Category Archives: Pastor’s Blog

Be still and quiet

Over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting change. When I was a kid, life involved a great deal of waiting. The doctor’s office, the dentist’s office, government offices, lines at the bank all involved waiting. I have memories—some fond, others not so much—of trying to entertain myself in such places. This usually meant doing things that tried mom’s patience but with the challenge of going just far enough to have fun, and not far enough to earn the belt. I still see some of these places in my mind. Each seemed to have the same magazines, almost identical furniture and the almost palpable scent of boredom. In time, I learned to bring a book or something else to occupy my mind. I also learned that, at times, it was enjoyable to simply sit quietly and think—about life and other stuff. But things have changed.

For me, it started when I saw a TV at the head of a bank line. It was in Colorado Springs, so it was of course set to Fox News. The TV was muted, but had close captioning turned on. This way, people could turn their minds to the news while waiting in line. I’m sure the staff realized this made people more patient as they waited—they were distracted from the time it was taking for the line to move.

This was just the first step. Everywhere I go these days has a TV. It is usually turned onto some mindless drivel and loud enough to drown out the thoughts of anyone waiting. There was a time when you walked into a waiting room, every eye would turn to see you. Now when you enter such a space, every eye is locked onto the glowing box of distraction on the wall. No one looks away until their name is called. There is no desire to talk, to meet new people, to share each other’s lives. There is even less desire to simply sit and think.

Of course, the offices and other places which force us to wait are happy to provide this distraction. It keeps us from noticing just how much of our lives are being consumed in line and in waiting rooms. We are easier to deal with. When people are forced to sit quietly and think (heaven forbid), they get uncomfortable. We no longer want to spend time in our own minds. We no longer want to think, to consider, to wrestle with great truths. We want to be entertained day and night.

Recently, I was in such a waiting room and realized I forgot to bring a book. For some reason, there was no TV in the room and the magazines were not for my demographic. Having developed the same habit as many, I pulled out my phone to spend time on social media. Suddenly I found myself thinking about the trap I had fallen into. Like others, I had lost the enjoyment of simply sitting quietly and thinking—something I had once truly loved doing. Instead, I had to be entertained. I put away the phone.

When was the last time you put away the distractions? When was the last time you simply sat in solitude and silence? We need such times. This morning, while thinking about this I read the story of Elijah and his run from Jezebel. Elijah had been busy. He stood opposed to the evil King Ahab. He slew the prophets of Baal. He saw many miracles. But when threatened by the queen, he ran to the wilderness. The story in 1 Kings 19, tells us that in the wilderness the Lord asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Can you imagine God letting you know in this way that you are not where he wants you? Of course, being a human, Elijah sought to justify his flight. He claimed to be the only one in Israel who still worshipped God. Of course, he had to run, because if they killed him there would be no one to serve God. In Elijah’s mind, God’s interests in having someone to serve him and his own interests in staying alive meshed. He seems to have thought, “God needs me to live, so I have better run.”

God corrected him, but first showed him a fact about hearing. Standing upon a mountain, Elijah experienced several natural events: a great wind, and earthquake and a fire. But God was in none of them. Instead he heard a quiet whisper, through which God spoke. It’s interesting that the main thing he told Elijah was, “I have seven thousand others who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” In other words, God told Elijah to stop believing his own assumptions and listen better.

How many of us face trouble in life and wish God would speak to us? It is a common plea: “Please God, just tell me what I should do.” I’m not going to say God will always—or even ever—speak directly to each and every need you have. However, I will tell you that begging God to speak and then filling every waking moment with the din of distraction is contradictory. In effect, we are saying, “I want God to speak, but don’t want to hear him if he does.” Doing this means we only hear God speak if he shouts. God shouts by shaking the mountain of your life. God shouts by blowing through your life to get your attention. God shouts by burning away the distractions. Don’t leave God no other option but to shout. Get quiet. Get away from the noise and din of life. Return to a regular time of quiet and silence. Regain an appreciation for being alone with God so he can whisper into your heart.

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God’s Will Here and Now

Knowing God’s will is something we all struggle with. But I think we too often approach the problem from the wrong end. We want to know the final will of God—or at least the will of God far enough down that we know a major route to take. We want to know if God wants us to be history majors or theology majors. We want to know the big picture of God’s will. Is it God’s will for me to spend my life as a pastor? Is it God’s will for me to spend my life in business? Is it God’s will for me to marry and raise a family? However, we get so wrapped up thinking of these questions as being so important we forget to discern God’s will in the moment by moment. Far more important than these is knowing God’s will now, here, where I stand, in the situation I currently face.[1] I need to know if obedience requires me to go right or left, hand out or withhold, speak or remain silent.

