever stopped you from sinning?  No.  All bringing back the law will do is bring us back to square one:  realizing that we are sinners in need of a Savior.”

What can we get from this?  We need to get away from the idea that following God’s law can in any way make us righteous before him.  It can’t.  All it can do is point out our sin and our need for a Savior.

There is only one way we can be made righteous before God, and that’s by putting our faith in Christ.  How does doing this make us righteous before God?  We’ll talk about this more tomorrow.

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Galatians 1:11-2:16 — Fighting for the gospel

In this passage, we see Paul fighting for the truth of the gospel.  First he went to Jerusalem to make sure he was on the same page as the rest of the apostles concerning salvation by grace apart from law.  And in the midst of that, the Judaizers started insisting that Titus (the same Titus Paul wrote to later in the book of the same name) had to be circumcised in order to be truly considered a Christian.  But Paul said,

We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.  (2:5)

The other apostles, fully on Paul’s side on this matter, then gave their blessing for him to go out to the Gentiles with this gospel of grace.  (2:7-9)

But later, Paul had to confront Peter himself on this matter.  Apparently Peter, because of his experience with Cornelius earlier (Acts 10-11) had fully embraced the Gentiles and had gone to the  extent of actually eating with them and most probably eating their food, even though it went against both Jewish custom and law.

When people from Jerusalem came, however, they were apparently looking side-eyed at Peter for what he was doing, and so he started separating himself from the Gentiles.  As a result, the other Jews with Peter started to follow his example, threatening to split the church all over again over a false gospel.

And so once again, Paul went to the mat, fighting for the gospel, essentially saying, “What in the world are you doing Peter?  All this time, you’ve been acting as a Gentile, eating their food and hanging out with them, this though you are a Jew.  And why?  Because you know that we are not saved by keeping the law but through faith in Christ.  You know perfectly well that nobody can be saved by keeping the law because nobody can possibly keep it perfectly.  So why are you doing this?”  (2:14-16)

Why was Paul so passionate about this?  Why did he fight for the gospel so desperately?  Because it was this same gospel that had saved him.  It was not some gospel that he or anyone else had simply made up (1:11).  It was a gospel that had stopped him in his tracks from a life headed toward death and gave him life.

But this was not a gospel that had come to him because of his own goodness or worth.  It was not a gospel that had come to him because he had kept the law perfectly and because he had earned his salvation.  He had murdered people, persecuting the church of God.

Rather, God had called Paul solely by His grace from before Paul was even born.  And it was by His grace that God was pleased to reveal his Son to Paul.  More he called Paul to spread that same gospel of grace to the Gentiles (1:11-16).

And so when people attacked this gospel that had saved him, Paul fought for it.

So should we.  We have been given life through this gospel.  God set us apart for himself before we were born and he called us.  Not because of our own goodness.  Not because of our own worthiness.  But because of his grace.  And now he calls us to spread his gospel of grace to those around us.  So when this gospel of grace is attacked, we need to defend it.

How passionate are you about the gospel?  Do you realize just how much you have been given?  Do you understand the grace that God has showered down upon you?  Then let us fight for the gospel and defend it against those who would attack it.  Not because they are our enemies.  But because they and all those around us need the truth of the same gospel that has saved us.

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Galatians 1:10 — A people-pleasing gospel

Let’s face it, the gospel we preach is hard for many people to swallow.  And because of that, sometimes Christians try to dilute it or sugar-coat it in order to make it more palatable for people to accept.

“Oh yes, Jesus said he was the only way, but he didn’t really mean that.  There are many other godly people in this world and God will surely accept them even if they never put their faith in Jesus.”

“Jesus doesn’t ever want you to suffer under any circumstances.  It’s his will that you live the good life, and to be healthy and prosperous here on earth.”

“Yes, I know that the Bible says this is sin.  But really, it was just laws for that time.  We are no longer under those laws.  The important thing is that we love and accept people for who they are.”  (I am not saying here that we are saved by keeping rules, which is the main thing that Paul speaks against in Galatians.  I’m speaking against the opposite error of saying that we are free to live what God calls a willfully sinful life and still call ourselves Christians.)

For the Galatians, it was the grace of God that was diluted.  No longer were people saved by God’s grace alone.  Instead the gospel was diluted with the idea that you had to keep the laws Moses gave the people in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Why did some Jews try to dilute the gospel?  Probably because they were too worried about what the non-Christian Jews would think.  They were worried that if they preached the grace of God alone for salvation, that they would no longer be seen as good Jews.  That they would be rejected by their family and friends.  And so they adopted this gospel that they hoped would be more acceptable to them.

Many people today do the same.  In order to make the gospel more “acceptable” to those around them, they dilute the gospel message.

But Paul says in this verse,

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.

In short, he’s saying, “When I preach the gospel, I’m not concerned about people’s approval of the message.  I’m not trying to please them.  Rather, I am trying to please God.”

And because of that Paul fought to preserve the utter simplicity and purity of the gospel, even going so far as to oppose Peter to his face when necessary (2:11-14)

How about you?  Are you diluting the gospel message to make it more acceptable to people?  Or are you telling people like it is?  As long as we are worried about what people think of us, we cannot please God.  And we certainly can’t please God by sharing with people a diluted gospel.

What kind of gospel are you sharing with those around you?

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Galatians 1:1-9 — Deserting God

A lot of people today see Christianity as a set of rules.  They think that you have to keep these rules to be accepted by God.  Even many Christians tend to think this way.  But is this what the Bible teaches?

In this letter, Paul was writing to a troubled church in Galatia, which is in modern day Turkey.  Paul had started many churches there on his first missionary journey, and at first all had seemed well.galatians-map-1200x959x300

But then word came back to him that some people called Judaizers had crept into the church.  These were people that were teaching that it wasn’t enough to just have faith in Jesus.  In order to be truly saved, you also needed to follow the Jewish law.  In particular, one needed to be circumcised.  And if you weren’t circumcised and keeping all the Jewish laws, then you weren’t really a Christian.

Because of this, the Galatians were falling into confusion, and had started to buy into this false gospel.  And so Paul wrote them this letter.

Right from the very beginning, he reminds them of this gospel that he had first preached to them, saying,

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever.  (3-5)

Here he reminds them that they had received grace from God and peace with God.  How?  Through keeping the law?  Through getting circumcised?  No, this was all of God, who had planned the way of salvation, and who through Jesus Christ had paid the penalty for all our sins through his death on the cross.  And because this was all the work of God, we don’t receive any of the credit for our salvation because we did nothing to earn it.  Rather, it is God that receives the glory because salvation is all of him.

This was the gospel that Paul had preached to them.

But now he tells them,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel–which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. (6-7)

That first phrase strikes me.  By turning to a gospel of law, to a gospel of salvation by keeping a set of rules, the Galatians were actually deserting God.  They thought they were pleasing him.  That they were drawing close to him by trying to keep these rules.  But in reality, they were turning their backs on him.  They were essentially telling him, “We reject your plan of salvation by grace alone through Jesus’ work on the cross.  We’re going to follow these other teachers and add these other requirements to your plan of salvation.”

In short, they were no longer putting their total faith in God for their salvation, but in these false teachers and their own ability to keep the law of God.

And so Paul reacted harshly, telling them,

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (8-9)

Paul was saying, “This ‘gospel’ you’re embracing is no gospel at all.  I don’t care who it is, if anyone, even an angel from heaven or even us, preaches a different gospel from the one we first gave you, they are worthy of eternal damnation.”

Why?  Because they have deserted God.  And anyone who follows a gospel of rules has deserted God too.

Which gospel are you following?  Are you following a gospel that says that faith in Jesus is not enough, but that you must keep a bunch of rules as well in order to be saved?  Or are you keeping your eyes on the cross, trusting in Jesus alone for your salvation?

Let us not desert God by following a false gospel, but put our full trust in him and Christ’s work on the cross for our salvation.

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2 Corinthians 13:5-14 — Seeking God’s best in people

As we wrap up this letter, we see Paul’s heart for the Corinthians, that they would know God’s best in their lives.

Paul starts out by challenging them, saying,

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. (5)

How can we tell that we are Christians?  The apostle John gives us ways to test the genuineness of our faith:  our belief in the truth about Jesus (1 John 2:22-23), our obedience to Christ (I John 2:3-4), and the love we have for God and others (I John 4:7-8).  This is  not to say that we will ever be perfect in obedience and love, but we should see these things starting to develop in our lives.  And when we fail, true Christians should be quick to repent.

Paul’s prayer was that they would pass the test.  That they would prove the genuineness of their faith by their repentance.  He told them,

Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong.  (7)

Why did he pray this?

Not that people will see that we have stood the test… (7b)

In other words not just so that people will say, “Oh Paul is such a great leader.  Look at the people he has raised.”  But rather,

…that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed. (7c)

What did he mean by this?  Paul had told the Corinthians that he would come with a heavy hand if they didn’t repent.  But if they repented, and Paul as a result didn’t show his heavy hand, his critics would probably say, “See how soft Paul is.  He’s no true leader.”  But to Paul that didn’t matter.  His only concern was that the Corinthians would repent and do what was right.  And so he said,

We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is for your perfection. (9)

Others might think he was weak because he didn’t come down hard on the Corinthians for their failures.  But again, he didn’t care about that.  He wanted them to be strong and not need his heavy hand.  And so he prayed for their perfection and restoration.  The ESV puts it,

Our prayer is that you may be fully restored.

Paul then told them,

This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority–the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.  (10)

In short, “Ultimately I want God’s best for you.  God has placed me into your lives that you may be built up.”

And so he charged them,

Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace.  (11a)

For if they did so,

The God of love and peace will be with you.  (11b)

He then concluded,

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (14)

That’s what Paul’s hope and prayer for them were.  And that’s what our hope and prayer for others should be.

Sometimes we need to be hard on people when they sin, particularly when they are stubbornly rebellious against God.  But all that we do should be aimed at their restoration, that they may know God’s best in their lives.

How about you?  Do you seek God’s best in others?

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II Corinthians 13:1-4 — When Jesus returns

In Paul’s warning to the Corinthians in this passage, I see a warning to us as well.

Paul told them,

I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me.

He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power.

Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.  (1-4)

When Paul had last visited the Corinthians, he came in weakness.  In other words, he didn’t come exercising his authority, but rather with tears, suffering rejection by the Corinthians and grieved by their sinful attitudes.  This, though he had laid down his life for them.

But now he was saying that when he came back, he would not come in weakness, but in the power of God, exercising the authority God had given him to judge the Corinthians.  And he warned them, “I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others.”  (2)

Jesus says the same thing to us.  When last he came, he came in weakness.  He came as a man, a poor carpenter and itinerant teacher.  He came not as a conquering king, but as a crucified Savior.  But by the power of God he was resurrected and the day will come when he will come back.  And when he comes back, it will not be in weakness, but in power.  More importantly, when he comes back, he will not spare those who continue to reject him.  Rather, he will bring judgment.

The problem with many people today is that they simply see Jesus as the loving Son of God who sacrificed everything for us to show us how much he cares for us.  That’s true.  He did.  But they forget that when he comes back, he will come back in judgment.  The time for mercy for those who reject him will be past.  He will no longer simply be the Lamb of God, but the Lion of Judah, the king who will reign forever.  And those who continue to rebel against his rightful rule will face his wrath.  And like Paul with the Corinthians, he will not spare any who continue in their rebellion (See Luke 19:11-27, in particular verses 14 and 27).

So the question you and I have to ask ourselves is this:  Have we submitted to Christ’s rule in our lives?  Or will we continue to live in rebellion to him?  God is patient with us.  But that patience will not last forever.

Let us not test the patience of God in our lives, but rather accept his mercy and grace while we still can.

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II Corinthians 12:11-20 — Marks of a leader (part 2)

A couple of blogs ago, we looked at some of the marks of a leader.  In this passage, I think we can see more of what a true leader in the church looks like.

One is that they do not think of themselves more highly than they ought, but that they think of themselves with sober judgment (Romans 12:3).  In short, they can see who they are, and properly evaluate themselves as a servant of Christ, seeing with humility both their strengths and weaknesses.

Paul said in comparing himself with those “leaders” who criticized him,

I am not in the least inferior to the “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing.  (11)

Paul knew who he was.  He was an apostle called by Christ.  He was accredited by the signs, wonders, and miracles he performed; he had started multiple churches; and though he wasn’t “impressive” as a speaker, he nevertheless spoke to great effect.

Yet he also remembered that he was nothing in himself, the least of all the apostles because he had once persecuted the church (I Corinthians 15:9).  That in himself he was weak and could do nothing.  (II Corinthians 12:7-10)

True leaders need to be able to see themselves with that same kind of lens, remembering who they are in Christ and their daily need for God’s grace in their lives and in their ministries.

True leaders also love their people, not simply looking to use them for their own advantage.  Paul wrote,

I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less? (14-15)

Paul truly wanted what was best for the Corinthians, and like a parent was willing to do anything to see them prosper spiritually, no matter what it cost him.  All true leaders should have that kind of mindset.

True leaders are consistent in their integrity.  Some of the Corinthians accused Paul of somehow trying to exploit them or deceive them, ironically by not taking their money to support his ministry to them.  Perhaps they were saying, “Well, he’s saying that he wasn’t going to take your money, but actually he is under the guise of taking up an offering for the poor in Jerusalem.”

But Paul could point to his life and the men he had sent to the Corinthians, showing that they had all acted with the utmost integrity.  (17-18)  Would that all leaders be able to do that.

Finally, true leaders grieve over sin in their people’s lives, and ultimately deal with it.  Paul’s fear was that he would have to deal with the Corinthian’s sins and deal firmly with it.  He didn’t want to do that, and was grieved over that possibility, but he was willing to do it  (20-21).  All true leaders should be that way.  They cannot simply look the other way in the face of sin.

That’s the kind of leader Paul was.  What kind of leader are you?

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II Corinthians 12:7-10 — The problem of self-sufficiency

I was raised by my parents to be pretty self-sufficient.  I remember one thing my dad told me after I had grown up and left the house was that the one thing he was happy about concerning my brother, my sister, and myself was that we never came back asking for money.

Self-sufficiency, in terms of independence from our parents, is a good thing.  We all need to grow up and strike out on our own.

But self-sufficiency in terms of our relationship with God is never a good thing.  There will never will be a time when we can truly claim independence from God.  We will always need him.  We will always need his power and strength in our lives if we are to make it in this life.  In our relationships.  In our work.  And definitely in ministry.

The problem with self-sufficiency is that it keeps God’s power from truly becoming complete in us.  Put another way, we will never have full access to the power of God in our lives as long as we are trying to be self-sufficient.

That’s what Paul learned and that’s what Paul tried to teach the Corinthians.

Paul had received an awesome spiritual experience, having seen heaven itself.  And it would have been so easy for Paul to think, “I’ve made it.  I don’t really need God anymore.  I am so spiritual that I can live this life on my own strength now.”

And so God gave Paul a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble and reliant on God.  What that thorn in the flesh was is not clear.  But whatever it was, a physical ailment (many people think it was an eye problem), or a spiritual problem, or whatever it may have been, though Paul pleaded three times for God to take it away, God refused, saying,

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.  (9)

In other words, “I don’t need to take this problem from you in order for you to live.  My grace is enough for that.  And my power is made perfect in your weakness.”

Why?

Because in our weakness we are forced to rely on God’s power and not our own.  God’s power will never be made perfect in our lives as long as we are relying on ourselves.

And so Paul said,

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.  (9b-10)

Why did Paul boast of his weaknesses?  Because it forced him to rely on God more, and in relying on God more, he knew more of the power of God in his life.  And I have to believe that in the process, he was forced to draw closer to God as well.

How about you?  Are you trying to make it on your own?  To live by your own power and strength?  By doing so, you’re missing out on two things:  the fullness of God’s power in your life and a closer relationship with him.

I don’t know about you, but I want both of those things in my life.

So let us not boast of our own self-sufficiency, but let us live each day leaning on God’s power and strength.

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II Corinthians 12:1-6 — What is far more important than our boasting

Well, this is my last day of vacation before I head back for Japan.  It will be an exceptionally long day, so your prayers for safety and strength would be appreciated.  Needless to say, I won’t be posting a blog tomorrow, but hopefully, shortly thereafter, I’ll get back to my daily schedule of blogging.

At any rate, this will be short and sweet.  Perhaps because the false teachers in Corinth had been boasting of their “revelations,” Paul let the Corinthians know that he himself had spiritual experiences that far surpassed whatever experiences these false teachers may have had.  He had in fact been carried to heaven into the presence of God (although Paul himself wasn’t sure if it was just a vision or it really happened).

But then Paul said this:

But I refrain (from boasting about my experience), so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.  (6)

In other words, we may have all sorts of spiritual “experiences.”  And I am by no means discounting them as a part of our Christian lives.  But we shouldn’t be using them as reasons to boast of our spirituality to others.

True spirituality is found in what we say and do moment to moment, day to day.  That’s what people should see when they see us.  Not our awesome spiritual experiences.  But God’s working and speaking through us to touch the lives around us.  And this, not for own glory, but for His.

Do you have awesome experiences with God?  That’s great!  But a true spiritual experience doesn’t end with the spiritual high.  It should translate into our day to day speech and actions.

Does it translate into yours?

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II Corinthians 11:16-33 — The marks of a true leader

As Paul compares himself with the false apostles that had crept into the Corinthian church, I think we see the marks of a true Christian leader, what he does, and doesn’t do.

A true leader shouldn’t have to boast.  That Paul did so was not so much a sign of his greatness as a leader, but a concession to the foolishness of the Galatians, who were too easily impressed by the “credentials” of those preaching to them a false gospel.  Paul himself, time and again berated himself as a fool for having to stoop to these false teachers’ level just to win credibility with the Corinthians.

But under normal circumstances, this shouldn’t be.  A true leader realizes that everything he has comes from Christ, and as a result leads with humility, not pride.

A true leader also doesn’t abuse the sheep, even when he must be stern with them because of their sin.  The false teachers on the other hand, enslaved, exploited, took advantage of and insulted the Corinthians.  Unfortunately, even today, you hear stories of pastors who abuse their positions.  But according to Paul, a true leader in the church gently instructs and corrects those who wrongfully oppose him.  (II Timothy 2:25).

More, a true leader cares for the sheep.  (28-29)  He sees those that are weak in faith and lifts them up.  He sympathizes with their weaknesses just as Christ does as our great high priest (Hebrews 4:15).  And when others cause his sheep to fall, he becomes indignant just as Christ does.  (Mark 9:42)

Finally, a true leader is willing to endure hardship for the sake of the gospel.  He doesn’t insist on luxury and comfort for himself.  Paul certainly didn’t, suffering persecution, danger, sleeplessness, hunger and thirst for the sake of the gospel.  (23-27)

Those are the marks of a true leader.

Are you a leader in your church?  As a pastor?  As a Sunday school teacher?  As a Bible study leader?  Do these things describe you?

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II Corinthians 11:1-15 — Another Jesus, another spirit, another gospel

In this passage, we find a very poignant truth.  When people tell us they represent Jesus, that they have the Holy Spirit within them, and that they’re presenting the gospel, we cannot simply take them at face value.  Why not?  Because of what Paul told the Corinthians.  What did he say?

I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.

Here Paul expresses his concern for the Corinthians, that they like Eve might fall into deception and fall away from Christ.  How could that happen?

By falling for another Jesus, another gospel, and another Holy Spirit.

“Wait a minute,” you might say.  “I thought there was only one Jesus Christ, only one Holy Spirit, and only one gospel.”

That’s quite true, but there are a number of counterfeits Jesuses, counterfeit Holy Spirits, and counterfeit gospels.  And they were being presented by, “false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.”  (13)

And Paul says we shouldn’t be surprised by this.

For Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve. (14)

Paul was already seeing this in his day.  There were people coming to the Corinthians speaking out against the things Paul had taught them and against Paul himself, throwing the whole church into turmoil.

And throughout the New Testament, we see these counterfeit teachers bringing their counterfeit teaching.

They brought another Jesus saying that he hadn’t truly come to this earth as a man.  (II John 1:7).

They brought false spirits which made it utterly important to test everyone who claimed to be speaking by the Spirit of God.  (I John 4:1)

And they brought a different gospel, saying for example that people needed to follow Jewish laws in order to be truly Christian (see Galatians).

To this day, there are false Jesuses.  The Mormons say that he is the spirit brother of Lucifer and one of many gods.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses say he is the archangel Michael and a created being.

There are false Holy Spirits.  The Holy Spirit of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is an impersonal force.  The Holy Spirit of the Mormons is again one of many gods.

There are false gospels.  Both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons preach a gospel of works in addition to faith as did many in Paul’s day.

The thing is, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are very nice people.  They are very sincere.  They may even appear to be more godly than we ourselves are.  But in presenting a different Jesus, a different gospel, and a different Holy Spirit, they prove themselves to be false teachers and false believers.  But because they sound so good, many people are deceived by them.

Let me be clear.  In the case of most Mormon’s and Jehovah’s Witnesses or other cultists, they are not purposely leading others into deception.  They themselves are deceived.  But if we are to avoid their fate, we cannot simply believe people because they say they believe in Jesus and the gospel.  We must test all things by what the Bible teaches, for it alone is truth.

Let us not be children.  Let us not be naive.  Rather, let us test all things, holding fast to that which is good.  (I Thessalonians 5:21)

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II Corinthians 10:7-18 — How we evaluate ourselves. How we evaluate others.

Well, I’m temporarily back in the blogging saddle.  I’m still on vacation, so as I mentioned before, it may still be a hit and miss, but I have slightly better access to a computer right now.

At any rate, Paul is still dealing with the Corinthians and their attitudes of disdain towards him.  Not all of them felt this way, but enough did that Paul felt the need to defend himself.

And as we look at these verses, we see how we should evaluate others and ourselves.

When the Corinthians looked at Paul, they merely looked at the outside.  And Paul was apparently a man who was not terribly impressive, in presence or in speech.  Some were saying of him,

His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing. (10)

But Paul told them, “You are only looking on the surface of things.”  (7)

Paul was every much of a Christian and minister than anyone the Corinthians could compare him too, but because they were focused on his appearance and speech, there were a number of them that simply couldn’t recognize that.  They instead looked down on him, despising him for his apparent weaknesses.  So Paul warned them,

Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present. (11)

In other words, “We are not all talk.  We live what we say.  And we will act on our words when we see you again if you don’t repent of your attitude.”

So as we look at others, we need to be careful to look beyond the surface.  People can be a lot more than they seem, and with the power of God working in them, can do much more than we might expect.  But if we are busy judging them and despising them for their supposed weaknesses, not only will we misjudge them, but we’ll end up despising people God has created in his own image and for his own purposes.  And God does not take that kind of attitude from us lightly.

But as we look at this, we can also see how we should evaluate ourselves.  Paul wrote of some of his critics,

When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.  (12)

In short, it’s pure foolishness to measure yourself by other people and compare yourself with them.  Why?  Because the standard that we are measured by is God’s standard, not human standards.  And when we measure ourselves by human standards, we grossly miss the mark God intends us to reach.

It’s also foolish to boast about something when you have no real right to do so.  It’s bad enough to be overly proud about what you have done.  But when you start boasting about what others have done and taking credit for it, that’s even worse.  But Paul never did that (13-16).

Paul then tells us what we should boast about,

Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.  (17)

What does that mean?  The Lord said through Jeremiah in the Old Testament,

But let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD…(Jeremiah 9:24)

In other words, our focus shouldn’t be on ourselves and what we’ve done.  Rather, our focus should be on God, and knowing him better.  The person who truly knows God truly has something to boast about because their focus is on the right place, and they’re no longer trying to please others, but God.  And in that is wisdom, for Paul tells us in verse 18,

It is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.  (18)

How about you?  How do you evaluate others?  Do you evaluate them by mere appearances?

And how do you evaluate yourself?  By comparing yourself with others?  By measuring yourself through human standards.  Or by the Lord’s?

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II Corinthians 10:1-8 — Tearing down Satan’s strongholds

I suppose the more that we look at the world around us, the more it seems like Satan has set up his strongholds in our culture.  Certainly we see it the moral shifts that have occurred in America over the last 10-20 years.  And in Japan, the spiritual strongholds are just as strong, keeping people in spiritual darkness with less than a percent of the population being church-going, born again Christians.

It’s enough to discourage us and make us want to give up.  For other Christians, it stirs up anger at what Satan has done to our culture.  And it makes them want to fight the way that the world fights: with viciousness and a stomp-you-down mentality.

But that’s not the way we are to fight.  That’s not the way to tear down the strongholds Satan has set up.

Paul had to deal with some strongholds in the Corinthian church.  Strongholds set up by false teachers.  Strongholds of division.  Strongholds of rebellion against God and against Paul.

How did Paul respond?

By the meekness and gentleness of Christ.  He didn’t come with an attitude of tearing apart those who opposed him.  Rather he came with a gentle spirit.  This is not to say that Paul could never be “bold.”  He could, and he told the Corinthians that if they didn’t repent, he would have to come in boldness and strength.  But that was not what he desired to do.

But even in coming in boldness, it was not to tear people apart, but to build them up (8).

He then talked about the kind of warfare we are to wage when attacking Satan’s strongholds.  He said first,

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.  (3)

Sometimes Christians come with the attitude of, “We need to fight fire with fire.”  Or they get sucked into the idea that they have to use worldly means to fight the deterioration in our society, using things like politics.

Don’t get me wrong:  we need to be involved in politics as Christians.  We cannot just take our hands off of it.  But if we think we are going to change our society through politics, if we think we are going to change the human heart through politics, we are sadly mistaken.  We can have all the Christian values incorporated into our society, but while it may improve our society, politics doesn’t have the power to actually change the human heart.

If we want to effect long-lasting change, it needs to start with each individual Christian touching the individual lives around them.  And we need to be using the spiritual weapons God has given us.

Paul said,

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. (4)

What are those weapons?  Primarily they are the word of God and prayer.  It’s speaking the words of God into the lives of the people around us, and then praying for them.  That’s what has the power to change lives as the Holy Spirit works in us and through us.

For it’s through the Spirit, that

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (5)

Ultimately, it is only God that can change the human heart, not politics, not our rhetoric, not our debating skills.

So I suppose the question we need to ask is twofold:

1.  Are we joining in the battle to tear down Satan’s strongholds?

2.  With what weapons are we waging this warfare?

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II Corinthians 9:11-15 — That God may be glorified through us

I touched on this at the end of my last blog, but I wanted to expand on the idea more, that is, when God’s people are generous, he is glorified through us.  Paul wrote,

You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.

Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.

And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. (11-14)

One of the key themes that we see throughout these verses is that our generosity causes people to give thanks to God.  They give thanks to God not just because their needs are met, but because they can see God working through us.  They see the surpassing grace God has poured into our lives, and they see it pouring out of our lives to touch them and others.

Too often, as the world looks at people professing to be followers of Christ, they see hypocrites and people who are uncaring, unloving, or indifferent.  But when they see Christians who are generous because they have been touched with the grace of Christ, they catch a glimpse of our heavenly Father, who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  (Matthew 5:45)

And as they see us, they start to glorify Him and hopefully start to become drawn to him.

Jesus said,

Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5;16)

And one of the best ways to shine our light is through our generosity.

But as we are generous, it also encourages others who are believers.  It encourages them because through us, they see that God has not abandoned them and that he cares for their needs.  It encourages them in that they see fellow Christians living out what they believe.  And it encourages them to live out what they believe as well.

And like Paul, they start to thank God once again for his indescribable gift:  the gift of his Son (15).  The gift that so changes people that they would share the love they have received from God with others.

How about you?  Is God being glorified through you because of your generosity.  Through your giving heart, do people see God in you and praise Him?

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II Corinthians 9:8-11 — Abounding in grace

Just a quick note before today’s blog:  I am currently on vacation, and so my blogs may be hit or miss for the next week and a half or so, depending on whether I have both time and access to a computer.  Hopefully, I’ll have both, but no guarantees.

I wonder how many people reading the title of this post, “Abounding in grace,” immediately thought in terms of us receiving grace from God.  Certainly, that is a part of what I’m writing about today, but it’s only half.

Paul wrote,

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (8)

I really like this verse.  It first talks about how God is able to shower his grace upon us so that we’ll have all that we need.  But what is the purpose of his showering his grace upon us?  His purpose is that we will abound in every good work, showering the grace we have received on others.

Paul quotes Psalm 112 where it says,

He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.  (9)

Somehow, whenever I’ve read this passage, I’ve always associated it with Christ.  I think I was confusing it with Ephesians 4:8 somehow.  But actually, the psalmist was talking about the righteous man and how generous he is.  He never fears the future because he trusts in the Lord, and that allows him to be as generous as he is, helping those in need and abounding in good works to those around him.

And that’s what Paul goes on to say in verses 10-11.

Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.  You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.                    

In short, we can be confident that God will not only supply our needs, but will also increase what we have to the point that we can minister to others, being generous on every occasion. 

The question is, “Do we trust God in that way?”  I have to admit that I’m still learning to do so.

I want to be like that righteous man in Psalm 112, filled with the grace that God pours into my life, but not holding it in.  I want to be overflowing with the grace of God, touching those around me and blessing them, so that people may see it and glorify God.

How about you?  Are you abounding in grace?

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II Corinthians 9:6-7 — Principles of giving

Here in this passage, we see two key principles of giving.

Paul says,

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.  (6)

This is true in all aspects of life.  If, for example, you sow sparingly into your marriage, you will also reap sparingly.  That is, if you put little time or effort into your marriage, you will reap little benefit from it.  In fact, your marriage will most likely wither and die.

If on the other hand, you sow generously into your marriage, you will reap great blessing from it.

The same can be said of raising your kids.  If you sow sparingly in the lives of your kids, you will find that when they grow up, they’ll want little to do with you.  But if you sow generously into their lives, you will find that you have a great relationship with them after they have grown up.

But the key point here is with giving of your money.   A lot of people think, “Well, tithing isn’t for the New Testament church, so why should I give anything to the church.”

But if we sow sparingly into the church, what does that mean?  It probably means your pastor will have to take other jobs to support himself and his family leaving less time for ministering to the church.  It means your church will have less resources to touch your community.  And it means that your church has less resources to minister to you and your family.

If you sow generously into your church, however, you will find that your church can be a great blessing to you, your family, and your community.

So if you’re complaining that your pastor or your church isn’t doing enough, a big question you need to ask yourself is this:  am I sowing generously into the church so that they can do more?

Paul then goes on to say,

Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  (7)

Our giving should never be done with an attitude of, “Well, I guess I have to give.”  It should never be done with the pain of pulling teeth or with the feeling of a gun pointed at your head.

It should be done with a heart of joy and generosity.  It should be done with a heart of, “I just wanted to thank you God for all you’ve done for me.  You have given me an indescribable gift in your Son.  Now I want to give something back to you.”

And when we give with that attitude, that is acceptable to God, whether we give a large amount or small.

The poor widow in Luke 21:1-3, had very little to give.  But because she gave from her heart, Jesus was more pleased with her gift than with any of the large gifts that the richer folks had given.

So how about you?  With what kind of attitude are you giving?  And are you sowing generously, or sparingly?

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II Corinthians 9:1-5 — When we have an influence on others

All of us have an influence on others, whether it be in our homes, at our churches, or at work.

Perhaps we didn’t ask to be their role models, but we have been placed in that position.  And if so, we have a responsibility, not only to them, but before God to live up to that position.

When the Corinthians heard about the plight of the poor in Jerusalem, they were quite eager to give and told Paul as much.  Paul was so pleased with their generous hearts that he shared the news about them with the Macedonians.  That in turn inspired the Macedonians to give.  Now on returning to Corinth, it seems that some of the Macedonians were thinking about coming back with Paul.  And a thought came to Paul:  “I hope the Corinthians are ready. What if they’re not?”

And so he sent this letter ahead of time to encourage them to get their gift ready, just as they had promised.  For as Paul noted,

If any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we–not to say anything about you–would be ashamed of having been so confident. (4)

Though they may not have planned to, the Corinthians’ zeal to give had a big influence on the Macedonians, inspiring them to give generously.  And if the Corinthians had failed to do as they had promised, it would have had a devastating effect on the Macedonians because those they had looked up to had so utterly disappointed them.

