Colossians Part 1: The Whole Shebang

panoramic photo of bridge
Photo by Diego Cano on Pexels.com

It is important for us to understand the world that these Colossian Christians lived in, so that we can see why Paul wrote what he did, and how they would have understood and applied it to their lives.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Colossians Part 1

Colossians Part 1: The Whole Shebang

Colossians is a letter written by Paul to the Christians in the city of Colossae. Colossae was a relatively small town in an area of the world that we would now call southern Turkey. It was three to five days’ journey east from the large city of Ephesus. In order to understand this book of the Bible, it is important to know a little bit about the kind of world those Colossian Christians lived in.

By that point in history, virtually all of the land within two-hundred miles of the Mediterranean sea had been conquered first by Greeks, and then by Romans. Though there were still local customs and languages, for the most part, everybody spoke Greek, and participated in what we call “Greco-Roman culture.”

Colossians has a lot to say about worshipping God. A big part of that culture was about worshipping various gods. The chief god was Zeus, and his wife was Hera. Apollo was the god of healing, among other things. Hermes was the god in charge of messages and communication. So, if you sent an important letter, you might make an offering to Hermes to make sure it was favorably received. If you wanted healing, you went to the shrine of Apollo. Athena, besides being a goddess of war, was in charge of weaving and pottery, so if you were a craftsman in these trades, you probably worshipped her. In fact, many trades (like baking, blacksmithing, leather working) had guilds, and one of the main things you did in your trade guild was come together and worship the god who was in charge of your trade. Colossians also mentions drunkenness, and sexual immorality. Often times, worshipping the various gods involved feasting, getting drunk, and then having sex in the temple or shrine of the god you worshipped. Generally, they were not having sex with their spouses in this context. So, Paul writes about sexual immorality.

In addition, the Greco-Roman people had a fascination with what they called “mystery religions.” Anything strange and mysterious and weird drew their attention. And, of course, there was a great tolerance of any sort of worship or religion. It was no big deal if one man preferred Apollo, and another Zeus. People didn’t care. But what was not tolerated, what eventually led to persecution, was when Christians said everyone else was wrong. As long as you could agree that your religion was one of several dozen equally valid ways, there was no problem. But it was thought arrogant to claim that your religion was the One True Way. Sound familiar?

The one exception to these sorts of religions was Judaism. Jews worshipped only the one God, and they had a special dispensation by the Roman government, so they were tolerated. By this point in history, however, Jews did not live simply according to the Old Testament. They had developed an elaborate system of laws and theology that went far beyond what the Old Testament teaches. Christians, of course, worship the same One God, though they did not add all of the things added by the Jews, and added instead, the wisdom and truth brought by Jesus Christ.

So, when Jews and Christians met each other, they had this in common: they worshipped only the One true God as revealed first in the Old Testament. They shared some of the moral values that no one else in the culture had. In some times and places Jewish people, recognizing the common ground they had with Christians, sought to turn the Gentile Christians into Jews. In other places, they condemned Jewish Christians, claiming they had fallen away from Judaism. They wanted to make Christians live according to the Jewish laws – even the ones that weren’t in the Bible. Paul writes about this sort of thing in this book of Colossians.

Paul talks about the roles of women and men in the family and the church. Women in that culture were not as free as they are now, but were not as oppressed as some people might think. For example, a woman named Hedea won the war-chariot race in Corinth in the year 43. If a woman won the race, it isn’t a stretch to assume that more than one woman participated. War chariot racing is a violent, physically demanding sport, but apparently, women did it. In many places, the New Testament talks about prominent women who had enough influence to get Christians kicked out of local towns. Lydia was a businesswoman; no mention is made of a man in her life. She appears to be self-sufficient, and no remark is made as if that was particularly unusual. In the first century, in Ephesus, there was a woman holding a position something like what we would call “superintendent of the school district.” Many women had work that required them to travel around the town and do business.

In Rome, at least, marriage was becoming a farce. Divorce was rampant. Men and women swapped wives and husbands like they were at a flea market. There is a marriage record of one woman marrying her twenty-third husband. For the man, she was his twenty-first wife. It was a time and place where sexual immorality was common, and marriage was just not valued. Again, sound familiar?

So we need to understand that Paul’s words about marriage and family were not simply re-affirming what everyone around there believed. They were counter-cultural. Radical, even.

One final cultural thing we should understand: slavery, since Paul briefly mentions that, also. In the Greco-Roman world, there were essentially two types of slavery. The first is what we usually think of when we hear that word. These were slaves used to mine precious minerals, or to work on the Roman war galleys. They were treated little better than animals. They were people who were wholly under the control of their masters, and they were treated horribly. This is not the type of slavery that the New Testament (or Colossians) writes about, since there were no such slaves living in the towns and cities of the Greco-Roman world. Most of these were captured in war.

There was, however, another kind of slave. They were “bound” into service to their masters with a legal agreement. But this situation was much like the position of indentured servant that was quite common among white Europeans during the American colonial period. Certainly, they weren’t free to leave their masters without a change in the legal situation. Certainly, they had fewer rights than legally free people. But it was nothing like the race-based chattel-slavery that took place in America during the nineteenth century. Some translations of the Bible translate this type as “bond-servant” which is probably a better term. There were huge numbers of this sort of “slave” in the world at this time. Many of these people were “slaves” only for a period of their life – ten or twenty years. Most of them reasonably expected to – and did, in fact – gain their freedom at some point in life. They were paid for their work, which basically defies the description of “slave.” They could own property themselves – in fact, there are records of slaves owning slaves! They could marry, and have families, and their “owners” could not separate them from their families.

In those days, a slave with an important job for a wealthy, noble family, was often far better off than a free person trying to make a living on their own.

Now, let’s talk about the specific reasons Paul wrote this letter. As far as we know, Paul himself never went to Colossae. For a time, he planted house churches in Ephesus, and apparently, a man from Colossae, named Epaphras, visited Ephesus while Paul was working there. Epaphras became a Christian while he was in Ephesus, and then returned home to Colossae, where he started teaching people to follow Jesus. Many people there became Christians, and one or more house churches were established there. We know that one of the Christians was man named Philemon, and another one was Philemon’s bond-servant, Onesimus.

A few years later, Paul was a prisoner in Rome, under house arrest, with a fair amount of freedom as he awaited an audience with Caesar. This man Epaphras came to help and encourage him. It appears that Paul had a long talk with Epaphras about how things were going with the church in Colossae, and Paul wrote this letter in response to that conversation.

There were already several people in Rome with Paul, including the slave named Onesimus. In addition there was a man from Ephesus named Tychicus (tik-ki-kis). Tychicus is mentioned several times in the New Testament. It appears that he often traveled with Paul as part of his ministry team, and Paul thought very highly of him. After the arrival of Epaphras, Paul wrote letters to the Ephesians (the one we have in our Bible) and possibly another letter to Laodicea, which has been lost. By the way, I like that we know that. It shows that God was in control of what went into the Bible. Not everything Paul wrote was supposed to be part of the Bible, so God, in his providence, allowed that letter to be lost, while, in his providence, others were preserved.

In addition to that lost letter, Paul also wrote this letter to the Colossians, and a letter to Philemon, whom I mentioned above. That letter is also part of the Bible. Tychicus was given the task of carrying the letters to Ephesus and beyond, and also encouraging the Christians in those cities.

All right, with all this background, I want to do something a little different. We will take the text piece by piece, as I normally do. However, it is very helpful to have a sense of the whole thing before we examine each little part. Therefore, please end your time by reading the entire book of Colossians at one sitting, right now. It took me eleven minutes to do so out loud in the spoken version of this sermon. If you prefer to listen to that, it starts at 26:11 in the recorded sermon. As you do so, write down anything that strikes you, and especially, jot down any questions that come up from what you read. However, jot quickly, and keep reading, so you have a sense for what the whole letter feels like.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today through the text!

SELF-JUSTIFICATION, OR JESUS-JUSTIFICATION?

what-is-justification-by-faith-part-5-21502697

Only Jesus can satisfy the demands of the law. Only Jesus can make you holy. Only he can make you good. You don’t have to try any more.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 15

GALATIANS #15

Galatians Chapter 5:2-6

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal 5:2-4, ESV2011)

Before all you ladies quit reading, I want to make it clear that these verses have to do with some timeless and important principles. It isn’t really about the male anatomy at all. Remember, the situation in Galatia is that some false teachers have come in and are saying that although Jesus is the Messiah, in order to be right with God and be truly saved, you must follow Jewish law. For men, that meant that they must be circumcised. Some of these folks were in Jerusalem with Paul at one time:

But some of the believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses! ” (Acts 15:5, HCSB)

Now, let’s be clear. Paul himself was circumcised. At one point, he had his helper, Timothy, circumcised, so that he could stay the houses of non-Christian Jews (Acts 16:3). So clearly, Paul did not view circumcision itself as evil or always wrong. The problem was, the Galatians were starting to believe that circumcision was necessary (for men) to get right with God. For both men and women, they felt it was necessary to follow Jewish law.

Paul is saying this: “We are saved by Jesus plus nothing. If you want to count circumcision or the Jewish Law toward your salvation, then you can’t count Jesus. If you want to follow the law, you have to follow the whole thing perfectly, your entire life.” Jesus presents us with an either/or proposition. Either we receive him, and him alone as our only hope, or we try and get right with God through our own efforts. But we can’t do both.

If you think anything other than the death and resurrection of Jesus will get you right with God, then you are on your own. If you say, “well, God needs to let my aunt into heaven because she was so kind and generous,” you are really claiming that one way to get right with God is kindness and generosity. Paul, Jesus and entire New Testament disagree.

You can come to God through Jesus, have no other claim or hope; or, you can come to God with anything else you want, but not Jesus. Jesus is exclusive. Martin Luther, writing about these verses, put it this way:

“This teaching is the touchstone by which we can judge most surely and freely about all doctrines, works, forms of worship, and ceremonies of men. Whoever (whether he be a papist, a Jew, a Turk, or a sectarian) teaches that anything beyond the Gospel of Christ is to necessary to attain salvation; whoever establishes any work or form of worship; whoever observes any rule, tradition or ceremony with the opinion that thereby he will obtain the forgiveness of sins, righteousness and eternal life – will hear the judgment of the Holy Spirit pronounced against him here by the apostle: that Christ is of no advantage to him at all.” (Martin Luther).

People these days do not like the idea that there is only one way to God, and therefore only one way to heaven. According to the Bible, there is only one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ. Jesus said it himself:

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6).

“Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it. (Matt 7:13-14, HCSB)

The apostles all reiterated this teaching of Jesus. John wrote:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. (1John 5:11-12, HCSB)

The reason Jesus is the only way, is because it is only through his life, death and resurrection that God’s holy standard is satisfied. God is holy. Holiness destroys sin. If we come into God’s presence with sin in us, we will be destroyed. Jesus embodied both the holiness of God the flesh of sinful humanity. Because of who he was, his life, death and resurrection satisfied the holy standards of God’s nature. He was the only one who could do that. As we trust him, he includes us in what he has done. But if we try and justify ourselves in any way, Jesus is useless to us. The Galatians were trying to do it through Jewish law. Let me share a few ways I’ve heard people these days try to justify themselves apart from Jesus:

“Well, I’m basically a good person.”

“I’m no saint, but I’m no worse than anyone else.”

“I’m no saint, but at least I’m not a hypocrite.”

“I’ve gone to church all my life.”

“I take care of the people around me. The bible says to love your neighbor, and I do that, probably better than a lot of church people.”

Folks, this is all self-justification. These statements are all about getting into heaven by your own merit, or at least your own merit compared to other people (but not compared to God’s Holy Standard). This is living by law. In terms of relating to God, it is no different from insisting upon following Jewish law. It is up to you to be good enough, or to be at least no worse than others, or to behave religiously. Paul says that if you rely on such things, Jesus Christ is of no value to you.

Some people look for justification in other religions. They may say that all religions lead to the same goal. I always find that idea kind of humorous, because the one thing all religions seem to agree upon is that the other ones are wrong. Islam claims to be the one right way. Jesus himself excluded any other way but himself. That means you can follow other religions if you want, but you won’t have anything to do with Jesus. Even Hinduism and Buddhism, which many people think are so inclusive, are not really that way. They might be willing to includes Jesus as another one of their thousands of Deities, but they absolutely refuse to let him claim the exclusivity that he claims. In other words, they are inclusive only if you accept their way of looking at things, which of course, means they aren’t that inclusive.

There is one more thing people do to justify themselves. They simply change the standard. Listen carefully here, because it doesn’t sound like living by law, but it is. The ten commandments command us to put God first, to not make or worship idols, to not take the name of the Lord in vain and to observe a day set aside for rest and worship. They tell us we should honor our parents. They say we should not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet. Jesus said they were all summed up by these two ideas: Love God, and Love your Neighbor.

So our current culture says “It’s all about love. As long as you act ‘loving,’ you are a good person.” So, you can cheat and steal and lie as long as you do it to the government or a large corporation, where no one (that you know about) gets personally hurt. You’ll still be a good person. You can have sex with someone you aren’t married to, as long as it is loving. You can have greed and envy and hatred in your heart, as long you don’t hurt anyone. You can gossip, or get drunk, or lie to your boss about why you weren’t there. Our culture has reduced holiness to innocuousness.

Now, all this is still self-justification. We aren’t putting our hope in Jesus to forgive us and make us good from the inside out. We are changing the standard of goodness and holiness so that it describes the way we prefer to behave. We are trying to make ourselves righteous by changing what righteousness is. This isn’t putting our hope in Christ – it is putting our hope in the fact that we can, through our own efforts, meet the reduced standards. If this is our approach to God, we are trying to be right with him so other way than Jesus. Paul says, if that is so, we are cut off from Christ.

Now, again, circumcision in itself is not the problem. Paul writes:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love. (Gal 5:6, HCSB)

The issue is self-justification. Circumcision might be a good thing for hygiene or even something that helps some people remember they belong to God. But it can’t be a law, or a means to get right with God.

There are many things like circumcision. Fasting can be helpful to focus our hearts and minds upon the Lord. Certain forms of worship and spiritual disciplines can really help us grow closer to the Lord. But if you ever find yourself thinking “If I just do this, I’ll be OK with God,” watch out! The devil is lying to you. If you think, “Only people who do this activity, or observe this ceremony, are real Christians,” you are in deep spiritual danger!

Let me be even more clear. Not even keeping the ten commandments will get you right with God. First, if you are old enough to read these words, you have already failed to keep the ten commandments. It’s already over – you haven’t kept the whole law perfectly for your whole life. You aren’t holy enough to come into the presence of God. You never will be. It’s good to follow the ten commandments – the Holy Spirit, living inside Christians, wants to do them. But if you are trying to follow the ten commandments in order to keep God from smiting you, you are out of luck. The smiting is coming, unless you are in Jesus.

Only Jesus can satisfy the demands of the law. Only Jesus can make you holy. Only he can make you good.

When you are in Jesus, as you submit to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, you will start to look a little more holy, because he wants to live his holy life through you. But it won’t be you trying to be good in order to please God or get to heaven. It will be Jesus in you, being good, as you. And you won’t trust your own goodness or worry if your own goodness is enough – because the goodness of Jesus is enough for you.

I know you screw up, because I know I screw up. I know that even though Jesus has made me good, I don’t always act like it. Paul knew this about himself too. And that is why he wrote verse 5:

For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. (Gal 5:5, HCSB)

The Greek word there for “eagerly wait,” frequently refers to waiting for the fulfillment of something that has been promised, but hasn’t happened yet. We have this righteousness through Jesus, and yet it isn’t fully complete at this time. So we anticipate it eagerly. Paul wrote about this in 1 Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 3:20 and Hebrews 9:28. He wrote this to the Christians in Rome:

For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Now in this hope we were saved, yet hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:19-25, HCSB)

So what does all this mean for us now? Paul talked about freedom in verse 1. What freedom it is to be done with justifying yourself! You aren’t letting yourself off the hook – you are admitting that you can’t get off the hook and you need Jesus to save you. You are admitting you cannot do it. There is great freedom in that.

There is a warning here, too. If you think you can add to what Jesus had done for you, or if you think you have a part to play in saving yourself, you are in grave spiritual danger. And there is a warning also, to not make good things into necessary things.

Finally, there is this business of eagerly waiting. I see a lot of people who call themselves Christians who do not seem interested, let alone eager, in Jesus bringing his righteousness into their lives. It makes me wonder how much room he really has in their hearts. We don’t need to be perfect. We don’t need to strive to make ourselves good. But we should eagerly anticipate the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to do those things. We can be looking for it, praying for it, ready to respond right away as the Spirit prompts us to do something, or refrain from doing something else. We are not supposed to wander off and say, “Well, let Jesus make me righteous if he can, I’m off to do my own thing. Good luck to him.” No, Paul says that we who are in Jesus should be anticipating his work in us, eager to see it come about.

What is the Spirit saying to you today?

FREEDOM!

freedom_chains

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 14

Galatians #14 . Chapter 5:1

Christ has liberated us to be free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1, HCSB)

These two sentences are extremely powerful. I want to pause and unpack them a little bit. Paul says that Christ has liberated us. One natural question is – how has he done that? Colossians 2:13-18 gives us a clue:

And when you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive with Him and forgave us all our trespasses. He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; He triumphed over them by Him.

Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm and inflated without cause by his unspiritual mind. (Col 2:13-18, HCSB)

Through the cross, Jesus Christ has liberated us. His death fulfilled the law, and erased our debt and obligation to it. His death triumphed over, and disarmed, the demonic powers that were free to torment us for our failure to keep the law.

Paul says we are liberated to be free. Two more useful questions are, “What are we free from? What are we freed to?”

I’m so glad you asked. What follows all applies to me as much as to you, but I am going to write it as “you” so that you can appreciate the full impact of your freedom. As you consider your freedom, remember this is freedom that you have only in Christ. You didn’t get it. You didn’t earn it. You don’t get to keep it apart from Christ. But in Christ, you are indeed free. Let me explain what I mean by in Christ. You are in Christ when you keep on trusting him. I use the expression keep on trusting quite deliberately. It is a daily (sometimes hourly) habit of continuing to believe who Jesus is, what he has done for us, how he feels about us, and continuing to rest upon it. This is not a one shot deal. This is not a situation where you just say, “Well I got baptized, so I’m good now.” Or “Well, I got saved five years ago, so I’m good now.” This is a process of continually putting our trust in Jesus, day by day. That is what it means to be “in Jesus” and all these things are ours, only in Jesus. I’m not saying that you have to work hard and live the Christian life on your own strength in order to be in Jesus. But I am saying that to be in Jesus, you need to continually rest in Him with trust in what his Word says, and in what he has done for us.

So, in Christ Jesus, you are free.

You are free from the obligations of the Jewish ceremonial law, as Paul has made very clear throughout this letter.

You are free from subservience to the little regulations that religious people sometimes put on you. Things like: The way you dress. What you eat. The way you express worship. Dancing. The manner in which you pray. The music you listen to. Acting externally religious or pious. You don’t have to keep a formula to be right with God. You don’t have to follow man-made rules. Paul wrote to the Colossians:

If you died with the Messiah to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are commands and doctrines of men. Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence. (Col 2:20-23, HCSB

But wait, there’s more.

You are free from the eternal consequences of the fact that you have broken God’s moral law. That’s right, your sins no longer determine your status with God. No, they do not. If Jesus lives in you, he will want to express his life through you in a way that honors God’s moral law. But your failures at times do not determine your status with God. You are free from being defined by your failures and sins.

You are free from trying to make yourself good. Don’t you argue with me, yes you are. In Jesus Christ, God has already made you good. You are free from having to do that.

You are free from shame.

You are free from shame.

In Jesus, there is nothing wrong with who you are. You are not judged based upon your sins, or your failures, or your flaws. You are judged on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus.

You are free from the way others view you. You are even free from the way you view yourself. Now, you can accept the way God views you – which is through the “lens” of Jesus. It’s a little bit like this. When you are in Christ, God looks for you, and finds you there, in Jesus Christ. And what he sees you there, what he sees is Jesus. So he looks at you, and sees the righteousness of Jesus, the love of Jesus, the strength of Jesus, the honor of Jesus. If you are in him, you have the life of Jesus in you. God isn’t deceived when he sees all that, because it is there.

You are free to have joy without guilt. You are free to love yourself, because you are in Christ, and he is in you. You are free to follow the leading of Holy Spirit without beating yourself up for your failures. You are free to wallow with happiness in the fact that you are loved at the deepest core of your being. You are free to live as the person that God made you to be, and not according to the expectations of others.

You are free from trying to get God to bless you. Receive the blessings he chooses to give with joy, and trust him to bless because he is good, not because you are.

You are free from trying to get it right all the time. Let Jesus get it right through you, by continuing on, in Him.

You are free from figuring it out, managing it, controlling it. What is “it?” you ask? Only everything.

Really? Is all this true, without reservation?

Yes.