I have over the last couple months developed a practice which I now look forward to each week. I take Monday morning as a special quiet time with God. I get up, do whatever correspondence from the night before needs done, check some quick news, then shower, dress and get away to a quiet place. I take my bible and good Christian devotional books and nothing else—no phone, no computer. During that time (usually about two hours) only God is permitted to speak with me. He can speak directly to my heart, through his Word, or through the writings of good Christian authors. I allow no interruptions, even from myself. This gives God a chance to speak to issues and allows me to get my focus back where it belongs as I start each week.

Yesterday was my special time with God. After some prayer, I was reading the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. This left me a strong impression about the moment by moment will of God. Allow me to explain. Why was Jesus at the well? Was he there because he expected to meet this woman and minister to her? No. The passage tells us that, while his disciples went into the town to purchase food (John 4:8), Jesus sat by the well because he was tired from the journey (John 4:6). Jesus was not there for a known appointment. He was not there because he knew someone in need was coming. Jesus sat there resting, because he was tired. Likely he assumed, because it was not the early morning hour when people would usually come to the well, that he would not be disturbed and could find some quiet rest. That is his situation. While there a woman came to him and he took the opportunity to speak with her. At the end of the conversation (which I’ll speak about another time), Jesus spoke to his disciples, who had returned, telling them that the conversation with the woman was the Father’s will and as such was his assigned work (John 4:34).

This means Jesus was simply looking for a time of peace and rest, but recognized in the moment that God had another plan. He saw a need and responded to it. How did he know this was God’s will? Nothing in the passage says exactly, but there is a way for us to know. Jesus knew it was God’s will for two reasons: God had given him the opportunity to help this woman, and the ability to help her. Since God had allowed this woman into his presence and since he had the ability to help her, he knew exactly what God wanted him to do. God’s will was obvious. All he had to do was accept it as such, and obey.

In the same way, we might know moment by moment God’s specific will for us. Often, we find ourselves in situations and wonder if God would have us help. Should we give money to this person? Should we feed that person? Learning from Jesus’ experience with this woman can help us understand exactly what God would have us do.

We see two criteria in knowing God’s will for us to help or not: opportunity and ability. By opportunity I mean the place where we are currently standing or our proximity to the person in need. I see you in need, because I see you. I do not have to wonder if you exist somewhere. Neither do I need to find you. For example, a person walks up to you with his or her hand out asking for change. The only question to ask is “Should I help this person?” It would be silly, in such a situation, to ask, “God is there someone, somewhere you want me to help?” There is a person standing in front of you—the opportunity to help someone is there. This is also a very different question from whether God wants us to seek out and help those we have never met. Does God want me to seek out the poor and help them? This is a question of calling, not one of God’s will for this moment. The only thing to discern, at the moment, is whether God has placed this person in your path to give you the opportunity to help. This is known by the second criteria.

The second criteria for knowing God’s will is ability. Has God given you the ability to help this person? If we look back at our example of the individual coming asking for our pocket change, we have the opportunity to help (the person is in our presence), but do we have the ability? In other words, do we have what they need? Do we have any change to give them? There are three parts to this answer. The first part is whether I have any change, whatsoever. If I have no change (many people carry no change or cash, but only credit cards), and have no reasonable way to get some, then can I help them? If I am just unable to help them (for whatever reason) then it must not be God’s will for me to do so. Had he wanted us to help them, he would have given the ability along with the opportunity. I mentioned there were three parts to this answer of ability. While I may not have what the individual needs upon my person, I may be able to secure it for them. Let’s look back at the person asking for change. Suppose I have no change, but have a $20 bill. Perhaps I can step into a store, make change and give some to the person asking. Here I have the opportunity and the ability. We have not addressed whether this means I must do so yet. That will come later. However, we must admit we could help them. The third part of this answer is a bit more finely tuned. Imagine I am walking in downtown San Antonio (where I currently live) and a person asks me for a quarter. Suppose all the money I have on me is one quarter. I have the opportunity and the ability to help. However, what if this happens while I am running to my car to put my last quarter in the meter to keep it from getting ticketed, booted or towed. Do I really have the ability to help that person? No. I don’t.

So, when discovering the answer to the second question (Do I have the ability to help?), we must know if we can reasonably help that person. Yes, there may be times when we should go way beyond reasonable means to help one in need. However, this is an example of going beyond one’s duty. Such actions are praise worthy and bring much blessing, but they are not morally obligatory (that is what makes them praise worthy).

I know it is God’s will for me to help another person when he gives me the opportunity to help and the ability (within reason) to help. If these coincide, then I must help. It is his will for me to do so. Jesus had the opportunity to help this woman at the well, and the ability to do so. He interpreted this as meaning doing so was the will and work of the Father.