None of us are perfect.  We all fail.  And certainly, no one should so place you or anyone else on such a pedestal that if you fall, their faith falls as well.

But that said, it happens.  Jesus recognized as much.  And so he said,

But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! (Matthew 18:6-7)

So let us be careful.  Remember that what you do impacts those who look up to you.  By God’s grace, let us be people that inspire others to follow God, not to fall away from him because of their disappointment in us.

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II Corinthians 8:16-24 — A people that are an honor and glory to Christ

In this last section, Paul talks about the measures that he is taking to make sure that the offering he is collecting for the poor in Jerusalem is completely above board, that no one would be able to criticize him.

In doing so, he talks about the people that were chosen to be in charge of collecting the money and carrying it on to Jerusalem.

Among them were Titus and two unnamed brothers, one who was well known for his preaching of the gospel, and the other a man who had proven zealous in his work for the Lord.  And Paul says of them,

As for Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker among you; as for our brothers, they are representatives of the churches and an honor to Christ.  (23)

The word “honor” is often translated “glory” as well.  So Paul was also saying of these men that they were a glory to Christ.

What does that mean?  I think it means these men by their very lives brought glory and honor to the name of Christ.

They did so by their zeal for him.  They did so in the preaching of his word.  And they did so in the love and concern that God had placed in their hearts for others.

As I read this, I ask myself, “Am I an honor to Christ?  Do I bring glory to his name by my words and by my actions?  Am I zealous for him?  Am I bringing his words to those who need to hear them?  And is my heart filled with the love and concern God has for others?”

I hope that I am.  I realize I’m not perfect.  But I don’t want to do anything that would put a stain on the name of Christ.

How about you?  Are you an honor to Christ?  Do you bring glory to his name?

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II Corinthians 8:9 — Our example in giving

How much do we know the grace of Jesus in our lives?  And if we really did know it, how would it change our attitude in our giving, not only of our money, but of our time, our resources, and of our very lives?

Paul told the Corinthians,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

What is grace?  It is the giving of something to a people that don’t deserve it.  And Jesus was full of grace, giving to us what we didn’t deserve.  Think about what he did for us.

Jesus was “rich” in heaven.  Not in that he had lots of gold or silver or money.  Such things really have little worth in heaven.  But Jesus, while he was in heaven, shared in the glory of God, and was worshiped by the angels.  He sat on the throne next to the Father, lacking nothing.  He in fact ruled over all things, and through him, all things in heaven and earth hold together.  (Colossians 1:15-18)

And yet, he gave up all his glory in heaven to come to this earth as a man.  Not as a king.  Not even as a rich man.  But as a mere carpenter.  And even when he began his ministry, it was as an itinerant preacher, one who never knew where he would lay his head for the night.  (Luke 9:58)

And at the end of his life, instead of receiving worship, he was reviled.  Instead of sitting on his throne, he hung on a cross.  Instead of reigning in glory, he hung in shame.  Why?

So that we might become rich.  So that our sins might be paid for by his work on the cross.  And so that one day we would become co-heirs with him in his kingdom (Romans 8:17).

That’s the grace of Jesus that he freely gave to us.  So once again, the question is, “Do we know that grace in our lives?”

Has that truth truly sunk into our hearts?  Because if it has, it will show in our lives as well.  Generosity will spring out of our hearts just as it sprang out of Jesus’.

Honestly, it’s a truth that needs to sink a lot deeper into my heart.

How about you?  Do you know the grace of Jesus in your life?  Is it overflowing out of your heart in generosity to others?

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II Corinthians 8:7 — Excelling in acts of grace

In this verse, Paul encourages the Corinthians,

But just as you excel in everything–in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us–see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

The Corinthians were well known for their abundance of spiritual gifts as well as for their zeal and love.

But Paul says here, “Don’t just excel in faith, speech, knowledge, zeal, and love.  Excel in giving as well.”

Many Christians want to excel in faith, in speaking out for Christ, in their knowledge of God, in zeal, and in love.  But how often do we desire to excel as givers.  Precious few, I would guess.  But that’s what God desires for us.  That we would be givers, and touch the lives of the people around us.

I think that’s primarily what Paul is talking about here, and it’s how the NIV translates it.  But as I look at the ESV, it puts this verse this way:

But as you excel in everything–in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you–see that you excel in this act of grace also.

I want to focus on that last phrase:  “This act of grace.”  Again, this is specifically talking about the grace of giving, namely to the hurting Jews in Jerusalem.

But it strikes me that God wants us to excel in all acts of grace.  In the act of speaking words of grace to those around us.  In the act of showing kindness to others.  In the act of showing forgiveness to others.  In the act of showing mercy to those who are hurting.

We are to be people of grace.  Why?  Because God is a God of grace, and we as his children are to imitate him.

How about you?  Are you a person of grace?  Are you a person that excels in acts of grace to those around you?

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II Corinthians 8:6-12 — Finish what you started

This passage is so rich with spiritual truth that I think we’ll be here for a few more blogs.

Paul starts and ends this passage by basically saying this:  “Finish what you started.”

The Corinthians, when they had first heard about the needs of the poor Jews in Jerusalem, were quick to say, “We want to help.”  That spurred others, most notably the Macedonians, to give as well.

And so Paul told the Corinthians, “It’s great that you offered to help.  But finish what you have started.  Don’t leave your good intentions to fall to the ground to be trampled on by the shoes of neglect.  Fulfill your promises.  Start collecting the money you decided to give so that it will be ready when we come.  And if you do so with a heart that’s right, it won’t matter how much you end up collecting.  Because all that really matters to God is that he has your heart.”

How about you?  Do you finish what you start?  Do you follow through with your good intentions to bless others?  Or do you let your good intentions fall to the ground as your passion fades?  Let us not be that way.  Let us fulfill our promises and complete the good that God has put in our hearts to do.

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II Corinthians 8:1-5 — What giving is all about

Generosity.  Giving.

These are two things I have to admit I’m still working on in my life.  Perhaps it comes from being the youngest child in my family.  Perhaps it just comes from my sinful, selfish nature.  But generosity and giving are two things that are definitely not natural to me.  They should be, though.  These things should flow naturally out of all Christians.

It certainly was the nature of these Macedonians.  According to Paul, despite their troubles and their poverty, they begged to be allowed to give to the poor in Jerusalem.  You almost get the impression that Paul had told them, “No, no.  It’s totally okay.  You don’t have to give.  Others are giving and it should be sufficient to meet the needs of the hurting in Jerusalem.”

But the Macedonians begged Paul to be allowed the privilege of giving.  That’s how they considered it:  a privilege.

It’s so easy when we’re going through our own problems to focus on ourselves.  To become selfish and think only of how to make it through our own trials.  But the Macedonians refused to focus on themselves.  Rather, Paul says of them,

They did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.  (5)

That’s what giving ultimately is all about.  It’s the giving of ourselves to God, and to others.  Or as Jesus put it,

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37)

and,

Love your neighbor as yourself.  (Matthew 22:39)

So if you are stingy, if you are tight with your money, the question you need to ask yourself is this:  “Am I truly loving God with all my heart, soul, and mind?  Am I loving my neighbor as myself?  Or do I love my money more?”

The other question you need to ask yourself is:  “Am I so concerned with my own problems, that I can’t see past myself?  Or am I like the Macedonians, who could see past their own troubles to the needs of others?”

Where is your heart today?

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II Corinthians 7:8-10 — Two kinds of sorrow

Satan’s name means “accuser” or “adversary,” and for good reason.  He often comes at us accusing us for our sins and trying to point out to us what miserable wretches we are.

The thing is, most times we deserve what Satan says about us.  He points out every sin in our lives and basically tells us, “You’re no good.  You’re worthless.  Look at your sin.  You don’t deserve a thing from God.  How could God love someone like you?”

And he tries to crush us under the weight of our guilt.

But if you’re a child of God, you need to understand that if you are feeling these things, if you are feeling crushed under the weight of your guilt, those feelings are not coming from God.

Yes, when we sin, God wants us to sorrow over our sin.  But godly sorrow and worldly sorrow are two entirely different things.  Paul writes,

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it–I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while–yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. (8-9)

Paul’s words made the Corinthians feel guilty for what they had done.  His words made them sorrow for their sin…but only for a short time.

Paul’s goal was not to destroy them.  He in no way wanted them to suffer any long-term harm from his words of rebuke.  Rather, he wanted them to repent from their sins that their relationship with him and with God might be restored.

Paul then draws a sharp distinction between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow.  He said,

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.  (10)

The biggest difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow is this:  Worldly sorrow causes people to live all their lives in regret, seeing no way for their sins to be forgiven and no hope for the future.  And ultimately these feelings of sorrow and guilt crush them.

Godly sorrow, on the other hand, leads to repentance and a knowledge that no matter what they’ve done, God has forgiven them.  And so leaving regret and sorrow behind, they take Jesus’ hand and walk into the future he has for them:  a future filled with hope and life.

When you sin, is your sorrow a worldly sorrow that crushes you under feelings of guilt?  Or is it a sorrow that leads you to the feet of Jesus?  Is it a sorrow that leads you to repentance and life?

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II Corinthians 7 — True love

It strikes me as I look at the last part of chapter 6 and the whole of this chapter, that we see a reflection of God’s love for us in Paul’s love for the Corinthians.

Paul implored with the Corinthians in verse 2,

Make room for us in your hearts.  (2)

Some of the Corinthians had shut Paul out of their hearts, and so Paul said, “Open your hearts to us.”

In the same way, God calls us to do the same:  to open our hearts to him.  To not yoke ourselves with unbelievers, but to instead walk in close fellowship with him.  Why?  Because he loves us as his sons and daughters.

Paul certainly had that kind of love for the Corinthians, calling himself their spiritual father in Christ (I Corinthians 4:15)

And as their spiritual father, he showed them the kind of love our heavenly Father has for us.  Put another way, he showed them what true love is.

What is true love?

Paul wrote,

We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. (2b)

Would that all Christian leaders be able to say this.  That they have never intentionally or unintentionally wronged anyone.  That their teaching has led people to holiness.  And that they have never took advantage of people, taking people’s money for their own selfish gain.  Paul was one leader that could say that.

He then said,

I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. (3b)

True love stands by people whether in life or death.  In short, they are faithful to others, no matter the circumstances.

Paul adds,

I have great confidence in you; I take great pride in you. (4)

Love believes in people.  Even in the midst of his troubles with the Corinthians, Paul had boasted of them to Timothy.  It appears he had told Timothy, “I believe in these people.  I really believe they are God’s people, and so I know that even though my words to them were hard to hear, they will repent.”  (14)

And that’s why Paul did what love does: he spoke out words of rebuke when it was necessary.  Sometimes people avoid speaking words of rebuke.  They’re afraid people will think they are unloving.  And sometimes people can be unloving as they speak the truth.  They are more interested in being “brutal” than being honest.

But that wasn’t Paul’s intent.  His intent was that the Corinthians repent.  He didn’t desire that they be harmed by his words.  Rather, he desired that they would be built up because of them (10).  And that’s what ultimately happened.

One of the reasons we rebuke others is to test what is in their hearts.  Paul told the Corinthians, “When I rebuked you, it wasn’t so much for the wrongdoer’s sake or for mine, even though I am the one he hurt.  Rather, I wanted to bring out what was in your heart.  And you showed what was truly in your heart by your repentance.”  (11-12)

But again, it wasn’t as if Paul didn’t believe in them and so he felt he had to test them by confronting them with their sin.  Rather he believed in them and so he tested them, fully expecting them to come to repentance.  And they did.

That’s love.  That’s the love Paul had for the Corinthians.  That’s the love God has for us.  That’s the love we are to have for each other.

The question is: do we have that kind of love?

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II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 — Unyoking yourself

There are a couple of final things I should mention before moving on from this passage.

First, if you are a Christian that is married to a unbeliever, I am not saying that you should unyoke yourself from them.  If you married them in rebellion to God’s word, then I believe you need to repent.

However, having repented, it then puts you in a place where perhaps God can use you.  Paul tells you in I Corinthians 7 that as long as your partner is willing to live with you, (and hopefully they are), that you should continue with them.  Paul writes,

For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (I Corinthians 7:14)

I don’t believe that God is saying that he will guarantee their salvation.  What I do think he means is that as long as you’re there, the Spirit of God will work through you and touch your spouse and children in ways that he might not if you were not there.  And obviously, there’s a much greater chance of them being saved if you are there.

In short, you can make a difference.  The main thing is that you have your own relationship with God in order.  He cannot use you if it is not.  At the very least, he will be very restricted in what he can do through you, if there’s unrepentant sin in your life.

But if you find yourself regretting your marriage because your spouse is an unbeliever, hang in there.  God can use you to turn the situation around.

As I mentioned several blogs ago, however, there are other ways we can be unequally yoked that have nothing to do with marriage.  It may be a non-Christian friend that has undue influence on you.  It may be a parent (namely, after you have reached adulthood).  And of course, it may be a non-Christian boyfriend or girlfriend.  And you may be finding that because of their influence, it’s hurting your relationship with God.

How do you deal with that?  It’s very touchy to say the least, and it has to be dealt with in gentleness.  Reaffirm your love for them.  But tell them that they seem to be going in a different direction in life than you are and you need to go down the path God is leading you.

Then depending on your relationship with them, you either need to break off the relationship or put enough distance between you and them that they can no longer influence you.  That distance may be physical (like moving out of your parent’s house, assuming of course that you’re an adult), or simply a matter of spending less time with that person.

Hopefully, they will understand.  Some will not.  But as long as you are yoked to their influence in their lives, you will never be able to follow God as you ought.  So unyoke yourself.  Start following after Jesus.

And if you do, you will find the blessings God has promised.

I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people…I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.  (16-18)

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II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 — Unequally yoked (part 3)

I don’t think I can leave this passage without touching on an application that people often use when quoting this passage:  dating and/or marrying a non-Christian.

Some people say that this passage means we should not date non-Christians.

I will say straight out that while I don’t think it’s necessarily sin, I think it’s a bad idea and it can lead to sin.  I have seen three situations in the past 5 years or so where it turned out for the good.  But I have seen many others where it did not.

As for dating a non-Christian, I think the main question I would ask is this:  Who is influencing who?  Are you in every way influencing the other person to draw closer to Christ?  Or is little by little, the other person drawing you away from Him?  Are they starting to become attracted to Christ through you?  Or are they starting to chip away at your spiritual purity?

Are you finding yourself, for example, skipping church to go out on dates?  Are you finding yourself losing way too much time in the Word or in prayer because of the time you spend with them?  Are you finding that you’re compromising yourself sexually?

If the answer to any of these is yes, I would say it’s time to break off that relationship.

That’s a hard saying, I know.  Why is it so hard for a person in that situation to accept it?

The problem is that such relationships quickly become not simply an intellectual issue, but an emotional one.

We were created to bond with people of the opposite sex, not just physically, but emotionally.

And so when you start dating someone, that emotional bonding begins.

“He likes me!  I like him!”

“She likes me!  I like her!”

Everyone that has ever had a boyfriend or girlfriend knows the thrill of that realization.  And it only goes stronger the longer the relationship lasts.

The question then becomes, can you hold on to your convictions in the face of those emotions.  And that is very hard to do.

It is a very strong (and rare) Christian indeed who can stand firm on all their convictions in the face of pressure from their non-Christian boyfriend or girlfriend.

And I don’t know a single Christian that wouldn’t go through heartbreak, strong Christian or not, if they were forced to break off the relationship because of their convictions.

To take off on something that Paul once said (although the situation he was referring to was completely different)

But those who [date non-Christians or marry them] will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.  (I Corinthians 7:28)

Is it possible that the other person may become a Christian?  Yes.  But it’s just as likely, if not more likely that you will compromise on the One who went to the cross for you.  And as I said, I’ve seen that far more often than I’d like.

I think the situation is doubly tough as a Christian woman dating a non-Christian guy.  I believe scripture teaches that the husband is to lead in a relationship.  And that should start in the dating/courting stage of a relationship.  But can a Christian woman afford to let the non-Christian lead the relationship in everything?  If she does, she is definitely being unequally yoked.  If she doesn’t, however, there will always be something off in the relationship, since that is not how God created us to be.

It goes without saying that any Christian that goes ahead and marries an unbeliever is definitely unequally unyoked.  And at that point, I think they are definitely in the area of compromise and sin, because they have disobeyed the very words of God we have just read.

So what am I saying?  Be very careful about starting any romantic relationship with an unbeliever.  Because emotions get involved at  a very early stage, it can become very easy for you to fall into compromise and sin.

How about you?  Are you unequally yoked?

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II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 — Unequally yoked (part 2)

We talked yesterday about the importance of not being unequally yoked with people.  And the main point I made was that if a person is influencing you in ways that cause you to compromise your purity or compromise your life as a person set apart for God, you need to put a distance between you and them.

Why?

Paul tells us,

For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial ? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. (14-16a)

In short, there is a fundamental difference between unbelievers and us, and it cannot be reconciled.  Ultimately it comes down to the fact of who we belong to.

We are the temple of God.  God lives in us.  They are a temple of idols.  Oh, they may not be worshiping literal idols such as Buddha.  But in their hearts, they have displaced God from the throne of their hearts and have put other things there.  Their own happiness.  Money.  Possessions.  Or whatever it may be.  And whenever these things come into conflict with what God has taught us are true and right, they thrust God aside and simply live as they please.

How can we possibly yoke ourselves to these people and put ourselves under their influence?  They have bought the lie of Satan, “You shall be like God.”  (Genesis 3:5)

Satan tells them as he did Eve.  “You don’t need God’s advice.  You are wise enough.  You don’t need to look to God for happiness.  Look at these other things that can bring you happiness.  You don’t need to live for God.  Just live for yourself.”

And by following the lies of Satan, they effectively live for him and influence all others they touch to do the same.

But we are called by God himself to be his children.  To be different.  To be holy.

Paul says,

As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (16b-18)

Paul then concludes,

Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.  (7:1)

We are called into a wonderful relationship with God.  But if we want that kind of relationship, God calls us to purify ourselves from sin.  And sometimes that means separating ourselves from those that are pulling us away from him.

How about you?  Out of your love and reverence for God, are you living holy lives?  Lives that are pure before him?  Lives set apart for him?

Or are you letting yourselves be influenced by the unbelievers around you to the point that you just blend in with them?

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II Corinthians 6:14 — Unequally yoked (part 1)

Holiness.

It’s one of those words that could be called Christianese.  I suppose if people were to picture “holy” people, they would imagine people with a literal halo over their heads and shining with the glory of God.

But holiness simply comes down to two things:  purity and being set apart for God.  And as Christians, that’s what we’re called to be.  We can’t just blend in with this world to the point that they can’t tell the difference between us and them.  They need to see a difference in our attitudes and our actions.

But blending in is just what many Christians do.  And one reason that happens is that they do not live lives that are set apart for God.  Rather, they let themselves be influenced by the people around them.

And so Paul says,

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. (14)

What does it mean to be yoked with an unbeliever?  The picture comes from the Old Testament where God commands the people not to yoke a donkey with an ox. (Deuteronomy 22:10).  And that comes right smack dab in the middle of two other laws that condemned the mixing of things that were different: the sowing of two different kinds of seeds in a vineyard, and the mixing of wool and linen to make clothes.

Why did God give these laws?  Primarily to make a point about purity.  They were pictures that the Jews were to be a pure people.

Why did Paul bring this up in II Corinthians as an illustration rather than the mixing of seeds or fabrics?  Probably because he could see further application beyond purity.

When a donkey and ox were yoked together, the donkey had a significant influence on the ox.  The ox might want to go forward, but if the donkey were stubborn and refused to move, the ox would find it difficult if not impossible to move forward.  Or if the donkey tried to move in a different direction, the ox would have to make one of two choices: either follow the lead of the donkey, or again try to force the donkey to follow its lead.

I think the picture Paul is giving here is to not so tie ourselves to unbelievers that they can influence us.  That can be true in any relationship.  More than one Christian businessman has found himself in trouble because he partnered with an unbeliever who proved to be less than honest in his dealings.  We can also be influenced by the friends that we look to for our advice.

Now some of the advice unbelievers give can be good.  But at other times, they will give us advice that goes contrary to scripture, but sounds good to them and us.

“Go ahead.  Move in with your girlfriend.  You love her, right?”

“Hey, sometimes to get ahead in life, you have to bend the rules a little.”

And if we are tied to them to the point that they can influence us, they can lead us into sin, well-meaning though they may be.

But this should not be.  We are to be the influencers not the influenced.

Am I saying that we should cut ourselves off from all non-Christians then?

Of course not.  But for every relationship we are in, we need to ask, “Are they having too much of an influence in my life?  Are they causing me to compromise my purity as a Christian?  Are they causing me to compromise my life as one called to be set apart for God?”

If they are, then we need to start putting some distance between them and us to the point that they can no longer do so.

This is getting long, so we’ll talk more on this next time.

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II Corinthians 6:11-13 — What holds our hearts

There are some people that think II Corinthians was actually two or even more letters actually pieced together.  Looking at this letter, I can see why, though I still believe it is one unified letter.

Still, at one turn, Paul talks about his reconciliation with the Corinthian church, and at the next he talks about his remaining troubles with it.  The reason for this is probably that while the majority of the church had indeed repented, there were still a number of people there that had their reservations about Paul and his credentials as an apostle.  The question is why?

Paul says here,

We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us.  As a fair exchange–I speak as to my children–open wide your hearts also. (11-13)

Paul essentially says, “We have been nothing but open with you.  We’ve laid our hearts all on the table for you.  And yet, you still withhold your affections from us.”

The ESV translates verse 12 this way,

You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. (12)

The latter translation is more literal, and while a bit more obscure in meaning than the NIV, is much less interpretive.  While the NIV’s interpretation may be correct, I actually think what Paul is saying is this:

“You may find it difficult to open your hearts to us because of how we’ve dealt with you.  You may think us harsh for how we’ve dealt with you and the sinners and false apostles among you.  You may feel like we have shut you out by doing so.  But really you have shut yourself in because of the things that you are holding on to.

“You’re holding on to your sin.  You’re holding on to these relationships with these false teachers.  You’re holding on to idols in your life.  And so when we rebuke you for these things, you shut us out.  These things you cling to are what’s keeping you from opening your hearts to us.”

How about you?  What holds your hearts?

Sometimes, people leave the church and the fellowship of believers.  Or they may have a falling out with someone they once considered a close brother or sister.  And one reason is that these brothers and sisters have rebuked them for their sin.  As a result, they feel rejected by those who have rebuked them.

Being rebuked by fellow Christians can be hard.  And unfortunately, sometimes, Christians can go too over the top in their rebuke, failing to rebuke with gentleness.  (Galatians 6:1)

I do wonder if perhaps even Paul had failed in this respect concerning the Corinthians.  He was a sinner too after all, and he had had previous failings in his personal dealings with Mark, for example.  (Acts 15:36-39)

Nevertheless, Paul truly loved the Corinthians, but because of his rebuke and the Corinthians own wrongful affections, they failed to see the love he had for them and shut him out.

So my question is this:  Can we see beyond the painful words of our brothers and sisters, recognize sin in our lives, and release these things we are holding on to?  Or are we so in love with these things that it causes to reject further fellowship with those who love us?

In short, how do you respond to rebuke in your life?

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II Corinthians 6:3-10 — That our ministry would never be discredited

All of us, whether in formal ministry or not, are called to be ministers of Christ.  We saw that earlier in chapter 5, where Paul tells us that we have been given the message of reconciliation and are called to be Christ’s ambassadors.

But it can be so easy for our ministry to be discredited.  Put another way, it can be so easy for our Christian testimony to those around us to be discredited.

That’s why Paul wrote,

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.  (3-4)

How can we be a stumbling block to those around us?  By the way we live.  By our attitudes and by our actions.

And so Paul did his best to make sure that he lived his life with integrity, no matter his situation.  He said that though he went through multiple hardships, yet he lived in purity, understanding, patience, kindness, and love.  (4-7)

Think about that for a minute.  How often does our testimony suffer because in the midst of our hardships, we start complaining, we lose patience, and become self-centered, forgetting to be kind and loving to those around us?

Yet whether people honored him or not, whether people praised him or spread rumors about him, whether people considered him honorable or an imposter, whether people respected him or ignored him, whether he went through sorrow and joy, Paul always maintained his integrity.

He continued to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, holding on to righteousness, wielding the Word of God in one hand and the shield of faith in the other.

Can we say the same about ourselves?  May our ministry to others never be discredited through our actions and attitudes.  Let us instead walk each day in integrity, in love, in purity, and in patience.  Most importantly let us walk in the power and comfort of the Spirit.  And if we do, we will make a difference in this world.

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II Corinthians 5:16-6:2 — The message of reconciliation

Sometimes, Christians probably wish that in the face of all the troubles they go through in life, that God would just take them to heaven already.  Why doesn’t he?

There are many reasons we could give, but one big one is that we have a job to do.  Paul tells us in verse 16, that we should no longer view people from a worldly point of view, but from God’s point of view.  How does God view the world?

We mentioned one way he sees us a couple of days ago:  as people created in his image, and therefore precious.

But here we see another way he sees us.  Paul says in verse 20 that we are Christ’s ambassadors.

In Rome, there were two kinds of provinces, some friendly to Rome’s rule and some hostile.  The latter were under the authority of the emperor rather than the senate.  And to these hostile provinces were sent ambassadors to help keep the peace.

That’s the picture Paul gives here: that though the people of this world are created in God’s image, the vast majority have rebelled against him and are hostile to him.

But as his ambassadors, what message do we bring?  A message of hostility?  No.  First and foremost, it’s a message of reconciliation.  We appeal on Christ’s behalf:

Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (5:20-21)

This is the heart of the gospel message: that Jesus, God’s Son, came to this earth and he lived a perfect life.  He never did a wrong thing, never had a wrong thought, never failed to do a good deed that his Father had called him to do.  But then he went to the cross, and as he did, God put all of our sins on him, and he took the punishment we deserved on himself.

And now, because of what Christ has done, when we put our faith in Christ, God no longer sees us as sinners.  Rather, he sees us through the lens of Jesus Christ.  In other words, as he looks at us, he doesn’t see our sins, but Christ’s righteousness covering us.

Put another way, he justifies us.  He looks at us and says, “Not guilty.”

Not only that, when God looks at us, all of Christ’s righteous works are counted as ours.

What do we have to do to receive this precious gift of reconciliation?  Simply believe and accept it.

That’s the message.  But that’s not quite all of it.  We need to truly see the urgency of this message we are to bring people.  Paul says we need to plead with them, “Don’t just ignore this opportunity you have been given.  Don’t wait!” (1)

For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.  (2)

None us know when our time will come.  And the sad truth is, the more people harden their hearts to this message and wait, the more difficult it becomes for them to accept it.

So as we one song puts it, we need to tell people:

Tomorrow.
Forget about tomorrow.
Won’t you choose the Lord today.
For your tomorrow, could very well begin today.

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II Corinthians 5:17 — A new creation

This is probably one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (17)

I love the Life Application Bible’s comment on this: “We are not reformed, rehabilitated, or reeducated — we are recreated, living in a vital union with Christ.”

So many times, though, that’s how people think.  That God saved us to make us better people.  To make us good.

But that is not his purpose at all.  Rather, his purpose is to make us into something totally new.

The problem with the world’s way of thinking is that it’s based on the idea that we can be reformed.  That we can be rehabilitated.  That we can be reeducated.  And we can to some extent.  But if there’s going to be any real change, it can’t come from human efforts or human wisdom.  It has to come from God, changing us from the inside out.

The Jews tried to reform themselves for years, only to find themselves in relapse time and again.  The book of Judges is a constant picture of this.

God sent judges, priests, and prophets to reeducate them.  For that matter, they had the wisest man who ever lived ruling them in Solomon.  But not only could Solomon not reeducate his people into becoming new people, he himself fell into utter depravity and sin.

The Jews were put into longterm rehab in the desert for 40 years after their escape from Egypt.  Then they went into rehab again in Babylon for another 70.

Still, nothing really changed.  Oh, after the final rehab they finally came out a people that were no longer polygamous.  But when their Messiah came, they rejected and crucified him.  And to this day, the vast majority of them still refuse to recognize Jesus as their Messiah.

So what people need today is not reform.  Not reeducation.  Not rehabilitation.  They need to become totally new creatures.  And that can only come through Christ.  Only through Christ can we become the kinds of people that God originally created to be.  People who are the image of God himself.

I love the story of Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  Eustace through his own selfishness and greed had turned into a dragon.  And during that time as a dragon, he to  a degree was reformed and rehabilitated.  But he was still a dragon.

Then he met Aslan, a symbol of Christ throughout the Narnian stories.  Aslan told him, “Go into the pool and take a bath.  But before you enter, you need to undress.”

As a dragon, Eustace of course didn’t have any clothes, but he did start to peel off his dragon skin.  When he was done, he was about to go into the pool, when he realized he still had another layer of dragon skin on.  So he did it twice more, but still there were further layers of dragon skin.  So Aslan said to him, “You will have to let me undress you.”

Aslan’s claws then cut in so deep and so painfully that Eustace said that he had thought they had gone right into his heart.  Aslan then threw Eustace into the pool, and when Eustace came out, he was a boy again.

Like Eustace, we can try to reeducate, rehabilitate, and reform ourselves.  But that’s not what we need.  What we need is to become a new creation.

And as Lewis said of Eustace, it is only then that the cure truly begins.

How about you?  Are you trying to change yourself by your own efforts?  By doing that, you can only become “a better dragon.”  But if you truly want to become the person you were created to be, you need to become a new creation.  And that starts with a prayer.

Lord Jesus, I’ve messed up my own life with my sin.  I look in the mirror, and I don’t like what I see.  I’ve tried to rehabilitate myself, but it hasn’t worked.  So now I turn to you.  I believe you died on the cross to pay the penalty for all my sin.  Now forgive me.  Make me new.  Transform me into your image as I was originally created to be.  In Jesus name, amen.

 

 

 

 

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II Corinthians 5:16 — A totally new perspective

When Paul came to Christ, he was granted a totally new perspective in life.

Prior to his salvation, he had been persecuting Christians, thinking that he was doing God a favor.  But upon his salvation, he saw things in a whole new light, and he says as much in this passage.

We saw yesterday that when he saw Christ for who he truly was, and when he saw all that Christ had done for him on the cross and truly understood it, it changed his motivations for life.  It caused him to fall in love with Christ.  He now saw Jesus in a totally new way, and not only Jesus, but everyone else.  He wrote,

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. (16)

Before he saw Christ as just a man.  Probably as worse than a man, as a blasphemer and under God’s curse.  But now he saw Christ as God’s perfect only Son, and his Savior.  And before he saw the Christians as a bunch of heretics.  He saw the Gentiles as a bunch of outsiders.  But now he saw them in a totally different light, as people God loves.

In the same way, if we are Christians, not only should our view of Christ change, but so should our view of the people around us.  We should not view them as the rest of the world does.

The world evaluates people by their beauty, by their intelligence, by their wealth, and by their overall attractiveness and lovability.  And if they lack these things, especially the latter two, we cast them aside.  But we forget something.  In casting them aside, we cast aside people created in the image of God.

Yes, that image may be distorted, in some cases, badly.  But they are still created in his image.  And because of that God puts special value on them.  He put so much value on them that he sent Jesus to die for them, just as much as he sent Jesus to die for you.

How can we then despise them?

I have to admit, I struggle with this.  There are some unlovable people in my life.  But they are not truly unlovable, because God loves them.  And if I can’t love them, that points to a problem, not in them, but in me.  If I can’t see the image of God in them through the distortion, then there’s a problem with my spiritual eyes.

How about you?  Are you struggling with “unlovable” people in your life.  If so, then won’t you pray with me?

Lord, you have made me a new creation.  You have opened my eyes to who you really are.  Now, I pray that you open my eyes to see people as you do.  As people created in your image.  As people not worth despising, but worthy of love.  Forgive me for my wrong attitude.  I don’t want to be this way.  Change me.  Give me new eyes.  Give me your eyes.  And teach me to love them as you do.  In Jesus name, amen.

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II Corinthians 5:11-15 — Compelled

What do you live for?  And why?