Paul will go on and talk about walking according to the Holy Spirit – what we might call, “Christian Living.” We’ll see how all that works when we get to that point. But before we move on and talk about Christian living, we have to make sure that we understand this freedom we have in Jesus. You are free. Don’t submit again to slavery. Stand firm.

The word “yoke” in the New Testament usually implies a sense of servitude or slavery. Jesus invited us to take his yoke, and Paul, later considered himself a servant or slave of Jesus. But Jesus said “slavery” to Him was easy, and the burden is light. Other New Testament passages use the word “yoke” with negative connotations about hard service. The Greek version of the Old Testament, also frequently uses the same word this way. So we have two paths: we can be bound to Jesus, but his yoke is easy and light; or, we can be bound in slavery to having to measure up. Listen to how Jesus invites us:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30, ESV2011)

Paul says, stand firm in the free and easy, restful yoke of Jesus. How do we do that? First, I think it is important to recognize that our battle is not against flesh and blood. The verses I just shared from Colossians show us that Jesus has disarmed the demonic powers. So, having been disarmed, their strategy now is to lie to you. They will come to you say, “I know Tom said you were free from shame, but he doesn’t know who you really are inside. You know that you deserve to live in shame.” This will sound like you, talking to yourself, but it is a lie from the pit of hell. Stand firm. Don’t submit to that slavery any more.

They will come and say, “It’s all good to say that you are free from trying to make yourself good, but after all, the bible tells you to follow certain standards of behavior.” In a few weeks we will get into all the stuff about Christian Living and Christian Behavior. Jesus wants to live his life through you, so of course, your behavior should look more and more like Jesus. But you don’t accomplish that by your efforts. You accomplish it by embracing who you are in Jesus, and continuing to trust him. Actually, Jesus accomplishes the “Christian living” through you. All you have to do is trust him, and let him do what he wants to in and through you.

To fight these lies, we should cling to the truth. Jesus said,

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you really are My disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32, HCSB)

If we continue in his word – this is part of what it means to be in Jesus Christ. We continue to trust him, and trust his word. His Word tells us the truth, and the truth sets us free. Practically speaking, that means that one very important way to stand firm in our freedom is to know the Bible, and continue to know it even better. Read it. If you aren’t a reader, there are plenty of great CD’s and MP3’s you can get so that you can listen to the Bible. Talk about it with your Christian friends. Grab a devotional that points back to the bible. Stand firm by staying in touch with what the Holy Spirit says through the bible.

It’s also helpful to have allies. Other believers who are continuing on in Jesus can encourage you as you do the same. Listening to these messages, praying together, talking about your struggles and joys – all these help you stand firm.

Sometimes, one of the best ways to stand firm in our freedom is to thank God for it, regularly. Often times, truth really seeps into the soul through the power of thankfulness. If you don’t thank someone for a gift, either you don’t like that person, or you don’t like the gift, or you don’t really believe it has been given you. Thanking God for all this freedom is one way of really grabbing hold of it.

In Jesus, you truly are free. Stand firm in it. Rejoice in it.

HOW DO WE LIVE BY THE PROMISE?

lighthouse

The law is still right. It is still good. It still reflects the character of God. But it is no longer something external to us. When we trust Jesus, The character of Jesus is being formed inside us. We learn to rely on the Spirit within us to guide us; we learn to listen and respond obediently to his prompting. We no longer consult a rule-book. We consult a person.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 9

GALATIANS #9

The Law shows the absolute necessity of the promise. The law shows us our need for the promise. If we didn’t have the law, we wouldn’t understand the holy character of God. If we didn’t have the law, we would not realize that sin is a problem, and one we cannot overcome. The Law isn’t wrong. The problem is, we can’t do it.

The Law is not in contradiction to the promise. It was given as complement, to show that the promise was needed. God gave the promise first, to invite his people to live by faith. But he gave the law later, to help them understand why they needed to live by faith.

In Galatians 3:24 it says that the law was our guardian. Although the Greek word sounds like “pedagogue,” (which in English means “instructor of children,” or “teacher”) it has a different meaning here. The best English translation might be chaperone.

In the culture of New Testament times, the guardian, or chaperone, was there to make sure that boys who were intended to be great and noble did not “go bad.” They were there to keep them from making stupid mistakes, or compromising moral character. They protected them from both physical harm and moral harm.

That was the purpose of the law, and in some ways, is the continuing purpose of the law. Sometimes we view the law as a restriction – it seems to be a fence, keeping us in, restricting our freedom. But what there is a cliff on the other side? What if the wall is actually preventing us from great harm?

We considered the first commandment last time. Let’s look at it again. “You shall have no other Gods besides me.” This means that God is supposed to be the most important thing in our lives. He is to be number one, to have precedence over everything. Now, we could look at this and say, “Hey, that’s not fair. What if I want to make sports my number one priority – at least for a period of time? What if I want to make money, or my career or my spouse or my pleasure to be first priority? What’s wrong with going for it? Didn’t God make me with certain desires? Why shouldn’t I embrace them to the fullest?”

All right, let’s say you did make sports your number one priority. What happens when you get too old to compete with younger, fitter people? Your whole life crumbles. You are still alive, but you can’t live for sports anymore. The command protects you from this.

Suppose I decide that being a pastor should be the most important thing for me. That sounds good and reasonable, doesn’t it? But if I put that in front of my relationship with God, look at what happens. If the church does well, I am doing well. But if someone complains, or people start leaving, it destroys my whole world. I have nothing left if I can’t succeed as a pastor. The first commandment protects me from that. If God is the first thing, the most important thing, than no matter what else in the world crumbles, I am ultimately OK.

The other commandments protect us in similar ways. I am sure that adultery must be pleasurable and exciting. But ultimately it destroys marriages, it handicaps the lives of the children conceived by it, and the lives of the children whose parents divorce because of it. It often spreads diseases. Eventually, it destroys society as a whole, and we are even now starting to see the unraveling of Western culture because so many people have run away from the protection of the commandment against adultery. Now, let’s be clear that God forgives it, and works in the lives of those who have failed to obey it, and brings healing and redemption. But my point is that the commandment is to protect us, not to spoil our fun.

So Paul says, the law was a chaperone, a protector. In Greek and Roman culture, the chaperone’s job ended when the child became a man. The idea was that by that time, the young man had internalized good moral character. He knew right from wrong, and was willing to do right. He was strong enough to protect himself from physical harm also. It isn’t that he should no longer live morally or safely. The idea was that now those attitudes were inside of him; he would behave that way because of the character that been formed in him.

The law is still right. It is still good. It still reflects the character of God. Our lives should still look more and more like the character of God as shown in the law. But it is no longer something external to us. When we trust Jesus, The character of Jesus is being formed inside us. We learn to rely on the Spirit within us to guide us; we learn to listen and respond obediently to his prompting. We no longer consult a rule-book. We consult a person. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied about this new relationship to the law:

“Look, the days are coming” — this is the LORD’s declaration — “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant they broke even though I had married them” — the LORD’s declaration. “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days” — the LORD’s declaration. “I will put My teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them” — this is the LORD’s declaration. “For I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sin.” (Jer 31:31-34, HCSB)

In the case of the noble Greek and Roman families, the chaperone/guardian did not take a child and turn him into a nobleman. No, the child was born a nobleman. They did not become noble by following the guidance of the guardian; rather, they were made noble by their birth. Something preceded the guardian, and that was noble birth.

So with Christians, following the guardian (that is, the law) is not what makes us Christians. It is our spiritual re-birth into Jesus –what we call “being born again.” We are born according to God’s promise to save and transform all who trust in Jesus Christ. The law is good and right. But the promise is greater. The law serves the promise, not vice versa.

Paul puts it this way:

The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:24-29, HCSB)

In the Greco-Roman culture of the Galatians, the sons in the family were the ones who inherited everything and carried the family name. But they did not have the rights and privileges of sons until they reached adulthood Until then, they were still under the authority of their chaperone. So Paul says – we are all “sons.” I think he means sons who have come into adulthood. We are no longer under the chaperone of the law, but in the trust-relationship of the promise. When he says were are “sons,” he doesn’t mean we are all male, he means that all of us – whether male or female, Jewish or not, slave or free – are inheriting the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We are all counted as legitimate and free, we all carry God’s family name, through faith in Jesus Christ. The Jews in Galatia have been telling the Christians that being Jewish is necessary and important, that anyone who is not Jewish is, in a sense, “illegitimate.” But Paul says, “No. We are all the same in Jesus Christ. We are all legitimate in Jesus Christ. Jews aren’t better than Gentiles. Free people aren’t better than slaves. Men aren’t better than women. The only thing that counts is Jesus Christ. In him, we are all legitimate inheritors, legitimate bearers of the family name of God.”

Paul wraps it up by saying that if you are in Christ (that is, if you trust Jesus) you are a true Jew – you are a “descendant” of Abraham. You stand in the true tradition of Abraham, which is salvation by trust in God’s promises, especially trust in the promises that were fulfilled in Jesus.

So, what does this mean for all of us today?

First, it is important to realize that the law is good and right. But we don’t become righteous through it, because we cannot do it all, or consistently. We don’t live by a set of rules. We live by a relationship of trust in Jesus, and reliance upon the Holy Spirit. He has already fulfilled the law for us. We are already completely righteous through him. He will guide us so that our lives do reflect the character of God as expressed in the law. But that character and that behavior forms in us not through our strenuous efforts, but through listening to the Holy Spirit and obeying his guidance.

How does this work? Some things are quite obvious. It’s silly to pray, “Jesus, do you want me to commit adultery?” Of course he does not. Although the law can’t save us, it is still true and right and good. A better prayer might be “Jesus, prevent me from even having the opportunity to commit adultery.” Or, “Jesus I give you my will and my body, to use as you want. Keep me from sinning.” Remember and recognize that through Jesus, you are already holy in spirit. Keep up that conversational prayer. It’s hard to be talking to Jesus, while at the very same time you are doing something unrighteous and unholy. His character within you doesn’t want to do it. If you feel a strong desire to sin, be honest with him about that, and keep up that conversational prayer.

Second, as I read these verses, I have a strong sense that some of you need to hear this: you are legitimate. You aren’t second class. You are a full heir of God, you carry His family name. No one who trusts Jesus is any worse – or any better – than you. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Your failures are irrelevant. Your socio-economic position is irrelevant. Your gender is irrelevant. Your ethnicity is irrelevant. Through Jesus, you have become one of God’s Chosen Ones.

HOW DO WE KNOW THE BIBLE IS TRUE?

GreekNT6

If you are a Christian for any length of time, sooner or later you’ll probably have a thought like this: “What if this is all made up? What if none of it is real?”