Before I end, allow me to show how this works through an illustration that happened to me within an hour of my quiet time. After I had my time, I drove over to check the church building. I wasn’t planning to, but we have a refugee group using our building for worship on Sunday afternoons, and I wanted to go make sure everything had been secured properly. When I arrived, I found a homeless man sleeping on our front porch trying to stay out of the rain. I had an opportunity to help him, but did not yet know how much help I had the ability to offer. I brought him into the church to have coffee and talk. He told me he was a veteran. Two weeks ago, I had met with a group who help homeless veterans. They have shelter in place for them and get them into the system to for permanent housing. So, I knew I had the ability to help, but still needed to know the reasonable way to do so. If I called the organization, they would send a driver to come and fetch the man. However, part of the reason I almost didn’t come to the church was because I was going to visit a friend on the East Side of town. It would have been quicker to take the southern route around downtown from my house, but since I needed to check the church I decided to go the other way. Well, this meant that on the way to visit that friend, I would be passing right by the organization this man needed. Obviously, God had set up a divine appointment for me to drive this man to the very place where he could get exactly what he needed. I had the opportunity and the reasonable ability to help this man. It was God’s will for me to do so. There was not need to do anything else, but obey and thank God for allowing me to serve him by serving this homeless man.

I don’t share this story to brag, or make you think I am somehow “holier than thou.” I share it to show that more often than not, the will of God in a situation is very obvious. We may wish it was less obvious because we do not want to help. But if God has given you the opportunity to help, and the reasonable ability to do so, how can refusal not be disobedience?

Now, some will say, “Yes, but what about…” and list all kinds of situations. One commonly asked is, “Well, what if the person asks for money, and they plan to use it for drugs? Or alcohol?” Actually, this is answered already. I said that you must have the opportunity and ability to help. If you know the person plans to do that with the money, then giving it would not be helping, but hurting. However, this is more often an excuse not to help than an actual reason. How do you know what the person will actually do once they are out of your sight? You can make assumptions. But you can assume wrong. Years ago, when I lived in Ashland, Montana, an Indian[2] man I knew, met me outside the grocery store and asked for $20. I was just leaving and had to get somewhere. It looked like he was about to walk in the store, so it was reasonable for me to assume he was getting food with the money. I pulled out a $20 bill and handed it to him (I had opportunity and ability). He thanked me, turned on his heels and ran across the street into a local bar. How did I respond? I simply prayed, “What I gave him was given to you God. He is responsible for how he chooses to use what is yours.” I went on about my day. I made a reasonable inference, and it was wrong. I gave it no more thought. Had I not been in a hurry, I probably would have taken him in the store and bought him food, but because of my schedule I did not have the opportunity.

If I know the person is going to harm themselves with what they request, then I would not give it. But often we use this as an excuse to refuse help. I’ve met homeless people who do not smoke, drink or do drugs. Yet, people look at them and assume any money they give will go into a bottle or a needle. Why? Because this assumption gets them off the hook to help. If you think they will drink up the help you give, can you help another way? Have you considered other ways to help, or simply refuse without any further thought because of how the person looks to you? If you do that, then you are deciding if the person is worth helping. It’s a good thing Jesus didn’t do that with you, when you needed salvation.


[1] This desire to know what God’s will is for our whole future is often misguided. When we struggle with this, we are often doing so because of fear. We fear spending the next twenty years doing something only to discover we have missed God’s will and will not be blessed. We fear that if this happens too late in life we will find our lives have been wasted and we will never be able to return and do the will of God. Doing this, we fear, means going our whole life without the full blessings of God. When we realize this, it is easy to see this desire to “know God’s will” is really a desire to know the future (What career or life direction will God bless in the future?). It is little different from a Christian version of going to a psychic for career advice. God can and will make his calling for your life known. There is no need to struggle with it.

[2] I use the term Indian here, instead of Native American, because the former is the term this man himself would have used. The latter term is an innovation seldom used on the reservations, in my experience. They referred to themselves as “Indians.”

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Nathanael and the Fig Tree

It’s been a while since I’ve read one of the gospels in my devotional time. I’ve been reading through the prophets for the last few months. Today, I decided to return to an old friend, the Gospel of John. I think I like it so much because it does far more than any other to demonstrate the divinity of Christ. When reading John it doesn’t take long to get me thinking. This morning it wasn’t the discussion of the logos, but Christ’s exchange with Nathanael that got me thinking.

In John 1:44-51, we see Nathanael brought to Jesus. After a brief exchange, he quickly responds to Jesus (John 1:49 ESV), “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” This passage often confuses. I must admit to spending many years wondering just what it was about this exchange that so quickly convinced Nathanael.