For Paul, the answer was very clear.  The thing he always kept in mind was that a day of judgment was coming, not only for himself but for others (10).  And so he wrote,

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. (11a)

Put another way, to stand before God is a fearful thing.  It’s going to be bad enough for us who are Christians and know we won’t be condemned for our sin.  But it’s going to be a million times worse for those who don’t know Christ.  And because of that Paul says, “We do our best to persuade men to turn to Christ while they can.”

Again, he reiterates that he does so with sincerity and good conscience before God and men (11b-12), because he knows that God will judge him not only for what he’s done but for his motives as well.

What were Paul’s motives?  Why did he care enough to share the gospel despite persecution?

If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (13-15)

Paul says here that Christ’s love compels him.  Actually, the Greek reads, “the love of Christ compels us.”  And it can be understood two ways.  One is how the NIV translates it: Christ’s love for him and others compelled Paul.  The other is that Paul’s love for Christ compelled him.  I think if you asked Paul, he would have said both were true.  We see both ideas in the next two verses.

Paul says in verse 14 he says he was convinced Christ died for all.  Why did Christ die for us?  Why did he sacrifice all to go to the cross?  Because of his great love for us.  And now in response to his love, we no longer live for ourselves.  Rather we die to our old, selfish way of living and start living each day for Christ.  As John wrote,

We love because he first loved us.  (I John 4:19)

How about you?  Are you living for yourself?  Or are you living for God?  And if you are living for God, is it merely because of fear of judgment?  Or is it because of Christ’s love for you and your love for Christ?

And is Christ’s love flowing through you such that you feel like you simply have to share it with others no matter the cost?

Who and what are you living for?  And why?

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II Corinthians 5:1-10 — Though we may groan

In this passage, Paul continues his thought on why he had hope in the midst of trial.

He says,

Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. (1)

Whereas Paul compared our bodies to jars of clay in chapter four, he now compares our bodies to tents.  And he says these bodies we live in are just as temporary and flimsy as a tent.  It will not last. But even if they’re destroyed, we have hope.  Why?  Because we know that we will have another dwelling that is much stronger and will endure forever.

Here he is talking about our resurrection bodies which he talks about in I Corinthians 15, bodies that will never get sick or die.  But he says that while we have this hope,

We groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (2-4)

In other words, we have hope that we’ll not be mere spirits after we die but will actually have new bodies.  But until then, we groan.  And as we suffer in this body we are in now, we long to have our new body, knowing that when we receive it, all our weaknesses and sufferings will be gone.

Why in the midst of our troubles can we have this hope?  Because God has given us his guarantee on it. Paul says,

Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (5)

In short, it was God’s purpose from the very beginning to give us this new life in him, and to assure us that it will happen, he has sent his Spirit into our hearts.  And each day, the Spirit whispers to us that we are God’s children and works in us each day to transform us into the likeness of Christ.  And as we hear his voice and see his work in us, we find hope.

Because of this, Paul writes,

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. (6-7)

I like the way the ESV puts verse 6.  We are always “of good courage.”  We know that we are only away from the Lord for just a little while.  We will see him.  And so each day, we live by faith with these things in mind.  That in turn affects the way we live each day.

So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (9-10)

Because we know that we will see Christ some day, because we know that we will one day be judged for how we live our lives, we make it our goal to please him.  We no longer live to please ourselves, but to please him.

So though we may groan through our trials and struggles, let us keep the end in mind.  We will be with the Lord some day and all things will be made new.  So let us make it our goal to please him each day.  And if we do, on judgment day, we will have no need to be ashamed.

How are you living your life?  With temporary things in view?  Or with the eternal?

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2 Corinthians 4 — How not to lose hope

Paul closes this chapter the same way he opens it: with hope.  Here was a man that had experienced so much that it would have been easy for him to lose hope.

He had been hard pressed on every side, with conflicts from without and fears from within (7:5).  We often face the same problem.  Not only do we have to fight our circumstances, but we have to fight our own feelings.  We have to fight our fears, our frustrations, our sorrows, our hurt.

Paul had gone through times where he felt perplexed.  Literally, the word perplexed in Greek means “no way,” meaning that he was at a loss, seeing no way out of his situation.

He had been persecuted for his faith and even stoned and left for dead.  On top of that, we saw all the problems he had with the Corinthian church, leaving him wondering if all he had done had been in vain.

And yet he had hope.  Though he was hard pressed, he was not crushed, neither by his circumstances nor his feelings.  Though he was at a loss, he was not “utterly at a loss.”  He knew that if he sought God, eventually he would find a way out (I Corinthians 10:13).  Though he was persecuted, he knew Jesus had not abandoned him.  And though he was struck down, he was not destroyed .

Why?  How could he hold on to this hope in spite of his circumstances?

Because he knew God had a plan.

He says in verse 1,

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.

Paul knew God had given him the ministry that he had.  And God didn’t give him that ministry for nothing.  But God had given him that ministry to accomplish His purposes.

More, Paul knew that he didn’t even deserve to be given that ministry.  He had hated Jesus and had even persecuted the church.  But by God’s mercy, God showed him the truth.  God had even told him beforehand, “You will suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:16).

So Paul knew that this suffering he was going through was not a surprise to God.  God didn’t say, “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming.  Sorry about that Paul.”  Rather, everything that Paul went through, God knew about in advance.  And Paul knew that the same mercy that pulled him out of the darkness of his sin into the light of life, would pull him out of the darkness of his trials into the light of glory as well.

So at  the end of this chapter he says again,

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (16-18)

In other words, though we may suffer in this life, even though we may feel like we are falling apart physically and emotionally, day by day God is doing a work in us.  He is using our trials to transform us into the likeness of his Son that we may reflect his glory (3:18).

So how do we maintain hope in the midst of trial?  By fixing our eyes not on our troubles that we can see.  But by focusing on Him who is unseen.  And though we may not be able to see his plan, we need to trust that he has one.  We need to trust that these trials will not last forever.  That he will bring us through.  And that if we hang in there, we will see his glory, not just in himself, but in our situation and in ourselves.

I like the New King James version of verse 17.

For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.

So let us remember that.  God is not surprised by anything that you’re going through.  He has a plan.  So whatever you’re going through, put your trust in him that he will work out his plans, and if you do, you will find hope.

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II Corinthians 4:5-15 — Who we proclaim

When people see us, what to do they see?  So many times we want to impress people with who we are and what we’ve accomplished.  I have to admit, it’s a struggle that I am constantly fighting in my life.  All of us want to be affirmed by others.  But if we are living for other’s affirmations, we’ll miss the true calling God has put on our lives.

Paul wrote,

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (5)

Paul wasn’t trying to promote himself in his ministry.  He wasn’t trying to impress people with who he was and what he had accomplished.  Instead, he preached Jesus.  He pointed others to Jesus.  As for himself, he took on the attitude that Christ commanded us to take.

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ (Luke 17:10)

Even when he pointed at himself, he basically said, “I am nothing.  It is Christ who is in me that is everything.”  He told the Corinthians,

But we have this treasure (the light of the knowledge of the glory of God — verse 6) in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. (7)

Paul said, “We are mere containers of this treasure.  Not only that, we are weak, fragile containers.”  He wrote,

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. (8-11)

In other words, “We are so weak, that normally we would have been crushed by now.  We’ve been hard pressed with fears from within and conflicts from without (7:5), we’ve been perplexed, we’ve been persecuted, and we’ve been struck down.  We’re always on the edge of death.  The only reason we’re still here is not because of us and how great we are, but because of Jesus in us.  And through these things, his life shines through these fragile vessels of our bodies.

And that’s the calling God has put on us.  That in our lives, Christ would shine through us.  And as he shines through us, others will have his light shone into their hearts that they might be saved (6).  Paul says as much in the next verse,

So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (12)

So the question you need to ask yourself is this: Who and what are you living for?  Why do you do the things you do?  For Paul, the answer is clear:

It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. (13-14)

Because Paul was convinced that Christ died for us and was raised again, because he was convinced that God will raise him someday with Jesus along with all those who would be saved through his ministry, he spoke.  He preached the gospel.

How about you?  Are you convinced that Jesus died for you and was raised again?  Are you convinced that there is a resurrection and that you will be raised with all your family, friends, and acquaintances who have also put their faith in Jesus?

The proof is in how we live our lives.  Are we focusing others’ eyes on ourselves or on Jesus?  Are we looking to glorify ourselves, or God?

May we live each day with the attitude of Paul who said,

All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. (15)

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II Corinthians 4:1-6 — Our part, God’s part

I think one thing that a lot of people worry about as we share the gospel is how people will respond.

It’s only natural, I suppose.  For one thing, we really want them to be saved.  For another, we want people to like us.

But while the first desire is important, the latter is entirely secondary.  More, it should never interfere with our proclaiming with the gospel.

Paul wrote,

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. (1)

When he says, “we do not lose heart,” I think one thing he means is that he doesn’t allow himself to be discouraged when people reject the gospel message.

It can be disheartening when that happens.  It’s even more disheartening when people reject us because of the gospel.

But Paul declares,

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2)

In other words, “In declaring the gospel, everything we do is aboveboard.  We’re not trying to trick or deceive anyone.

“Nor,” Paul says, “Do we distort the word of God.”

That word “distort” is very interesting.  It’s the same word wine merchants used for diluting their goods.  Put another way then, Paul is saying, “We refuse to dilute the word of God.  We refuse to water it down to make it more palatable for those who hear.  Instead, we simply lay down the truth plainly as it is.”

In our day and age, it can be tempting to water down the word of God so that people can accept it and us.  But for Paul, it was unacceptable to do this.  Instead, he just laid the gospel before people and said, “Here it is.  Now what will you do with it?”

And God calls us to do the same.  It’s not our responsibility to make people believe.  Our responsibility is to tell it like it is.

Paul tells us,

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (3-4)

What Paul is saying is, “If we declare the gospel as we should, and people still can’t see the truth, we shouldn’t be blaming ourselves.  Satan himself has blinded their eyes.”

So what should we do then?  Put it in the hands of God.  Paul writes,

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (6)

Just as God was the only one who could bring light into the darkness at the creation of the world, he is the only one who can bring light into the darkness of the human heart.  So if someone rejects the gospel, pray for them.  That’s our part.  The rest is up to God.

So let us never dilute the gospel of Christ to make it more palatable to others.  Let us tell it like it is and pray for them.  Then let God do his part as he works in their hearts.  And ultimately, we will see fruit.

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II Corinthians 3:7-18 — Why we need never be ashamed

I touched on this yesterday, but I want to look at it much more deeply today.  We saw yesterday that when Moses received the ten commandments, his face initially glowed with the glory of the Lord.

At first, because the people were frightened by this glowing, he covered his face with a veil.  But then, he kept it on much longer than he needed to.  Why?  Probably because he was ashamed that the glory was fading from his face.  And probably because he realized that his own sinfulness caused that glory to fade.

And therein, as we have seen the last couple of days, lies the problem with the law.  While it tells us what God is like and what we are meant to be, it cannot change us. We remain sinful in God’s sight and condemned by the law.

But Paul tells us that doesn’t have to be us anymore.  Rather, when we come to Christ, we find a new glory that far surpasses the glory that shone from Moses’ face.  Why?  Because the law is no longer simply written on tablets of stone or on sheets of paper for that matter.

Rather, when we become Christians, the Spirit writes his laws upon our hearts and transforms us day by day into Christ’s likeness.  Each day, we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another.  There is no fading of our glory.  Rather, it is an ever increasing glory.

As a result, Paul can tell us,

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. (12-13)

We don’t have to worry that the glory that God has bestowed on us will fade.  Rather we can know with confidence that he will continue to work in us until we are conformed to the likeness of his Son, shining in radiance.

Because of this, Paul says we have freedom (17).  Freedom from guilt for failing to keep the law.  Freedom from punishment.  Freedom from trying to keep a law by our own efforts.  This was something that even Moses never had.  He was bound under law, and as a result, he experienced guilt and shame despite all the sacrifices (Hebrews 10:2-4).  He experienced the pains of judgment in that he could not enter the promised land because of his sin.  And so he covered his face as the glory of the law faded away.

But we don’t have to do that.  Let us take off the veil, and show the world who we are.  People saved by grace.  People who though we are not perfect, are nevertheless being transformed day by day in the likeness of Christ.

And let us live each day remembering what God has told us,

 “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone (Jesus), and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (I Peter 2:6)

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II Corinthians 3:7-18 — Seeing the law for what it is

A lot of times as Christians, we think of Christianity as keeping a bunch of rules.  And so do the vast majority of non-Christians out there today.  But the glory that we have as Christians is not found in a bunch of rules.  Why not?

Paul writes, concerning the law,

Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?

If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!  (7-11)

As we saw yesterday, the coming of the law was a glorious thing.  Why?  Because it showed us what God is like and how he created us to be.  Before we were in darkness as to these things, but God has revealed them to us.

But there was a problem.  Ultimately. the law led to death because none of us could keep it, at least not perfectly.  And so the glory of the law quickly faded, something that showed in Moses’ face.

When Moses first came down from the mountain with the ten commandments, his face was glowing with the glory of the Lord.  The people were frightened by this, and so he put a veil over his face.  But according to Paul, he kept it on much longer than he needed to.  And the reason he kept it on was because the glory was fading away.  Perhaps Moses was ashamed of this, thinking that if he were somehow holier, the glory would last much longer.  And maybe it would have.

For again, the problem with the law is that no one can keep it.  And because no one can keep it, it cannot give life to anyone.  Nor does it have the power to transform us into Christ’s likeness.

Yet many people continue thinking that it is through the law that they will be accepted by God.  And Paul says when the law is read, a veil covers their hearts (14-15).  As a result, they can’t see the truth concerning the law.  What truth?  All its glory has faded away.

But people think it is still filled with glory and can bring them to God.  And so they spend all their time in their own efforts trying to keep the law.  But in reality, all it does is points out their flaws and condemns them.

But when the veil is lifted, we see that the law’s glory is passed, and it causes us to look for what truly has glory.  What is that?  The ministry of the Spirit, set in motion by Christ’s work on the cross.  Christ paid the penalty for our sin, and now if we come to him in faith, repenting of our sin and making him our Lord, the Spirit starts to transform us from the inside out.  And each day, we are changed from one degree of glory to the next.

In short, this is no glory that will fade away like the glory of the law.  This glory far surpasses that glory.  And because of that, it will never, ever fade away.

So let us see the law for what it is.  It was something that was necessary for a time, to show us what God is like and what he meant us to be.  But it’s something whose glory has faded.  So let us no longer lean on it and our own efforts to change us.  Rather, let us learn to walk with the Spirit day by day.  And as we do, we will reflect our Father’s glory to those around us.

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II Corinthians 3 — Letters from Christ

I must becoming ancient.  I still remember letters.  I remember receiving them, reading them, and writing them.  When I first came to Japan 20 years ago, email was around, I used it in university, but it was hardly common.  So whenever I wrote home, I used air letters, which were cheaper than regular ones.

To this day, I still have a number of old letters from friends, but I can’t remember the last time I received an actual letter.

But anyway, Paul calls us letters from Christ.  When talking to the Corinthians, he said, “I don’t need letters of recommendation to you or from you to prove my ministry is valid.  Rather,

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2-3)

What does Paul mean that we are letters from Christ that are known and read by everyone.  He means that when people see us, our very lives are Jesus’ message that he is alive and working in this world today.

For when people see us, they see the change that he is working in us.

Back in the time of Moses, one way God revealed who he was to the Jews was through his laws.  Through the ten commandments, he showed what his character was like and what he created us to be like.  But all these things were exterior to the Jews themselves.  That is, through the law they could now see what God was like and how he had created us to be, but those tablets of stone could do nothing more for them.  They couldn’t actually give the Jews, or anyone else for that matter, the power to change.

But when we come to Christ, God writes his laws into our very hearts.  No longer are the laws merely exterior to us showing us how we should live.  Rather, the laws are written within us and God’s Holy Spirit is changing us from the inside out.  As we live each day, he is whispering to our hearts, “This is the way; walk in it.”  (Isaiah 30:21)

And as we follow him, we start to reflect the Lord’s glory in our lives and are transformed into his likeness with “ever increasing glory.”  (18)

I like how the ESV puts it.  We are transformed from “one degree of glory to another.”

In other words, with each little step we take in which we become more like Christ, we step into another degree of glory.  And as that glory shines through us, people start to understand, “Jesus is real.  He lives.  Because I see it in <your name>.  Each day, I see more of what Christ is through him/her.”

And in us they see that letter of invitation from Jesus that says, “Come to me.  You can find life just as <your name> has.”

So each day, let us be that letter to those around us.  Let God write his words upon our hearts that others may see his glory and come to know him too.

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II Corinthians 2:16b-3:6 — But how can someone like me make a difference?

Sometimes we read in the Bible passages like we saw yesterday, passages that say we are to be the aroma of Christ to those around us, or passages that call us to be his priests, and we ask, “How can I possibly do that?  I’ve got no special qualifications.  I’ve never been to Bible school.  I’m no pastor or missionary.  I’m just an ordinary Christian.”

But the truth is, none of us are truly “qualified” to make a difference in the lives of people.  Sure, you may have university degrees or many years of experience in ministry, but neither of these things nor anything else can give you the power to change a human heart.  Only God can.  Paul himself recognized this.

After talking about how we are the fragrance of Christ to those around us, he asked,

And who is equal to such a task? (2:16b)

The answer to this rhetorical question is: no one.  No one is equal to the task.  By our own strength and wisdom, we simply cannot change the human heart.  All we can do is what Paul did.

In Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God. (2:17b)

That’s all we can do.  Fulfill the great commission God has given us.  To speak with sincerity.  And to speak with integrity knowing that God is watching us.  The rest is up to him.  And if we will do our part, he will do his.

Paul wrote,

Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (3:4-6)

Paul makes it crystal clear here that we are not competent in ourselves to make a difference in the lives of others.  Rather any competence we have comes from God.  He is the one that makes us competent to make a difference as we serve him.  And because of that, we can have confidence.  Not in our own abilities or gifts.  But in the God who gave these things to us, and who can use them to bring change to the hardest of hearts.

So let us remember that.  We cannot change people.  But God can.  And if we will just be faithful to the things God has called us to do, we can make a difference.

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2 Corinthians 2:14-16 — The fragrance life, the stench of death

As Christians, there will never be a point in time when everyone will like us.  Jesus was perfect, and still people hated him.  Why?

Because of the aroma that flows out from Christ.

Paul says something very interesting here in this passage.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. (14-16)

The picture here is of a Roman general leading his troops in a victory parade.  And among those following him were the priests who would scatter sweet smelling incense out onto the streets.

For those celebrating the victory, it was the fragrance of life and victory.  But to those who were in chains, it was the stench of their own death staring them in the face.

In the same way, we are God’s priests, following our General who won the victory at the cross.  And as we spread the fragrance of the knowledge of him, to those who are saved and to those who hear the message and believe, we are the smell of ultimate victory and life.

But there are many others who hear what we say, and to them, it has the stench of death.  Why?  Because it shows them their sin, and it shows them where their sin is leading them:  to eternal damnation in hell.  And they hate it.  They hate their sin being called sin.  And they hate the idea that they will be held accountable for it.  To them, Jesus is the stench of death leading them to their own death (HCSB).  And because Jesus is in us, we become that stench to them as well.

To many others, however, Jesus is the fragrance of life leading to life eternal (HCSB).  And so when they see Christ in us, we become the fragrance of life to them as well.

I love the words of Jim Elliot who once said,

Father, make of me a crisis man. Bring those I contact to decision. Let me not be a milepost on a single road; make me a fork, that men must turn one way or another on facing Christ in me.

How about you?  When people see you, do they encounter the fragrance of Christ?  And are they forced to make a choice, turning one way or another, to eternal life or eternal death, on facing Christ in you?

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II Corinthians 2:5-11 — When there is repentance

When someone hurts us it can be easy to hold a grudge.  And even if they are truly sorry and apologize, sometimes we withhold that forgiveness.  Or sometimes we forgive, but we let them know in no uncertain terms that it hasn’t been forgotten.

The same is true in church discipline.  Someone sins, and is disciplined by the church.  They then repent, but people in the church still look sideways at them and keep their distance from them.

It’s almost as if we’re saying, “We can’t make it to easy for them to get back in our good graces again.  We have to make them suffer a little more, and then maybe, just maybe we’ll accept them again.”

But Paul tells us here that’s not how we should be.  He wrote the Corinthians,

The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. (6-8)

What did Paul mean by “the punishment inflicted on him is sufficient for him.”  I believe it means that the punishment has accomplished its purpose:  he repented.  And once a person repents, there is no further need for the punishment.  Instead, we are to immediately forgive and comfort him, letting him know that not only has God forgiven him, but we have forgiven him as well.  Having done that, we are to then reaffirm our love for him.

God wants us to mourn for our sins.  But as we will see later in this letter, there are two kinds of sorrow:  a sorrow that leads to repentance and a sorrow that leads to death.  But a sorrow that leads to repentance can also lead to death if that person sorrows excessively due to the fact that the people in the church refuse to forgive him or her.  The same is true in personal relationships as well.

And that is not something that God wants; it’s what Satan wants.  Satan’s schemes always have the same end in mind, “to steal, kill, and destroy.”  When we refuse to forgive a person and leave them in excessive sorrow, we are participating with Satan, not with God.

How about you?  Has someone hurt you?  Or has someone committed some grave sin within the church?  Have they repented?  If they have, then let us join in with God in showing forgiveness and acceptance to them once again.  Remember the words of our Lord who told us,

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:36)

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II Corinthians 1:23-2:4 — When we must confront

Confronting a brother or sister in their sin is never a pleasant thing.  Quite frankly, if you do think it is fun, you shouldn’t be doing it at all.

But sometimes it is necessary, and here we see in Paul’s life some principles for doing so.

Paul wrote,

Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm. (1:24)

Here we see a key attitude when confronting people.  We should never come to a person with the attitude of, “You must listen to me.”  Rather it should be with a heart of, “I really care for you.  I want to work with you through this so that you can overcome your sin.  I want you to know true joy, and to stand firm in your faith.”

So often, though, we instead come with an attitude of condemnation, and the love of Christ is not evident at all as we confront them.

But with Paul, it was totally different.  He said,

For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you. (2:4)

There’s no pride or arrogance here.  Rather, it’s a heart that truly cared for the Corinthians.

He also confronted them with the strong hope that they would repent as a result.  Sometimes as we confront people, we do so not because we have hope that they will repent, but simply to vent our anger at them and condemn them.  But Paul wrote,

I wrote as I did so that when I came I should not be distressed by those who ought to make me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would all share my joy. (2:3)

In other words, “I wrote so that when I came again, we wouldn’t have to go through another painful visit.  I wrote as I did because I believed in you.  I believed you would repent, and that ultimately, we could share in the joy of the Lord together when I came.”

Our attitude as we confront then, shouldn’t be “This is so like you.”  Rather, it should be, “This is so unlike you.  Let’s get back on track.”

Finally, we need to know that there is a time to confront, and there is a time to let God work.  Paul had made his initial confrontation and had been rebuffed.  He considered making another attempt, but in the end, put it off.  Why?

I call God as my witness that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth…So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you. For if I grieve you, who is left to make me glad but you whom I have grieved? (1:23, 2:1-2)

And so while Paul wrote another letter pleading with them to repent (2:3), he put off seeing them.  Sometimes that is the best thing: to leave people in the hands of God while letting them know that you still care.

So when we confront, let us do so with these attitudes.  And by God’s grace, we will see good fruit in the lives of those we care about as a result.

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II Corinthians 1:18-22 — Why we can have confidence in God

Sometimes, in the midst of trials, it can be easy to lose confidence in God.  One wonders if Paul ever came close to doing so, when he and his companions “were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.”  (8)

And yet through that time of hardship, they learned to put their confidence and trust in God (9).

Why were they able to do that?  And how can we be able to live that way?

Paul writes,

But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” (18)

The first thing that strikes me is that God is faithful.  And if through the midst of our troubles, we look back on our lives, we will see that.  We’ll see that not only in our lives, but in the lives of people throughout history.  More, we will see it in all the promises he fulfilled when he sent Christ to die for our sins.

Paul says “Our message is not ‘yes’ and ‘no.'”  In other words, the gospel is something that you can rely on.  It’s not a message that ever changes.  God doesn’t tell people, “You need to believe in Jesus to be saved,” only to tell them at heaven’s gate, “Sorry, I changed my mind.”  His word is constant and his promises are true, although everyone else’s may not be.

As Paul said,

Let God be true, and every man a liar. (Romans 3:4)

Paul adds,

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy, was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (19-20)

Put another way, Jesus is the one constant in a world that is always changing.  He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  (Hebrews 13:8)

And all God’s promises are confirmed in Christ.  Jesus fulfilled all the prophesies that said he would come preaching the good news, healing the sick, and dying for our sins.  And the day will come when Jesus will fulfill the rest of the prophesies, bringing his everlasting kingdom into the world.

If that’s true, then how much more can we believe all his other promises.  His promises to be with us through trial.  His promises that these trials we are going through are just for a little while.  His promises to bring us victory and to bring us out as gold through these trials.  And so through Jesus we can say, “Amen.  You have promised these things.  So be it.  I will believe you.”

And just in case that wasn’t enough, he’s given us more.  Paul writes,

Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (21-22)

God has anointed us with his Spirit, setting us apart for himself and his purposes.  He has placed his seal of ownership on us, a seal that says, “This person is mine.  I have bought him/her at a price: the blood of my own Son.”

And the Spirit he has given us is his deposit guaranteeing all that he has promised will come to pass.

So whatever we’re going through, let us put our faith and confidence in God.  God is true though everyone else may fail us.

How about you?  Will you choose to trust him today?

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2 Corinthians 1:12-2:4 — When others misunderstand and accuse us

As you read this letter, you start to see that Paul and the Corinthians had been having a really tough time in their relationship.

Apparently, some of the Corinthians had taken some of the things he had said in his earlier letter badly, and were now accusing him of being unreliable at best, and duplicitous and manipulative at worst.  One thing they had brought up was that he had said earlier that he would come to visit him, and at the last minute he canceled on them.

As a result, Paul ended up having to defend himself as to why he canceled the trip.  The main reason appeared to be people who were opposing his leadership.  Many scholars believe that there was a “painful” visit between Paul’s writings of I and II Corinthians in which people opposed him to his face and he had had to confront them concerning their sin, causing massive rift between him and the Corinthian church.

Paul apparently knew that if he came back right away, it would probably lead to another blowup, as things had not been resolved yet, and so he sent another letter admonishing them, in hopes that they would repent, and in the end, the majority of them did (7:6-13).

But there were still those in the church who accused him of being either unreliable or two-faced and deceitful (1:17, 7:2).

How do we deal with people like that?  People who refuse to understand us and accuse us of things that are totally untrue?

I think we see some answers in Paul’s response.

Paul writes,

Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom but according to God’s grace. (12)

The most important thing that we can do is to keep a clear conscience before God.  That when we are with these people, to deal with them with holiness and sincerity.  It’s a little unclear whether the word in verse 12 should be “holiness” or “integrity” (the Greek translations for these two words are different by two letters, and some of the Greek manuscripts use one word and some the other).  But either way, our actions should be holy or pure.  And they should be filled with integrity, not duplicity.  And we are to be sincere.

No matter what others may accuse us of or how they treat us, we are to always live this way, and deal with them in this way.

On the other hand, we are not to deal with them with worldly wisdom.  What is that? James tells us, saying,

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.  (James 3:14-15)

Rather, we are to respond to them with the wisdom that flows from the grace of God.  What is this wisdom like?

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. (James 3:16)

Paul showed that kind of wisdom.  As a result, many of the Corinthians came to truly understand him.  To those who didn’t, he reassured them that there were no hidden meanings or agendas in his writings.  And he expressed the hope that they too would come to understand that some day.  (13-14)  But until that day, he would continue to live as he always had, with holiness, integrity, sincerity, and grace.

How about you?  When others misunderstand you and accuse you, how do you respond? Let us respond as Paul did, and live in holiness, with integrity, sincerity, and grace towards them.

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II Corinthians 1:10-11 — The importance of our prayers

Do our prayers really make a difference?  Or would God have just done what he was going to do anyway, even without our prayers?

I think Paul definitely had his opinion on the matter.  He said concerning his trials,

He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many. (10-11)

The ESV makes it even stronger in verse 11.

You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

In short, Paul felt the Corinthians’ prayers made such a big difference that he begged them for their prayers.  He encouraged them: “Your prayers make a difference.”

Why does God desire so much that we pray?  Why doesn’t he just do whatever he wants to do?

I think the main reason is he wants us to interact with him.  Not only that, he wants us to partner together with him in his work.  What happens when we pray, and especially for others?

1.  We start to see beyond ourselves to the needs of others.  When God sees us doing that, it delights his heart that we are becoming like him.  Do our prayers then make him more inclined to act?  The Bible does seem to imply that.  James wrote, for example,

You do not have, because you do not ask God.  (James 4:2)

Jesus himself said,

Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.  (John 16:24)

2.  We start to see what God wants us to do.  As we pray, God starts to whisper to our hearts and tell us how we can touch others.  I think of the disciples coming to Jesus at the end of a long day saying, “Send the crowds home so that they can eat.  They’re must be hungry.”

Now I don’t think the disciples were primarily thinking of the crowds.  They were probably thinking of themselves and wanting to finally rest after a long day of serving.  But Jesus told them, “You give them something to eat.”  (Matthew 14:16)

They then went out and found a boy who had a small lunch of five loaves and two fish, brought it to Jesus, and he performed one of his greatest miracles.

In the same way, as we see the needs of others around us and we pray for them, Jesus starts to show us how we can partner with him to do his work.

3.  We start to see more of God’s goodness as he answers those prayers.  That in turn gives us even more encouragement to pray in the future.

4.  Not only will see God’s goodness and be encouraged, but others will too.  Paul said,

Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many. (11b)

So let us never doubt the importance of prayer in our lives.  And let us make it a special point to partner with God by praying for others.

Who is God calling you to pray for today?

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II Corinthians 2:6-7 — Seeing beyond ourselves

As I was rereading these verses, it struck me that Paul was truly following the pattern of Christ.

If Christ had merely been concerned about his own comfort, he would never have come to earth.  He would never have been born in a stable.  He would never have lived in a poor carpenter’s house.  He would never have gone days at a time without a place to lay his head.  He most certainly would never have gone to the cross. But he did.  Why?

For our comfort and salvation.  We were miserable because of all the sin and evil in this world.  More, we were headed for destruction.  And because Christ saw all of that, he gave up the comfort of his life in heaven and allowed him to become afflicted for us.

Paul saw Christ’s example, and he followed it.  For the sake of the Corinthians and all those he was serving, he was willing to go through shipwrecks, imprisonment, times of hunger and want, and persecution.  Why?  Because he saw beyond his own comfort.  And he saw the utter hurt and need of these people he was ministering to.

Even when Paul experienced comfort, his focus wasn’t completely on himself.  Rather, he saw it as being an encouragement to the Corinthians.  That they would see that Paul’s troubles, hard though they were, were nevertheless temporary.  That he found relief and God’s joy.  And so as they went through their own trials, they would have hope that just as Paul had found God’s comfort in his life, they would eventually find comfort as well.  And with that hope, it would give them the courage to endure any troubles that they suffered through.

It can be so easy to be self-centered.  To, as I said yesterday, live like a sponge simply soaking up God’s love and to just live a comfortable life.

But God calls us to see beyond ourselves.  To follow Christ’s example and be willing to give up our comforts, and even be willing to suffer that others may be saved.

If that’s ever going to happen, though, we need the eyes of Jesus.  Eyes that see the utter hurt and need of the people around us.  Eyes that drove Jesus to the cross.  Do you have those eyes?

Lord Jesus, too often I live for myself.  I live for my own comfort and satisfaction.  Forgive me.  Lord there are so many people around me who are hurting.  Who need you.  Help me to see them through your eyes.  To see into their very hearts and to see their needs.  Give me your compassion.  Father of mercies and God of all comfort, let your mercies and comfort flow through me, your child.  In Jesus name, amen.