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 3

Galatians #3 . Chapter 1:11-12

Now I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel preached by me is not based on human thought. For I did not receive it from a human source and I was not taught it, but it came by a revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:11-12, HCSB)

Apparently, the people who were misleading the Galatians said something like this: “Look, Paul is just a human being. We are teaching you based upon the authority of many wise rabbis who have gone before us. But here he is, coming along making up new stuff. He got what he learned from the apostles in Jerusalem, and put his own spin on it. He isn’t even a real apostle.”

But Paul responds here. Remember last time, we talked about the different “false gospels” that we encounter from time to time. Now, Paul talks about the source of the true gospel.

The first apostles were considered reliable teachers of the true gospel, because they had known Jesus personally, and he had personally chosen them. Paul was a little different. He had not known Jesus when Jesus was alive. In fact, Paul was a Pharisee, considered by those in Jerusalem to be one of the rising young bright stars of Judaism. He saw the followers of Jesus as a threat to Judaism, and he persecuted the Christians, causing them to be arrested, and many times, causing them to be executed. But on a trip he was taking to arrest and kill more Christians, Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision. We have a partial record of this in Acts 9:1-18. We don’t know everything that Jesus said to Paul in that appearance, but apparently the Holy Spirit revealed the true gospel to him. Just a few days after encountering Jesus this way, this is what Paul did:

Immediately he began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues: “He is the Son of God.” But all who heard him were astounded and said, “Isn’t this the man who, in Jerusalem, was destroying those who called on this name and then came here for the purpose of taking them as prisoners to the chief priests? ” But Saul grew more capable and kept confounding the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that this One is the Messiah. (Acts 9:20-22, HCSB)

Paul had been an anti-Christian. Just a few days after his conversion he was preaching so powerfully that the Jews in Damascus could not dispute him. Where did he learn the message of the gospel that he preached? He had only been a Christian for a few days. Paul tells us, right here in Galatians: it was revealed to him by Jesus himself. Paul, talking about the message of gospel, given by Jesus, tells the Corinthians:

Last of all, as to one abnormally born, [Jesus] also appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by God’s grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not ineffective. However, I worked more than any of them, yet not I, but God’s grace that was with me. Therefore, whether it is I or they, so we proclaim and so you have believed. (1Cor 15:8-11, HCSB)

The point is, Paul got the message from the same place that the other apostles got it: from Jesus Christ himself. Paul then passed it along to the churches. The source for our gospel is the same as the source for the early Christians: the teaching of the apostles who knew Jesus Christ (including Paul). Today, we call that teaching “The New Testament.”

I have friends who think the New Testament was made up by people who wanted to gain power through religion. Now, I’ve covered this in the past, but I suppose it’s possible that some of you have forgotten, and also that others never did hear this. Paul felt that it was important for the Galatians to understand that the message about Jesus came from God, not from human beings. I think it is important for us to understand the same thing.

So, the gospel we believe comes from the New Testament. Where did that come from?

Historians can determine the date of ancient documents through a variety of methods. They can look at the writing materials that were used, and compare them to materials used at known dates and places. They can study the language, and compare it to various time periods to see if it is similar (or not) to other writings in various eras. They can check some historical references with other documents, and against the discoveries of archaeology.

When more than one copy of an ancient document is discovered, scholars compare the various copies. If all the copies say the same thing, scholars conclude that they have accurately preserved what was originally written. Where copies vary, scholars consider which copies are older, and how many copies say the same thing, and how many contain the variant. This way, they can reasonable determine what the original said, even when they don’t have the original to study.

A book called Gallic Wars was supposed to have been written sometime around 50 B.C., dictated by Julius Caesar to a scribe. Historians believe that this book is what it claims to be, and was written in the time of Caesar. Even so, the oldest actual manuscript they have of this book is a copy of a copy (and so on) that was actually made 1,000 years after Caesar. The idea is, the book was made, and then as it fell into disrepair, new copies were made, and as those copies got older, new copies were made of the first copies, and so on. They have discovered ten ancient copies of Gallic Wars, with the oldest one, as I said, 1,000 years later than the original. This is considered an excellent historical document for that period in history (which is very close to the New Testament).

Another ancient book is Annals by Tacitus. This too, is considered an excellent source, written around 100 AD (or CE, if you prefer). Today, twenty ancient texts of Tacitus’ writing exist. The oldest is a copy that was made in 1100 AD – 1000 years after Tacitus wrote the original. With regard to Annals, no historian seriously disputes that they were indeed written by Tacitus. Most also accept that what Tacitus wrote has been accurately preserved.

How do these excellent sources compare to the New Testament?

GreekNT3A fragment of parchment containing part of the book of John has been discovered. This piece is believed to be either part of the original written by the apostle himself, or a copy that was made within forty years. A fragment of Matthew has been discovered that most scholars believe was part of the very parchment written by Matthew himself. Other fragments, and even whole books of New Testament, date from within a hundred years of the time of the apostles. The oldest complete copy of the New Testament is about 150 years removed from the time of the apostles. This is far, far better than any other ancient document that exists.

Compared to twenty ancient copies of Tacitus, or ten of Julius Caesar, scholars have discovered roughly 5,500 very ancient copies of the New Testament in Greek (the original language), and an additional 19,000 ancient copies in other languages like Syrian, Latin and Coptic. For hundreds of years, scholars have been comparing these manuscripts to one another. If all or most of the texts show that John wrote “Jesus wept,” than we can be pretty darn sure that John did in fact write, “Jesus wept.” In addition to all these actual copies of the New Testament, we have extensive quotations of the books of the New Testament contained in letters and writings from early Christians, dating from the time of the apostles and on.

With the overwhelming number of copies and the various languages, scholars have found some variations in part of the New Testament. These variations are all very small, and none of them change the essential meaning of any New Testament passage. By the way if you have an NIV version of the bible, it will make a footnote of every major textual variation. Here’s an example of a major variation:

In Luke 23:42, Luke writes that the thief on the cross said, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The NIV version of the bible makes a footnote there is enough evidence to note a variant manuscript reading. The variant would read like this: “Jesus remember me when you come with your kingly power.” You may say: “What’s the big deal with that? What does it change? Doesn’t it mean the same thing?” That, of course, is the point. It changes nothing significant. Nor do any of the “significant” variants. If you have an NIV Bible you can scan the bottom of the text as you flip through the pages and see all the significant variants.

Because of the great number of copies which all record the same words, and because they are so ancient, we can be quite sure that the New Testament we read today is the truly and accurately preserved teaching of the apostles of Jesus Christ.

Every year around Easter, the National Geographic society trots out a documentary or story about the “lost gospels” or the “books that should have been included in the bible.” It’s true that there are a few ancient documents about Jesus that are not included in the New Testament. But there are huge differences between them and the New Testament.

GNT2

We know historically that by around 250 AD at the latest, virtually all Christians were using the twenty-seven books that make up our present day New Testament. The New Testament was not officially defined by a conference of Churches until sometime in the mid 300’s AD, but for all intents and purposes it was well established even earlier than that.

There were several things that caused a book to be included in the New Testament.

  1. The New Testament book had to be connected to an apostle (either written by an apostle, as in the case of Paul’s letters, or written by someone who associated closely with one or more apostles, as in the case of Luke and Mark). So the ancient book, The Apocalypse of Peter, though it names an apostle in the title, was never recognized in any early writing, or by any other evidence, as having anything to do with the real historical Peter. Needless to say, it isn’t in the bible.
  2. The New Testament book had to enjoy widespread early use among churches. For example, the Gospel of John was used and recognized in churches all over the known world by a very early date; whereas the “Gospel of Judas” was never really recognized outside of Alexandria, Egypt and that at a fairly late date, by people who weren’t even Christians. Again, by at least 250 AD, virtually all churches were using a common set of apostolic writings – this set of books was later called “The New Testament.”
  3. The New Testament writings had to agree with generally accepted Christian doctrine. In the 140s AD, a man named Marcion came up with his own very twisted version of Christianity and listed various writings which he thought should be considered sacred. He and his “New Testament” were rejected by almost all churches, because they were contrary to the teachings that the churches had held since the time of the apostles.

I guess what I am saying to you today, is the same thing that Paul was trying to say to the Galatians. I want you to know brothers and sisters, that this gospel that we received and have believed does not come from human beings. It was preserved by human beings, and we can see that it was preserved accurately. But it came from Jesus Christ. But there is even more. John recorded that Jesus said this:

“I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit — the Father will send Him in My name — will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you. “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful. (John 14:25-27, HCSB)

And a little later, he said this:

When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-14, HCSB)

The Holy Spirit inspired and guided those who wrote down the gospel. And the Spirit guided the process by which these writings were either preserved, or not preserved. We know that there was a third letter which Paul wrote to the Corinthians, which is lost to history. The Holy Spirit caused that happen – that letter was not part of what the Spirit wanted preserved.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17, HCSB)

We have the written words of the true gospel in the form of the New Testament. And we also have the Holy Spirit, given to us through Jesus, who continues to remind us what Jesus said, and guides us to receive and understand the truth of God’s Word. It doesn’t come from human beings who made it up for their own purposes.

If you are a Christian for any length of time, sooner or later you’ll probably have a thought like this: “What if this is all made up? What if none of it is real?” Don’t feel bad about having those thoughts. Instead, remember this: It is entirely reasonable to believe that the New Testament is the unaltered teaching of those who knew Jesus, whom Jesus chose as his apostles. All the evidence says so. It is reasonable to believe that that they believed what they wrote, since most of them gave their lives for that belief (incidentally, they didn’t get power or wealth out of it). But it does require faith to believe that their writings are true, and inspired by the Holy Spirit. It requires faith to believe that Spirit continues to speak through the New Testament today. That faith means we risk being foolish. It means we risk believing something that isn’t true – that risk is the nature of faith. But when we embrace that faith, the Holy Spirit makes these words real and relevant in our lives today.

For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart. (Heb 4:12, HCSB)

The true gospel, not made by human beings, can speak directly to your heart and to your attitudes. It can convict you of sin, comfort you with grace and lead you closer to the true and living God. It can and will change your life eternally.

WHAT ARE YOUR CREDENTIALS?

credentials_reduced

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 1

Galatians #1 . Chapter 1:1-2

This week we are beginning a new series on the book of Galatians. It is a relatively short book – six chapters. As with all of the bible, we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the writer to write this, and for it to be preserved and chosen as part of the New Testament. Even so, it is helpful to understand some things about how it first was written and why.