Allow me to outline it before delving into it:

  • 1:43, Philip was found by Jesus, who said “Follow me.”
  • 1:44, We learn Philip was from the same town as Andrew and Peter, whom Jesus previously called.
  • 1:45, Philip found Nathanael, telling him they had found the one promised by Moses.
  • 1:46, Nathanael expressed skepticism that the promised one would come from Nazareth.
  • 1:47, Jesus upon seeing Nathanael, described him as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
  • 1:48a, Nathanael asked how Jesus knew him.
  • 1:48b, Jesus claimed to have seen Nathanael:

o   before Philip called him, and

o   while he was under a fig tree.

  • 1:49, Nathanael responded by confessing Jesus as the Son of God and the King of Israel.
  • 1:50, Jesus promised to show Nathanael far greater things.
  • 1:51, Jesus promised to show Nathanael heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

 

So, what was it about Jesus initial statement to Nathanael that was so powerful? Part of the problem is that we imagine Philip finding Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. However, Jesus says he saw him under the tree before Philip found him. Also, if you look back you will realize there is no mention of where Philip found Nathanael. The fig tree is first mentioned by Jesus, after Nathanael has been brought to him. Apparently, Nathanael had some personal experience under a fig tree. We aren’t told when it happened? what happened? how it happened? We are told nothing about it.

However, the exchange is only mildly interesting because of this mysterious reference to a fig tree. It is most interesting because of what Jesus said to Nathanael. When first meeting him, Jesus refers to Nathanael as a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit. He then ends by saying Nathanael would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (Jesus most common self-reference). In other words, you (the true Israelite in whom there is no deceit) will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon me (the Son of Man).

This entire exchange is full of allusions to Genesis 28 and the story of Jacob. Jacob was the son of Isaac and bother of Esau. It was Jacob who deceived his brother and father, then ran away to live with his uncle who deceived him. It was this same Jacob, who after years of serving his uncle returned home with his wives and children. On the way, while expecting to die at his brother’s hand, Jacob wrestled with a mysterious figure (Genesis 32:24) and is said to have wrestled (striven in the ESV) with God (Genesis 32:28). It was during this wrestling match that Jacob was renamed Israel (Genesis 32:28). So hold that story in mind as you consider Jacob’s experience in Genesis 28. While fleeing his brother, Jacob lays down to sleep with a stone for a pillow. During the night he had a dream of a ladder extending to heaven and the angels ascending and descending upon it (Genesis 28:12).

With all that in mind, consider now the words of Jesus. Remember that Jacob, in Hebrew, means Deceiver. Jacob, the deceiver, was renamed Israel. He was no longer the deceiver but was one who had striven with God. Jesus calls Nathanael a true Israelite in whom there is no deception (he used both references to Jacob: Israel and deceiver). He ends by saying Nathanael would see what Jacob saw—except that instead of a ladder, the angels would be ascending and descending upon Jesus. This exchange between Jesus and Nathanael is from beginning to end a reference to the story of Jacob.

In the story of Jacob’s ladder, Jacob concludes that he had discovered the house of God, the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:17). Jesus takes that and applies it to himself. Jesus is telling Nathanael that he is the gate to heaven.

So, what did Nathanael experience under the fig tree? We don’t know. We aren’t told. I’ve heard many teachers speculate, and I don’t want to do that. If God wanted us to know what Nathanael experienced, he would have told us. But we do know that something in the exchange with Jesus, and the reference to seeing Nathanael previously along with the double reference to Jacob was enough to convince Nathanael of Jesus’ authority as the King of Israel and as Messiah (the Son of God).

If we can’t know exactly what happened with Nathanael under the fig tree, if we can’t know all the details, then how do we make an application of this to our lives? Well, there are two primary applications to make. One is for ourselves and our own doubts. The other is for our loved ones we wish to bring to Christ.

For Our Own Doubts

Don’t bury doubt. Doubt is actually a friend of faith. One who has never doubted does not have faith, they have assumptions. Faith involves believing even when what we see seems to contradict. That is why Hebrews 11:1 describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (ESV). When we do not see it, our senses lead us to question it. It is faith that tells us it exists. When we hope for things we do not have, we understand we might never have them. It is faith that assures us that we will have them someday. If you have never doubted, then you have never had faith. But we do not simply sit there wallowing in our doubts. Instead we take them to God and seek assurance. We seek a boost to our faith. We seek an experience of assurance. Ask God to give you faith and to assure you that your faith is not misguided. Just like Nathanael, Jesus can use something in your life to give that assurance. It may make sense only to you; be meaningful only to you. Then, when the next doubt comes, ask for assurance again. Even better, never stop asking for such assurance. Allow him to work in your life such assurance that the doubts are swallowed up in a strong abiding faith. The doubts will still be there. But you can be so filled with the Word and so reminded of the assurances he has given you that the doubts are quickly overcome.