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II Corinthians 1:3-5 — Called to be a channel, not a sponge

One of the great things about being a Christian is the blessings that God pours out in our lives.  And one of those blessings is the comfort that he gives us as we go through trials.

But it’s so easy for us as Christians to simply become sponges. We simply soak in the love of spongeGod and the comfort that he provides in our lives.  But while we do need those times of  soaking in his love and comfort, God does not want us to merely be sponges.  Rather, he desires that we be channels of his blessing to those around us.

Paul writes,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. (3-4)

Note that one of the main reasons God comforts us is so that we can take the comfort we have received and pass it on to the people who are hurting around us.

I like how the HCSB puts verse 5.

 For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. (5)

Christ’s sufferings, in a sense, overflowed out of his cup and into ours.  Not in the sense, of course, that we have to suffer for our own sins.  Jesus has already paid our debt completely.  But now for his sake, we are sometimes called to suffer.  Sometimes we are persecuted.  Sometimes we go through trials.  But God uses all these things not only to spread his kingdom, but to shape us into the people that he wants us to become.  As Peter said,

These [trials] have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  (I Peter 1:7)

But as much as his sufferings may spill over into our lives, so much more does his comfort spill over into our lives.  Not only that, Jesus overflows our cup with his comfort.

Why not just fill us to the brim?  So that his comfort might spill into the lives of those around us who are hurting too.

So often though, people just like to soak in that love and comfort they have received, and never see the needs around them.  But if we’ll just take a look around, we’ll be able to see people going through the same things we went through.  And God calls us to give them the hope of our experience.  To reach out to them and say, “I understand.  I’ve been there.  God’ll see you through.”  And to pour out God’s love and comfort into them.

How about you?  Are you merely a sponge, soaking in all you can from God? Or are you also a channel through whom God can pour his out blessings to those around you?

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II Corinthians 1:1-10 — Comfort in the midst of trial

This is probably one of my favorite passages in scripture.  Paul writes,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. (3-5)

Sometimes, we wonder through our trials and sufferings if God really cares.  If he really does love us.  But here Paul calls God the Father of compassion.  I like the ESV which translates it “the Father of mercies.”  In other words, when God sees us, he’s not indifferent to us.  Rather, he looks upon us with compassion and mercy.  I think about Jesus when he saw the people of Israel hurting and in need.  Time and again, the gospels tell us that he looked upon them with compassion.  And in this, he was a perfect reflection of his Father.

More, Paul tells us that he is the God of all comfort.  So not only does he feel compassion for us, but he reaches down to touch us.  I think of the time that Jesus dealt with a leper that came to him one day (Matthew 8).  Not only did Jesus look upon him with compassion, but he actually reached out and touched him.  This man probably hadn’t experienced human touch for years because others had feared catching his disease.  But in Jesus’ touch, the man found comfort and healing.

And though sufferings may abound in our lives now, God’s comfort will abound toward us even more (verse 5, ESV).

Paul spoke from experience.  He himself went through intense suffering, more than he could handle on his own.  I have heard and taught many times that God will never let us go through more than we can handle.  That is a true, but not complete statement.  God often does let us go through more than we can handle…in our own strength.  He stretches us beyond what we can handle to our breaking point.  Why?

Paul tells us.

But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.  (9)

In other words, God will put us in these situations to teach us that we can’t make it through this life alone.  But if we rely on him, he is the God who is so powerful he can raise the dead.  And in the hopelessness of our situation, by his grace, he can pull us out and give us new hope and life.

As God would tell Paul later,

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (II Corinthians 12:9)

And as we go through these trials and ultimately look back on them, we’ll see that God was there all along.  Then as we face future trials, we can have hope knowing that the same God that delivered us before will deliver us again.  Paul learned this, saying with confidence,

He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.  (10)

How about you?  Are you going through trials that you can’t see an end to?  Are you feeling stretched beyond the breaking point?  Remember that God does care and he hasn’t abandoned you.  So let us not rely on ourselves, but lean on his strength and power.  And by his grace he will bring you through.

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I Corinthians 16:22-23 — Come, Lord Jesus

It’s easy to look at this world and all the evil in it and get discouraged.  But as Christians we can have hope.  Why?

Paul writes,

If anyone does not love the Lord –a curse be on him. Come, O Lord! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. (22-23)

Those first words seem pretty harsh, but the truth is, anyone who doesn’t love the Lord is under a curse.  They have broken God’s law, and what’s more, have rejected their only hope of salvation in Jesus, some even going so far as to curse him (I Corinthians 12:3).

But for those of us who do love the Lord, Jesus has taken our curse for us.  Paul wrote in Galatians,

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13)

By dying on the cross, he paid for our sin, and fulfilled the requirements of the law, namely the justice it required for our sins.  But not only did he die, he conquered death and rose from the dead.

And because he lives, we know that we also will live (John 14:19).  The day will come when we will return, and on that day, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be changed, and we will be like him.  Every tear will be wiped from our eyes, and all sorrow and mourning will be gone forever.

So along with Paul, we now cry out “Maranatha,” or, “Come Lord Jesus.”

The other hope that we have, though, is that until that day comes, Jesus gives us his grace.  Day by day, through our failings and sin, he intercedes for us.  Through our trials, he gives us the strength to carry on.  And what he has started in us, he will bring to completion.  (Philippians 1:6)

So whatever you’re going through, don’t ever give up hope.  But each day let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, knowing that in him, we have hope, and we have life.

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I Corinthians 16:13-14 — Being men

I know this tends to get lost in some of the newer translations, but it seems to me that while Paul is talking to all Christians in this letter (I Corinthians 1:2), he does specifically address the men in this passage.

He said,

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love.  (13-14)

That word man is literally “man.”  And literally speaking, it’s saying “Be men” or “Act like men.”

It’s very similar in fact to King David’s words to Solomon.

So be strong, show yourself a man.  (I Kings 2:2)

What does that mean?  Essentially it means to be courageous.  But I think it also incorporates everything else that Paul talks about here.

Be on your guard.  Against who?  Against Satan and his demons.  Against those who would persecute you.  Against those who would arise from among you in the church spouting off false doctrine.  We are in a spiritual war, and we will face enemies both from within the church and without.  So Paul calls us to be on our guard.

Stand firm in the faith.  When the storms come, when trials and tribulations hit, don’t waver.  Don’t fall.  Stand firm.

Be strong.  Not in your own strength, but in the Lord’s.  And in the face of opposition, stand with courage, knowing that God is with you.

Do everything in love.  Not out of arrogance or pride.  Not out of a desire for power or respect.  But out of love.

Should women also be this way?  Certainly.  But if men are to be truly men, this is how God calls us to live.

So if you are a man…are you acting like one?

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I Corinthians 16:15-18 — Refreshing others

When we think of serving others, many times we think about simply doing the job God has called us to do.  And certainly that’s important to do.

Paul writes,

You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labors at it. (15-16)

Paul recognized this man Stephanas and his family for their service to God.  And he said we should submit to leaders such as them, who not only join in the ministry, but labor at it with all their hearts.

Ministry is a difficult thing.  Certainly God has given us gifts and that makes our work easier to do.  But still, we need to put in the time and effort to do the things God has called us to do well.  And Stephanas was such a man.

But then Paul adds,

I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus arrived, because they have supplied what was lacking from you. For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition.  (17-18)

How often do we think of the importance of refreshing the spirits of others?  There may be some people you know that are very diligent in doing their works of service.  They may in fact do them very well.

But when people come away from them, they come away not refreshed, but exhausted.  Why?  Because sometimes these people doing “the Lord’s work,” can be critical, condescending, irritable, and arrogant.

But Stephanas and the others Paul mentioned were not like that.  When people came away from them, they came away refreshed.  And that’s how we should be.

How about you?  How do others see you?  Do they feel dragged down when they see you?  Would they rather avoid you because of your attitude?  Or are they attracted to you?  Not just because you’re doing the Lord’s work, but because being around you lifts them up.

May we all be people that refresh those around us as the love of God flows through us.

As Solomon wrote,

A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.  (Proverbs 11:25)

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I Corinthians 16:1-4 — When we give

As Paul often did when he visited the churches, he collected offerings to support the poor Christians in Jerusalem.

And in his instructions, I think we see several principles concerning our giving.

First, give in accordance with your income.  Don’t feel like you have to match the giving of someone who makes twice as much as you do.  God knows how much you make and how much you can afford to give.  He doesn’t really care how much you give, so long as you give from your heart.  (See Luke 21:1-4)

Second, be intentional about your giving.  What does that mean?

For one thing, don’t give because you feel pressured to, but because you want to.

For another thing, make it a point to set aside how much you want to give from the very beginning.  In other words, put it into your budget.  Don’t just think, “Well, I’ll take care of all my expenses first, and then if there’s anything left over, I may give a portion of what remains.”

Rather, from the beginning, think about what you want to give. Make it a purposeful part of your budget.  And then as necessary, cut down on your other expenses so that you can give what you planned.

All these principles we can see in Paul’s words.  He said,

On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up so that when I come no collections will have to be made. (2)

Finally, make sure that there’s financial accountability in the institution or church you’re giving to.  Paul said,

Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me. (3-4)

All of this seems to be intended to make sure that everything was done above board, and that the money was handled by people who could be trusted.

The money we have is a trust given to us by God.  Let us treat it that way, and use it in ways glorifying to him.

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I Corinthians 15:58 — Because we have hope

Nobody said life was easy.

And neither did Paul.  He was a man who had been stoned, shipwrecked, persecuted, imprisoned, and even more.

What could keep a person going in the face of all these trials?  The hope that he had.

Paul had told the Corinthians earlier in this chapter,

Now if there is no resurrection…why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I die every day–I mean that, brothers–just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (29-32)

But there is a resurrection.  And after talking of the hope he had, that one day we will be changed, raised imperishable, and immortal, Paul exhorts us,

Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (58)

There is so much in this world that can shake us.  Our troubles, our trials, our worries.  And they may cause us to think that it isn’t worth it anymore to keep living as a Christian.  To keep serving the Lord.

But Paul encourages us not to let the storms of life move us.  To keep doing the things God has called us to do.  Why?  Because in the end, we will find that it was all worth it.  And one day, we’ll look into the face of Christ, and he will say to us with a smile, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

And on seeing his face, all that we went through will be revealed for what they truly are:  “light and momentary troubles” which are far exceeded and outweighed by the glory that awaits us.

I love how the Living Bible put it in Psalm 17:15.

When I awake in heaven, I will be fully satisfied, for I will see you face-to-face.

So if you’re discouraged, if you are feeling down because of what you are suffering through, if you feel like you’re losing hope, then as the old song goes,

Turn your eyes upon Jesus.
Look full in his wonderful face.
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.

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I Corinthians 15:51-57 — The final victory

I really love these verses.  Somehow, I’ve never gotten around to committing them to memory, but I think I may just do that over the next several days.

It is Paul’s victory cry.  He says,

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”  (54)

It’s possible he was quoting from Isaiah 25:8, where Isaiah said,

He will swallow up death forever.

Paul then cries out,

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (55)

It’s very interesting the passage he quotes here.  It comes from Hosea 13:14.  The NIV seems to put Paul’s interpretation on it, translating it to say that God will deliver his people from death.  But actually, it seems in Hosea that God is really calling down curses upon his people.  Essentially, he’s saying, “Shall I rescue you from the grave?  Shall I rescue you from death?  Death!  Rain down plagues upon my people.  O grave!  Where is your sting that you might prick my people?”  (see ESV or NASB).

Why?  Because of their sins.  Because of their unfaithfulness to God.

But here Paul says, “Whereas God once used these words to call judgment on his people for their sins, now he is proclaiming victory over the very sin and death that had once reigned over them.”

He says,

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. (56)

The word “sting,” can of course mean “sting” as in a scorpion’s sting or a bee’s sting.  And taken that way, sin’s sting was like poison to us leading to death.  The word “sting” can also mean “a goad,” however, and in that sense, it gives the idea that our sin pokes and prods us toward destruction.

And Paul tells us that sin’s power was in the law, namely in our inability to keep it.  We saw the law, but because of our sinful nature, we broke it leading us to sin and causing us to fall under God’s condemnation.  (Romans 7)

But when Jesus came, he fulfilled the law for us, living a perfect life, and then paying the price for our sins.  As a result, we are no longer under the jurisdiction of law, but of grace.  The law now has no power over us, and because of that, sin no longer has power over us either.

In short, death has been defanged.  (Or “de-stinged”)

And so Paul proclaims joyfully,

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (57)

What does this mean for us?  It means we no longer have to fear death because we no longer have to fear God’s condemnation.  He’s not waiting to call down plagues and destruction upon us.  Rather, the time will come when he will grant us new bodies and new lives in which we can glorify him forever.  And for all eternity, we will bask in this grace he has given us.

How about you?  Do you fear death?  Or can you along with Paul cry out,

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (55)

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1 Corinthians 15:35-55 — Though we are a dim reflection

I was kind of planning to move on to the next section of this passage, but the more I reflect on this passage, the more I stand in wonder at what we will be.

Our new bodies will be imperishable and incorruptible.  No longer shall we know illness, injury, or death.

More, Paul tells us,

And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man (Adam), so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven (Jesus).

Put another way, in our new bodies, we will bear the likeness of Jesus.  And because he is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), we will in fact bear the image of God much more perfectly than we do now.

As Adam’s descendants, all of his imperfections have been passed down to us.  Jealousy.  Deceit.  Bitterness. Anger.  Hatred. Sin.  All these things mar the image of God in us. As a result, our bodies as they are are but a dim reflection of God’s likeness.  But when we are transformed, we will reflect God’s image as perfectly as anything can.

As John said,

But we know that when [Jesus] appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  (I John 3:2)

But though we marvel at what we will be, let us not disparage or despise what we are now.

Paul writes,

There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. (40-41)

In other words, in all that God creates, each thing has its own splendor.

Our human bodies, marred by imperfections as they are, deteriorating as they are,  still have a type of splendor.  Think about all the intricate parts of the eye that have to work together so that we can see.  Or all the parts of the ear that are so perfectly fitted together so that we can hear.  Think about all the processes that connect my brain to my fingers so that I can type this the moment I think it.  These are things we all take for granted, but if you consider them, they’re incredible.  As David wrote, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  (Psalm 139:14)

And though we are imperfect, God is not waiting for us to receive our new bodies to transform us.

Rather, Paul tells us,

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.  (II Corinthians 3:18)

So let us not just consider the wonder of what we will be in glory.  But let us consider the splendor of the bodies God has given us now.  They too reflect God, if only dimly.  And as we consider that, let us strive each day to reflect his image even more clearly to those around us.

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I Corinthians 15:35-55 — What we will be

I was talking with some students in their 60s last week, and we were talking about how some researchers were talking about 60 and 65 being the new middle age because of increasing lifespans.

I asked them how long they hope to live, and all of them said between 75-80.  I would probably agree, the main reason being that by that time, our bodies are really starting to fall apart, something I really don’t want to have to deal with.

I’d much rather live in my new body that God provides me, and that’s what Paul talks about here.

Some of the Corinthians were asking, “What will our resurrection bodies be like?”

And Paul compares our current bodies to a seed that is planted in the ground.  The seed that is planted is quite different from what grows out from that seed.

In the same way, our current bodies when they are planted in the ground are quite different from what our new bodies will be like.  How will they be different?

Paul says,

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (42-44)

Our bodies, as they are, grow old and will eventually die, but our new bodies will never die.  Our bodies will deteriorate and rot in the ground, but they will be raised in glory.  Our bodies are growing weaker as we age, but our new bodies will be strong and healthy, never to grow sick or old again.

I think about my dad in his final days.  He was completely blind due to an accident.  He could barely move around towards the end, his body weakened by multiple bypasses and a variety of other health problems.  At the end, he couldn’t even speak.  He could only lie there.

It was hard to see him that way.  But I know that now he has been freed from all that, and when that day comes when Christ returns, and the final trumpet sounds, he will receive a new body and meet Christ in the air.  Assuming I’m still around when it happens, I’ll be joining him not long after.  And all things will be made new. On that day, we will all sing,

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?  (55)

I can’t wait for that day.

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I Corinthians 15:1-34 — The importance of Christ’s resurrection

I remember teaching at an English conversation school and overhearing this conversation between another teacher and her students.

Student:  What is Easter?

Teacher:  Oh, it’s the day that Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead.

<dead silence, and probably incredulous looks by the students>

Teacher:  Well, I don’t believe it.  Christians do.

Having been a Christian practically all my life, I suppose I take it for granted that Jesus rose from the dead.  But I have to admit, if I really think about it, it really is an incredible thing that we believe.  A very hard thing we believe.

And I suppose it would be easy to ask, “Is it really that important to believe in Christ’s resurrection?  Can’t we just teach what Christ said and what he did on the cross?”

That’s the question the Corinthians were facing.  And in fact, many were starting to say, “There is no resurrection.”

So Paul launches into a vociferous defense of the resurrection.  He says,

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.  (12-14)

He’s saying here, “Look, if there is no resurrection, that means Christ is still dead.  And if Christ is still dead, then our preaching and your faith are meaningless.”  Why?

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. (17-18)

Why is the resurrection so important?  It is proof that God accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins.  But if Christ is still dead, Paul tells us that means God didn’t accept Christ’s sacrifice, and we are still headed for hell.  And if we are still headed for hell, Paul says that we are to be pitied because all our hope is in vain (19).

Paul later says that he and so many others have suffered for Christ, yet if Christ is not risen, then all their suffering was for naught.  (30-32)  In fact, we might as well just live to please ourselves.  As Paul said,

If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (32)

But because Christ was raised from the dead, God did accept Christ’s sacrifice for us.  And because Christ rose, we can know that we too will be raised with Christ if we put our faith in him.  More, we have the hope that one day, he will return and make all things right, reigning over everyone and everything, even death  (20-27).

So no matter what we may go through on this earth, whether it be suffering or even death for Christ’s sake, in the end, we can be confident it will be all worth it.

Why is the resurrection important?  Because it is the source of our hope.  Without the resurrection, there is no hope.  But with the resurrection, we have a hope and joy that no one will ever be able to take from us.

Do you have that hope today?

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I Corinthians 15:8-10 — A grace that is not without effect

How do you see yourself?

It’s very striking to see how Paul saw himself.  After Saul met Christ, he changed his name to “Paul” which means “little.”

Here he had been this Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, a man full of himself, proud of who he was and where he had come from.  But when he met Christ, he was humbled.  He saw that instead of serving God, he had been persecuting him.  He saw that instead of being a righteous man in the eyes of God, he was a murderer.

He calls himself in this passage a man who was “abnormally born.”  The idea was a baby who had miscarried or was stillborn.

Because of his past, he called himself the least of the apostles, and said he wasn’t even worthy to be numbered among them.

You may feel the same way about yourself.  Like a nothing.  Like a person who would have been better off never being born.

But Paul goes on to say,

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.  (10)

What is Paul saying?  I think he’s saying, number one, that despite his past, God had accepted him as he was.  And second, God’s grace was changing him and would continue to change him throughout the rest of his life.

And that’s what we need to remember.  No matter your past, no matter who you are right now at this very moment, God accepts you as you are.  Dirt, blemishes, and all, he has accepted you.  But by his grace, he won’t leave you where you are, he will clean you up and make you all that he created you to be.

So how do we respond?  With gratitude and humility.  Paul writes,

I worked harder than all of [the other apostles] –yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.  (10)

Because of his gratitude toward God, it drove him to serve God with all his heart.  But even then, there was no pride in all that he accomplished for God.  Rather, he realized the fact that God used him at all was a sign of God’s grace.  God could have accomplished all his purposes without Paul.  And yet God chose to use him, broken and stained vessel as he was, for His glory.

How about you?  How do you see yourself?  Can you say as Paul did,

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.  (10)

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I Corinthians 15:1-11 — The most important thing

We now come to perhaps the most important part of this letter, because it stands at the core of our faith.

Paul writes,

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. (1-4, 11).

What is the gospel?

1.  That Jesus died for our sins.

2.  That Jesus was buried.

3.  That Jesus rose again.

And all this happened according to what God had prophesied in the Old Testament, particularly in Isaiah 53, but in many other passages as well.

Paul says this message was of first importance to him.  Why?

By this gospel you are saved.  (2)

If anyone is going to be saved from their sin and have eternal life, they must believe these three things.  There is no other way.

If eternal life was to be earned by our works, then the law would have been of first importance to Paul.

If there is no eternal life, then how we live our lives on earth would have been of first importance to Paul.

But there is eternal life, and the path to it comes through the cross of Christ, and God proved he accepted Christ’s sacrifice by raising him from the dead.  Because of this, this was what Paul considered more important than anything else.  And wherever he went and whoever he was with, this was the message he brought.

How about you?  Is the gospel of first importance to you?  Is it so important that you take it out to the people around you?  If we truly believe it, how can we not?

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I Corinthians 14:26-40 — That the church might be strengthened

In this passage, Paul gives instructions on how the church service was to be run.  And the main thing to him was that there was to be order, not chaos, in the church.

For that reason, if someone spoke in tongues, only two at a time could do so, and there had to be interpretation.  If there was no interpretation, they were to pray in tongues silently.  In short, if they weren’t building people up during the service, they were to be silent.

There was also to be order concerning prophesy.  Only one person could speak at a time and what was said had to be weighed carefully.  Weighed by what?  First and foremost by scripture.  Is what was said consistent with what scripture teaches, for God will never contradict himself. Second, the inner testimony of the Spirit by those who hear.  And third, if what the prophet said is actually true or comes true.

In addition, as with tongues, there shouldn’t be a bunch of people speaking out prophesies all at the same time, lest there be confusion as to what is said.

Then we have this thing about women being silent.  There are numerous different interpretations on the passage.  I don’t think it’s saying women have to be completely silent for two reasons.  For one thing, we already saw in chapter 11 that Paul takes for granted that women pray and prophesy in the service.  Second, when Paul elaborates on his meaning in this passage, he speaks specifically of women asking questions about what is being taught.

In church services today, a pastor or teacher speaks uninterrupted.  That’s taken for granted in this day and age.  Apparently, this was not the case for the Corinthian women.  Some have speculated that the men and women were sitting apart from each other as they did in the Jewish synagogue and that women were calling across the room to their husbands asking for an explanation.

Whether that’s true or not, it does seem that the women were interrupting what was going on.  So Paul specifically says,

If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home.  (35)

He mentions nothing about women praying or prophesying or anything else, just inquiries.  On the other hand, Paul had just said that everyone should bring something, a hymn, word of instruction, etc, in order to strengthen the church.  (26)

So what can we get from this?  Some people were apparently disrupting the church by speaking in tongues without interpretation.  Others seemed to be shouting down what others were saying because “God led them,” to speak.  Others were interrupting the Word of the Lord by their constant questions.  And all of this hurt the strengthening of the church.

We may not face these problems now, but are you doing things that are hurting the strengthening of the church?  Instead of praying for people’s problems, are you gossiping about them?  Instead of encouraging others, are you constantly criticizing them?  Are you, because of your pride, refusing to help others with the same gifts as you, for fear that they might surpass you?

Are you hurting the strengthening of the church by your negative actions?  Are you doing nothing for the strengthening of the church because of your passivity or selfishness?  Or are you actually contributing to the strengthening of the church?  I don’t know about you, but I would prefer to be the latter.  Which of the three describes you?

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I Corinthians 14:26 — Bringing something to give

One excuse people often use as to why they leave the church is, “I’m just not getting anything out of it.”

It’s almost as if they expect to be entertained or coddled, and if that’s not happening, they are no longer interested in coming to church.

But that way of thinking is purely selfish, and it is not how we are to think of church.  Paul wrote,

What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.  (26)

In Paul’s thinking then, when we come to church, our attitude should not be “Gimme, gimme, gimme,” and “me, me, me.”  Rather our attitude should be, “What do I have to give?  How can I strengthen the people in the church?”

And Paul doesn’t say that just the pastors should be doing this.  Rather, he says “everyone” who comes ought to bring something to give.  From the most mature Christian to the least mature, all should be thinking, “How can I bless the people I meet at church today?”

Even a young Christian can share something that they read in the Bible that week that touched them.  Even a child can share a song they learned praising Jesus.

Just this week, my five year old daughter was singing a song she learned in Sunday school to someone who was feeling down, which said, “Where is God?  God is here, and he’s with you wherever you go.”

So as we go to church, let us not go with a self-centered attitude of “What am I going to get from church today?”

Rather, let us look for ways to encourage and build up those we meet.

And let us consider, contemplate, and plan how to spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day of the Lord’s return drawing near.  (Hebrews 10:24-25)

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I Corinthians 14:7-11 — Speaking clearly

In the midst of Paul’s speech about tongues and prophesy, I think there’s a little nugget that we can all take to heart from pastor all the way down to the person in the pew.

Paul says,

Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes?

Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?

So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.

Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. (9-11)

Again, Paul is talking about why tongues without interpretation is useless within a worship service.

But have you ever been in a church where the pastor seems more interested in showing off his theological knowledge than communicating the truth of God to the people?  Who throws around all these impressive sounding words that no one really understands?  Who after he finishes speaking, people say, “Wow!  That was really impressive…What was he trying to say?”

I’ve read books on theology that read much the same way.  Now obviously, they’re meant to be much more scholarly and for a more tightly focused audience.  But they turned me off because I had to struggle just to figure out what they were saying.

But we can do the same as we’re sharing the gospel with people.  We throw around words like “redemption,” “saved by the blood,” “sanctification,” and “justification,” and never think that the other person might have no idea what we’re talking about.  Even a word like “sin” can be misunderstood if not explained.  For the Japanese, for example, “sin” means “crime.”  So if you don’t explain it, many Japanese will say, “No, I’ve never sinned.”

And so we need to be very careful as we share the gospel with people.  If we do not speak using intelligible words, no one will really know what we are saying, and we’ll essentially be speaking to the air.  They’ll look at us as if we’re speaking a completely different language.  And to them, we will be.  (I tend to call it Christianese.)

Let us not do that.  Instead, let us learn to speak intelligibly as we share the gospel.  And for those of us who teach or write the Word, let it not make it our goal to impress people with our knowledge, but to make sure they can grasp what we are saying so that God can work in their hearts.

Let us be as Paul who said,

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdomas I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.  (I Corinthians 2:1-5)

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1 Corinthians 14:20-25 — Understanding our gifts

This is one of the harder passages to interpret.  I’ve heard several interpretations on it.  I’m not sure that the one I have is the correct one and it may change in the future, but for what it’s worth, here it is.

Again, Paul is talking about the contrast between tongues and prophesy and why he prefers to see prophesy in the church rather than tongues.  He first says,

Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (20)

In what way were the Corinthians like children?  They were acting like children in that spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of tongues, was like a new toy to them.  They played with it, without really thinking about what it was for or what effects it might have on others.  All they knew was that they enjoyed “playing” with it, perhaps for the spiritual benefit it gave them in their souls (4), and perhaps for the fleshly benefit of showing off what they could do to unbelievers.

And Paul says, “Hey.  With regard to evil, be as innocent as infants.  But in the way you think about spiritual gifts and other matters, grow up.  Don’t just consider yourself, but consider the unbelievers among you and how your actions affect them.”

How were the Corinthians thinking?  This is a guess, but it seems that they thought it actually had a positive effect on unbelievers, possibly because of what happened on Pentecost.  But they failed to take into account something very important.  There were actually foreigners visiting on Pentecost who could understand what was being said.  In their church services, however, there were unbelievers who had no idea what was being said when the Corinthians spoke in tongues.  Because of this, they were not impressed by the Corinthians speaking in tongues; rather, they were turned off.

So Paul is saying, “You guys are all speaking in tongues during your services, and you seem to think that unbelievers will be impressed by this gift that you have and come to Christ.  But think about what the scripture says.”

Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me (21).

This is taken from Isaiah 28:11-12.  The context is that the people of Israel were considering the words of God as babble.  And so God was saying, “Fine, you consider my words babble.  I will show you what babble is.  You will find yourselves exiled in a land of people whose words to you will truly be babble.  And even then you won’t repent.”

Paul then applies this passage in reference to tongues and says, “Don’t you see?  Tongues uninterpreted and used in front of unbelievers is indeed meant as a sign for them.  (22) But it’s not a sign meant to convert them, but to express judgment on them.  They rejected words that they could understand, and so God makes all his words babble to them.  The result of this is not that they repent, but that they become even more hardened.  And so Paul says,

So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?  (23)

Even on Pentecost, you see the unbelieving Jews saying this (Acts 2:13).

Prophesy, on the other hand is a sign for those who (would) believe.  (22)

But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”  (24-25)

Now, full disclosure here:  there is no word “would” before “believe” in verse 22.  But it does seem to me that it best explains Paul’s meaning here in context.

So what do we take from this?  The Corinthians didn’t rightly understand their gifts and what they were for.  As a result, Paul warned that their gifts could have the opposite effect of what they were expecting.

How about you?  Do you rightly understand and use your gifts, remembering who and what they are for?  If you use them wrongly, whether it be with wrong motivations or in wrong situations, you may be shocked by the results you reap.

The most important thing, though, is to remember that our gifts are not primarily for our benefit or blessing, but to accomplish God’s purposes and to glorify him.  How are you using your gifts?

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I Corinthians 14:1-31 — Speaking for the strengthening, encouragement, comfort, and instruction of others

We’re in territory that I must admit I have little confidence to speak upon.  I suppose I’m in kind of a weird position.  I’m not one of those that believe that certain gifts such as tongues have disappeared.  I have, for example, known a Japanese home church in which someone spoke in tongues, and they happened to be speaking Chinese which that person never studied.  But at that church, there was someone actually there who did speak Chinese who interpreted.  And they said it was words that were glorifying God.  I’ve heard other similar stories as well.

That said, I don’t speak in tongues myself.

As for prophesy, I don’t believe as some do that it is merely “expository preaching.”  When I look at prophesy, it seems to be much more than that.  It was used as Paul describes in verses 3 and 31, for strengthening, encouragement, comfort, and instruction.  Now this may sound like expository preaching because good preaching will do that.  But I think the one main difference here is that good expository preaching comes from a careful study of the scripture.  Prophesy, according to Peter, doesn’t seem to be that way.  Rather, Peter wrote,

Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.  (II Peter 1:21)

And looking at this whole passage in I Corinthians 14, I think prophesy is dealt with in that sense of being carried along by the Spirit as they speak, rather than speaking from self-study.

Anyway, this whole passage is talking about the difference between tongues and prophesy.  And Paul says here that the main difference is that when you pray in tongues, it really does no good to anyone except the person who is praying.  (It edifies them somehow in the spirit).  The exception to this is if what they are saying is interpreted.

Prophesy, on the other hand, is more useful in itself because it is spoken in the language that everyone knows.  And so while Paul encourages the Corinthians to speak in tongues, he encourages them to be eager for the gift of prophesy even more.

Paul says,

He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.  (5)

And again,

Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church. (12)

I could say much more on this topic, and probably will in the next few blogs, but here’s the thing that strikes me the most of all that Paul says.  The words we speak in the church are to be finely tuned instruments.  And through those words, we should be strengthening, encouraging, comforting, and instructing others.

Those are the main functions of prophesy.  But that should be the goal of all who are Christians.  The gift of prophesy, I believe, augments the ability to do this by attaching special supernatural power to it.  But whether we have the gift or not, those are the kinds of words that should be coming out of our mouths as we talk to the people around us.

How about you?  Are your words doing these things?  Do your words build up the people around you?

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I Corinthians 13:13 — What remains

It’s very interesting to consider what Paul says here in the final verse of chapter 13. In talking about the gifts that will pass away when we see Jesus face to face, he contrasts them with what will remain even in heaven.  He said,

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

It’s interesting to me to think that faith will still be a major part of our lives in heaven.  After all, we will see God.  Is there really going to be a need for faith? I think so, but I get the impression it will be different from what it is here on earth.  Here on earth, we still struggle with believing God many times because of our sinful nature.  Many times, we believe, but we don’t believe, much like the desperate father in Mark chapter 9.  More, it can be tough to believe God when we can’t physically see him or hear him.

But in the face our Father, it will become only natural for us to trust him.  When we see his face and the love he has for us, we won’t be able to help but trust him.  I just wish things were like that now.