Like much of the New Testament, Galatians is actually a letter written to several Christian churches. It was written by the Apostle Paul. Paul and his colleague Barnabas (and a few others) took a mission trip from their home church in Antioch (in modern day Syria) in the 40’s AD. They went to Cyprus, and then to what is now South Central Turkey. Acts 13-14 describes this journey. They returned home to Syria.

Shortly after this, word came to Paul (we don’t know exactly how) of a controversy that was arising among many of the churches they had just visited. In response, Paul wrote this letter. It was probably the first letter that he wrote to any church, and it is certainly the first letter of his that we have preserved. He may have written it sometime in the year 49.

When I was seminary, the exciting controversy about this book was this: did “Galatians” refer to “North Galatia,” or “South Galatia?” Properly, the province of Galatia was north-central Turkey, but we don’t really know if Paul ever went there. There was a point in history when south-Central Turkey also was called Galatia, but that was before Paul’s time a little bit. So did Paul go somewhere we never heard about? Or are scholars wrong about when Galatia included the southern area? This was considered a major and probably unsolvable conundrum. Theologians don’t get out much.

I’m telling you now, Paul was writing to churches in south-central Turkey, in the cities recorded in Acts 13 and 14: Towns like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. There, I’ve solved it. Part of the reason I favor this view, is because the things that happened in these cities when Paul was there seem to be reflected in the letter.

Pisidian Antioch was the first city in the region where Paul and Barnabas really made an effort to talk to people about Jesus. They went to a local synagogue and shared the good news. It was well received at first, but after just a week some of the Jewish community began to oppose him:

But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to oppose what Paul was saying by insulting him. (Acts 13:45)

Again,

So the message of the Lord spread through the whole region. But the Jews incited the prominent women, who worshiped God, and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their district. (Acts 13:49-50, HCSB)

And yet again,

The same thing happened in Iconium; they entered the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up and poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against the brothers. (Acts 14:1-2, HCSB)

The same sorts of things happened in the nearby towns of Lystra and Derbe. So when these churches were just starting, there was a great deal of controversy with some Jewish people. We have to remember that in the beginning, the first believers thought of Christianity as merely the completion of the Jewish religion. In fact, I still kind of think that way. In any case, the Jews who did not like the teaching of the Christians took it personally, because it seemed to them, not a separate religion, but a pollution of pure Judaism and a threat to it. To make matters even more complicated, many of the first Christians in these towns were Jewish themselves, although some were not.

Apparently after Paul and Barnabas left the area, the Jews did not leave things alone, and many of the Jewish Christians in the churches began to listen to their non-Christian Jewish brothers. Within the churches, Jewish Christians began to teach that the “good news” was not salvation through Jesus Christ alone, but salvation through Jesus AND through following Jewish law. In other words, only the Jewish Christians were truly saved, and if the Gentiles wanted to be saved through Jesus, they had to become Jews first, and faithfully observe Jewish religious laws.

Paul wrote Galatians when he learned of all this. Now, as we jump in here, I have a few thoughts. Every once in a while, I run across a group of Christians who teach that you need to follow Jewish law in order to be truly saved. Really – I do meet these people. I can scarcely believe it, since this book of Galatians so clearly refutes that. But they’re out there. So, if you ever run into them, this study of Galatians will help.

Let’s be honest though – most of us don’t have regular contact with folks like that. It isn’t exactly a front-burner issue in most Christian churches these days. So what’s the good for us today?

I think we find the answer when we look a little deeper at the issue of following the law or living by grace. Strange as it seems, the truth is, it is easier to live by a set of rules than by grace. It’s all laid out for you. You just consult the rule book, and if you do the right thing – even if your heart wants nothing to do with God – God has to deliver on his promises. You are in control of things – it is up to you. You live right, and God will give you a good life.

But grace is messy. We can’t control it. And it is all about the heart – we can’t get grace with hearts that are not interested in God. We can’t get grace when our hearts are too proud to admit we really have no claim on God, and nothing we do could ever change that. Grace is hard to evaluate. No checklist will tell you if you have it or not. Grace can’t be controlled. We can’t make God respond to us by behaving rightly. We just have to trust him.

Galatians is all about Law and Grace. And truthfully, most Christians still struggle with how those two things relate. Our natural tendency is to try fix things ourselves – and that is law. We want to believe that if we do certain things – like pray and live right – then God will be obligated to do certain things in response – like answer our prayers or keep us from hardship. But that is law, not grace. This letter is very relevant indeed to people who struggle with these things.

So, with all that in mind, let’s begin.

Paul, an apostle — not from men or by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead — and all the brothers who are with me: To the churches of Galatia.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. To whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Gal 1:1-5, HCSB)

This is Paul’s first letter, and it is possible that those around him encouraged him to be more tactful in the future. But the truth is, he is hopping mad, and he doesn’t waste time on saying nice things to no purpose. He begins immediately by reminding the Galatians that he writes with a spiritual authority that comes from God.

There are two reasons for this, I think. Clearly, the Galatian churches were being influenced by people who considered themselves leaders. Paul is reminding them that his leadership comes from a call he received from Jesus Christ himself on the Damascus road. It’s as if he’s beginning by saying: “who are these people to say that I’m wrong? I’m a messenger from Jesus Christ and God Father Himself.”

Secondly, since Paul’s opposition is mostly Jewish, he is creating a big contrast from the way Jewish rabbis teach, and his own approach. Jewish rabbis in that day typically taught by quoting other authorities, sometimes going back several ‘generations.’ They might say something like this:

“We have just read from the Torah how Moses led the people across the Red Sea. Rabbi Hillel quotes rabbi Judah ben Tabbai as saying that it was the obedience of Moses in stretching out his staff that we must notice here.”

By the way, I made that example up. The point is, the style of Jewish teaching was to quote authorities, who often quoted other authorities. In contrast, Paul says, “I’m speaking for Jesus. He himself sent me. I don’t need to quote authorities.” Paul himself had been a Jewish rabbi before he became a Christian. He could have established his Jewish credentials to impress the Galatians. Instead, he believed his only worthwhile credential was the fact that Jesus saved him and called him.

This is key to the entire message of Galatians. Paul’s only credential is Jesus Christ, and he considers it far greater than any possible contenders. Ultimately, he is going to tell the Galatians that Jesus is their only credential as well. From the very first sentence he is asserting the fact that everything is Jesus, and whatever is not in Jesus is useless.

So maybe the place to begin application is to ask this: What are your credentials? Are you a generation or two removed, or do you know Jesus for yourself? Is the basis for your faith what someone else said, or is it your own trust in Jesus? Are you willing to say, “Jesus is my all I have; Jesus is my only claim?”

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.

If I’m Dead to Sin, Can I sin all the time now?

LIVING IN REVERSE, PART 4. ROMANS 6:12-23

dead-alive

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click the link and save: Download Living in Reverse Part 4

Last time we considered the New Testament teaching that in Jesus we died to sin and to the law. Through this death, which is accomplished through the death of Jesus, we have been set free from sin and the law. (Romans 6:7,14,18; Romans 7:4,6) Last week I shared no less than one dozen scriptures that teach explicitly that in Christ we have died.

The picture Paul gives us at the beginning of Romans 7:2-3 is of marriage. When two people are married in the eyes of the law, they are married. It would be a sin to marry someone else at the same time. But if the husband dies, the laws regarding marriage no long apply. Because of the death, the law doesn’t apply any more. It would no longer be sinful or illegal for the woman to marry someone else. The law was made irrelevant by death.

In the same way, the power of sin to bring us condemnation through the law has been destroyed by the death of Jesus, and by our death which happened in Jesus, as we have trusted him. We can’t be condemned as sinners anymore, because as Paul writes:

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)

Now, when you really get this, there is a natural question that arises. Does this mean I can sin all I want, because the law no longer applies to me? Now stick with me here. I am going to give you an answer that may surprise you, but you need to follow through the ENTIRE answer I am about to give.

Technically, the answer is, Yes, you can sin all you want. If you are in Jesus, your sins don’t “count” anymore. In the eyes of the law, you are dead, so the law cannot be used to condemn you for anything you do now.

Now, that is a shocking answer. It isn’t the whole story yet, and I want you to stick with me as I give some further explanation in a moment. But just pause here for a moment. Do you see how outrageous the grace of God is? He has made it so that if you simply continue to trust Him, you cannot fail. Even when you do fail, it isn’t counted as you anymore. That’s why we see all those passages in the New Testament saying that when we are in Christ we are New Creation, we are Holy, we are Blameless and so on.

You see it isn’t our job to work ourselves into a state of holiness. God has already put us into a state of holiness, in our spirits. Our only job is to keep believing that he has done this, and through that faith, He will continue to work the holiness deeper and deeper into our soul and body life.

I use the expression keep believing quite deliberately. It is a daily (sometimes hourly) habit of continuing to believe who Jesus is, what he has done for us, how he feels about us, and continuing to rest upon it. This is not a one shot deal. This is not a situation where you just say, “Well I got baptized, so I’m good now.” Or “Well, I got saved five years ago, so I’m good now.” This is a process of continually putting our trust in Jesus, day by day. That is what it means to be “in Jesus” and all these things are ours, only in Jesus. I’m not saying that you have to work hard and live the Christian life on your own strength in order to be in Jesus. But I am saying that to be in Jesus, you need to continually rest in Him with trust in what his Word says, and in what he has done for us.

Last week I spent some time talking about how what we believe profoundly shapes what we do. So the next part of the answer comes here. Technically, you can sin all you want, and it doesn’t count against you. But if you really believe that God has freed you from sin, that you have already been made holy, you will be far less inclined to sin than if you believe you are still fundamentally a sinner.

If you believe you are half sinner, and half saint, then it is only natural for you to go through life sinning half the time. If you believe that, and you sin less than half the time, I commend you for your great will power, though it is misguided. The bible does not say you are half sinner, half saint. It says that if you are in Jesus, then in the most essential part of your being, the part that doesn’t change, the part that already has a solid connection to eternity – your spirit – you are entirely holy. You are completely separated from sin and the law.

When you believe what the Bible says – that the essential you is already holy and is free from sin – you will sin less, not more, because action follows belief. If you find that you are sinning a lot, what you need is not to try harder to stop, but to believe more fully what God says about you.

Now, there is another thing that will eventually restrain our sinful actions. There is a movie from the 1990s called Groundhog Day. In it, a weather reporter named Phil gets trapped in an endlessly repeating day – February 2 1993, to be precise. Only Phil is trapped in this day. Every day, the other people he meets are living the day as if it is their first February 2, 1993. The only thing that carries over from day to day is Phil’s memory. Naturally, at first he is depressed. One night he is drowning his sorrows in drink, and he says out loud: “What if nothing you did mattered. What if you woke up every morning as if the previous day had never happened?”