The Doubts of Your Loved Ones

When Philip came to Nathanael, the first response was a snide comment. Nathanael did not accept the word of Philip. Your friends will not simply become Christians because you tell them they should do so. Neither will you convince them. Many people do not witness because they are afraid of not having enough answers, or enough debating skills to convince their skeptical friends. But Philip didn’t argue. Philip didn’t debate. In John 1:46, Philip simply responded, “Come and see.” He simply invited Nathanael to have his own experience with Jesus and trusted Jesus to show himself. We can do the same. When your friends don’t believe, ask Jesus to show himself to them—and to do so convincingly. Then trust that Jesus can and will do it. You may never understand how that person’s experience of Jesus was so powerful. But you don’t see the work the Holy Spirit has already done on that person before you ever approached to witness to them.

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God returned to the Garden

In Genesis, God walked in the garden with his creation, mankind. This intimacy and fellowship between Spirit and flesh were ruptured by sin and the fall. No more walks, no more intimacy as man went his own way. The gardeners forsook their duties.

All that changed, when God came to earth as a man. The God who once walked and talked with man in intimate union, now walked and talked as man in hypostatic union. He came to live, to die, to rise, to ascend. He came that, through his sacrifice, the Holy Spirit could be given to indwell his people, calling us back to the garden.

First man and woman tended the garden. New men and women restore the garden. God once again walks, not only among us, but within us.

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Eager For Unity

Ephesians 4:1-7 begins with a command. Paul urges the reader (including us today) to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which they (including us) have been called. We’ve all heard this command preached on more than one occasion. It’s a favorite, especially in holiness circles. We are commanded to walk (to live our lives) in a manner (a way) worthy (equal to, fitting to) the calling to which we have been called. Paul goes on to define this worthy walk.

This walk, worthy of the calling, is defined by Paul with three nouns and two participial phrases. He describes it as a walk (way of life) marked by humility, gentleness and patience. These are the three nouns. Interestingly, if one’s walk is marked by these nouns, it would be safe to assume that walk would demonstrate the details given in the following participial phrases. These phrases tell us to “bear with one another in love” and to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” It seems if one is humble, gentle and patient, there is no need to include these last two. However, Paul is dealing with something the church has dealt with throughout her history—disunity. We easily find excuses to divide. Paul is adding some detail to give greater emphasis to the unifying side of the worthy walk.

I want to zone in on this last part for this blog post. Paul includes in a worthy walk being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” Some translations lose something here. The NIV, for example, translates this as “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.” But this merely means doing everything involved in keeping the peace. It misses the element of drive, push or haste. Let’s say I have a project to accomplish. I can expend every effort to accomplish the project and do so simply out of a sense of obligation. I would do everything needed to accomplish the project, but not really care if it works or fails—“It failed, but I did my part.” I can also not care how long the project takes, because there is a lack of haste or passion in my actions. In the same way, the NIV translation of this make it sound like Paul is saying to do what is needed or appropriate to maintain unity, without any reference to our drive, passion or zeal. It seems to reduce it to nothing but an action commanded. But the passage is much more powerful than this. The HCSB translates this as “diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit.” This, at least, gives some of the emphasis Paul places upon the command.

Paul is not just telling us to work at being united. Paul is not just including such unity as part of our walk. He is telling us to strive for, to be eager for, to diligently desire and work to maintain that unity. Unity of the body to which we are called (the Church Universal and the local expression of the church, where he has placed us). We should desire unity more than our own way. We should eagerly seek to keep the church together—even if it means giving up our own way and our own desires. That , after all, is part of the humility which he earlier used to describe the worthy life. We should desire unity even if it means dealing with our imperfect fellow Christians—even when it hurts. That, after all, is part of the patience which he earlier used to describe the worthy life. We should desire and work toward unity even when it would be far easier to attack and drive out those we find difficulty. That, after all, is part of the gentleness which he earlier used to describe the worthy life.

Paul commands us (God commands us through Paul) to bear one another’s burdens and eagerly strive to keep the church together as a united whole. We are not to drive those out or separate ourselves from our fellow believers. We are to strive to keep the church together. The only reasons to ever drive one out of the church is heresy (2 John 1:10) or discipline (1 Corinthians 5:5). Even that is meant to bring them back to repentance and back to the fold as fully restored members (2 Corinthians 2:6-7).

Be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This command (σπουδάζοντες) tells us to do this quickly, with haste, without waiting. When some action or behavior disrupts our unity, or breaches the bond of peace, we are commanded to quickly (eagerly, with haste) strive for restoration. This is a direct command to each of us—me, you and everyone else called to salvation by Christ.

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Every Good Blessing

It’s just after midnight and I find myself unable to sleep. Things keep flowing through my mind about my church, the Lord, things I want to say and things the Lord wants to change in me. I decided to go to my desk and journal a bit, while also reading the Word of God for a bit and spending some intimate time with God. As often happens, I struck upon a verse where God spoke to me and I feel a driving compulsion to share it. The easiest way for me to do it is with a blog post.