Hope is another thing that seems a little strange in eternity.  What are we hoping for?  We’ll already have been saved and be in heaven, after all.  Hope also, I think, will be somewhat different from hope here on earth.  I don’t think it will be a longing for something because of the bitter or difficult circumstances we are going through.  Rather, it’s the hope that in the midst of our current joy, things will only continue getting better because we know God is good.

But the greatest of these three, Paul says, is love.  Why the greatest?  I’m not sure, but maybe one reason is that while faith and hope will remain, they will nevertheless be different.

A large element of what faith is, belief in the unseen (Hebrews 11:1), is taken out as we see God face to face.  A large element of hope is, an earnest longing for what we do not have (Romans 8:24), is removed as our greatest hope is fulfilled when we meet Christ face to face.  Whatever hopes we may have after that can only pale in comparison to what we have already received in Christ.

But when we reach heaven, nothing is removed from the love that we have for God and others, save for the impurities that permeated our love here on earth.  All jealousy, selfishness, pride, and so forth, will be purged out, leaving us a love that is purer, richer, and fuller than we have ever experienced here on earth. I can’t wait for that day.

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I Corinthians 13:11 — To become mature

Paul says here in verse 11,

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.

From the context of this passage, Paul seems to be comparing what life will be like in heaven with what it is like here on earth.  The picture seems to be that when we are in heaven, we will be mature, while here on earth, we are in many ways immature.  And because of our immaturity, we still need many crutches in life.

We need prophesy to help us hear the word of God more clearly.  We need tongues to pray when we don’t even know how to pray, or to communicate the gospel with others when we don’t know their language.  We, to a large degree, are dependent on knowledge developed by finite minds to try to understand who God is.

But in heaven, all these crutches will be unnecessary, as we see God face to face.

That seems to be the main gist of what Paul is saying here.

But as I think about it, I wonder if Paul wasn’t also giving the Corinthians a challenge to mature while they were still here on earth.

Certainly, he had already blasted them for their immaturity earlier in the letter (chapter 3, verses 1-4).  And so perhaps he was telling the Corinthians, “It’s time to grow up.  When you were a baby Christian, you still thought much as the world did.  But it’s time to become men and women of God.  To put aside your petty squabbles.  To put aside your pride because of what gifts you have or how “blessed” you are.  And to become mature in your thoughts and actions.”

How about you?  Are you still thinking like a child?  Talking like a child?  Acting like a child?  Or are you becoming mature in your faith?

Let us not be satisfied with remaining baby Christians throughout our entire lives.  Instead let us grow up into maturity.

To be sure, no matter how far we advance here on earth, there will still be a major jump between our spiritual condition here and what it will be in heaven.  But let us not make that an excuse to remain spiritual babies.

Instead, each day let us make it our goal to press on to maturity, growing each day in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  (Hebrews 6:1; II Peter 3:18)

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I Corinthians 13:8-12 — A glimpse of what is to come

As I look at this passage, it strikes me that our spiritual gifts are a glimpse of what is to come when we reach heaven.

Paul says,

But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.  (8-10)

The gifts that Paul mentions here are I suppose what you could call “imperfect gifts.”  There are some gifts that I get the impression we will continue to use in heaven.  I would guess that administration is one and serving is another.  I would guess gifts of music would also still be around as well.

But prophesy is one gift that Paul says will pass away.  Why won’t we need it in heaven?  Because prophesy is essentially saying the words of God to others.  But in heaven, we will all hear from God directly.

Tongues also will pass away.  One thing that tongues helps us to do is to pray completely in accordance with the will of God.  But in heaven, again, we will already know what the will of God is.  Tongues in another form is used for declaring God to those of other languages.  But in heaven, everyone will already know God, and not only that, will understand each other without any language barriers.

Knowledge as we have it is imperfect, especially our knowledge of God.  There is so much about God we don’t know.  But in heaven, we will come to know him as fully as an infinite God can be fully known.

And so all these gifts are glimpses of what we will have in heaven.  That though to some degree we can hear from God now, we will hear him clearly in heaven.  That though communication between others and God is possible now, in heaven, it will be possible to communicate perfectly.  That though we know some things about God now, in heaven, we will know him much more fully.

Put another way,

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  (12)

Everything in life we see is a poor reflection of what heaven is.  But when we see Jesus face to face, we will see him as he truly is, and we will see life as God truly intended for us from the very beginning.

I don’t know about you, but that gives me hope.  Though this world can be miserable at times, we are merely seeing a dim reflection of the life we will have.

But things will not always be that way.  So as we look at our gifts, and not only our gifts, but all the people and the creation around us, let us remember that these things are only dim reflections of the hope that we have.  The hope that,

When he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  (I John 3:2)

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I Corinthians 13:1-8 — Making it personal

I must have read this passage a billion times (or close to it), and yet as I read it again today, God brought some new light to it.  Not so much in what the passage means, but in what it means to me.

I’m sure you know how important it is to make the Bible personal.  To not just read it as a novel or as a set of platitudes.  But as God’s very words to you.

I have heard people personalize this passage by inserting their names in verses 4-8.  For example, “Bruce is patient; Bruce is kind,” and so forth.  And that’s good in that it makes us take a careful look at ourselves and how much we have these characteristics of love in our lives.

But as I was reading this passage today, I started personalizing it in another way that I’ve never heard before.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love for my wife, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol.  If I have the gift of prophesy, and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love for my daughter, I am nothing.

All of this really makes me think.  I personally don’t speak in tongues, but I do do a lot of preaching.  But if I don’t love my wife, then to God, I’m just making noise.  If I have great insight into the scripture, and can speak the very words of God to the people around me with power, and yet do not love my own daughter, I am nothing.

And so I start to think, “Am I really loving my wife and my daughter as I should?  Am I patient?  Am I kind?  Am I self-seeking?  Am I easily angered?  Am I always trusting?  Am I always hoping for their best?  Am I always persevering for their sake?”

Honestly, I can’t always answer those questions as I’d like to.

I could spread that application out to the other people in my life:  to my coworkers, to the people at church, and so forth.  But for now, that focus on my wife and daughter are a lot to work on right there.

So that’s where I need to be starting.

How about you?  If you’re married, with kids or without, are you loving the ones God has given to you in your family?  You may be doing great things in the world or even in the church.  But if you are not loving your wife or your kids, you are nothing.

For others of you, who are the people God is bringing to your mind as you read this?  It could be your parents.  It could be that annoying coworker at work or that difficult person at church.

Whoever God brings to your mind, I encourage you to pray, and ask God to love that person as you should.  To show you in what ways you can love them better.

Lord, I don’t want to be just a lot of noise.  I don’t want all that I do to be burned up because I fail to love the people you have given me in my life.  Show me how to love better.  My wife.  My daughter.  And everyone you put in my path.  Lord, I fall so short.  So please, teach me to love as you do.  In Jesus name, amen.

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1 Corinthians 13:4-8 — What God is like. What we should strive to be.

As I think about this entire book of I Corinthians, it seems a lot of what Paul talks about here concerning love was in sharp contrast to how many of the Corinthians were acting.

Paul said that love is patient and kind, not rude nor self-seeking.  And yet, at the communion table, the rich were pushing and shoving their way to the front of the line and were eating most of the good stuff, leaving the scraps (if that) for the poor among them.  (11:17-34)

Paul said that love does not envy or boast, and is not proud.  And yet, there were divisions within the church over leadership and about who was following who.  (chapters 1 and 3).  They also seemed to be proud of what they had and who they were in contrast to even Paul himself (chapter 4).

He said that love always protects, and yet, instead of protecting the weak in faith, they abused their “rights” as Christians (chapter 8).

And yet God is not like this.  He is immeasurably patient with us and kind to us though we fail him so many times.  He humbled himself by becoming a man and living among us, not as a king to reign, but as a servant who would die for us.  He became angry when he saw evil, but delighted in those who embraced the truth he imparted.  And now because of what Jesus did on the cross, the Father no longer keeps any record of the wrongs we have committed, holding them against us.  Rather, he imparts his grace to us.  He believes in us and is always hoping for the best in us.  And God will never, ever fail us.

That is what we should strive to be.  To love as he does.  To treat others as he does.

I have to admit, I fall short of these standards.  But without love in my life, I am nothing.  So as one old song writer prayed, so I pray:  “Jesus reduce me to love.”

Lord, take away all the envy, all the bitterness, all the things that would destroy my relationship with you and with others.  Put me through your refining fire and let me come out as pure gold.  Make me just like you.  In Jesus name, amen.

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I Corinthians 12:31-13:3 — How we are to use our gifts

In summing up the truth that our spiritual gifts should unite us and not divide us, Paul goes on to show us how we are to use those gifts in one of the most famous passages in scripture.

He calls it, “the most excellent way,” probably meaning, “the most excellent way to use our gifts.”  (12:31)

He says,

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol. If I have the gift of prophesy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move all mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (13:1-3)

In short, we can give have the most incredible gifts in the world, we can sacrifice all we have, even our very lives, but if we don’t have love for God and for others, all of that means nothing.

So many people exercise their gifts or make great sacrifices, not because of their love for God and others, but because of pride.  All that they do is for the praise of man, and to be seen and recognized by them.

It is that very pride that also causes people to envy others and the gifts they have.  It is that same pride that causes people to look down on others as less spiritual if they don’t have the same gifts they have.

The end result of all this is a divided church filled with hypocrites.  That’s not how God intended our gifts to be used.

Our gifts are to be expressions of our love for others.  Any other usage is an abuse of the gifts God has given to us.

How about you?  How do you use your gifts?

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I Corinthians 12:27-31 — Being eager for gifts

I wonder sometimes how much more God would give us if we would only ask.

Too often we refrain from asking because we are afraid we are being selfish, or that in some way our motives our wrong.

Now don’t me wrong.  We ought to inspect our motives.  But at the same time, it shouldn’t stop us from asking.  If in the midst of our asking, God convicts us that our motives aren’t right, then of course we should repent.  But one thing that we should remember is that God is a God that loves to give good gifts to his children, and so we should never be ashamed to ask.

That includes spiritual gifts.  And so Paul says,

But eagerly desire the greater gifts. (31)

What does he mean by the greater gifts?  We’ll look at it later, but it seems from chapter 14 that he’s talking about the gifts that build up the church.  (14:12)

And that’s the main thing we should be thinking about as we pray for gifts.  Not how much having them will build up our reputation in the church or how much they will be for our own spiritual benefit.  But how much it will bless the people around us in the church.  Spiritual gifts should have us looking outward, not inward.

The other thing that we should remember as we seek spiritual gifts is that God gives them to us as he sees fit (11).  He has given us our place within the body, and he will equip us with those gifts which can help us fill that role.

He may give us more than that, but the simple truth is that he never promises to give us whatever gift we ask for.  As Paul says,

Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues ? Do all interpret?  (29-30)

This of course is a rhetorical question, and the answer is of course “No.”

Still, it can’t hurt to ask for more gifts, especially as you look at what you’re doing and you see the gifts that could help you accomplish that ministry better.  So ask.

And then trust that God will give you whatever you need to accomplish the tasks that he has given you.

You may be surprised at just how often he says yes.

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I Corinthians 12:12-30 — How we see others in the body

I talked last time about how we see ourselves as a part of the body of Christ.  But how should we see others?

Paul writes,

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (12-13)

The key thing that Paul is saying here is that we are all one.  Sure there are many parts within the body, but we are ultimately one body, and all the parts belong to each other.

He then says that we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body and we were all given one Spirit to drink.  Because of this, because it is the same Spirit that has placed us into the body, and the same Spirit that works in each one of us, how then can we look down on others?  When we see others, we should see the Spirit who is living within them.  Should we then despise the Spirit and his work in them?

We saw earlier that Paul strongly states that we cannot say to another member of the body, “I don’t need you,” for we all need each other.  All of us are essential to the proper working of the body.  (21-22)

More, Paul says,

On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.  (23)

Recently I broke my right ring finger playing basketball.  I never knew how indispensable it was.  I couldn’t grip anything with it wrapped in a splint.  Typing became an absolute pain.  Things I used to take for granted became difficult if not impossible with my ring finger injured.

Paul adds,

And the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.  (23-24)

Compare our feet with our hands for example.  I’ve heard people talk about the beauty of another’s hands, but I don’t think we ever talk about the beauty of a person’s feet.  That said, I would daresay that feet get massaged much more than hands do and we’re careful that the shoes we wear not only look good, but also make our feet comfortable.

And so Paul concludes,

But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. (24-25)

“Equal concern.”  Again, this goes totally against the selfish and prideful attitudes people have towards others and their gifts.  Do your gifts make you more concerned about yourself, or about others?  Are your gifts making you more inward-focused or outward-focused?

When you look at Jesus and all the powers he possessed, he never used them to glorify himself.   Rather, he was always outwardly focused, caring for the people around him.

Paul then adds,

If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  (26)

Pain is a funny thing.  It tends to focus your mind on the part that hurts.  Every other part of your body may feel fine, but when you break your finger like I did, you don’t think, “Oh, I’m 99% healthy.”  You think, “Ouch!”

And that’s how we should see others.  When we see our brothers and sisters in pain, we shouldn’t just ignore them.  We need to reach out to them and minister to them.

For as Paul said,

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.  (27)

So let us never look down on others within the body.  God doesn’t.  Neither should we.  Instead we should see them as God does, as people honored and valuable in his sight.

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I Corinthians 12:4-30 — Funny, I don’t feel so special

For  a lot of people in the church, they see the giftings of others in the church and they get an inferiority complex.   They hear that God sees them as a special and as important to the body, but they just don’t see it. But time and again, Paul points out to each one of us just how special we are in God’s sight.

He says in verses 4-6, “Hey, are you feeling inferior because the gifts others have seem superior to yours?  It’s not as if your gifts come from China and theirs come from Japan.  They both come from the same source, and they are both equally well made and valuable.

“And it’s not like you’re working for McDonalds and they’re working for the President of the United States.  The same Lord that has given them their duties has given you your duties.

And it’s not as if God has delegated an angel to help you with your work while he himself is helping others with their work.  God is working in you just as much as he is working in them.”

Still, some people almost feel like God made a mistake when making them, and so he just threw up his hands after making them and said, “Well, I have to do something with them, so I guess I’ll put them there.” But as I mentioned yesterday, verse 18 clearly tells us that was not the case.  Rather,

God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. (18)

I don’t think there’s any way you can take from that passage that God made some kind of mistake when he made you. More, when we look at the context of that verse, we see Paul saying,

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be…If they were all one part, where would the body be?  (17, 19)

In short, you’re right where God wants you to be.  Because of that, there’s no way anyone can rightfully say of you, “I don’t need you.”  Rather, you are indispensable to the body.  (21-22)

You may hear that and think, “I’m not indispensable.  Anyone can do my job.” That may or may not be true.  But let’s put it this way.  Your toes can probably do some of the things your fingers do, so technically, you may not need your fingers.  But your toes can in no way do the job of your fingers as effectively.

And maybe technically, you don’t really need two arms, you only need one.  But if you only have one, your remaining arm can become fatigued from overwork and start to lose its effectiveness. Sure other people may be able to do the same thing you do, but if they don’t have your gifting, they can’t do it as effectively.  And even if they have the same gifting as you, even if they have it in larger proportions, if you are not doing your part, however small, to relieve the pressure, they can get tired and burn out.

So use the gifts that God has given you, whatever they may be.  God has placed you where you are for a reason.  Don’t let anyone despise you and don’t you dare despise yourself either.

As one person inelegantly but correctly put it, “God don’t make junk.” How do you see yourself within the body of Christ?

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I Corinthians 12:4-18 — For God’s purposes, for God’s glory

As I think about the problems of pride and jealousy within the church because of spiritual gifts, I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that we forget our lives, as Rick Warren once put it, is not about us.  We were not created to live for our own purposes and our own glory.  Rather we were created for God’s purposes and God’s glory.

We see this in verses 4-6.  We all have different gifts, but it’s not as if those gifts were something we created within ourselves.  Rather, they were gifts given from God himself.  And as Paul said in chapter 4,

For who makes you different from anyone else? (God).  What do you have that you did not receive? (Nothing).  And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?  (For no good reason).   (4:7)

Yet so often, we act as if we are God’s gift to man.  In a sense, I suppose we are.  We are to be a blessing to those around us.  But that is not for our glory and for our benefit.  It’s for God’s glory and for the benefit of those around us.  Like I mentioned in the last blog, the gifts we have been given are to be used for the common good.  (12:7)

Paul goes on to say,

All these (gifts) are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.  (11)

Again, we see that these gifts are not only from the Spirit, but it is he who decides, for his own purposes, who to give them to.

Paul then adds,

But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  (18)

Here again we see that it is for God’s purposes that we are given our place in the body.

Because of this, there’s no room for pride.  It is for God’s purposes that you have been placed where you are and given the gifts you have received, not your own.

And there’s no need for jealousy.  God has specially placed you in where you are for his own good reasons.  It’s not that he said, “Well, I kind of messed up when I made you.  I can’t use you for much, so I guess I’ll just stick you here.”

Rather God, when he created you, looked at you and said, “I have a special purpose for you.  I need someone to fill in this position for my body, and I specially designed you to fill that need.”

How about you?  Do you see your gifts as something that should bring you glory and fulfill your purposes?  Or do you see them as something that should bring God glory and fulfill his purposes.

A self-centered attitude concerning your gifts will lead to jealousy and pride.  What kind of attitude do you have?

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I Corinthians 12:4-30 — Gifts given to unite, not divide

As I read this passage, I can’t help but think that Paul still had in the back of his mind the problems of division within the Corinthian church.  He had already dealt with it twice in this letter, and though he doesn’t specifically criticize the Corinthians for being divided about spiritual gifts, I think he saw a very real danger of that problem seeping into the church.  I can hardly question his judgment because we see that kind of division today.

So from the very beginning, he makes clear that our gifts should not be used to divide the church, but unite it.

He says,

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. (4-6)

I don’t think I’ve ever noticed this before, but we see the Trinity in the gifts of the Spirit very clearly here.  Different gifts, same (Holy) Spirit.  Different kinds of service, same Lord (Jesus).  Different kinds of working, same God (the Father).

And I think Paul’s point was that just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have different functions and yet remain the one God, so our gifts may be different, but we should remain one as a church in heart and mind.

He makes this crystal clear in the very next verse, saying,

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. (7)

Notice here that the gifts are not given to us for our own personal benefit, as most gifts are.  Rather, each gift was given to us to benefit the people around us, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ.  And so once again, there should be no selfishness in our thinking when we consider the gifts of the Spirit.  Rather, we should always be thinking, “How can I use these gifts God has given me to benefit others?”

What does this mean for us practically?  There’s no room for pride or jealousy when it comes to spiritual gifts.

Paul says on one hand,

If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.  (15-16)

Yet some people in their jealousy for others’ gifts act this way.  They get bitter because they don’t like the gifts that God has given them.  Or they see others that seem to have the same gift they do but in greater proportion.  As a result, it drives a wedge between them and God and between them and that other person.

Paul then points out the opposite problem,

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  (21)

In this case, people look down on others with “lesser” spiritual gifts or gifting, and basically brush them off as being unnecessary or unimportant.

Both attitudes are wrong, and both attitudes bring division in the church.  And ironically, it all comes about because of gifts that were meant to unite us.

This is getting long, so I’ll continue this discussion in the next few blogs, but for now, ask yourself, “What is my attitude toward others?”  Are my attitudes concerning my gifts and the gifts of others causing unity in my church, or division?

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I Corinthians 12:1-3 — Discerning the spirits

If there is one thing that you can count on Satan to do, it’s that he will counterfeit the good things God has created.  In place of a loving marriage, for example, he will promote sexual promiscuity.  In place of a lasting joy that fulfills, he will substitute temporary pleasures that ultimately leave you empty.

The same is true with spiritual gifts.  Satan counterfeits the very things the Spirit of God does in the lives of believers.  Within the cults and occult, for example, you will see counterfeit tongues, healing, miracles, and other things.

And so Paul was very concerned that the Corinthians be able to discern the real from the counterfeit.  He wrote,

Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.  You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. (1-2)

How were the Corinthians influenced and led astray is not clear, but in all probability it was through the counterfeit spiritual experiences Satan gave them.  So Paul gives them a very basic test to discern what was coming from God and what was not.  He said,

Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (3)

One test that we see is that no one can curse Jesus and be led by the Spirit.  It is impossible.  Every once in a while we’ll see that extreme and those are easy to detect.  But Paul goes on to say that no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.

So many people in the cults, occult, and other religions will say wonderful things about Jesus.  “He was a very good man.”  “He was a great religious teacher.”  “He was a prophet.”

But one thing they will not admit that he is Lord of all.  That he is indeed the one true God in human flesh.

A word of caution, however.  Just because someone says, “Jesus is Lord,” doesn’t necessarily mean their words come from the Holy Spirit.  I said before Satan throws out many counterfeits.  Did you know he also has a counterfeit Jesus.  Paul talks in II Corinthians 11:4  about “another Jesus.”

The Jesus of the Mormons is one of many gods, and is the spirit brother of Satan.  The Jesus of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the archangel Michael.

So whenever people say, “Jesus is Lord,” we also have to ask the question, “Which Jesus?”  The real or the counterfeit.  And the only way you can tell the difference is by comparing the Jesus they preach with the Jesus of the Bible.

The key thing then, when discussing spiritual gifts and spiritual experiences is to discern where these things are coming from.  Are they coming from God?  If they are, they will be completely consistent with what the Bible says.  And that starts with acknowledging who Jesus is.  That Jesus is the one true God come to this earth in the flesh, and that he is Lord of all.

So let us not just believe that every spiritual thing we see and experience is from God.  Instead, let us test all things, holding fast to what is good.  (I Thessalonians 5:21)

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I Corinthians 11:32 — Though the Lord disciplines you

Before I go on to chapter 12, there is one last point I wanted to touch on.  Paul writes in verse 32,

When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

Sometimes we sin, and God brings his discipline into our lives.  And because it’s painful, we start to think that God must hate us now.  That he’s given up on us.

But Paul says here that is not the case at all.  He tells us that when the Lord disciplines us, he does it so that we will not be condemned with the world.

In other words, he does it to lead us away from the path of destruction the world is going down.  We saw an example of this earlier in chapter 5 where Paul told the Corinthians concerning the unrepentant brother,

Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.  (5:5)

Again, the point of discipline was not to destroy the man, but to save him.

So remember that when God brings discipline in your life, it’s not because he hates you.  It’s not because he sees you as his enemy.

When you actually were his enemy, he sent his Son to die for you.  And if he reconciled you to himself when you were his enemy, how much more will he work to reconcile you to himself now that you are his child?  (Romans 5:6-11)

Are you going through God’s discipline now because of your sin?  Take heart.  God still loves you.  He hasn’t given up on you.  So though you may feel the sting of his discipline, remember the words of the writer of Hebrews.

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”…We have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.  (Hebrews 12:5-11)

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I Corinthians 11:27-34 — Searching our hearts

As I’ve mentioned earlier, God does call us to search our hearts whenever we take communion.

Paul says,

Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.  (27-30)

That’s kind of a scary passage, especially that last part.  Apparently, because of their sin at the communion table, many of the Corinthians got sick and even died.

We don’t see that kind of judgment much, if at all nowadays, but I think God was trying to drive home to the early church just how seriously he took this problem.

Jesus died for our sins, but that does not mean we can just sin with impunity.  And if we take his sacrifice on the cross lightly, we will be disciplined.

So while we are to take special note of our own hearts at the communion table, I think it’s very important to take note of our hearts every day.  To pray as David once did.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.  (Psalm 139:23-24)

Let us never take the cross of Christ for granted.  Let us never treat it as a doormat to wipe off our dirty feet.  Rather let us fall on our knees in gratitude for what he has done for us.  And as we come to him, and he shows us the sin in our hearts, let us have hearts of contrition and repentance, not only at the communion table, but throughout our lives.

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I Corinthians 11:26 — Until Jesus returns

One other thing that strikes me as I read this passage concerning communion is the last part of verse 26.  Paul writes,

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

“Until he comes.”

It’s something that most people don’t think about much as they take communion, but I think it’s important to remember.  Jesus is coming back.  And as we take communion, it should make us think about what we are doing with our lives until Jesus returns.

What should we be doing?  Paul tells us:  “Proclaim Jesus’ death to the people around us.”

One way we do that is through the communion service itself as we saw in my last blog.  But as we go out into the world, as we go into the workplace, into our schools, and into our neighborhoods, we need to be taking the gospel out to the people around us.  And we are to do this until Jesus returns.

As we get wrapped up in the things of this world, it can become so easy to forget that Jesus will come back one day.  That this world will not last forever.  And so communion is a way to remind us that all this is temporary.  And now we need to use the time we have left to share his gospel with those around us.

How about you?  Are you proclaiming the Lord’s death with those  around you?

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I Corinthians 11:26-34 — Proclaiming the Lord’s death

One of the things I wonder is how Paul would view communion as it is taken in the church today, particularly churches that are say, fifty people or more in size.

Why do I ask?  Because of the great controversy on whether to allow unbelievers to take communion or not.

Many churches say that unbelievers shouldn’t take it.  Others say it’s okay.  The church I attend goes with the latter judgment.

If I could go back in time, one thing I’d like to see is who was attending these communion feasts.  Was it only Christians?  Or were non-Christians there as well?

When I first wrote this post, I originally wrote that because of persecution, there were probably no non-Christians there when the Christians gathered to worship (at least no professing non-Christians).  But then I got to chapter 14, and Paul talks there about the possibility of non-Christians coming to their churches.  So I’m not so sure anymore.  It’s very possible that non-Christians were visiting the churches in Corinth.

With that in mind, it’s very interesting what he says in verse 26 of I Corinthians 11.  He says,

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

What’s interesting is that word “proclaim.”  Almost every time it is used in the New Testament, it’s talking about the preaching of Christ and the gospel.  And it seems to have the same sense here.  When we take communion, we are proclaiming the gospel to people.

But to who?  To ourselves?  I suppose that’s possible.  All of us need the milk of the gospel from time to time.  But it’s also possible that Paul is recognizing that there were unbelievers in the congregation taking communion as well.

So when we take communion, not only are we remembering what Christ has done for us, but we are also proclaiming his death to the unbelievers among us.

We’re saying to them, “Jesus died for you.  He is being offered to you now, that your sins might be forgiven and that you may have new life.  What will you do with him?”

And what does Paul say about the person who takes that bread and wine but in their hearts reject the offer behind it?

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  (27)

Why?  Because they have clearly been presented with the gospel and have rejected it.

Now to be clear, I don’t think this was Paul’s original meaning.  The whole context of this passage is Paul dealing with Christians who are abusing the communion table to indulge in their fleshly desires while despising the poor among them.

Paul makes that especially clear in verse 32 where he distinguishes between the discipline of the Lord for believers taking communion wrongly and the condemnation of the whole world for rejecting Christ.  Moreover, he never questions their salvation, but continues to call them brothers.

What Paul means by his words, then, is, “Examine yourself.  Make sure that you take communion rightly.  Treat your brothers rightly at the communion table so that you don’t drink the Lord’s discipline on yourself.  By sinning against your brothers in this way, you are sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.”  (27-34)

But now as we consider the possibility of non-Christians also taking communion (an issue that strangely enough, Paul never directly addresses), here’s what I think the church needs to recognize:  that if we offer communion to the unbeliever, it acts as both an invitation and a warning to them.

By sharing communion with unbelievers, we are literally saying to them, “Here’s the gospel.  Jesus died for you that your sins might be forgiven and you can have eternal life.  Will you accept it?”

For those take the bread and wine in faith, they will be saved.  But for those who don’t and persist in that unbelief, they are basically saying, “I understand exactly what Jesus has done for me.  I reject it, and I now eat and drink judgment upon myself.”  (29)

And so when the unbeliever examines himself, the question is not, “What will I do with my brother,” but, “What will I do with Christ?”

Perhaps then, that’s how the church should approach communion in a congregation in which unbelievers attend.  As a challenge we give to them:  “Here’s what Christ has done for you.  What will you do with him?”

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1 Corinthians 11:23-29 — Communion with Christ and each other

This is a passage that people often hear during communion.  Paul writes,

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 

It can be easy for us to take communion mindlessly, to treat it as a simple religious ritual.  And for the Corinthians, that’s exactly what they did, leading them to defile the communion table by how they treated the poor among them.

But Jesus said, “When you do this, when you take the bread and drink the wine, remember me.  Remember that I gave up everything for you.  Remember that I poured out my blood so that your sins could be covered and we could be reconciled.”

As we remember what he did for us, though, we need to remember that he also died for our brothers and sisters as well.  That they are precious in his sight too.

So then, communion should be a time that not only brings us closer to Jesus, but closer to each other as well.  And while we should remember that Christ died to reconcile us to God, we should also remember that Jesus died to bring us reconciliation with one another, that we should be all one.

Paul wrote in Ephesians,

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.  (Ephesians 2:14)

Now to be clear, Paul was talking about the barrier between Jew and Gentile, the barrier being the law of Moses and all its requirements.  But the principle still stands, there should be no division between any Christian, whether it’s because of race, social status, or whatever.

Paul goes on to say,

His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  (Ephesians 2:15-16)

Again, Paul’s point is that whether Jew or Gentile, all now come to God through the cross, not the law.  And because of that there, should be no division between Jew and Gentile.  But it is no stretch to say that Christ not only died so that Jews and Gentiles would be one, but that all believers would be one.

For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.  (Ephesians 2:18-19)

None of us should be considered outsiders in the church of Christ.  Whether Jew or Gentile, as Paul is primarily saying here, whether rich or poor, whether high in social status or low, Christ died that we might be one with God, and with each other.

Part of our remembering Christ during communion is remembering this one crucial truth.

Do you?  When you take communion, are you only thinking about your relationship with God?  Or are you thinking about your relationship with others?  As you take communion, how is your relationship with your brothers and sisters in the church?  Not just in the local congregation you attend, but with all the brothers and sisters you are in contact with?

I’m not just talking about discrimination.  I’m asking if your relationships are right with the Christians around you?  Or are you holding hurts or bitterness towards anyone?  If so, you need to get it right.  To not do so, and then to take communion would be to eat and drink judgment on yourself (I Corinthians 11:27-29).

How about you?  Are you one, not only with Christ, but with your brothers and sisters as well?

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I Corinthians 11:17-22 — The divisiveness that comes from pride and selfishness

In this passage, Paul once again addresses divisiveness in the Corinthian church.  We have already seen one example of this from chapter 1 where the Corinthians were arguing about which leader they were following (1:10-15).

But here in chapter 11, we see the divisiveness that springs up from pride and selfishness.  Paul writes,

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.  (11:17-19)

Many Bible teachers seem to take verse 19 as teaching that we need all our disputes over scripture (leading to all the denominations we have) in order to understand the truth as it really is in the Bible.

While there may be some germ of truth to that, I have always tended to think that Paul was being quite sarcastic here.  “Of course you HAVE to have differences among you.  After all, you need to show which of you have God’s approval over all the others.”

In other words, I believe he was scathing them for their divisions because it was springing up from their pride.  In trying to prove their own spiritual superiority, they started looking down on others.

Part of that perhaps went back to the old way of thinking the Jews had which said that riches were a sign of God’s blessing.

And so during the communion feasts they would celebrate as a church, the rich would charge in ahead of the poor and gorge themselves on the food, probably because they were the ones who had bought it in the first place.  Their thinking probably was, “Hey, I bought this food, so I should be able to eat it.  If there are any scraps left after I’m done, then these others can take those, but I’m getting mine first.”

But Paul wrote,

Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!  (22)

Paul was saying, “What are you guys doing?  You are despising the very body of Christ that you’re supposedly celebrating by humiliating those of you who are poor.”

How were they despising Christ’s body?  By their pride and selfishness.

How about you?  Are you by your pride and selfishness causing division in Christ’s body?  Do you look down on others because they have less than you?  Do you despise others because they are less spiritual than you?  Are you always comparing your gifts to the ones others have, and selfishly hold on to “your territory?”

These kinds of attitudes can tear apart a church.

How do you see the people in your church?