One of the other drinkers in the bar said, “That would mean there would be no consequences. You could do anything you like.”

Phil catches on to this idea, and at first, he abuses the fact that there are no consequences for his actions. He gets drunk, commits crimes, and does many morally reprehensible things. After a while all that loses its luster, because he realizes there is no life there. So he tries to commit suicide. He kills himself dozens of times, but always wakes up the next morning at 6:00am on February 2, 1993.

But finally, truly knowing there are no consequences, he begins to live for love. Repeating this day endlessly with one of his co-workers, he falls in love with her. And knowing it doesn’t matter what he does, he finally chooses, because of love, to do what is good and right and noble. He devotes himself to literature and music. He tries as much as possible to help others. Every day he says the same boy from breaking his leg, and the same man from choking. Every day, he tries to save the life of the same old bum who dies on February 2, 1993. Day after day, he tries to bless the people that he is stuck with.

I suggest that you are really in Jesus, and you really know you are free from sin, you will discover quickly that there is no real life in sin, and the pleasure you get from it is false and always disappoints you. When you really know you are free from sin and law, you will find yourself more often drawn to the Lord and REAL life, than the shallow, brief and bitter pleasures of sin. And when we learn to love God, we find that living for love naturally moves us away from what would hurt our loved one, and toward things that are good and right and noble.

Here’s another analogy. I am married to Kari. We have a legal marriage license from the state of Illinois. Suppose we went to a marriage counselor and I said: “Kari committed to be my wife, ’till death do us part. We are legally married, and there is no part of the legal document that specifies what I must do, or what I may not do. So does that mean I can stay out until 3 AM every night and party all I want? Can I stop working, and let her provide all of our finances? Can I spend all our money however I want, without talking to her about it? Can I leave dirty dishes and smelly laundry all over the house?” I could go on, but you get the picture.

Marriage is not about a legal contract in which I fulfill my duties or else face the consequences. I could technically do all those things and remain legally married to Kari. But what kind of relationship is that? I don’t do those things (except leaving the occasional dirty dish) because I love Kari. Now there are times when either Kari or I do things that hurt each other. When that happens, we have to talk about it, and ask forgiveness, and give forgiveness, and heal the relationship. But we don’t say sorry because we have rules about saying sorry. I don’t clean up after myself (a lot of the time, anyway) because there is a rule that I have to. But I know it is helpful for our relationship if I do. I am motivated by love.

This is the picture the New Testament gives us of our relationship with God. Truly, if you are in Jesus Christ, sin is irrelevant. But what is relevant is your relationship with him, your love for him.

Paul describes it almost exactly this way. He uses the analogy of a woman who husband dies, and then she is free to marry someone else. Paul says:

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)

We died to sin and to the law so that we could be raised into relationship.

If you are looking to find out how much sin you can get away with, then I question whether you actually are in relationship with God. I would say at the very least, you relationship with him is in very serious trouble. And, believe it or not, that is really the question of someone who is still trying to live by the law. You want a rule about how many rules you can break and still be OK. You aren’t really in relationship with God.

So, to go back to the sin question, since you are free from sin, dead to it, is there a problem if you sin? Well, is there a problem in your marriage if you cheat on your spouse? Of course there is. It isn’t a law problem, it is a problem that shows lack of belief in what God says, and lack of love for him. But we need to understand that it isn’t about performing correctly for God or reforming ourselves or making ourselves holy. It is about believing Him and loving him.

I don’t like it when I hurt Kari feelings. I hate the feeling when we are fighting and our relationship isn’t right. I feel the same way with the Lord. And the truth is this. If I say something hurtful to Kari, and I never say sorry and seek her forgiveness, it puts a barrier in our relationship. The more I hurt her and refuse to resolve the hurt I’ve done or acknowledge my mistake, the more distant our relationship will become. Eventually all the hurts and barriers and distance add up, and if we let it go, we might end up divorced. But you can’t divorced without signing papers. It can’t happen without you knowing about it and agreeing to it.

In the same way, if we continue to live in such a way as to hurt our relationship with God, we will become more and more distant from him. Eventually, we may be so distant that we get no benefit from our relationship with Him. The prodigal son left his father. The father still loved his son, and called him his son, but the son got no benefit from it. Even though he was the son of a loving, kind and generous father, he was living with pigs and eating pig food to survive. He might have died that way, and so, through his neglect of the relationship, never received anything more from his father.

Some of you reading this believe you can never lose your salvation. Some of you believe you can. Wherever you come down, the Bible is very clear that it is very serious thing to be distant from God. The bible exhorts us to continue to have a daily relationship with Him, through faith.

But once more, I want to emphasize that if you truly believe how outrageous God’s grace is, when you truly know that He really has freed you from sin, you will not be motivated to sin nearly as often as before. The more you believe, the less you injure that relationship with God, and the more quickly you will seek healing and resolution when you do hurt that relationship.

We don’t fight sin by trying be good with our own willpower. We don’t conquer temptation by gritting our teeth and getting over it. We start by believing that we are already holy, that in fact, we don’t have any relationship to sin any more. We live now in relationship to God, a relationship of faith that is based upon unconditional love, not rules.

Now, there is another question we need to address. If we are already holy, and already free from sin, why do we sin anymore at all? I apologize, but this message is getting long, and so I will answer that question next time.

Closing Potpourri

1 CORINTHIANS PART 29. 1 CORINTHIANS 16:1-24


Download 1 Corinthians Part 29

 

 

 

potpourri

1 Corinthians chapter 16 is kind of a potpourri of closing thoughts, some of them apparently even kind of random. Even so, it is important for two reasons.

First, it is a window into the documentary heritage of the bible. There are certain groups of people who claim the bible was made up by people who wanted to control others through religion. They say the New Testament was gathered and edited by people with an agenda; that it was not inspired by God. Personally, if I was making something up, I’d leave 1Corinthians 16 out. It doesn’t look edited or shaped at all. In fact, it shows us what 1 Corinthians actually is: a letter, written by a real person to other real people. I believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the letter; I believe that the Holy Spirit has, and will continue to, use the words of this letter to teach God’s people and draw them closer to Jesus. In short, I believe that the ultimate source of the letter is the Spirit of God, and it remains supernaturally meaningful and powerful and authoritative. But that does not change the fact that the means the Holy Spirit used in this instance was one real historical person, writing a letter to other real historical, people.

Very shortly after they were written, the letters of the apostles, and their writings about the life of Jesus (which we call the gospels) were copied and shared with all the churches. Many, many copies of each of these documents were made within a short period of time. Within about two hundred years, these writings had all been gathered together into one group of documents which we call the New Testament. Each document in the New Testament had to have a clear historical connection to a known apostle, and each one had to be in wide use throughout virtually all churches in the known world at the time. Each one also existed in multiple copies, so the copies could be checked against each other for accuracy.

There are other pseudo-Christian documents that survive from the period. Generally, only a few local churches had these, and they cannot be traced back clearly to any apostle. There are very few copies of these, compared to early copies of New Testament writings. Those documents were not included in the New Testament. Every couple years, the National Geographic Society trots one of these out as if it were a major new discovery (bible scholars have known about them for almost a thousand years). They call them “The Lost Gospels” or do some sort of article or TV show about the missing books of the New Testament. This is nothing more than extremely poor scholarship sensationalized to gain readers and viewers, and possibly to push an anti-Christian agenda.

My point is, when we look at 1 Corinthians 16, we see the New Testament for what it is. It is very hard to read this chapter and maintain that it was made up a hundred years after the fact. This passage is far too haphazard and far too personal either to be made up, or to be left in by editors who had a religious agenda.

There is a second reason why I want to look at 1 Corinthians 16. Romans 15:4 says

For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures.

When Paul wrote that, he was talking about the Old Testament, but it applies equally to the New Testament. The idea is that even in a chapter like 1 Corinthians 16, there are things that can instruct and encourage us. There are three things I want to pick out of this chapter with that in mind.

Verses one through four are about a collection that was being taken to help out the Christians in Jerusalem. We know that there was a famine that hit Palestine in the mid 40’s. Times were very different then, it may have taken years or even decades for the region to recover, and so other Christians were still trying to help out their brothers and sisters in that area. I want to pay particular attention to something Paul says: “Each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income.” The entire bible affirms the two principles contained here.

The first principle is that we should give some of our money and resources to God’s work. We learned in 1 Corinthians 9 that an essential part of this work is preaching and teaching His Word , and God intends some people to devote their full time to it. Other people need to give for that to happen (1 Corinthians 9:14). That principle is affirmed many times in the Old Testament as well. In addition, the New Testament encourages churches to provide material help to widows and orphans – that is people who had no options when it came to income. Finally, here we find the principle of helping other believers who are need due to circumstances beyond their control.

The second principle is that of proportional giving. Paul says to set aside an amount in keeping with income. In other words, a percentage. This is both important and useful. It is important, because it means that everyone can and should give. If you only make $100, you can’t afford to give $100. But you can afford $10. However, if you make $1000, you can afford $100.

Jesus affirmed this principle himself. In Mark 12:41-44 he observed a widow who gave two copper pennies. He compared her to others who were giving large amounts. He said:

“I assure you: This poor widow has put in more than all those giving to the temple treasury. For they all gave out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she possessed — all she had to live on.”

In other words, he wasn’t that impressed by people who gave because they had extra. He was touched by proportional giving. Sometimes we wait and see what we have extra, and decide what we can afford to give after everything else is taken care of. My problem, when I do that, is that I never have extra. But when it comes to giving, the entire bible in many and various ways encourages us to give to God first, and to do it as a percentage of what we get. Paul knows this, and so he tells them to set aside money each week in proportion to their income.

The next thing I want to pick out these verses for our instruction and encouragement is that Paul takes time here to name several leaders. He lists Timothy, Apollos, Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus. He tells them to treat Timothy well, and help him. He says of them all:

…They have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. Submit to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer.

…Give recognition to such men..

Remember how this letter began? Paul chastised them for following leaders instead of Jesus, and starting sects based upon the personalities of their leaders. Now, he tells them to recognize leaders, listen to them and give them respect. He doesn’t want them to form cliques around leaders, or to elevate them to cult-status. But he does want them to recognize that God has chosen certain people to teach and lead them, and he wants the Corinthians to be humble enough to learn from those people, and to contribute to the the disciple-making effort under their guidance.