I simply opened my Bible to Ephesians 1 and was dumbstruck by verse 3, even though I’ve read and studied it a thousand times. The verse says (ESV) “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,…” It goes on to say that this was done “even as he chose us” and predestined us (verses 4f). The “even” in that passage (Greek: καθὼς) means “just as,” or “inasmuch as,” or it can also mean the two happened at the same time (Mounce, 2006). So, our being blessed in verse 3 is very closely related in manner, degree and/or time to our being chosen and predestined. The blessing is not severable from these. Just as from the foundation of the world he chose me to be blameless and holy and predestined me to be adopted as his son, he blessed me with every spiritual blessing and did this through Christ.

Now, let’s dig deeper into this blessing. When Paul speaks of “every spiritual blessing” the word for blessing is εὐλογίᾳ. This is the word from which we get our “eulogy.” This is from the same root as earlier when Paul says, “Blessed be the God and Father…” He is telling us the Father is worthy of blessing (literally: good speaking). He deserves our praise, our blessings for what he has done for us. Just as he deserves our “good speaking” about what he has done, “good speaking” is a fitting description of what he has done for us. Don’t forget that Jesus is the Word (λόγος) of God. God’s Word (Jesus) was powerful and when he spoke the world into being, it was the Son (the Word) who created (John 1:3). In the same way, when God “speaks good” into our lives and upon us, it is a creative and active event. He has spoken all good into our lives.

Don’t take that last sentence the wrong way. This does not mean He has determined that I will have all things I consider good. This is not some backdoor magical Name-it-and-claim-it prosperity atrocity. This is not saying that He has declared I am to have everything I ever desired. This means everything he knows to be good, he has spoken into our lives. He has made pronouncements in our lives, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, these pronouncements are all sure and irrevocable as our being chosen and predestined.

It does say “he has blessed us […] with every spiritual blessing.” So, there are no spiritual blessings he has withheld from us. To use the word “every” is to create a container into which all items which are defined by God as a blessing are placed. None are withheld. “Every blessing” means there are none he is yet to declare. He never said, “This is a blessing, but I will withhold this from them.” Of course, as I write this I know some will claim, “Well, there is one blessing he has withheld. He has not revealed to me the time of the return of Christ since scripture says he has even withheld that knowledge from the Son.” This assumes such knowledge would be a blessing—a good thing spoken into our lives. I contend that such knowledge would be far too great for man and, in this way, would become a curse. He withheld no blessing from us. If you feel he has withheld one from you, then check your definition of blessing.

Finally, he says he has spoken these good blessings into our lives, he has given us these blessings—all of them—“in Christ.” No blessings, no “good speaking” of the Spirit, no active, creative pronouncements of God come through any other route but the Son of God—Jesus Christ. He gives us all blessings. He holds none back. The only restriction to them is that they will all be given through (in) Christ Jesus. We are to look for them nowhere else. We are to expect them from no other source. They are found in no other place. They are offered in Christ and Christ alone.

 

References

Mounce, W. D. (Ed.). (2006). Mounce’s complete expository dictionary of Old & New Testament words. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan.

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Selfish Coercion

In Galatians 6:12, Paul speaks of the legalists as those “who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (ESV). This describes many of the events that happen in church today.

The legalists were not so worried about the actual spiritual condition of the uncircumcised. Their concern was not that the uncircumcised could not be saved. They were worried about what their own people would think if they tolerated the gentiles remaining uncircumcised. But, according to Paul freedom from circumcision (and the rest of the law) was a fruit of the cross of Christ. This means they feared being persecuted by their own people for allowing gentiles to rest in the cross alone. In other words, their fear was that they themselves would look bad if these others were not brought into conformity.

There is an interesting dynamic that can be lost if we just stop here. Notice they were willing to force the conformity of others to prevent their own persecution. Their actions, like so much in church today, was spawned by selfishness.

Legalism and license are different sides of the same selfish coin.

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Wrong Made Right

In Galatians 1:13-16, Paul speaks of being a persecutor of the church. He violently attacked the church, seeking to destroy it. But in verse 15 he speaks of God setting him “apart before birth” to be saved by and preach grace to the Gentiles. It’s easy to overlook one simple fact here. The temporal element of this statement is quite profound and should not be ignored. When Paul was attacking the church, imprisoning followers of Christ and sending them to their deaths, he was already elect of God’s to be saved by Christ and used for his purposes.

So, why did God choose to use such a zealous persecutor? It’s not my place to speculate about why God does anything—at least not beyond any explanations that he himself gives. However, Paul does give us a clue if we look. Paul says that he was “extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers.” As a Pharisee, he would have held to a very specific and conservative view of covenant observance. So, why would God send such a person to preach to the Gentiles?