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1 Corinthians 11:2-16 — Authority and submission

This is one of the most difficult passages in scripture to try to interpret and apply.  Many people have done so in different ways in relation to head coverings in the church.  Some have said it’s still necessary today, but most have not, saying that it was a cultural thing.  Honestly, I’m still trying to work out Paul’s meaning there, so until I come to a firm conclusion, I think I’ll leave that argument for another day.  (Don’t hold your breath, though).

Whatever conclusion we come to head coverings, however, I think there is a definite principal we need to take from this passage, particularly concerning our relationships in marriage.  Paul teaches,

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.  (3)

Here we see something very important.  God has within his own nature the concept of authority and submission which is then reflected in our relationship with him, and in the relationships between husbands and wives.

Paul says here in the final part of the verse, “The head of Christ is God.”  What does he mean?  I think it’s pretty clear when putting together the different verses of scripture.

According to I John 4:14,

The Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.

And when Christ came into the world, he told the Father,

Here I am–it is written about me in the scroll– I have come to do your will, O God. (Hebrews 10:7)

As he lived his life on earth as a man, he told the Jews,

For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.  (John 6:38)

But lest we think Christ’s submission to the Father was just a temporary thing while he was on earth, Paul tells us concerning the last days and the eternal kingdom to come,

The end will come, when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.  For [Jesus] must reign until [the Father] has put all his enemies under his feet…For [God the Father] “has put everything under [Jesus] feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.  (I Corinthians 15:24-25, 27-28)

In light of all these verses, I don’t think there is any doubt that Christ, though he is fully equal with God in nature, nevertheless submits himself to the Father, and will do so for all eternity with no disparagement to his nature for that submission.

Why do I go through all the trouble to make this point?  Because there are many who claim that for a woman to subject herself to a man’s authority, namely, a wife to her husband, is a disparagement to her humanity.  That she is somehow to be considered lesser than man for doing so.  And as a result, they balk when Paul says, “the head of woman is man,” and try to explain it away.

But Paul clearly states here that there is an order to things.  That the Son is subject to the authority of the Father.  Man is subject to the authority of the Son.  And woman is subject to man.  This does not mean that woman is not equal to man in her humanity.  Paul goes out of his way to dismiss any such idea as he said,

In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. (11-12)

In other words, though there is a role of leadership that God has ordained men to take, nevertheless, men and women need and depend on each other.  And there is no room for men abusing their authority over women.  Rather they are to honor and love them in every way, just as the Father honors and loves the Son in every way.  More, we are to remember that we are all subject to God because he is our Creator.

So I guess for you married women, the question to ask is, “Am I willing to submit to myself to my husband as the Son submits to the Father?  Are I willing to follow my husband’s leading as he follows Christ’s leading in his life?”

For you married men, the question to ask is, “Am I honoring my wife as the Father honors the Son?  And do I love my wife as Christ loves me and gave his life for me?”

If you’re a single woman who’s considering getting married, the question becomes, “Is my boyfriend/fiance subject to Christ?  Can I trust him enough that I will submit to him as I submit to Christ?”

If not, you had best put off marrying him until you can say yes.

And if you’re a single man, the question to ask is, “Am I subject to Christ in my life?  And how will my subjection to Christ play out in my role as husband when I get married?  How will it lead me to treat my wife?”

If you can’t answer those questions in a right way, you too need to put off marriage until you can.

Who are you subject to?

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I Corinthians 11:1 — No matter how good our role models are

I’ve mentioned before how important it is to consider carefully who we follow.  There are a number of good leaders out there, but there are a number of bad ones as well.    Because of this, it’s vital that we take a look at the fruit they are bearing in their lives, both the fruit of their teaching, and the fruit of their day-to-day lives.

That said, even if we are following good leaders, it would be good to keep in mind that even they are not perfect.  Even they make mistakes.  So let us never put them on such a pedestal that we equate them with God.  They make wrong decisions sometimes.  They sometimes are mistaken in the way they think.  And so as we follow their example, we need to be careful to filter the good from the bad.

That’s why I think Paul said,

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

Because ultimately, our example is Christ.  And where our role models conform to Christ’s image, so should we.  But in any area where they fail to conform to the image of Christ, we need to look not at them, but at Christ as our role model.  If we fail to do this, it will get us into trouble.

We see an example of this in Galatians 2:11-13.  Peter was one of the early leaders of the church.  If there was one person you would have thought you could look up to as an example, it would have been him.

But under pressure, Peter compromised when he shouldn’t have.  In Galatians, you see that he had been hanging out with the non-Jewish believers, probably eating their food, and having no problem with it…until some legalistic Jews showed up.  At which point, Peter started distancing himself from the non-Jews and only hanging out with the Jewish Christians.

Because he did that, the other Jewish believers followed his example, including a very godly man  named Barnabas.  And when Paul saw this, he scathed them all for their actions.

Peter, of course, was the most responsible as a leader.  But the others, by following Peter’s bad example, fell into sin as well.

So remember, no matter how good your role model is, don’t place them on the same pedestal as God.  They are not perfect.  They may be your pastor, your mentor, or even a famous Bible teacher, but they will all make missteps along the way.  Don’t follow them in those missteps.

Follow them as they follow Christ.  But where they don’t, make sure you keep clear of the pits they fall into.  And as you can, warn them and help them as they have so often warned and helped you.

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I Corinthians 10:23-33 — Who we are trying to please

We’re finally wrapping up this section today which really started in chapter 8.  And Paul closes by really pinning down one of the key issues the Corinthians had, the issue of who they were living for.  The issue of who they were trying to please.

It’s an issue many if not all Christians have to deal with today.

I have to admit, my “rights” are important to me.  And when my rights are trampled on, I get upset.  When I feel what is due me is taken from me, I get upset.  It annoys me just to have someone cut in line in front of me, for goodness sake.

And then I think of how I deal with my wife, or coworkers, or the people at church.  And it’s so easy to clamor for my rights.  To demand what I think is “fair” and what I feel should be coming to me.

But the truth is, when that’s what we’re focusing on, it shows that the one person we are trying to please above all else is ourselves.

The “strong” Christians in Corinth were that way.  They didn’t care that they were hurting their weaker brothers by the things they were eating.  They didn’t care if it caused unbelievers to reject Christ if they ate meat sacrificed to idols.  Why?  It was their “right” to eat.

We’ll see this selfishness later in that they were making a mockery of the communion table by the way they treated their poorer brothers and sisters.

And the question Paul asked them, is “Who are you trying to please?

“Yes, everything is ‘permissible.’  You are free to eat whatever you want.  But not everything is beneficial.  And you are hurting those around you by your actions.”

Paul then said,

Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. (24)

In other words, “Don’t make your what’s good for you paramount.  Don’t make your rights and freedom the most important thing to you.  Put others in front of yourself.  If that means giving up food for the sake of your brothers or for the unbelievers, do it.”

Why?

Because ultimately, there is one person we should be pleasing.  And it’s not ourselves.  Who should we be pleasing?  Paul makes it crystal clear.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (31)

How about you?  In all that you do, who are you seeking to please?

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I Corinthians 10:14-22 — Participating with demons

In Japan, one of the things that many Christians struggle with is how to deal with Buddhist funerals and memorial services.

There is some disagreement in how to handle it.  Some people avoid the funerals and memorial services entirely.  Others attend but will not offer incense or follow the other outward rituals of prayer.

I can see both sides, and for the most part, I think I think attendance is a matter of conscience.  But I do think we need to be very careful about how far we go.  Whereas a person may go from one drink of wine and slip into becoming drunk or even becoming alcoholic, I think it can become easy to slide into compromise when attending these services.   Some might start to think, “Well, I may be offering incense, or follow the outward rituals of prayer at the Buddhist altar, but I don’t really mean it.  And after all, they are just things, not really gods.”

The Corinthians had a similar issue.  Paul had told the Corinthians it was perfectly okay to eat meat offered to idols.  But some had perhaps taken it a step further.  Not only were they buying meat from the market or eating meat at friends’ houses, they were also actually participating in the feasts celebrating these idols.

Perhaps they were thinking, “Well, I’m not really worshiping the idols.  I’m just having fun with my friends and family.”

Some may have even used the excuse, “I’m just showing love to my family and friends by celebrating with them.  And besides, these idols are nothing anyway.  They’re not really gods.”

But Paul says,

My dear friends, flee from idolatry. (14)

He then points out two things.  He points to communion first, and says, “When you are joining in these communion feasts, aren’t you participating in the blood and body of Christ?”  (16)

In other words, “By taking the bread and the wine, are you not showing the communion that you have with Christ?  That you now have a relationship with him through his sacrifice on the cross?”

He then points to the sacrifices the Israelites gave in the Old Testament.  One of the offerings they gave was the “peace offering.”  They would actually take part of the burnt sacrifice home and the family would eat it together, as a sign of the peace and communion they now had with God.

So, Paul says, when you take part in these feasts, are you not doing the same?  Are you not showing that you are having communion with these idols?

What was the real problem with these idols?  They were just metal or wood after all.  Paul tells us, saying,

Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. (19-20)

In other words, when they participated in these feasts, they were really having communion with demons.  And when people offer incense and pray at Buddhist altars, they really do so to demons.  Can we do that?

Paul’s answer is an emphatic no.

No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (21-22)

I think we would do well to remember to be careful whenever we deal with spiritual things, to think about what we are really dealing with.  God?  Or something else?  Not only with idols, but with things like astrology, Ouija boards, or tarot cards.  Some Christians think they are just games.  But in reality, they are participating with demons.

Let us not do that.  Rather, as Paul would say in another letter,

Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.  (II Corinthians 7:1)

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I Corinthians 10:12-13 — Warning and encouragement

In this passage, we see both warning and encouragement concerning temptation.

First Paul writes,

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (12)

I think this was especially pertinent for those who thought they were “strong” in their faith.  As I mentioned before, there were many who were “weak” in faith in that they had tender consciences.  In particular, they could not eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols without feeling guilty.

Others today may not have that particular problem, but they feel guilty about drinking a glass of wine or beer.  Others may feel guilty about playing cards.

And it would be easy for the “strong” to look down on the “weak” and say, “Look how much more mature as a Christian I am.  Look how much stronger my faith is.  I can do things that these others can’t.”

But Paul tells them, “Be careful.  You may think you’re strong, but if you stand in your pride, you could easily fall yourself and prove yourself weak.”

A glass of beer, for example, could turn into two or three or four leading you to get drunk.  And if that happens too often, that could turn into alcoholism.  In either case, you have just stepped over the line into sin.

But even if you never do, you can fall into the sin of pride, such that you look down on others and abuse your freedom causing them to fall.  Or you could fall into other sins entirely.  You start to fail to trust God in your decisions at work and start compromising God’s values for the sake of the business or for your own position.  Or you lose your temper with those around you.  Or someone hurts you and you cling to unforgiveness and bitterness in your heart.

There are numerous ways in which we can fall.  But if we walk around in pride, we can become blinded to our own faults just as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day.

So Paul warns us, “Watch yourself.  You may not be as strong as you think you are, and you can fall just as easily as anyone else.”

But then he gives a word of encouragement.

No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (13)

The word “temptation” has two senses.  One, of course, is temptation to sin.  But it can also mean trials.  And Paul says that whatever temptation or trial you may go through, God knows your limits.  And he will not let you go through more than you can handle, but he will always provide a way for you to stand despite what pressures come against you.

There’s also comfort in knowing that we are not alone.  Some people think, “I’m the only Christian who struggles with this.  Why am I so bad?”  And Satan would have you believe that.

But Paul makes clear that whatever temptation you go through, others have gone through it too.  One of the benefits of confessing your sins to others is that you soon find out that many of them struggle with the same things you do.  And while you may be weak individually, together, in the Lord, you can find strength.

How about you?  Are you feeling strong?  Be careful lest you fall.

Are you feeling weak?  Be encouraged.  You are not alone.  Others have gone through the same things you are going through now.  And God will always be with you to help you stand.

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I Corinthians 10:1-11 — The point of all these stories

A lot of times Christians tend to avoid the Old Testament, and only read the New.  After all all, isn’t that where all the important stuff really is?

While it is true the ideas of Christ’s work on the cross, salvation by grace through faith, and other things are more clearly spelled out in the New Testament, I think it’s important to point out that the New Testament writers didn’t just chuck the Old Testament as unimportant.  Rather, time and again, they keep pointing back to the Old Testament.  They quote from it, recall stories from it, and draw application from it.  Jesus did this, and so did his apostles.

My point?  So should we.

Paul starts this chapter by recalling Israel’s journey through the desert on the way to the promised land.  He then tells the Corinthians,

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.  (6)

And again,

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.  (11)

In particular, Paul was talking about idolatry, sexual sin, and failing to trust in God.  And he said, whenever we read these kinds of stories and the consequences the Israelites incurred because of them, we should take warning and “instruction” (NASB) from them.

For that matter, that’s true of any “Bible story” we read.  We are not to read them simply as fairy tales as unbelievers often do.  Nor are we to read them as we would read a history book.  But as we read them, we are to pray and ask, “God, what are you trying to teach me here?  What are you trying to say?”

And when we come to these stories with that kind of heart, God will teach us.  It’s the one thing I’ve tried to do throughout this blog.  Not simply to relate the facts, but to relate the application to our lives as well.

But as much as we are to read this way for ourselves, we are to do this for our children as well.  It’s great, of course, to read Bible stories to our children at night.  My wife and I try to do that every night with our daughter.  But one thing I always try to do is put in some application, no matter how simple it might be (and it needs to be simple, since my daughter’s only 5 years old).  It might be, “God can provide our needs if we ask.”  (Feeding of the 5000, or God feeding Elijah in the desert).  Or, “It’s important to obey God.”  (The story of Adam and Eve).

In short, remember that these are not just “stories.”  God meant them for our good, for our instruction.

Do you read them that way?

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I Corinthians 10:1-12 — Disqualified

In chapter 9, Paul warned the Corinthians to be careful that they not be disqualified from the prize.  The main point there was that they should stop being self-centered.  Their self-centered way of thinking, in particular, their insistence on their rights at the expense of their weaker (in faith) brothers was putting them in danger of losing their reward for serving Christ and his kingdom.

And Paul had told them that he was willing to give up everything, even his rights, in order to make sure that he would not lose his prize.

Paul then expands on this idea in chapter 10.  He talks of the Israelites who God had brought out of Egypt, and he compares their experience in the desert to the Christian experience.  They were all baptized by water, dying to their old life and becoming the people of God.  They all took part of the bread that came down from heaven (a picture that Christ uses of himself in John 6:33-35).  And they also drank of the living water (a symbol of the Holy Spirit — see John 4 and 7:37-39) from the Rock which Paul also says was symbolic of Christ.

But did they receive the prize of the promised land?  No, they were disqualified and their bodies were “scattered across the desert.”

How were they disqualified?

Some were idolaters.  And part of that was indulging themselves in “pagan revelry.”  In other words, they were partying hard in celebration of this “god” they had made (referring to the golden calf in Exodus 32), which perhaps also included sexual sin.

Whether they committed sexual sin or not at that time, they definitely committed it in Numbers 25, and many perished as a result.

Still others tested the Lord by grumbling against him and failing to put their trust in him.  They showed this in the desert when they complained about a lack of food and water (Numbers 21:4-9) and also when they refused to enter the promised land because they feared the inhabitants that were there (Numbers 14).

And Paul writes,

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. (11)

In other words, all these things were pictures for us.  Pictures of what?  They were pictures to show you that you may have been baptized, taken communion, and been filled with God’s Holy Spirit but you can still lose out on the prize. And mostly you lose it by focusing on temporal things, the pleasures of this life as well as the trials we go through life.

By focusing on the pleasures of this life we lose focus on what’s really important: God and his kingdom.  By focusing on the trials and hardships of life, we often start to lose faith and drop out of the race.

So Paul warns us,

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (12)

Let us not lose our prize by focusing on the temporary pleasures of this life.  Namely, let us not lose our prize by being so love with the things of this world that we lose our love for God and for our brothers and sisters.  And let us not lose our prize by losing faith due to the trials we suffer through.

Instead,

Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  (Hebrews 12:1)

How about you?  Are you in danger of being disqualified for the prize?

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I Corinthians 9:24-27 — Whatever it takes

This is a pretty famous passage in scripture.  And it compares our life to a marathon. We are all running the race God has put us in.  The prize we’re running for?  The crown we receive from Christ for accomplishing the task he has given us, namely the task of spreading his kingdom.

What is that crown?  I don’t know, but it seems from Jesus’ teaching that we receive his praise and and are invited to share in his happiness for all eternity.  More, we receive even greater responsibilities in the eternal kingdom because of our faithfulness to him in this world.  (Matthew 25:21, 23)

The question is, “What will we do in order to get that crown?  Will we do whatever it takes?”

Paul writes,

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.  No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.  (25-27)

Let’s put it this way.  If you’re going to run a marathon, you are not merely thinking of today and how to please yourself.  Rather, you are willing to sacrifice the pleasures of today in order to achieve a greater goal.  You’ll sacrifice those potato chips and hamburgers and eat only healthy foods.  You’ll put aside the time you spend watching TV and surfing the internet in order to run hours at a time, no matter how hard it is.  And by doing that, you put yourself in a position to win the prize.

In the same way, if we are serious about spreading God’s kingdom, we can no longer make ourselves and the pleasures of this world the focus of our lives.  We need to sacrifice some of the things we want in order to serve the kingdom.

For Paul, as we mentioned before, that meant sacrificing a salary from preaching in order that he might reach more people.  It meant sacrificing his freedom as a Christian sometimes and only eating kosher foods when he was with the Jews.  In other cases, if he was with a person that felt like it was wrong to eat meat that was offered to idols, it meant giving up his freedom to eat that as well.

But so many of us are self-centered.  We think only about pleasing ourselves.  We are so concerned with our rights, that we trample on the feelings of others.

Others of us are stingy with our money and fail to give those in need.  Or we are stingy with our time and guard our free time like it was gold, even when others need us.

Still others of us are too concerned about the rewards we’re getting here on earth from the ministry we are doing.  In other words, our motives aren’t right.  We’re seeking wealth or respect from those we are supposedly serving.

And all of these attitudes will leave us disqualified for the prize come judgment day.

Are we willing to do whatever it takes to win the prize? Are we willing to give up the pleasures of today to gain something far greater?  Are we willing to sacrifice our rights, our time, our money, and our pride now for the sake of the crown awaiting us?

Or will we continue to focus only on what we can gain in the here and now and find ourselves disqualified for the prize?

What will you choose?

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1 Corinthians 9:16-23 — Our attitude in ministry

It can become so easy to become self-absorbed in ministry.  To think, “What am I getting out of this?  Where’s the respect?  Where’s the financial reward?” Yet for Paul, there was an inner fire to preach.  He said,

Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!  (16)

Paul’s words remind me of Jeremiah’s when he said,

But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.  (Jeremiah 20:9)

So for Paul (and Jeremiah), financial reward, respect, and everything else really had no bearing in his thinking on whether to preach or not.  He had to preach or be miserable. He went on, saying,

If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.  (17)

What does he mean by this?  He’s saying that by preaching with a heart of joy and love for the Lord and for others, he has reward.

He says in verse 18, he found his reward in being able to offer it for free.  Why was that a joy?  Perhaps because by doing so, it brought people into the kingdom that might not otherwise have come in. Like some people today, there were probably those that were skeptical about Paul’s motives.  They thought ministers like him were just in it for the money.

But Paul was able to disarm those suspicions by saying, “Hey, I want nothing from you.  I merely want to give you what I have:  forgiveness of sins and eternal life with God.”

In fact, whenever people looked at Paul, they saw someone that didn’t want to take from them, but to serve them.  He was always giving up his rights in order to minister to them.  And because of that, more people came into the kingdom, increasing Paul’s joy (19-23).  Not only that, Paul knew it brought joy to his Lord’s heart as well.

But even if Paul didn’t have a heart for the people, nor a heart to do what God had asked him to do, still he would have had to preach because like it or not, it was a charge God had given him and no one else.  And if he didn’t do it, God would hold him accountable.

You see this in the parable of the talents.  One guy had no love for his master, and was in fact afraid of him.  Because of this, he did nothing with the money his master had given him to invest.  And his master held him accountable for it.  (Matthew 25:24-30)

Jeremiah certainly knew how it felt to be compelled to to fulfill the charge God gave him despite his feelings.  In chapter 20, you see that his preaching was not particularly voluntary.  He spent his time complaining to God that God was being unfair to him and that all the people were abusing him.  (Jeremiah 20:7-8) And yet he preached because of the fire that burned within him that he could not hold in.  Like Paul, he was compelled to preach and woe to him if he didn’t.

But how much better if we serve from our hearts?  Not because we have to, but because we want to?  Life is so much more rewarding when we do so.  Ministry is so much more rewarding.  And most importantly, we will receive reward from our Lord when we see him face to face. How about you?  What kind of heart are you serving from?

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I Corinthians 9:6-15 — Supporting our pastors financially

Why give to the church?  Tithes aren’t a New Testament command.

Many Christians try to make this argument.  And quite frankly, I agree that tithing isn’t a New Testament command.  But supporting our pastors financially is.

Paul writes,

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk?  (7)

In short, no one.  And the point in the latter two illustrations are very clear.  If you take care of something, you should be able to reap the benefits from that which you care for.  If you care for a vineyard, you should be able to eat some of the grapes.  If you take care of a flock of goats, you should be able to drink their milk.

And if a pastor is caring for a church, he should be able to reap the benefits from those whom he ministers to.

Paul then buttresses his argument by pointing to the law of Moses where God said an ox that plows the grain should be able to eat some of the grain that falls to the ground. And he points out that God is not so much interested in oxen as he is people. He thus stretches the illustration to include the people working in the field, that they also should reap the benefits of their work.  And then he applies it to ministers of Christ, saying,

If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?  (11-12a)

Paul goes on saying that temple workers get to eat the temple food, and that the priests who offer the sacrifices get to eat from the meat.

Paul then concludes by saying,

In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (14)

Now Paul gave up that right for his own reasons.  But that doesn’t mean we should force our pastors to live like Paul did, working second jobs to get by.

Why not?  Because when our pastors are forced to work second jobs, it takes time away from ministering to us.  It takes away from their message prep time.  It takes away from time they could use visiting and counseling the people in the church.  It takes away from their time praying for the people in the church.

The church I attend is only 10 years old, and so for some time, our pastor has taken a lower salary while we have been building our congregation, and as a result he has had to work part-time jobs in the past.  Our assistant pastor hasn’t had a salary from the church for years, so he too has had to split his time.  Because of the financial situation of the church, there’s been no way around it.

And if that’s the way it has to be, then pastors will do what they have to.  My pastors have and I am so grateful to them.

But it’s not ideal.  And if we are going to force our pastors to take second jobs, then there’s no way we should be complaining if we don’t feel they’re giving the time to us that we’d like.

Jesus has commanded that we take care of our pastors financially.  How about you?  Are you doing your part?

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I Corinthians 8-10 — Giving up our rights for the sake of the kingdom

Sometimes as we look at passages in the Bible, it can be easy to take scriptures out of their context and lose the overall force of what the writer is trying to say.

That’s why I’m lumping chapters 8-10 together for this blog, and then later will take different parts of it individually.  Because while there are interesting things we can learn in the individual parts, I don’t want to lose the overall gist of what Paul is saying.  Put another way, I don’t want to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

What is Paul trying to say here?  Basically he’s saying the kingdom of God is what is most important, not our “rights.”  And sometimes, we need to sacrifice our “rights” for the sake of the kingdom.

We saw this in chapter 8.  Paul said, “We have the right to eat anything we want, even food sacrificed to idols.”  But then he said, “But if what I eat is going to call my brother to stumble because he thinks eating such food would be sinful, I’m not going to eat it.  In fact, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”  (8:13)

He then anticipates the Corinthians complaint, “But it’s my right to eat it!  Why should I give up my freedom for others?”

Part of it he answers in 8:12, pointing out that if we cause a brother to fall, we are sinning.

But then he points out to his own life.  He says, “I have a lot of rights as an apostle of Christ, but I don’t insist on them.  I have the right to get married and take my wife with me on my missionary journeys, but I don’t.  I have the right to get money from those I preach the gospel to.  In fact, scripture and Christ himself commands it.”  (9:1-14)

Why didn’t he take advantage of these rights.  Most probably because he was preaching to a lot of poor people and he didn’t want to take their money knowing it might cause them hardship.  Another possibility was that he didn’t want anyone to accuse him of trying to profit off of the gospel and taking advantage of those he was preaching to.  All of these things would hinder the gospel.

He then talks about how he made other sacrifices for the gospel.  For those Jews who were bound by the law, he lived by the law.  One way he may have done that was by only eating kosher foods when he was with them.  For the Gentiles, he became like them, eating whatever food they put before him.  For those who were weak in faith, he avoided doing things that would offend them.

That may have seemed too much to the Corinthians.  Like he was giving up too many of his rights.  But Paul compared it to like being in training for a race.  Sometimes you have to give up what you like to do or eat so that you can be ready for the race you’re going to run.  And if you don’t, you could lose out on the prize because you lived for yourself instead of Christ and his kingdom.

And so he concludes in chapter 10,

“Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.  (23-24)

And again,

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God… Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God– even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (31-33)

So as you’re considering your “rights,” the question you really need to ask is this:  “Who and what are you living for?  Yourself?  Or God and his kingdom?”

If it’s the former, you will find ultimately find reward.  If it’s the latter, you will find yourself saved, but only as one escaping the flames.  (I Corinthians 3:15)

Who and what are you living for?

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I Corinthians 8 — How we wield the knowledge we have

This passage in many ways is very similar to Romans 14.  Because of this, I want to put more of my focus on the first few verses and how it relates to the rest of the passage.

Paul writes,

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God. (1-3)

Paul was dealing here with a situation in which some of the Corinthian Christians were bothered by other believers eating meat offered to idols.  They felt it would be wrong to do so, and as Paul wrote in Romans 14,

The man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.  (Romans 14:23)

But there were others in the Corinthian church who knew that eating such meat had no effect on their spiritual life, that Jesus had in fact said that all foods were clean (Mark 7:19)

The problem was that knowledge led to pride, and that pride led them to flaunt their freedom in front of their weaker (in faith) brothers and eat this meat that was sacrificed to idols.

This in turn was leading some of the brothers to break their conscience and eat this meat too.  And because they weren’t eating from faith, they were sinning.

And so Paul really gets on these Corinthians who were causing their brothers to fall.  He told them, “Yes, you know that eating food offered to idols is okay because the idols are nothing and are not real gods.”

But Paul tells them,

The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.  (2)

What is Paul saying?  I think he’s saying it’s not enough to just have knowledge.  You also have to know how to wield that knowledge.  And if you don’t know how to wield that knowledge, then your knowledge is incomplete.”

How are we to wield the knowledge we have?  With love.

Paul tells the Corinthians,

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. (1)

Knowledge in itself can be a source of pride.  “I know!  You don’t.”

It is that kind of pride that often leads people to argue theological issues that go round and round but never go anywhere.  Even worse, it’s the kind of pride that causes people to look down on and judge other people.  And it’s the kind of pride that causes division in the church and tears it apart.

That’s what was happening in the Corinthian church.  And so Paul reminds them, “Your ‘knowledge’ is not what pleases God.  It’s what you do with that knowledge.  Are you building people up with that knowledge?  Or are you tearing them down?”

Paul concludes by saying,

But the man who loves God is known by God.  (3)

How do we know if a person truly loves God?  John tells us in his first epistle:

Whoever loves God must also love his brother.  (I John 4:21)

That’s exactly what the Corinthians weren’t doing.  They were using their knowledge not to build people up, but to tear them down by eating meat sacrificed to idols in front of their weaker brothers.  The result?

So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. (11)

And Paul warns them,

When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.  (12)

Paul then shows them how their knowledge should lead them to act in the current situation.

Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.  (13)

How about you?  How do you wield the knowledge you have?  Do you use it to puff yourself up, while destroying your brother or sister?  Or do you use it to build them up?

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I Corinthians 7:29-31 — Because our time is short

Our lives are really but a breath.

I was talking to a friend recently whose wife’s father passed away at age 44 due to a heart attack.  That’s kind of scary, because I’m very near that age myself.  Tomorrow is truly not promised to us.

Jesus could come back.  Or we might simply get hit by a car.  (I nearly got run over by a bike rider today.  Obviously he has no concept of what a red light means).

Whatever Paul meant by “the time is short,” in this passage, we would do well to remember that we won’t be here on this earth forever.  And it should affect the way we live.

Paul wrote,

From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none (29).

Kind of strange words.  Obviously, from looking at the rest of the passage, he’s not saying we should divorce our wives (or husbands) or ignore them so that we can do ministry.

But what I do think he’s saying is that our lives should not be centered around our spouses.  Rather, our lives as a couple should be centered around God, and doing the things he has called us to do for his kingdom.

Nor as a single should you center your life around finding a husband or wife.  Rather, seek God’s kingdom first, and if God is willing (and most times he is), he will provide a partner for you as well.

Paul then says,

Those who mourn, [should live] as if they did not. (30a)

All of us go through hardships in life.  We see tragedy and death all around us.  And when these things happen to us, it’s healthy for us to mourn.  We need to mourn.  But we cannot live the rest of our lives in mourning.  We need to get back up on our feet and return to the work God has for us.  As long as we remain in mourning, we chain ourselves to the past, and cannot find the future God has for us.

Paul goes on, saying,

Those who are happy, [should live] as if they were not.  (30b)

Again, kind of a strange saying.  But sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own happiness, we get complacent, and we stop moving forward.  As much as our grief can chain us to our past, so can our happiness if we are merely resting on our laurels.  We need to move on.  For while we may be happy, there are many around us who are not, and who desperately need the One who gives us our joy.

Those who buy something, [should live] as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.  (30c)

In other words, remember that the things of this world are temporary.  We can’t take our money or possessions with us when we go to heaven.  We can only take two things:  our relationship with God and our relationships with our fellow believers.  So let’s live that way, not focusing on things, but on God and others.

Your time on this earth is short.  How are you using it?

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1 Corinthians 7:17-24 — Trying to undo your past

All of us have regrets in life.  I know that I do.  I can see how I have hurt people in the past, and I wish I could undo all that.

On a lesser level, I look at decisions I’ve made and wish I could undo them.  For a long time, for example, I fought the idea of coming to Japan.  Had I given it up to God much earlier, I would have directed my college education in that direction, perhaps majoring in Japanese or in teaching English as a second language.

But all that’s in the past, and I can’t undo what I have done.  None of us can.  So what do we do?

That’s the question the Corinthians faced.  Some of them had married unbelievers before becoming Christians.  And now they were hearing the teaching that a Christian should only marry Christians.  As a result, they were asking Paul, should I divorce that person?  But Paul said no.  As long as the unbeliever was willing to stay with them, remain married to that person.  Don’t feel like you have to undo what you did before you became a Christian.

Others perhaps had become Jewish converts before coming to Christ.  Now they were hearing that Gentile Christians shouldn’t get circumcised.  So they were asking Paul, “Should I get the marks of circumcision removed?”  (verse 18, ESV).  But Paul, while affirming that Gentile Christians shouldn’t get circumcised, tells those who were already circumcised not to worry about it.

Still others had perhaps sold themselves into slavery because of a debt they owed, and now they regretted it.  But Paul told them, while they should try to gain their freedom, not to worry too much about it if they couldn’t.

Instead, Paul wrote,

Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. (20)

In other words, don’t get twisted up with regret because of the situation you find yourself in due to your past decisions.  God can use you right where you are.

I don’t think there’s anyone today who’s all twisted up over being circumcised or becoming a slave.

But there are Christians who are married to unbelievers.  And God says, “If possible, stay there.  I can use you to make a difference in your family.”

Some Christians are divorced and have remarried, or their ex-spouse has remarried.  God says, “Don’t feel like you have to get back with your ex.  Focus instead on ministering to the one you’re married to now and to your children.  And focus on ministering to the other people I’ve brought into your life.

Other Christians are in prison because of their past crimes.  And God says, “That’s okay.  If you can get paroled, great.  Get out.  But if not, serve your time there in prison.  I can use you right where you are.”