I find two opposite extremes to be quite common among Christians. There are some who venerate leaders and elevate them far beyond what they should be. “Pastor John says this, so that’s the way it is.” I’ve seen people believe things that are unbiblical, simply because a charismatic leader told them it was true. That extreme is wrong. Our faith is in Jesus, not human leaders. But I’ve also seen Christians who have contempt for any kind of spiritual leadership. These people are not humble and teachable. They fail to recognize that some folks  are called to teach the bible and give spiritual guidance to God’s people. So in the first part of this letter, Paul warns them about the first extreme. Now he warns them about the second. There is a place for spiritual leaders. Those who are not called to that ought to be teachable enough to listen to and receive God’s help through those who are called to lead.

The last things I want to point out from this text come from verses 13-14. Paul gives them a rapid fire set of final thoughts: “Be watchful, stand firm in faith, act like men, be brave, act in love. When it says “act like men” I think what Paul really means is, “it is time to grow up in your faith.”

Remember how Paul began this letter. These Corinthians have all that they need – in Jesus Christ. In Jesus they are complete, they are wise, they are spiritually gifted, they have all things. The bulk of the letter, Paul spent pointing out how they were failing to live their lives out of who they are in Christ. Instead they were living out of their own flesh and their own efforts. So now Paul closes by saying, among other things: get steadfast about your faith – it’s time to give up these flesh-patterns and this self life. It’s time to grow up. Growing up means that they should be living out of the fullness that is in Jesus, not the emptiness and vain effort that comes from their flesh.

 it’s time to give up these flesh-patterns and this self life. It’s time to grow up. Growing up means that they should be living out of the fullness that is in Jesus, not the emptiness and vain effort that comes from their flesh.

That’s terrific advice for us too. For each one us, I bet there are areas for each one of us where we need to grow up. It’s time to stop living for ourselves; to stop pretending that life is about us. Instead, let’s grow up. Let’s be steadfast in our faith, be bold, be courageous and live out of who we are in Jesus.

What’s Love Got to do with It? 1 Corinthians #24

CLICK ON THE PLAYER TO LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION OF THE SERMON:

Download 1 Corinthians Part 24

lovepic

1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

1 Corinthians chapter 13 might be the most famous chapter in the Bible. It is often read at weddings, even when the people getting married aren’t really Christians. And truthfully, most people who aren’t believers like this chapter, and they might even feel that they agree with it. Certainly Christians like this passage also. I have used this passage when preaching at weddings. I have heard other preachers read it, and replace the word “love” with the name “Jesus.” Certainly this does tell us about love in marriage. Obviously, it teaches us about God’s love.

However, in order to understand any bible passage thoroughly, we need to pay attention to the context. Because we’ve been going through 1 Corinthians, if you’ve been with us for a while, you know the context here. This was written to the Corinthians. They were dividing over various preachers. They were suing each other. They were accepting flagrant, open, unrepentant sin. They were making a mess of the Lord’s supper. Paul just spent some time trying to make sure that they would not be ignorant of spiritual things. He told them all about prophecies, miracles, healings, tongues, words of knowledge and discernment. He admonished them to see themselves and each other as indispensable members of the body of Christ. And then he says this: “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” And then he writes what many people call “The love chapter.”

What we need to understand therefore, is this: the love chapter was written first and foremost to Christians concerning how they should love each other in the church community. It’s good to apply this to marriage. It isn’t wrong to apply this to loving all people. It’s helpful to understand God’s love in the light of this chapter. But we must understand that the primary application is to understand this and put it into practice in our own church. This is about how we relate to fellow-believers in our church community. I will suggest some other ways that this is relevant, but to really get it, let’s not lose sight of the context.

The New Testament uses three different Greek words that are translated “love.” There is eros (from which we get the English “erotic”) which is romantic or even sexual love. There is also philia which is brotherly love (hence “Philadelphia” is the “city of brotherly love”). But the word which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape (pronounced uh-gah-pay). It means unconditional, unselfish, sacrificial love. This is the word almost always used to describe God’s love for us. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is telling Christians to love each other in this way.

The apostle John writes to fellow Christians:

For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. (1 John 3:11)

John uses the word agape. In fact, throughout 1 John, he reiterates how important it is for Christians to agape (love) one another. He basically says Christianity consists in trusting and loving Jesus, and loving our fellow Christians.

This is not the only place in the New Testament that gives us that command. Jesus said:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Jesus’ word is also agape. Read it carefully. He is saying that it is of prime importance that we love one another. We often jump over this detail, but he makes a distinction between his disciples and the world. He doesn’t say that that others will recognize us as his disciples because we love them – but because we love each other. Of course we should show love to people outside the church. But too often we concentrate on that, and we lose sight of the fact that the command of Jesus to love those inside the church.

We may think this it could hurt our outreach if we are focused on loving each other. However, I suspect that when we are good at loving each other, the church will have a lot more appeal for people who aren’t part of it yet. Who wants to join a church where the members are always talking badly about each other? Who wants to join a church where everyone is cold to each other? And I think that until we do truly practice love for each other within the church, our ability to love those outside it is limited. Love starts at home.

The first point Paul makes is basically this: all the talent and effort in the world is pointless if we don’t engage in genuine love for each other. Paul has just finished talking about prophecy; words of knowledge and wisdom; tongues; and the spiritual gift of faith. He says all of these are worthless without love.

Notice that even things that look like love (giving away your goods and possessions, giving your body to the flames) can be done without actual love. This means that love is not just action. There is an inner commitment that distinguishes love from religious actions. I think if we look at this passage objectively, we can see that love is not just a feeling either. No feeling lasts forever – part of the nature of emotions is that they change. But Paul says agape love perseveres. He says love will still be present after the end of this world. What he is describing here simply just doesn’t fit a mere emotion. I like to define it this way: Love is a decision and commitment to value another person greatly. If it is a decision and a commitment, it doesn’t depend on how we feel. Neither does it depend on what the other person does.

Think of it — Jesus probably did not experience loving feelings while he was being crucified. People were spitting on him and mocking him, yet his death on the cross was the ultimate expression of how much he valued those very same people, as well as us. It didn’t matter what he was feeling. It didn’t matter what the people were doing to him. He was living out his commitment to value us.

Love is a decision and commitment to value another person greatly. This is not how our culture defines it. When I was a youth worker I once asked a group of teenage boys to define love. After a little thought, one of them said “Christie Brinkley.” Unfortunately, he was in tune with our culture. Our movies, our television, our music and to some extent even our books, all seem to offer the unified message that all there is to love is eros – romantic/sexual love. Once in awhile we may catch the hint that there is some other sort of love – philia – friendly, or brotherly love. There is another common expression of love in our culture which I call “selfish” love. In selfish love, I experience feelings of love because what you do for me makes me feel good. With this kind of love, you hang out with someone because generally, you feel good when you are with them. But basically, our culture thinks love is feeling. We have to identify this, and then reject it. Eros love is primarily a feeling. It has its place in marriage. But even marriage can’t be sustained only by sexual feelings. A lasting marriage needs the solid foundation of agape, which is not a feeling, but a commitment to value and honor another.

I won’t spend a lot of time on every aspect of love that Paul lists here, but I want to pick out just a few of the qualities that he names, not necessarily in any particular order:

Love is patient. One thing I’ve noticed about my fellow-Christians is that they aren’t as great as me. I want them to get with the program. I want them to grow and mature. I want them to quit fooling around with their lives and really live entirely for Jesus. I want them to quit swearing, quit getting drunk, quit falling into temptations. I want them read their bibles every day, to be consistent in coming to small groups, to be consistent coming to Sunday worship. But the truth is, God has been so patient with me in all these areas. We can be patient with each other when people don’t seem to change as fast as we want.

Some years ago I counseled with a couple who wanted to get married. There were some obstacles. The timing wasn’t quite right. The woman called me during this time, very anxious. She seemed almost desperate to get married right away. I said, “What are you worried about? If your love won’t last for two years while you wait for these things to get worked out, then you’d be better off not getting married in the first place. But if what you have is real love, you’ll still have it in two years.”

I want to be straightforward with some of the young people who read these sermon notes also. If you are in a relationship and you feel like you can’t wait until you are married until you have sex, then understand, that feeling is not love. Love is patient. If your boyfriend or girlfriend can’t wait, then understand – he or she is not motivated by love. Love is patient!

Paul also says love is not envious. That one nailed me just this week. As a man I sometimes fall into the trap of feeling like I’m validated (or not) by how successful I am. A pastor I know in our area is younger than me. He started a church about the same time as New Joy was started. I just heard again this week about how well his church is doing. I know he’s doing pretty well financially too. But agape love is not envious of the good fortune or success of others. I should be happy that God is using him. Just as I was writing this, I paused to ask the Lord for forgiveness, and to give me agape love for my fellow pastor, and brother in the Lord.

That brings me another point. As a standard of behavior, we cannot possibly hope to obtain agape love through our own human effort. We need the Holy Spirit to give us his love to love others with. He will, if we ask him, and receive it willingly.

Another thing Paul says about love is that it “keeps no record of wrongs.” In other words, love results in true forgiveness. There is no resentment or ongoing bitterness in it. This is very important when it comes to relationships in churches. Because of Jesus, God holds no record of your wrongs. How then can you, who have been so completely forgiven, refuse to let go of the wrongs that have been done to you? If you get close to people – and in church, we are supposed to get close to each other – we will get hurt from time to time. We must learn to forgive, and let those hurts go.

Paul writes in verse 7 that loves endures all things. Looking at the Greek, it might be put like this: “love always perseveres.” We don’t give up on each other. We don’t say “that’s it, I’ve had it with you, we’re done.” No, agape love perseveres through all things. This is related to what Paul says when he writes: “love never fails.” Another way to put it might be this: “love never falls from grace; it never loses its position or compromises its virtue.”

Erotic love, friendly love and selfish love are all real, and they contain parts of what love in general can be (although the Bible makes it clear that the expression of erotic love is to come within marriage only). It is tough going when you love someone who never makes you feel good. It is normal to value people with whom you have positive experiences. It is only natural to seek as a mate someone who is physically attractive to you. But these kinds of love so venerated by our culture, cannot ultimately last without agape, and they can become quite self-oriented. People have divorced their spouses to seek erotic love elsewhere when the glow faded for a time. When the sexual urge is satisfied, or at the very least in those times when the partner somehow becomes less attractive, erotic love is out the window. Others have divorced, or cut off friendships simply because “he didn’t make me feel good any more, and I need to do what is best for me” or because “the spark was gone.” This sort of love only lasts as long as you are able to perform for each other. As soon as you stop doing things that make me feel good, I will no longer feel love for you, and vice versa. In the final analysis, without the rock solid basis of a decision and commitment to value someone, (that is, agape love) all other forms of love are conditional.