The church very quickly faced several issues: circumcision, law observance, dietary limitations and many other requirements that set Jews apart from Gentiles. Judaism had been debating these issues for well over a century. Many Jews felt they should reject practices which made it hard for those living in Gentile communities, making it hard to live and do business. The dietary restrictions alone could make it hard to find appropriate food in many communities—the issue of eating meat offered in pagan sacrifice had been debated by the Jews long before Paul and Church. It could even be hard to find something considered so essential as wine—since much of the wine produced in pagan communities was clarified or blended with substances considered unclean. Circumcision made it hard to do business when most large contracts were negotiated in the bath houses. Many Hellenistic Jews had already rejected these practices; therefore, they were not seen as sufficiently Jewish by the religious leaders. When Paul speaks of being zealous for the traditions of his fathers, he means that he had taken a very traditional view of these. He would have opposed any rejection of circumcision or relaxing of dietary restrictions. Now, imagine God choosing to use such a man for a mission to the Gentiles. Imagine this man teaching that a Gentile not only need not, but must not, be circumcised. Imagine such a man telling people to eat whatever they purchase in the market without raising moral issues (1 Cor 10:25). His prior zealotry would force one to wonder what changed.

Paul, in Galatians 1, tells us what changed. He was called by God to preach grace to the Gentiles. But he was already elected to this before he was born. So, even when he was persecuting Christians, God was preparing him for the work he was to do. One who did not observe the traditional practices closely would have been questioned. “You say one need not keep these, but this is only because you do not want to keep them yourself.” Paul could testify, “I am telling you that these are not needed for salvation, and I can say this because I have kept them all.”

But this raises a question: Wasn’t Paul wrong when he zealously persecuted Christians and demanded strict covenant keeping? Of course, he was wrong. But this brings us to something interesting. God does not only use the areas in which we are right. He often allows us to be wrong, and still uses us. He had to change Paul. I am sure he did not immediately become a person of grace. He probably held on to his view of the Old Covenant observances for some time. He speaks of going into Arabia for years and having these truths given to him by divine revelation. God had to do a great work to change him—to correct him. This is important for us to consider when dealing with Christians we believe to be wrong. We should still be gracious. It is possible that God is going to use their wrong beliefs to prepare them for teaching, sharing and living the truth. Once he changes their wrong beliefs, it is possible they will be better fitted to serve God than one who never had a wrong belief—if such a person ever existed, other than Christ. Be patient. He is not done with them—any more than he is done with you.

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The Pastor’s Travail

In Galatians 4:19, you can hear Paul’s words of angst about the Galatian church. They had fallen into legalism, which Paul described as being deceived into choosing a state of slavery. In this passage Paul says, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (ESV). This is an excellent picture of the pastoral condition.

While it would be inaccurate to describe Paul as the pastor of the Galatian church, he does have a pastor’s heart for them. Remember that “pastor” comes from the word for shepherd. It is someone who leads people from one place or condition into another, by example and guidance. So, while Paul did not hold an office of “Pastor,”[1] he does express the heart experience of all good pastors.

In Paul’s statement, he speaks of being in the anguish of childbirth. He had addressed them as little children. This idea of anguish involved in childbirth would be very well known to the ancients. It was not uncommon for women to die from the exertion and complications of childbirth. All people understood this. Also, since there was little privacy in ancient homes, and children were born at home, most if not every individual would have heard or seen the travail of a woman in the throes of labor. Paul draws upon this shared experience to illustrate his own personal experience in dealing with their wayward behavior.

Think for a moment of this image which Paul uses. I’m a husband and father. I have watched my wife labor with four children.[2] Now, I know the worst thing a husband can do is imagine he understands what she is going through.[3] But we can see and understand that great pain and suffering is involved. We also understand that there is great promise as well. Push, struggle, strain, suffer and in time a new life is brought forth. This is what Paul is speaking of. This is also the common lot of the pastor of any church.

The pastor sees what God wants his people to be. He has been tasked with bringing forth the fruit of that, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. He sees what should be, while also seeing what is. He knows the great work that is needed and the great travail that will be involved. He struggles and strains to inspire, to teach, to transform. Of course, true transformation comes through the power of the Holy Spirit, but one tool used by the Spirit is the pastor. As just as the wrench in my hand must be tempered to take the strain of a stuck bolt, the pastor must be tempered to take the strain involved in transforming fellow sinners into saints.