In short, wherever you are now, and however you got there, God can use you.  And so Paul says,

Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. (17)

And again,

Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to.  (24)

So let’s not get twisted up with guilt and regret because of our past.  Rather, let us determine to do the things God has called us to do now.  For as Paul wrote, what happened in the past isn’t so important.  Rather, in the here and now,

Keeping God’s commands is what counts.  (19)

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I Corinthians 7 — When it’s wise to put off marriage. When it’s wise not to.

For a variety of reasons, many people not only in Japan, but in America as well are putting off marriage until their late 20s and into their 30s.

In some ways, that’s probably a good thing.  There was no way I was ready for marriage at age 19 or 20 as some of my friends were when they got married.  (I must admit, I was a bit surprised and perhaps a bit skeptical at the time, but they remain happily married to this day).

But everyone is different, and what is perfectly fine for some people is not for others.  And that’s what Paul points out here in this passage.

Again, one of the main questions some Corinthian couples had here was the issue of whether it was appropriate for them to get married or whether it was better to put it off, in some cases permanently.

And Paul gives us three things that we should think about when we’re considering whether to get married or to put it off.

I think one thing to consider is your attitude toward marriage.  Namely, are you going into it totally committed to making it work, or are you going into it already planning an out?  In other words, are you thinking, “Well, if things don’t work out, I can always get divorced.”  If in the back of your mind you are not committed to marriage and are already leaving the back door open, you shouldn’t get married.  Why?  Because Jesus said it was to be permanent.

Paul wrote,

To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. (10-11)

This was the application that Paul drew from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:3-12.  Even Jesus’ disciples were shocked by it at the time, saying, “If that’s the case, it’s better not to get married.”

And if that’s the attitude you have, don’t get married.  Put it off until your attitude changes.  And if it never changes, then it’s best for you to never get married.

Another factor to consider is your circumstances.  Because of the Corinthians’ “present crisis,” Paul advised them to put it off.  He said,

But those who marry [in these less than ideal circumstances] will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.  (28)

Paul was probably talking about the circumstances of persecution of the church, as I mentioned before.  But I think we can draw in a larger principle.  There are circumstances in which it would probably be best to put off marriage.

One might be finances.  If you are not financially prepared for marriage, it will be very tough, and it is in fact the reason for many divorces in society today.

Another reason might be your own emotional baggage that you have to deal with.  Perhaps you were abused by your father or by previous boyfriends. That kind of thing can have a huge effect on your relationship with your spouse.  And in that kind of situation it is best to put it off until you resolve those issues.

But whatever your situation, Paul gives us another consideration to weigh.  Struggling with sexual temptation may seem to be a bad reason to get married, and certainly it’s not the best reason to get married, but it is also a very real issue for many people.  And Paul writes,

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion (8-9)

Paul is saying here, “If you’re feeling intense sexual desire for your boyfriend or girlfriend and you don’t feel that you can control it, then get married, even if the circumstances don’t seem ideal.”

That said, Paul again says if you can at all control your desires for a time, it’s better to put things off until you get your other issues resolved.  By getting married too soon can put a strain on you and your marriage.  But by God’s grace, if you are committed to your partner with no back doors, he can bring you through whatever marital struggles you go through.

So the really big question you need to ask yourself before getting married is this:  Are you willing to commit yourself to your spouse with no back doors?

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1 Corinthians 7 — Good to be single?

Looking at this passage, it would be easy to say that Paul was less than enthusiastic about the institution of marriage.

He never says with exuberance, for example, “Yes!  Marriage is a great thing!  Get married.”

Instead, he says things like, “If you get married, you haven’t sinned (verses 28,36).” Hardly a ringing endorsement.

He later says the one that marries does what is right, but the one that remains single does even better (38).

What do we make of this?

Perhaps rather than seeing it as Paul downplaying the goodness of marriage, we should see it as Paul trying to make crystal clear the goodness of being single.

Paul’s words go so against the words we often hear from our family and friends.

“Hey, isn’t it about time you get married?  You’re not getting any younger, you know.”

“You’re such a beautiful young woman.  Why aren’t you married yet?  How about this guy?  Or that guy?”

But Paul makes it clear: “Hey, if you’re single, that’s a good thing!  Why?

An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs–how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world–how he can please his wife–and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world–how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.  (32-35)

Speaking from experience, I can agree with Paul that it is much easier to serve the Lord as a single than as a married man.  As a married man, I always have to keep my wife in mind and my daughter as well when it comes to ministry.  It of course helps that my wife is also a Christian and is fully supportive of what I do.  But I have to keep everything in balance: spending time with my wife, spending time with my daughter, spending time in ministry.

The single person doesn’t have to worry about keeping that kind of balance.  And Paul says that if you can live your entire life without any urge to get married, that’s a gift from God (7).

How can you tell if you have that gift?  Well, let’s put it this way.  If you don’t consider your singleness as a gift, you probably don’t have that gift.  :-)

But whether you have that gift or not, remember this:  God can use your time as a single for his glory.  You can touch so many lives around you, and make a huge difference in this world for him.  I know so many people who have used their time as a single to do just that.  For some, God blessed them with a spouse later.  For others, God gave them contentment with being single.

So if you are single, don’t mope around, depressed that you haven’t found that special someone yet.  Rather, determine to take advantage of the time you have as a single person to serve God, trusting that if it’s his will, he will bring the right person into your life at just the right time.

How are you using this time God has given you as a single?

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1 Corinthians 7:10-16; 39-40 — Marriage and divorce

It’s kind of hard to decide how to parse this passage because it keeps jumping between subjects.  But I thought since I talked about marriage last time, I’d keep with that topic here.

And here, Paul re-emphasizes Christ’s ideal for marriage.  He says,

To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.  (10-11)

Here, Paul is drawing from Jesus’ own words when talking to the Pharisees.  Jesus said to them,

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”  (Matthew 19:4-6)

And again,

Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery. (8-9)

I won’t get into details concerning Jesus’ words here because I’ve already done that here and the two succeeding blogs.

But the point Paul is making here is that marriage was intended to be permanent, and that’s how we ought to view it.  He says again in verse 39,

A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives.

Which of course goes both ways.  A husband is also bound to his wife as long as she lives.  And so as much as it depends on us, we need to work to keep our marriage alive.

But what if it doesn’t depend on us?  Paul addresses that in verses 12-16.

To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

This is pretty straightforward, so I’ll just make a few comments here.  First,  when Paul says, “I, not the Lord,” I don’t think he’s saying his words aren’t authoritative.  What he’s saying is that Jesus never specifically spoke about this situation where an unbelieving spouse desires to leave the believing spouse.  And so Paul says, “Since Jesus didn’t address that situation, here’s what I as his apostle, say to you.”  And as an apostle, I believe his words on this topic are authoritative.  If an unbelieving spouse desires to leave you, let them leave.  God will not hold you responsible for that.

Second, just because your spouse isn’t an unbeliever doesn’t mean that you should automatically leave them.  By staying with them, God’s hand is on your family, and it gives him more room to work in the life of your spouse and your children, because God can work through you.  “Sanctified” here doesn’t mean saved, but “set apart.”  And I think when any family that has a believer in it, God takes special notice of that family to work in their lives.

Finally, notice that Paul emphasizes in verse 39 that if you’re a single Christian, you should only be marrying a Christian.  He speaks specifically to widows here, but it only makes sense that he is speaking to all singles.  You should only marry a person that belongs to the Lord.

Sometimes people think, well, if I marry a non-Christian, I can witness to them and they may be saved.  But Paul tells the believer to let an unbelieving spouse go if the unbeliever wishes to leave.  Why?

How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?  (16)

Answer:  we don’t.  There are no guarantees.  And if you marry an unbeliever, I have seen many cases where the believer ends up miserable.  Marriage is tough enough when believers are married.  But when two people have fundamental differences in their faith, it can cause even more hardship.  And so it’s best to avoid that kind of relationship from the beginning.

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I Corinthians 7:1-5 — Sex in marriage

The need for sex is a very strong one.  I think one reason God created us that way was so that people would come together in marriage and have children together.

And yet, as I mentioned yesterday, there are special parameters God has given concerning sex.  It is only to be enjoyed between husband and wife.

Particularly in Japan, however, it seems that “sexless marriages” are on the rise.  Numerous articles have actually been written on the subject.  Corinth was also having its issues concerning marriage and sex, and so they wrote Paul about what they should do.

In answer, Paul wrote,

Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. (1)

Literally, he says it’s good for a man not to “touch a woman” or as other translations put it, “to have sexual relations with a woman.”  But considering that sex is only meant for within marriage, the NIV translates it “not to marry,” which is probably closer to the sense that Paul is trying to say.

Why does he say so?  Because of the “present crisis (26).”  In other words, this was not meant as an absolute for all peoples at all times.  But it was Paul’s advice under the circumstances, which many scholars take to be persecution the church was suffering through.

And it was just his advice, because time and again in this passage, he emphasizes that he is by no means prohibiting marriage.  He says as much in verse 2.

But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.  (2)

Paul recognizes here that because the sexual urge in people is so strong, it can lead to sin unless they find a way to fulfill that urge.  And again, one main reason God gave us that urge was so that two people would come together in marriage, become one, and have children.

It is, in fact, a picture of our relationship with God.  That we are joined with Christ, with he as the groom, and we as his bride, and in that joining we give birth to righteousness in our lives, the fruit of our love for him.

But anyway, Paul says when you get married, feel free to enjoy a life of sex with your spouse.  More, he encourages couples to make it a regular part of their lives.  He writes,

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife,and likewise the wife to her husband.  The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.  Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (3-5)

There are some key principles of marriage that we need to remember here.  Namely, that when we get married, we no longer belong to ourselves alone.  We belong to each other.  And so Paul says don’t deprive each other sexually except for short times so that you might devote yourselves to prayer.  And even then, that decision should be made mutually.

But then he says, be sure to come together again.  Why?  Because if you don’t Satan will swoop in with sexual temptation.  This is especially true with men, but also true with the women.

How many marriages are damaged because couples don’t follow the Lord’s instructions.  Instead husbands and wives find their sexual fulfillment outside of marriage, ultimately destroying their marriage, not only causing pain to themselves, but to their children as well.

Let us not do that.  Let us find satisfaction and joy in our own husband and wives, and never seek to find it anywhere else.

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1 Corinthians 6:13-20 — The problem with sexual sin

All sin is of course bad.  But Paul here says there is something unique about sexual sin, particularly for the Christian. He says,

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? (15a)

He explains further later,

But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.  (17)

And again,

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (19)

But what happens when we sleep with a prostitute?  Paul tells us, saying,

Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” (16)

In other words, the sexual act was created by God not simply for pleasure or procreation, but to bring a special union and intimacy between man and woman.  It joins you to that person not only physically, but emotionally.  And when you sleep with a prostitute, you join yourself to her in that way. With those two things in mind, Paul then draws a very ugly picture of what happens when we join ourselves with a prostitute,

Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? (15b)

I don’t think I need to explain any further on what Paul is saying. But not only is sex with a prostitute wrong, all sexual immorality is wrong. What is sexual immorality?  It’s any kind of sex outside of marriage between a husband and a wife.  Sex between husband and wife is blessed by God.  Anything else is condemned by God, and is so listed in verse 9. The problem with sexual sin is that it affects us in a way that no other sin does.  It binds us to the person that we sleep with. Paul tells us,

All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. (18)

I think most people can understand that.  But again, our bodies are members of Christ.  So when we join ourselves to a prostitute, it’s like we’re joining Christ to a prostitute.  When we join ourselves to another person’s husband or wife, it’s as if we’re joining Christ to that person in adultery.  When we join ourselves to a person that we’re not married to, it’s like we’re joining Christ with that person in fornication. I don’t know about you, but that’s too terrible a thought for me to even consider.  So as Paul says,

Flee from sexual immorality…You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.  (18-20)

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I Corinthians 6:12-20 — What freedom in Christ does not mean

One of the key things that Paul taught in his letters was freedom from the law.  That we are no longer under law, but under grace.  But much as people do in this time, people in Corinth were corrupting that teaching.

Paul had just finished lambasting the Corinthian church for the way they were treating each other, and he told them,

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  (9-10)

How were the Corinthians responding?

“But you said, ‘Everything is permissible (or “lawful”)for me.’  So why can’t I do these things.  It’s my life, after all.”

But Paul answers, “All things may be lawful for you, but not all things are beneficial.”  We will see an example of this in chapter 8, where he says that eating food sacrificed to idols is lawful, but we shouldn’t do it if it will cause another Christian to stumble.  Our eating such food would not be beneficial to our brother’s spiritual well-being.

He then says again, “All things may be lawful for you…but you should not be mastered by anything, least of all sin.”

Paul expands on this in Romans,

Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey–whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?  (Romans 7:16)

Many times people start out choosing to sin, but ultimately find themselves in slavery to it.  Gluttony is an example of this.  Pornography is another.  In both cases, people start out by indulging themselves, but in the end, find themselves out of control.  Even if the doctor says they need to lose weight or risk suffering a heart attack, they can’t stop.  And even if pornography is destroying their marriage life, they find they cannot get away from it.

Some of the Corinthians said, “But God created us to eat. That’s why he gave us stomachs, after all.  And he created us as sexual beings.  God created us to fulfill those needs.  Why then all the restrictions?”

But Paul reminds them that while God did indeed give us stomachs and create us as sexual beings, nevertheless, meeting these needs were not the main purposes for which he created us.  We were not created simply to live for and please ourselves.  Paul said,

“Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” (what the Corinthians were saying) –but God will destroy them both. (13)

In other words both food and the stomach are temporal things, not eternal.  We weren’t created simply for indulging our stomachs.

And Paul goes on to say,

The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (13)

Put another way, our body is not meant for sinful purposes, but for the Lord’s.  We were created to be his temple.  And he paid a great price on the cross that we might be his.

Paul wrote,

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (19-20)

What does freedom in Christ not mean?  It doesn’t mean that you live for yourself and indulge yourself in sin.  Rather, it means being set free from the sin that was destroying you.  It means being free to walk with God without fear of being punished.  Rather we walk in the knowledge that God loves us, and is now dwelling in us through his Holy Spirit.  And each day we live out the purpose for which we were created for: to love, honor and glorify God.

How about you?  How are you using your freedom?

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I Corinthians 6:1-11 — How we present ourselves to the world

Lawsuits just seem to be a way of life in the States.  You can get sued by anybody for just about anything, no matter how ridiculous your claim might be.

Lawsuits are much less common in Japan, but we still see them here.

And they were apparently common in Corinth, even among the believers.  And Paul was flummoxed by two things.

Number one, how badly one brother or sister could treat another.  Number two, the reaction of the hurt brother or sister, namely dragging the one that hurt them into court.

More, the ones who were hurt started acting badly themselves, perhaps under the guise of fighting fire with fire.  Paul tells them,

You yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.  Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  (8-10)

In short, don’t fool yourself.  You may call yourself a Christian, but if you are living this way, in unrepentant sin, you will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Some people say that this means you can lose your salvation, but I would tend to question if this person were really saved in the first place.

But Paul takes the assumption that they are truly saved and says,

And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (11)

In short, “You all have been washed cleaned and set apart for God.  You’re supposed to be different now.  How then can you treat your brothers and sister this way?”  In this, I think he addresses both the offending party and the victim.

Then concerning the concept of lawsuits among believers itself, he says, “You guys are going to judge the world and even angels someday.  And yet none of you are competent to handle these internal matters of the church between yourselves?” (2-5)

The other thing that really bothered Paul was that they were bringing their dirty laundry in front of unbelievers.  Because of this, unbelievers were seeing the terrible things believers were doing to each other and saying, “Is this what a Christian is?   They’re no different from us.  They hurt each other and treat each other unfairly just like we do.”

In short, it was a stain on the church, which is why Paul said,

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? (7)

The Corinthians were defeated in two ways.  First, Satan was having his way in the church by having them fight each other instead of him.  Second, their in-fighting was wrecking their reputation in the Corinthian community.

Jesus said that the world would know we are his disciples by the love we have for each other (John 13:34-35).  But as we look at how we treat each other in the church today, are we living that way?  Or are we being defeated by the enemy as he turns us against each other?

 

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I Corinthians 5 — When brothers and sisters flaunt their sin

I mentioned yesterday that I needed to make some clarifications in the things that I said.  Basically, there are two things I want to note.

First, I don’t believe Paul is saying that we need to disassociate ourselves with brothers and sisters who are struggling with sin.  The key word here is “struggle.”

All of us struggle with sin.  All of us have sins that we have to deal with day in and day out.  And some of those sins can be persistent.  But struggling with sin is completely different from blatantly sinning.

When you are struggling with sin, you are doing just that:  struggling.  You know what you’re doing is wrong and you are grieved by it.  Deep in your heart, you desire to get rid of those sins in your life.  And day by day, you’re coming before God in prayer and asking for his help.  In that kind of situation, it’s probably best to also ask your brothers and sisters for their support in both prayer and accountability.  But if you fall, you should also be quick to grieve and repent of your sin.

“Blatant sin” is where you openly flaunt it with no remorse over it whatsoever.  You say, “This is the way I am, and I am not going to change.  You are just going to have to accept me as I am.”  And if people try to confront you with scripture, you find ways to explain it away or justify yourself.

That’s what this brother in Corinth was doing.  He wasn’t struggling with sin.  He was openly flaunting it.  And Paul says here there is no way you should be associating yourself with such a person.  If you do, that kind of attitude of open defiance will spread throughout the church like yeast in bread.

The second thing I want to clarify is the spirit with which we discipline the person.  Note that Paul says here, “Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief [by this man’s sin]?”

Our attitude toward that person should not be of arrogance, but of grief.  And it should be our greatest desire that they come to repentance.  That’s the second purpose of putting a person out of fellowship (the first being again that his attitude doesn’t spread throughout the church).

Paul says,

Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.  (5)

“Hand this man over to Satan.”  That sounds pretty harsh.  But what Paul is saying is, “Since this man is flaunting his sin, let him go out into the world without the protection of the church and let Satan have at him.”

Why?  Because we want Satan to destroy him?

No, because our hope is that like the prodigal son, he will come to realize the absolute misery of sin and come to repentance.  The result?  His sinful nature is put to death and he himself is saved when Jesus comes back.

In short, our whole attitude toward this person should be one of love.  But love does not mean just accepting him when he is blatantly sinning.  It means grieving, and letting him go until such a time as he comes to repentance.

Let us never forget the seriousness of sin.  It was so serious, Jesus had to die for it.  And to flaunt our sin in the face of Jesus’ death is to “trample the Son of God underfoot,” and to “insult the Spirit of grace.”  (Hebrews 10:29)

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I Corinthians 5 — Proud of tolerating sin?

Tolerance.  I’ve talked about this somewhat in another blog, and it’s one of the key buzzwords in American society.

And as I’ve said, showing tolerance is fine in that you can disagree with a person and still be at the very least civil, and hopefully even friendly with them.

What this means for us as Christians is that we need to be tolerant with those who are not.  They do not believe the same way we do, and so we cannot expect them to act as we do.  With that in mind, we are to love them, spend time with them, share the gospel with them, and pray for them.  That’s what Jesus did.  He was a friend of sinners.  He spent much of his time, in fact, with sinners, completely scandalizing the “religious” people of the day.

But Paul is very clear here, we cannot be tolerant with people who claim to be Christians and yet blatantly flaunt their sin.  And yet, sometimes churches, in the name of “love” and “acceptance,” do just that.  That’s the problem the Corinthians had.

A man in the Corinthian church was sleeping with his father’s wife.  My presumption is that this was not his own mother, but his step-mother.  Even so, this was despicable even among the secular Corinthian community.

But the Corinthian church was apparently saying something like, “See how loving we are?  See how accepting and forgiving we are?  See how broad-minded and tolerant we are?  Even though this man is sleeping with his step-mother, we still welcome this man in our church.”

When Paul heard of this, he was horrified.   He said,

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast–as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. (6-8)

Yeast in the Bible is almost always used as a picture of sin, which is one reason why for the Jewish Passover Feast, they never put yeast in the bread.  Years later in the New Testament, we see Jesus breaking the Passover bread saying, “This is my body.”  And the picture was of Jesus’ sinless life, and how he was broken for our sins.

At any rate, Paul is telling the Corinthians, if you let this sin go, it will spread within the church.  If you let this Christian continue to blatantly flaunt his sin, it will cause other believers to follow his example.  So he said, “Get rid of this yeast of immorality, malice, and wickedness.  Instead, be a people, a church, that is pure and filled with sincerity and truth.

He goes further, saying,

But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. (11)

Very strong words.  Not very “loving” according to many churches today.  But very clear.

Again, though, Paul makes a distinction between the immoral unbeliever, and the blatantly immoral believer, saying,

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? [None.] Are you not to judge those inside? [Absolutely!] (12)

Paul then concludes,

God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.” (13)

Should the church love sinners?  Yes.  But should we accept blatant sin in the life of a believer in the name of love?  No way.

That said, there are some clarifications that I think should be made which I will get to tomorrow.

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I Corinthians 4:14-21 — Who we follow

As we go through life, there are any number of people that we look up to as our examples, starting with our parents, then teachers and coaches, to pastors and so on.

And hopefully, all of them are good mentors to us.  But Paul reminds us here to be very careful about who we choose to follow.

There are many people, even in the Christian world, who sound good.  But as Paul says,

The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. (20)

And so Paul said when came to Corinth,

I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. (19)

That’s the question we need to ask ourselves.  What power is behind the people we are following?  Is it God?  Or is it something else?  Natural charisma?  Money?  Position?  Or is there even an evil spiritual power behind them?

How do we tell what kind of power is behind them?  By the fruit that they bear.  Jesus tells us,

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.  (Matthew 7:15-16)

What kind of fruit do we look for?  The fruit of their teaching and the fruit of their lives.  Paul himself points that out when talking of Timothy and himself.

For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (17)

When we find such people in our lives, we should follow their example.  As Paul said,

Therefore I urge you to imitate me. (16)

But when their fruit is rotten, we need to run as quickly and far away as possible.

How about you?  Who are you following?

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I Corinthians 4:6-13 — Warnings against pride

C.S. Lewis once called pride, “The Great Sin” in his book Mere Christianity.  Why?  Because it’s pride that builds walls between us and God, and also builds walls between us and others.

We see the former right at the beginning of world in the garden of Eden.  It was the pride of wanting to be like God that tempted Eve and caused her to fall. It was pride that apparently caused the fall of Satan as well.

And here in this passage, we see the pride that was tearing apart the Corinthian church, and putting a wall between Paul himself and the Corinthian believers.

From verses 4-13, and also 18-19, it appears that a number of the Corinthians were looking down on Paul.  That through their pride of what they had and what they knew, and because of their self-satisfaction in life, they looked at Paul in all his weakness and suffering as if he were somehow inferior to them.

But Paul tells them,

“Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.  (2:6)

What does he mean, “Do not go beyond what is written?”

It’s not clear, but I think he’s referring to what we’ve been taught concerning our position in Christ.  Namely, that we are saved, not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but because of his grace.  And if we remember we are all products of his grace, there is no reason to take pride in ourselves over others.  Or to argue that this person is greater than that person.

Paul makes this clear, reminding the Corinthians,

Who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?  (7)

The answers: “God,” “nothing,” and, “for no good reason.”

Those are pretty humbling answers.

But so often we don’t think that way, slamming down walls between us and God, as well as with those around us.

Would that we were all fully cognizant of the true meaning of God’s grace in our lives.  How much better would our relationships be with God, with our spouses, with our fellow church members, and with all whom we associate with?

How about you?  What walls are in your life because of your pride?

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I Corinthians 4:1-5 — Proven faithful

The apostle James wrote,

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1)

Those are pretty sobering words for me, because I am often put in that position of teacher.  God has given me his Word and the gift to teach it as a trust, and as Paul says,

Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. (I Corinthians 4:2)

The truth is, though, all of us have been entrusted with things from God.  We’ve been entrusted with our resources, our gifts, and our talents.  And God expects us to be faithful in our usage of them.  If we are not, he will hold us accountable.

And because he’s our judge, he is the one that we need to be most concerned with pleasing.  Not the pastors of the church.  Not the people at church.  Not anyone else around us.  Only God.  If we get too concerned with the praises of man, we become susceptible to pride at their praise or compromise at their displeasure.

Because of this, we need to constantly be searching our hearts.  Why do we do the things we do?  Are we doing them for the right reasons?  I struggle with this all the time.  To a degree, I fear what I will hear from Christ when I stand before him.  What will he say to me?

Paul, even though he had a clear conscience, admits that even he wasn’t always sure of his motives.  He said,

I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.  (3-5)

I think one of the main points he’s trying to get across here is to guard your heart from pride.  You may think that you’re doing the right things for the right reasons, but that doesn’t make it true.

As Jeremiah wrote,

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?  (Jeremiah 17:9)

The Lord responded to Jeremiah, saying,

I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve. (Jeremiah 17:10)

So whatever we do, let us constantly be searching our hearts, and asking the Lord to do the same.  Let us ask that he reveal the motives of our hearts to us.  And that will go a long way to not only keeping us humble, but also to keeping us faithful with the trust he has given us.

How about you?  Are you being faithful with what God has entrusted to you?

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I Corinthians 3:5-9 — How we approach our work for the Lord

In a lot of ways, I’m kind of reiterating what I said yesterday, but certain things kind of struck me as I reread the passage today and I wanted to highlight them.

One thing is the privilege that we have to work hand in hand with God.  Paul said,

We are God’s fellow workers.  (9)

Think about that for a minute.  God doesn’t really need us.  He could do everything he wanted to accomplish without us.  But he chooses to use us.  And he invites us to join him in his work.  I read that and just say, “Wow!”

God doesn’t just save us to sit down and bask in his grace.  He wants us to also become an active part of his Kingdom.  And so he stretches out his hand toward us and says, “Won’t you join me in this work?  Let’s work together on this.”

The second thing we need to remember though is he doesn’t call us into this work to bring glory to ourselves.  Paul said,

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task. (6)

A servant doesn’t draw attention to himself.  For the most part, the best servant is invisible.  You barely notice he’s there, and yet all that needs to get done is done.  And in the end, he should say humbly,

We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.  (Luke 17:10)

Still, though an earthly master might not show any appreciation for his servant and even treat him as a nobody, God again sees us as his fellow workers.  And he gets down into the mud with us to do the things he has asked of us.

More without him working in us and through us, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything.  For as Paul writes,

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.  (6)

So where is the room for pride?  There is none.  Paul tells us,

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (7)

One final thing to remember in whatever ministry we’re is that the people we’re working with are not, “my people.”  Rather they are God’s field, God’s building (9).

Too often, we get wrapped up with marking out our territory in ministry.  And if we’ve been doing certain things in the church for a number of years, we mark those duties as our territory, and the people we’re working with as our people.

But the Lord assigns each person their own task, and sometimes those tasks change as he invites other people to join in his work.  And he does that for the betterment of his kingdom.

Yet many Christians become upset when Christ calls others into work that “encroaches” on their territory.  And they become jealous when they find that others are more skilled or talented than they are.

Let us remember, however, that each person has their part in the body of Christ.  Each person has been assigned their task.  And as much as we are fellow workers with God, we are also fellow workers with each other.  So let us work with one another, casting aside our jealousy and territorial way of thinking, realizing that it is God’s field, not ours.  It is God’s building, not ours.

Most importantly, let us focus on the relationship we have with God.  One of the main reasons he calls us to join him in his work is so that we can spend more time together with him.  And as we do, we will find joy.

How do you approach the work God has given you?

 

 

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I Corinthians 3:5-23 — With what we are building up the church

It’s interesting pulling this whole passage together.  Usually when I have read it in the past, I’ve taken different parts of it and looked at them individually, but I’ve never really read it as a whole.

What is Paul talking about here?  He’s talking about how we are building up our churches, and he warns us that we need to be careful how we build.

He reminds us first of all that Christ alone is the foundation of the church (11).  But with what do we build on that foundation?  The charisma of this pastor or this leader?  Jealousy?  Backbiting?  Pride?  Charisma isn’t bad, but you can’t truly build a church on a pastor’s charisma.  And the rest?  It will tear a church apart.  And so as each person, from the pastor all the way down the chain to the newest Christian, does their work within the church, they need to ask, with what materials am I trying to build this church up?  And depending on what we use, we will be judged.

Paul says,

If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.  If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.  (13-15)

In other words, none of us will go to hell because we fail in the duties that God has given us.  But we can lose our reward.  And some will literally get into heaven with nothing to show for all they did here on earth.  Why?  Their hearts were not right before him.  And again, Paul is pointing specifically to hearts of pride, jealousy, and division, things that can destroy the church.

It is with this in mind that he says,

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple. (17)

The “yous” here are all plural in the Greek.  And Paul is saying, “You Christians collectively are God’s temple.”  Put another way, “The church is God’s temple.”  And if we do things that destroy the church, God will bring judgment upon us.  If our pride, jealousy, and divisive spirits tear apart the church, God will hold us accountable.

So Paul tells us to get rid of these things.  Get rid of the “wisdom” of this world that leads to pride, jealousy, and division.  Instead, embrace the “foolishness of the cross,” that would lead us to be humble and grateful to God, and accepting of those around us.

How about you?  Whether you’re a pastor or the newest Christian in the church, you have a part in building up Christ’s church.  With what are you building it up?

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I Corinthians 3:1-4 — Immature

In the previous chapter, Paul talks about those who are mature (6) and  those who are spiritual. (15)

But at the beginning of this chapter, he makes clear that the Corinthians fit neither description.  He said,

Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly–mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men? (1-4)

Very hard words.  But what would Paul say about you if he were to look at you?  More importantly, what would Jesus say about you?

Now let me be clear, if you are a young Christian, new to the faith, I’m not talking so much to you.  Obviously, as a baby Christian you have much to grow, and that’s fine.  But if a baby never grows up, there is something seriously wrong.

If my 5-year-old daughter were still drinking milk from a bottle there would be something wrong.  That’s cute in the early years, but not at 5.  If she were still crawling instead of walking, if she were still babbling instead of talking, those would be serious problems.

And yet so many Christians remain babies.  They never really grow up.  What do I mean?

In short, they remain worldly.  For the Corinthians, they showed this in that they continued to have hearts full of jealousy, and were constantly quarreling with one another.  They had hearts that were full of pride, comparing themselves to one another, and looking down on others.  And it was tearing apart the church.

How many churches today split for the same reasons?  How many Christians leave their churches for those very reasons?  Those are marks of immaturity.

So if your heart is still full of these things, how do you start to mature?  You need to get back to the basics, and it’s rooted back in the milk of the gospel.  Namely, that God loves you.  Not because of who you are, or what you have done, but because of who he is.  And he loved you so much that he sent Jesus to die on the cross for your sins.

Why do we have hearts of pride?  Why do we compare ourselves with each other?  Why are we jealous of others and quarrel with others?  Because these basic truths have not sunk into our hearts yet.

If we really know that God loves us that much, what others think of us won’t matter.  There’s no need for jealousy or for comparisons with others because we know that God accepts us as we are.

More, we know that there’s no room for pride because we know that we have nothing to boast about.  As Paul will say later, everything we have we received from God.  And if we have merely received it (in contrast to working for it), where is the room for boasting?  There is none.

How about you?  Have these truths sunk into your heart?

Let us no longer be worldly.  Let us no longer be immature.  But let us soak ourselves into these truths.  And as we do, we will grow and become the people God desires us to be.

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1 Corinthians 2:6-16 — To know the mind of God

The thing about dealing with an invisible God is that you will never know anything about him unless he reveals himself to you.  And even when he does, what he tells you will be beyond you unless he gives you a heart that understands.

That’s one of the wonders of grace and salvation.  That though we can’t see him, he revealed himself to us.  And though we didn’t have hearts that could grasp what he was saying, he brought enlightenment to us through his Spirit.

That’s what we see in this passage.

Paul asks,

For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.  (11)

I’ve always told my wife, “Much as I’d like to be able to, I can’t read your mind.  If something is bothering you, tell me.”

It can be difficult to read people sometimes.  What are they thinking?  What are they feeling?  What are they planning?  And if it’s difficult to read people who we can see, how much more difficult is it to read God who we can’t see?