Agape love can be hard work – anything that is not self-oriented can be hard work. To value someone when you do not feel particularly fond of them is not the easiest thing in the world. To serve someone when you feel almost as tired as they do, is not always immediately rewarding. But the minute we go back to relying solely on how it feels is the minute we abandon true Biblical love.

True love is not a noun, but a verb. Love is an action word. It is not really about all those nice feelings. When you truly love, you will get those neat feelings from time to time, but the substance of love is not in those feelings. The true stuff of love is in the commitment to value others.

This is the way God loves us. This is how we can be loved, even when we know that we are not loveable. God has made an ultimate commitment to us, to value us above all else. He was willing to die for the sake of that commitment. His love does not depend on us doing things to please Him or make Him feel good. His love does not depend on the attractiveness of our personality, or on any physical beauty. His love depends solely on His own will, and His will eternally is to value us and treat us as of great worth. As the writer of Hebrews says:

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. (Hebrews 6:17-18)

God loves us with an unchanging commitment. The only way we can ever learn to love others in that way is to receive God’s love, and let Him love others through us, and allow Him to make good on our desire to make a commitment to value others.

The Dance. 1 Corinthians 11:3-16

Download 1 Corinthians Part 16

There are seven passage in the New Testament which teach clearly and openly about the roles of men and women in the church and in the family. This is one of them. There is a great deal to explore in this passage. Too much for a single, ½ hour sermon. So I will break this up over two weeks. Please understand, if you only read this message, you are missing out on half of the message, and your understanding of what I am saying will be incomplete. Please do not quote me or assume you know what I am saying until you have heard or read both messages.

There are typically two responses to passages like this one. The first is to simply accept it without any real study. This usually results in rules that say women should wear hats or head-coverings, and women should “keep in their place” (meaning they have very little real input in church or family). I call this approach Traditionalism. I don’t think it does justice to what the bible really says.

The second reaction is to recognize how different this teaching is from our culture today, and find some way to interpret it that ends up either being meaningless, or even meaning the opposite of what it actually says. I call this approach Evangelical Feminism, and I think this also ends up failing to really appreciate what the Bible says. In fact, I think Evangelical Feminism lays the foundation that ends up in plain old heresy.

I am not saying that my parents taught me this, but I grew up basically thinking along Evangelical Feminist lines. In my teen years I heard some ways to dismiss the teaching of this passage and others like it. Basically, I accepted the argument that this passage is specifically and only for the culture of Corinth in the 1st Century, and it really doesn’t apply to us anymore. I categorically rejected any notion that there were some roles that should be held only by men or some that should be held only by women.

I was in college before I heard anyone seriously argue that these passages actually mean something in today’s world. I didn’t like the person who made the argument, and I dismissed it out of hand. A few years later, some people that I truly respected told me that they believed there was something to this, and the six other passages which teach about gender-roles. I began to be a bit more open, but I still maintained Evangelical Feminism.

Finally in seminary I looked into it for myself, and I was humbled to find out that I had been careless in my approach to the Bible about this subject.

The fact is, I think most Christians end up at either extreme. Traditionalists use passages like this to repress and even oppress women. Evangelical Feminists do theological gymnastics to make the same passages meaningless, and end up re-writing the Bible to say whatever suits them. But there is a middle road, the way of Truth.

It is true, part of this passage is just cultural application. But part of it is the teaching of important eternal truths. And we should bear in mind that this is just one of seven passages, all of which teach the same eternal truths about men and women.

The cultural aspects have to do with hairstyle. Paul says:

If it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.

The question is, what if it is not a disgrace for a woman to have short hair? The fact is, Paul seems to be basing his application instructions upon the hairstyles of his time. Again he writes:

14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?

The question arises again – is long hair a disgrace to men? That appears to be a fairly superficial thing that changes with the times.

However, we make a grave mistake if we say that this entire passage is merely a discussion of how Christians should wear their hair in 1st Century Corinth. In fact, if we dismiss the whole passage as cultural, we have greatly weakened the biblical case for two vital ministry roles that are open to women.

Paul’s teaching here is quite clear: women can and should pray in public, and women can and should prophesy in public. This is the only New Testament passage that explicitly endorses women in these ministries. So if we say the whole thing is cultural, then the idea of women prophesying and praying is also only a cultural accommodation to the 1st Century.

The fact is, we have two things going on this passage:

  • First, there is the teaching of a universal truth about men and women

  • Second, there is an application of that truth to 1st Century Corinth.

The specific application (in this case, hairstyles during worship) may or may not be relevant today, but we still need to seek to apply the universal truth to our situation.

The universal truths expressed here are basically this:

  • The male gender is the spiritual head of the female gender, just as Christ is the spiritual head of the church and the Father is the spiritual head of Christ (v. 3).

    • This is a result of how we are created (Genesis 1:27). It is demonstrated in Genesis 2, by the fact that Eve was created to be a helper-companion to Adam, to fulfill him and to join with him in caring for the world (v. 8-10).

  • Even so, men and women are not independent of each other – they need to work as a team (v. 11).

  • In worship and in the conduct women’s ministries, these truths should be reflected in some appropriate way (v. 10).

This is exactly the same basic message that we find in the other six New Testament teaching passages which deal explicitly with gender roles. For example, Ephesians 5:22-23:

Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body.

This idea of “headship” is troubling to us in the Western World in the 21st century. But it is an often repeated idea in the Bible. Here, Paul connects the idea both to the nature of God (v.3) and also to how we were created(v.8). If we look at these two things, we might gain a better understanding of what exactly this relationship means.

The bible describes God as a Trinity: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He is one God. There are not three Gods, but only one. The bible also teaches that he exists as three persons at the same time. So the Father is God, but he is not the Son or the Spirit. The Son, Jesus Christ, is God, but he is not the Father or the Spirit. The Spirit is God, but he is not the Son or the Father.

The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal to each other. We worship all three persons as one God. We pray to all three. There is not one that is “better” than another one – they have the same God-nature.

Even so, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have different roles. It was Jesus Christ, the Son who took on human flesh and walked physically in this world. It was he who died for us, not the Father or the Spirit. It is the Spirit who lives in our hearts and imparts the power and life of God to us, not the Father or the Son. It was the Father, who sent the Son, not the Son who sent himself. It was the Father who said “this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

The fact that the Son has the role of the Son does not make him less important than the Father. The Spirit’s role does not make him more important than the Son. They are equal, but different.

So when Paul says, “and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God,” it does not mean inequality. What it means is that men and women have different roles. Like the Trinity, Men and women are equal. Like the Trinity, men and women are different. Men and women were made for different roles.

Paul makes reference to Genesis in 1 Cor 11:8. There are two passages from the first part of Genesis that I want to briefly consider. The first is Genesis 1:27

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (emphasis mine).

We were made in the image of God. We have just seen that God exists equally and the same in nature, but different in personality and role. It seems clear that Paul is referencing this exact idea. The fact that “God is the head of Christ” has nothing to do with equality – it is about role. In the same way “man is the head of woman” is not about equality. It is about role.

In addition, we see that the different roles of the Trinity give the Father, Son and Spirit opportunities to give each other honor and glory. The Son gives honor and glory to the uniqueness of the Father. The Father lifts up the Son above all things. The Spirit gives glory to both. This giving of honor and glory to the each other does not erase the distinctions between the three Persons. Even though the Father glorifies the Son, and they are equal, they are still different, and live out of their different roles. In fact, they could not honor each other in this way unless they really did have different roles. Their different roles provide an opportunity for them to honor, bless and love one another. The Father does not relinquish his Fatherhood, or change the Son into the Father. He gives him glory as the Son. The Son does not glorify the Father for coming to earth, but for being the Father. All three Persons, acting out their different roles, complete the Trinity, and they work together as a team for a common purpose.

In the same way, because men and women are different, and have different roles, we have the opportunity to honor and love one another in special ways. When we erase those differences and those roles, we also erase the opportunity for men to honor women as women and for women to honor men as men. There is unique glory and honor in being female. There is unique glory and honor in being male. But if we say that men and women must be not only equal, but also the same, we are eliminating those honors.

Paul also references Genesis chapter 2, which describes Adam being created first, and getting lonely, and being unfulfilled, even in sinless paradise. Eve is then created, to fulfill Adam, and to assist him in the mission of humanity, which at that time was to manage God’s creation. The Bible uses the term “helper-companion” to describe Eve’s role.

If Eve had nothing unique to bring, why was Adam lonely? If Eve had nothing unique to bring, then why did God make her? It wasn’t just about reproduction. God certainly could have designed that differently. So woman was created to fulfill a unique role, one that man could not fulfill, the role of helper-companion. In the same way, woman was not created to fulfill man’s role. That would imply that either man or woman is redundant. But woman is not a redundancy, nor is man.

We have a situation today where there is great confusion about this. In many places, Eve, instead of seeking her unique created purpose, is trying to do Adam’s job. Meanwhile, Adam, for the most part, is happy to let Eve do it, because he is too cowardly to risk a fight, and he is prone to be passive anyway. I believe that is the reason that New Testament teaches explicitly about this subject no less than seven times.

The other thing we have done is to separate the genders. We act as if we have a whole bunch of independent missions in life which are not necessarily connected. A man has his ministry, and a woman has her ministry. But Paul disagrees. He writes:

11 In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.

The teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 is a correction to the independence we try to have from each other. Here is a summary of what we have learned so far:

  • Men and women are created in the image of God to be equal

  • Men and women are created in the image of God to be different and have different roles. The spiritual role of men is “head” and the spiritual role of woman is “helper companion.” (*We have not yet considered how to apply this).

  • Men and women are created to function as a team.

A few months ago, as I was praying about this whole topic, I felt like the Holy Spirit gave a me word. The word was “dance.” After that, I watched “Dancing with the Stars” a few times, to try and understand what He might be getting at. I think “Dance” describes very well the Lord’s plan for relationships and roles between men and women.

  • First, a couple’s dance is usually more appealing and attractive than just one person dancing by himself or herself. This goes along with Paul’s insistence that men and women are not independent from each other. Both are necessary in this spiritual dance.

  • Second, them and women have different steps in a dance. If the woman did the same steps as the man (or vice versa) the dance would not be beautiful. It would chaotic. In the same way, this reflects that fact that men and women have different roles. The steps each one takes, complements the actions of the other.

  • The man leads the dance. And yet, one of his primary goals in leading is to show off the beauty and grace his partner, the woman. His leadership does not make him better, or even necessarily draw attention to himself. We found this same principle at work in the Trinity. The Father does not glorify himself, but glorifies the Son. The Son glorifies the Father. So in the gender-dance, leadership is a role, but it does not mean that the leader is better or more valuable.

Please check back next week for the second part of our study of this passage.