People in their own wisdom will never be able to comprehend God or his purposes.  Paul gives an example of this in verses 7-8, when talking about God’s plan of salvation.  He tells us that God had in mind from the beginning what he would do, but it was hidden from us.  God had given the Jews pictures through the sacrifices and pictures through the prophets about what needed to be done for our salvation.  And yet they couldn’t grasp it.  So Paul tells us,

None of the rulers of this age understood [the wisdom of God], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (8)

Even Caiaphas, the high priest, couldn’t grasp it, not even the words that came out of his own mouth when he said,

You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.  (John 11:50)

John said of those words,

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.  (51-52)

Talk about God using you in spite of yourself.  But Paul’s words in verse 14 are a perfect description of Caiaphas.

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.  (14)

High priest though Caiaphas was, had someone told him that Jesus had to die for the sins of the people, he would have thought they were crazy.  Why?  Because he was without the Spirit in his life.

But we who are Christians do.  For Paul tells us,

However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”– but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.  (9-10)

And again,

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.  (14)

And yet again,

“For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.  (16)

Do we understand all things now?  Of course not.  There are still many things we see dimly.  Even salvation, which is one of the clearest things God has revealed to us, is clouded in mystery.  But as we draw nearer to God and mature, he will reveal these things to us even more as he teaches us his spiritual truths.  (13)

So let us pray, “Holy Spirit, open the eyes and ears of my heart that I might know you, and that I might understand all that you have prepared for me.”

And he will reveal himself to us.

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I Corinthians 2:1-5 — Speaking with power

This is a passage I’ve been thinking about recently whenever I’ve given messages at church.  Honestly, it’s something I need to keep more in mind whenever I write these blogs as well.

Paul wrote,

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.  (1-5)

If you do any kind of Bible teaching, whether as a Sunday school teacher, Bible study leader, pastor, or whatever, I think it would be worth your time to memorize this passage and meditate on it before every message you give.

I’d like to think that I’m a pretty good speaker.  I’d like to think that my teaching is clear and simple for those who hear.

But the truth of the matter is that while I may impact people through my words and wisdom, the change I can effect is limited.  Why?  Because my wisdom and my powers of persuasion are limited. More, I cannot infuse people with the power to change.  People may hear what I say and agree.  “Yes, I should love my enemies.  Yes, I should forgive those who hurt me.  Yes, I need to take off sin and put on righteousness.”

And yet, unless God is working in them, nothing will change.

What Paul recognized is that there is only one thing that truly brings about change.  The power of God through the message of the cross.  It is because of what Christ did on the cross that we can have a relationship with God.  It is because of what Christ did that our old nature died, and we have received a new nature.  It is because of what Christ did that we can put away our sinful past and find true life.

That’s why Paul said,

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  (2)

How about you?  If you are simply a church member, what kind of messages are you hearing at your church?  Can you say that the message of the cross is central at your church?  Or are the messages based on the wisdom of your pastor and the idea that you need to change yourself?

If you are a teacher, what is the focus of your message and preparation?  Entertaining your audience?  Showing your wisdom and knowledge?  Or is it preaching Christ and him crucified?  Is it letting his power flow through you as you speak so that their faith rests, not on you, but on Christ?

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I Corinthians 1:26-31 — No room for boasting

In illustrating the “foolishness of God,” Paul uses the people in the Corinthian church as an example.

Now if you were going to save as many people as possible, wouldn’t you start with the rich, powerful, wise, and influential?  Wouldn’t that make sense?  But Paul says of the Corinthians,

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (26-29)

This is not to say God doesn’t save the rich, powerful, wise, and influential.  Paul says here, “not many,” not, “not any.”

Still, God saves people not because of what they have or who they are, but because of his grace.  And time and again, he puts to shame those who claimed to be strong and wise by those who were, by their standards, their inferiors.  But these “inferiors” put the strong and wise to shame by one thing:  their faith in God.

For instance, God took an old man named Noah who was willing to actually take God at his word and build a huge ark when no one needed a boat that big (if they needed one at all).  Noah’s neighbors must have thought he was nuts.  But in the end, he was proven wise when the rain started to fall and the flood waters started to rise.

Later, God took the Jewish people out of captivity in Egypt and had them surround a fortified city, just marching around it for 6 days.  Then on the seventh day, they marched around it 7 times, blowing their horns.  Then they shouted and charged the city.  When Joshua’s soldiers heard this plan, they must have questioned Joshua’s sanity.  For that matter, the inhabitants must have wondered what those crazy Jews were doing.  But when the Israelites charged on that seventh day, the walls fell and they captured the city.

Years later, God took a bunch of young Jewish exiles in Babylon who refused to eat the food provided by the king because it was against their dietary laws, and instead just ate vegetables and drank water.  Their fellow exiles must have thought they were out of their minds.  In the end, these four men were not only healthier than their compatriots, but wiser and more capable as well.

Time and again, throughout history, you see God doing this kind of thing.

And he did it again through the cross.  What people considered as a sign of weakness and defeat, an ignoble death on the cross, God used for our salvation.  And he used it to save, not those whom the world admires, but those whom it despised.

People despise us because they consider us weak.  Because to them, only the intellectually inferior and emotionally crippled need God.  They despise us because we would put our trust in him instead of ourselves.

But ultimately, they will be put to shame.

A warning, however.  Remember that you have nothing to boast about if you are a Christian.  It’s not because of who you are or what you have done that God saved you.  It’s because of who God is and what he has done.  As Paul wrote,

It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (30)

So as Paul concludes,

Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”  (31)

Who are you boasting in?  Yourself?  You will be put to shame.

In God?  Then there is no room for pride.

What is your attitude today?

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I Corinthians 1:18-25 — The futility of human thinking and wisdom

A few weeks ago, as I was preparing a pre-Easter message for my church, Paul’s words in verse 18 here struck me.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I’ve been a Christian all my life, so the message of the cross is something that I’ve just always taken as “normal.”  I was taught it, so I believed it.

But I must admit, if someone were to start preaching, “Your salvation is found in the message of the electric chair,” or “Your salvation is found in the hangman’s noose,” I’d probably think you were out of your mind.

Yet that is exactly what many Jews and Greeks thought of Paul’s message.  Paul said,、

Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.  (22-23)

The Jews were looking for the power of God to save them, just as he had done in Egypt by sending plagues upon the Egyptians and parting the Red Sea for them.  Because God had done things that way in the past, they were expecting their Messiah to do the same.  But here, Paul preached salvation, not through Christ’s overcoming the Romans through signs of power, destroying them, but through Christ’s submission to the Roman cross.  Of getting beaten, whipped, and crucified by them.  And so they stumbled over the idea that Christ was the promised Messiah.

The Greeks, meanwhile, were impressed with human reason.  They were looking for what ideas Jesus might have that might stimulate their way of thinking.  But when Paul preached to them in Athens, he instead preached Christ’s death and resurrection, at which point most of them blithely dismissed anything he had to say.  “Who wants to listen to this kook?”  (Acts 17:31-32)

Which shows the problem of coming to God with our own set ways of thinking and in our own wisdom.  We expect God to meet our expectations, that all he does and all he says will match what our logic and “wisdom” tell us he should do.  And when he doesn’t we dismiss what he actually does say and do as foolishness.

But Paul says,

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.  (25)

I will be the first to admit I can’t understand all that God does and why.  How is it, for example, that Jesus’ work on the cross can pay for our sins?  How exactly does that work? How can one person’s act provide justification for us all?  I don’t know.  I’ve heard and used illustrations that explain it to a degree, and so I have an idea, but at the same time, I can see why people would  have trouble accepting it and think it’s simply foolishness.

But what we consider foolish, God will prove to us wise.  What we consider weakness on God’s part, he will prove to us strength.

And ultimately, as Paul quotes, God will, “destroy the wisdom of the wise, and frustrate the intelligence of the intelligent.”  (19)

So Paul asks,

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.   (20-21)

We will never find God on our own terms, based on our own human wisdom.  Our thinking is too limited.  Too narrow.  If we are to find him, we must yield ourselves to him and his wisdom.  And that starts with acknowledging Jesus as Lord, because this Jesus who was crucified is to us now both the power and wisdom of God.  He is the power of God to save us.  And he is the wisdom of God incarnate that puts to shame all of our wisdom.

Won’t you yield to him today?

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I Corinthians 1:10-17 — Elevating people over Christ

I suppose it’s natural for people in the church to look up to Christian leaders as their example, and as the ones they admire.

After all, these leaders have been following Christ longer, and presumably have more wisdom and knowledge than we do.  More, we can actually see them, and have face to face conversations with them.

By no means am I saying that it’s bad to look up to people within the church as role models.  But the danger comes when we elevate them over Christ.  Instead of following Christ, we follow these leaders.  Instead of making Christ our example, we look solely at our leaders.

One problem that can come from this is divisions within the church, as the Corinthians had.  Some people were saying, “I follow Paul.”  Others said, “I follow Apollos.”  Others said, “I follow Cephas (Peter).”

And Paul gets very sarcastic saying,

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?  (13)

In other words, “Who are you following anyway?”

Later, he would tell them in chapter 3,

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (3:5-7)

In short, “Stop elevating people over God.  The people are merely servants of God.  No one seeks to elevate the servant in the household, but the master.  So why do we elevate the leaders in the church when they are merely servants?”

But so many people do.  And we have seen it lead to divisions within the church today.

The other problem with elevating people above God is that they are merely human, and because of that, they will inevitably let us down.  And if our faith is based on the lives of these people rather than God, then when they fall or disappoint us, our faith will fall as well.

So let us not elevate people, no matter how godly they are, above him who died for us and rose again.  Let us not get into fights over this pastor being better than that pastor.  Each has their own work as God has assigned it to them.  It’s not our place to judge them, and we especially have no right to judge them compared to other pastors.  Leave the judgments to God who alone knows what he has required of them.

And let us not rest our faith on the faith of others.  Rather let us rest our faith and hope in God alone.  If we rest our faith on others, we will inevitably be disappointed.  But if we put our trust in Christ, we never will be put to shame.  (Romans 10:11)

 

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I Corinthians 1:1-9 — Sanctified and called to be holy

The church in Corinth, as we will see throughout this book, had its share of problems, many of them serious.

That said, it’s really amazing the things Paul said about the church.  He called them “sanctified in Christ” and called to be holy.

Considering their problems, it’s hard to see the former, and while they were called to be holy, set apart for Christ, they certainly weren’t living that way.

But it’s a reminder to me that God does not merely see where we are now, but where we will be.  And we are to look on other brothers and sisters in Christ the same way.  We are not to see them simply where they are at now in their Christian walk.  But we are to see them as people Christ has already set apart for himself.  They are now his.  And so as Paul did with the Corinthians, we are to remind our brothers and sisters that they are called to live that way.  To no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and rose again.

Just as importantly, we need to see ourselves the same way.  It’s easy to look at ourselves as Christians and get discouraged.  We see our sins and how we struggle, and we wonder how God could accept us.  But let us remember that we have already be accepted.  God has already set ourselves apart for himself.  So now, let’s live that way.

But remember too that we don’t need to do this on our own strength.  For Paul tells us,

He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.  (8-9)

We may not always be faithful.  But God is.  And he will never stop working in us until the day we stand before Christ, holy and blameless in his sight.

How about you?  How do you see your brothers and sisters in Christ?  How do you see yourself?

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Romans 16:25-27 — The One Who establishes us

And so we finish off Romans.  I think it’s been one of the more fun books that I have blogged through.  And as we do, we finish up where we started.  With a reminder that salvation is ultimately the work of God.  Paul writes,

Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God. (25-26)

Here we see the wonder of the gospel.  That years before Jesus came, God gave  glimpses of what was to come through the prophets.  It was something that was unclear for thousands of years, but found its clarity in Jesus Christ.  And now this gospel is clear for all to see that,

all nations might believe and obey him (26b)

But it’s not a gospel based on our works.  Rather, it’s based on the grace of God.  He is the one who establishes us in our faith, and in our salvation.  Before time began, he chose us, predestining us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.  Through Jesus, he paid the price for our sin.  And through the Spirit, he sanctifies us day by day so that we might become more like Jesus until the day we see him in glory.

That’s the wonder of salvation.  Not that we deserved it.  Not that we earned it.  But that through his grace, God’s love was poured out on us that we might believe and be transformed into his likeness.

So as Paul said,

To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.  (27)

Indeed, amen and amen.

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Romans 16:17-20 — That we may not be naive

Here, towards the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul gives the church a warning.

I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. (16)

What exactly was Paul talking about?  False teaching.  It was a plague back then, and it is a plague in the church today.  And Paul tells us to watch out for them.

The problem is that those who teach false things often sound so good.  Paul wrote,

By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.  (18b)

But in truth,

Such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.  (18a)

And Paul tells us,

I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.  (19b)

How can we safeguard ourselves against false teaching?  I think Paul gives us the key identifying false teaching in verse 16.  It is “contrary to the teaching you have learned.”

This is assuming, of course, that you are familiar with the true teaching of Christ.  If you are not, then it will be impossible to be “wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.”

Rather, you will live in a naive manner, prey to any wolf that might come to devour you.

The Romans were, however, grounded in the Word of God, and because of that, Paul said,

Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over youThe God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. (19-20)

So ground yourself in God’s Word.  Be hungry for the truth that is in it and you will never be deceived.

People who are trained to detect counterfeit money (like bankers) never start by studying the counterfeit.  They start with studying and handling the real bills.  And they become so familiar with the real bills, that when a counterfeit bill falls into their hands, they can almost immediately tell the difference, just by the feel of it, as well as other points.

In the same way, if you become real familiar with the truth in the Word of God, you will never be deceived.

So let us make it our goal to become familiar with what’s true and good.  And “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.  The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.”  (20)

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Romans 16:1-16 — Working hard, tested, and approved

Here in this passage, we see Paul sending greetings to different people in Rome.  These were people who Paul really appreciated.  Some supported him financially, others worked side by side with him in ministry, others had spent time in prison with him for the sake of the gospel.

But two things really strike me here.  Time and again, he refers to those who worked hard in the Lord (all of them women).  And he talks about a man named Apelles, who was tested and approved in Christ.

I was just thinking how I’d like to have people say those things about me.  That I worked hard in the Lord.  That I was doing all the things that God asked of me.  And that through whatever circumstances and trials I might go through, that I have been found approved in Christ.

More than that, though, it’s my deepest desire that when I go to heaven, God would say to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

For while the praise of man is wonderful, it is the praise of God that really counts.

How about you?  What would God and others say about you?

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Romans 15:30-33 — Supporting those on the front lines

It is easy, sometimes, to forget that we are in a spiritual war.  But we are.

And many people are out on the front lines sharing the gospel.  Some are doing ministry at home.  Others are in foreign countries.  But whether at home or abroad, these people especially need our prayers.

Paul himself knew that.  If there was one person you would think could make it without others’ prayers, it would be him.  But he was particularly mindful of the fact that he couldn’t do it alone.  He wrote the Roman church saying,

I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there.  (30-31)

The word “struggle” really strikes me.  Sometimes we think of missionaries and other ministers as Christian supermen and superwomen.  But they’re not.  They’re human just like us.  They struggle just like we do, and they need our prayers.  So pray for them.

Pray for your pastors.  I talked yesterday about supporting them financially, but they also need your spiritual support.  Pray for them.

Pray for those you know are missionaries.  They need your prayers too.

Let us never forget those who are out there on the front lines.  All of us, hopefully, are doing God’s work wherever we are.  And whenever we do God’s work we become targets for Satan and his demons.  But those who are on the front lines are especially targets.  So let us not neglect praying for them.

More, let us send them our words of encouragement.  And as God gives us the finances to do so, let us support them in that way too.

It can be lonely out there on the front lines.  Let us remind those who are out there that they are not alone.

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Romans 15:23-29 — Sharing with those from whom we receive spiritual blessing

Money is always a touchy subject.  And talking about tithing always is within the church.  A lot of Christians argue that tithing is not a New Testament teaching, and I believe they’re right.  (There are others that do differ with me on this).

However, I do believe that the Bible is clear that we are to support those from whom we receive spiritual blessing.  I think we can see this principle in this passage, though the situation is not talking about tithing.

In this passage, Paul talks about how he was going to Jerusalem with a gift that the people from Macedonia and Achaia had given to support the poor in Jerusalem.

And Paul says a very interesting thing about it.  He says,

They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.  (27)

Two things to note here.  They wanted to do it.  They had hearts that were willing to give.  But second, Paul said that in a sense, it was something they owed the Jews, because salvation came from the Jews.  (John 4:22).  That is, God chose to bring the Savior through the Jewish race.  The Jews, through people like Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, spread the good news of God’s salvation to the Gentiles, and as a result, many were saved.

So Paul says, “Since they have received these spiritual blessings through the Jews, they owed it to the Jews to share their material blessings with them.”

I believe the same is true with us and our pastors.  They have shared many spiritual blessings with us.  They dedicate their lives to us that we may know God better, and come into a closer relationship with him.  It is only right that we share our material blessings so that they can support themselves and their families.

But again, this needs to be something done, not simply from a heart pulled by obligation, but from a heart that is willing.  As Paul said in II Corinthians,

Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  (II Corinthians 9:7)

So if you’re not willing to give, don’t give.  But if you have a heart that is so in love with money that you are not willing to give to those that support you spiritually, then that’s an area that you’re going to need to grow in if you want to be like Jesus.

Jesus was a giver.  He gave up heaven for us.  He gave up his very life for us.

If we really love Jesus, shouldn’t we have that kind of heart as well?

How about you?  Are you a giver?

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Romans 15:14-22 — That people may see and understand

It is easy to look at people like the apostle Paul, and think that only people like him are called to be ministers.  It is true that he was given a special grace to take the gospel out to the Gentiles that they might see and understand the truth of the gospel.  It is because of him that people like us (non-Jews) are believers today.

But the truth is that all of us are called to be ministers.  We all have the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God so that those we touch might become acceptable offerings to him as the Spirit sanctifies them.  (16)

Some of you might think, “But I can’t do that.  I’m no minister.  I don’t have the power or ability to change lives.”

No you don’t.  But Jesus Christ does.  Paul himself gloried not in his accomplishments, as if it were by his power and wisdom that people came to Christ.  Rather, he said,

Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God.  (17)

And again,

I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done. (18)

In short, it is Christ who changes people by the power of the Spirit (19).  But in his grace, God chooses to use us to accomplish this.

As has been said before, for some people, we are the only Bible people will ever read.  For some people, we will be the only people through whom they will ever see Jesus.

So let us fulfill our priestly duty that God has given us.  Let us share his gospel with them that,

Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.  (21)

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Romans 15:1-7 — Accepting others where they are

If there is one thing I think we’d all like, whether we admit it or not, it’s the ability to change others.  To make others act in a way more palatable or acceptable to us.  Maybe it’s bad habits people have.  Maybe it’s a fault they have.

The truth is, though, we can’t change people.  We can try to bully people, make them feel guilty, or passively aggressively hint that they should change.

But Paul tells us here,

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.  (1)

As I’ve mentioned before, this is specifically in reference to those with tender consciences, those who who feel restricted by rules that are not required by God.

As I think of this passage today, however, I think of another application.  We may consider other people weak because of their bad habits, faults, etc, and ourselves as strong because we don’t have them.  More, we try to make them change, many times not for their own sake or for their own good, but for our own.  We’re trying to make others act in a way that pleases us.

But Paul is saying here, we should bear with the failings of those around us.  I like how the NASB puts it,

Now we who are strong ought to bear with the weaknesses of those without strength.

Many times as we deal with people, they simply don’t have the strength to change.  They may know they should change, but it’s a struggle.  And until God gives them that grace and strength, we shouldn’t pressure them, push them, or try to manipulate them.

Rather, as Paul says, we are to,

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (7)

How does Christ accept us?  He accepts us in our weakness.  I’m sure Christ knows every single fault and weakness that we have.  But he does not shove them all in our face and require us to change right here and right now.  But rather, he shows patience, love, and mercy.  And not only does he show us how to change, he gives us the power to change.

While we may have the ability to show people what needs to change and have ideas on how they can change, we cannot give them the power to change.  Only Christ can do that.

So let us show patience, love, and mercy to those around us, and leave the change in their lives to Christ.

And as we do, God will be glorified.

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Romans 15:4-13 — That we might have hope

Sometimes as we go through scripture, I think most of us wonder why God put all of the things he put in there.  For example, why did he put all the laws he gave the Jews in Exodus and Leviticus?  Or the stories of the awful things people did, stories of rape, murder, and so on.  Do we really need to read all this?

But Paul says something very interesting in verse 4.  He says,

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

In other words, God puts everything in his word for a purpose.  Through the law, for example, we see pictures of the God’s holiness, his justice, and his mercy.

Through the awful stories, we see the sinfulness of man, and just how bad things can get when people walk away from God and do things their own way.

But we also see the grace of God working through the worst of situations to bring out something good.

We see how through times of persecution, God delivered his people.  We see how even when God allowed his people to die in persecution, the peace he gave to them, even in facing death.

We see how through times of suffering, when God seemed far away, yet God was there all along and ultimately brought comfort to his people.

And because of all this, when we see evil in this world, when we go through suffering or persecution, we have hope to endure.  We find the encouragement to keep on going.  And as we do, we find the same God that was with his people thousands of years ago, working in their lives, is still alive today and working in us now.

So whatever you’re going through and where you are in life, let us immerse ourselves in the Scriptures.  Let us remember that God is not dead, but is alive and at work in us.  And as Paul prayed,

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  (13)

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Romans 15:1-12 — Living as one

Paul sums up what he has been talking about in chapter 14 in this passage.  He starts by saying,

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.  Each of us should please his neighbor for his good to build him up.  (1-2)

Basically, the “weak” here are those with tender consciences which don’t allow them to do things that are actually okay, or on the other hand require them to do certain things that they don’t have to do.  We saw this in Romans 14.

The strong are those who don’t have those limitations or feelings of obligation.

But Paul says those who are strong should not condemn those who are weak.  Rather, they should look out for the good of those who are weak to build them up.

He then points to the example of Jesus, who though he was strong, put up with us who were weak.  He put up with a squabbling group of disciples who were selfish, self-seeking, proud, and in general a mess.  And he served them, even going so far as to wash their dirty feet (John 13).

More, he put up with people that hated him for no reason, who insulted him, and ultimately crucified him, and he interceded for them, praying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

And then he died in their place, taking the punishment they deserved.

Now all of us, both Jew and Gentile, have reason for hope, because 2000 years ago, Jesus laid his life down for us.

So Paul tells us,

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (7).

And he prayed,

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (5)

God calls us to live as one.  And the key to that is not to focus on each other and our respective failings, but to focus on Jesus Christ, keeping our eyes on him, and following after him.  To the degree that we do focus on each other, it should be not to tear each other down, but to build each other up.

How it must tear at the heart of the Father to see his children biting and devouring each other.  Let us not be that way.  Let us live as Christ did, putting up with each other, loving and accepting each other, and serving one another.

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Romans 14 — Breaking conscience

There is one last thing that I should mention before leaving this chapter, and that’s the motivation of our hearts.  Why do we do the things we do?

Paul makes it crystal clear here what our attitude should be.  He said,

Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.  (6-9)

Paul’s reminding us here that we are not living merely for ourselves but for the Lord.  So when we regard one day as “holy to the Lord,” we do it not merely because of tradition, but because of our love for the Lord.  Whenever we eat or drink something, we do it not just to indulge ourselves, but we do it with a heart of thankfulness for God.

In short, whatever we do, we do it to the Lord.  Paul wrote in another passage,

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.  (I Corinthians 10:31)

But if you are not doing things out of that kind of heart, that is sin.  Paul wrote concerning eating meat offered to idols,

But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.  (Romans 14:23)

Here, Paul is talking of a person who is bothered by the fact that the meat was offered to idols.  They can’t get out of their head that it was offered to something spiritually impure.  And because of that, if they were to eat it, it wouldn’t be out of a heart of thankfulness to God.  Rather it would be from a heart of, “I’m doing something wrong.  I’m doing something sinful.”  And if they were to eat from that kind of heart, it would become sinful to them.  Because it would come from a heart of, “I feel this is wrong but I will do it anyway.”  And God is never pleased with that kind of attitude.

My point is, we should never break conscience.  If our conscience tells us something is wrong, we should avoid it.  Even if we know other Christians think something like drinking is okay, if in our hearts it bothers us, don’t do it.  Even if we know other Christians sometimes watch R-rated movies, if it bothers us, don’t do it.

Everything we do should be done with a heart confident that we have God’s approval.

This is not to say that if we are confident that we definitely have God’s approval.  That’s why it’s important to read the Bible:  to be certain.  But where the Bible is silent or says the choice is up to us, let us live by our conscience, asking God to continually shape it and mold it so that we can live in a way that’s pleasing to him.

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Romans 14 — Dealing with each other in love.

In chapter 13, Paul said,

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. (13:8)

And again,

Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (13:10)

In this chapter, we see a very important application of this verse.  We saw before that there were people who were bothered by their fellow Christians eating meat offered to idols.  It also seems that there were those who were bothered by those who drank wine.

We don’t see the former problem so much if at all in our society today, but we do see a lot of the latter:  Christians judging others over drinking.  Now the Bible is clear cut in saying “Don’t get drunk.”  But it doesn’t teach that we must completely abstain from alcohol.

Yet many Christians who drink alcohol condemn as legalistic those who don’t, and those who don’t drink alcohol often condemn as sinful those who do.

But again, Paul says, “Don’t judge others about these kinds of things.  Leave judgment up to God.  These are God’s servants, not yours.  They are accountable to him, not to you.”

And yet, Paul does say this.

If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.  (15).

So he said,

Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.  (13)

And again,

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.  (19-21)

In other words, as Christians, we shouldn’t just live for ourselves and think only of ourselves.  Rather, remember that you are accountable for God for your actions, and he calls you to love your brothers and sisters in Christ.  But if you do something that distresses them because they think it’s wrong, you’re not acting in love.  Worse, you could cause them to break conscience and fall into sin.  For as Paul wrote,

But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.  (23)

We’ll talk more about that tomorrow, but the key point is that we should never cause someone to break their own conscience.

I heard a story once of some people at my church back in Hawaii.  Some of the guys were hanging out at someone’s house, and they all had a beer.  But unbeknownst to them, one of them was a recovering alcoholic.  And unfortunately, being with other brothers that were drinking, he started to drink too.  But unlike them, he didn’t stop until he got drunk.

Now it wasn’t their fault.  They didn’t know.  But it shows the problems that can happen if we abuse our freedom at the expense of our brothers and sisters.

So let us not be selfish in our thinking.  If our brother or sister is bothered by something that we do, then avoid doing that thing where they can see it.  Let us be sensitive to them and love them.  After all, Christ died for them too.

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Romans 14 — Judging your brothers and sisters

If there is one problem within the church, it’s brothers and sisters judging each other.

Now I want to be clear, this has nothing to do with black or white issues.  Paul had no problems with judging others when it came to issues that were clear cut right or wrong.  You only have to look at I Corinthians 5 to see that.

But we’re talking about issues that the Bible either says nothing about or says is up to each individual Christian.  And here we see two of the latter.

Among the Christians in Paul’s day, there were arguments about eating meat and vegetables.  People who ate vegetables were condemning those who ate meat, perhaps because the meat had been offered to idols before being served as food at the dinner table.

Others argued about religious holidays, most probably the Jewish ones and whether Christians should continue to observe them or not.  The Sabbath was probably a particular issue they faced.

The key thing here is that Paul did not consider them black and white issues.  And Paul says here not to get into arguments over “disputable matters.”  (1)

These were issues that were purely matters of conscience.  Some Jews felt that they should continue to observe the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays.  And for them, to suddenly stop observing these special days seemed dishonoring to God.  The Gentiles, on the other hand, probably felt that it was a purely a Jewish tradition and had nothing to do with them.

Paul condemns neither.  He said,

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.  Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.  (5-6)

In other words, if you consider a day special because of your faith, then celebrate it.  God will honor that.  But if every day is alike to you, that’s fine too.

For those who felt bad about eating meat offered to idols, Paul said,

I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. (14)

Paul was telling the Romans, “I personally feel that even if food has been offered to idols, it’s okay to eat it.  But if you feel bad about doing that, then by all means, don’t eat it.”

But then he said,

The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.  (3-4)

And again,

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’ ” So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.  (10-13)

I really don’t think there’s much that needs to be added to this.  It’s about as clear as you can make it.  The main point is that God is our master.  He is the one we have to answer to.  So we have no business judging one another on things that are a matter of conscience.  So let us leave judgment to God.

When I was a teenager, I was working with other teens teaching Bible clubs to kids.  For the first two weeks, we went through a training camp.  But in between our classes, sometimes people played cards.  Now we weren’t gambling or anything, but there was one person there that was bothered by it.  She had always been taught it was wrong.

Now when one of the other teens heard this, he said, “That’s so stupid!”  He didn’t say it, but if he had been an adult, he probably would have said, “That’s so legalistic.”

But another guy said, “Hey, it’s how she feels.  Respect that.”  So we never touched cards again for the rest of camp.

We refused to judge her for her beliefs.  And she, though she did say our playing bothered her, didn’t condemn us for thinking it was okay to play cards.  The end result was that we kept harmony, and we were able to do great things for God that summer.

That’s what Paul is saying here.  We will not always agree.  But on issues where God says it’s up to us, or on issues where God says nothing at all, let us accept one another.  And if we do, we will make a difference in this world for Christ.

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Romans 13:11-14 — Embracing the Day

When Jesus departed from this earth, and the disciples were left looking at the sky, an angel appeared to them saying,

Men of Galilee…why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)

Luke tells us that hearing this they returned to Jerusalem with great joy worshiping continually in the temple (Luke 24:52-53), and they also waited for the coming of the Spirit (Acts 2).  And when the Spirit came, they went out and turned this world upside down.

Now, years after this event, Paul brings all this back to mind, saying,

And do this (i.e., love each other), understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.  (11-12)

In other words, knowing that the day of Jesus’ return is coming soon, we are to be awake, alert, and ready.  I love the ESV translation of verse 12.

The night is far gone; the day is at hand.

Paul’s saying, “The time when Satan ruled is long past.  The Day of Christ is at hand.”

He then takes the metaphors of night and day, and says,

So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.  (12b)

In short, since the time of Satan’s rule has passed, and the time of Christ is at hand, let us put aside the deeds associated with that time of darkness, and instead put on the deeds associated with the light.  What are the deeds of darkness?  He tells us in verse 13,

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.

Most people, when they do evil, do it in secret, in darkness.  But Paul says here to step out into the light.  Act as you would when you know the whole world is watching.  More, act knowing that God is watching and sees all you do.

Note also that though Satan’s time has passed, though he has already lost because of the cross, nevertheless, he continues to fight.  So we are to be prepared for battle wearing the armor of light.  We are to have on the helmet of salvation, the shield of faith, the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, the sword of the Spirit, and our feet fitted and prepared to take out the gospel.  (Ephesians 6:14-17)

Paul then concludes by saying,

Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.  (14)

We are to be people clothed Jesus Christ himself.  His power and his character should be resting upon us as we live each day.  And if we are clothed with him, then there is no room for feeding our sinful nature.

Again, I like the ESV which puts it,

Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  (14b)

So knowing that Christ is coming soon, let us be like the 12 disciples, living each day in joy, filled with the Spirit, and turning this world upside down for the sake of Christ.  Let us embrace the Day.

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Romans 13:8-10 — To fulfill the law

It has always seemed strange to me that Paul said,

For whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.  (8b)

After all, isn’t loving God the other half of fulfilling the law?  Jesus did say after all that the two great commands are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.  (Matthew 22:37-40)

Why then focus only on the latter?

I’m not sure, but I think perhaps the reason is that we cannot separate the former from the latter.  That if we truly love God, we must love our neighbor.  And if we don’t love our neighbor, we’re not truly loving God.

John says as much in his epistles.

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?  (I John 3:17)

And again,

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.  (I John 4:20-21)

It’s very hard to argue with John.  How can we claim that we love a God whom we have never seen, while at the same time we hate the people around us that we can see?

How about you?  Do you claim to love God?  If so, how are you treating the people around you?  Are you loving them?  Or are you looking down on them?  Are you despising them?

If you’re doing the latter, it’s time to take a close look at how much you truly love God.

So as John wrote,

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.  (I John 3:18)

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