The life of a pastor is often marked with depression. He is taught to keep his eyes on what should be. He is taught to expect the miraculous. But he also experiences the failures. He is with people when they confess their failures. He is there when his people reap the whirlwind because of their sin. He is there when people question his teaching. He is there when people demand he stop calling them to holiness and only speak to them of nice things. He sees them kicking against the goads, and knows (from his own experiences and studies) that discipline will be brought to bear upon God’s wayward sheep.[4] He also knows, as under-shepherd, the Chief Shepherd may task him and the other elders with enacting and enforcing the discipline. The pastor’s heart breaks. He struggles and strains expecting final fruitful delivery often to only find himself anticipating the next spiritual contraction.

This struggle is the spiritual basis for the authority which a pastor (elder) wields. The author of Hebrews tells the church to submit to the elders because the elders are working so hard for the people’s own good. They should not make it harder on them, because that would be self-destructive (Heb 13:17).

Paul gives vent to the struggle of every pastor. It is a life of travail to bring forth fruit in the lives of their people. It has its own benefits, of course. But it also has unique problems. How many times have you lost sleep over the spiritual condition of someone who was not even your own kin? I can assure you ever good pastor in this country does this regularly. He prays for you. He seeks to model the Christ-life at all times—failing miserably as often as you. But when he fails he worries about the effect on you. He sees where you are and where Christ wants you to be. He bears very heavily the weight of duty to do his best to get you from here to there. His life is defined by a powerful contradiction. When you are transformed and become more like Christ, the pastor declares it was only by the work of the Holy Spirit. But when he sees you untransformed he doesn’t place blame upon the Holy Spirit and only places part of the blame upon you. The lion’s share of the blame for your failings, the pastor takes upon himself.


[1] In the first century, there was no office of Pastor. The two offices in the local church were elder and deacon. Pastor/shepherd was a gift given for the transformation of God’s people into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).

[2] I saw three born, because one was delivered by C-Section because of being breech.

[3] The only thing worse thing he can do is say that he understands what she is going through while she is in a full-on contraction. Take my advice—just don’t go there! I promise you I’ll never do that again.

[4] Scripture uses the image of sheep for the people of God for good reason. Sheep can be very docile and obediently follow a shepherd from location to location. But the same creature can also put itself into the stupidest, dangerous situations then bawl for help. Sheep kick, butt with their heads, bite and stink. There is no better metaphor for the Church and the people who populate her.

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God Is Only Bound By God

Yesterday, while thinking about several things, my mind shifted to focus on my reaction to situations and how often I’ve witnessed the same reaction is in others. All Christians have hard times. If anyone ever told you that being a Christian meant never suffering, or never facing difficulty then they lied to you. If anyone is telling you that all you must do is claim the good results you want and they will magically be yours, I would ask them, “Then why didn’t Peter claim his deliverance from the cross upon which he died?” “Why didn’t Paul respond to his own hunger and thirst, referred to in 1 Cor 4:11, with such a claim of guaranteed abundance?” This idea that we can just claim our deliverance or our blessings is based on the same weakness that causes us ask, “God, why don’t you do something about this?”

I, like many others, found myself asking God that very question. We have recently faced some difficult burdens which have been quite hard and have left us in a state of being unsure about what the future holds. I found myself asking God why he didn’t do something about it. At that moment, a thought sparked. I realized where such questions come from. Questions about God in such things come from an assumption that we deserve his response—that something within us makes us worthy of God’s immediate attention to our current need. We, like Job, find ourselves believing God to be unjust in not acting on our behalf (Job 34:5). Of course, most of us are not bold enough to flat out accuse God, so we do the passive aggressive prayer, “God, why don’t you do something about this?”

I was guilty of assuming I deserved God’s intervention. Even if God chooses to let me go all the way through the most horrible of experiences, this does not make him unjust because no matter how horrible, I deserve fully anything God allows into my life. If it is to die, then I deserve death. If it is allowed for me to face financial ruin, then I deserve financial ruin. If it is to face persecution, then I deserve persecution (These are examples only, so please do not try to read into them what my family and I have been facing). The problem is that we see ourselves as far more deserving than we are. We are so used to claiming and defending our rights that we forget we have no such rights before God. God, as the author of our rights and as the one in whose image we are made, has full and unrestrained sovereignty in our lives. We can deserve nothing before him, because such would make us sovereign in that circumstance. The only thing that limits God, or binds him to any course of action, is his own nature. So long as his actions—in permitting, or stopping—does not violate his own nature, then his actions are appropriate and we are best to say, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (Job 2:10b NIV).

Does this mean we must stoically accept whatever comes from God and never question or plead with him? Well, if we take our lead from the Psalms of David, “the man after God’s own heart,” we know better. Just as David poured out his heart before God, and on occasion vented his spleen. Such is natural, and can be cathartic. It is often in such times, when I find myself venting at God, that he seems to sooth me with the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12 KJV). However, this does not change the fact that demands for God to act show more about us than about him. They show that, at that moment, we presume to demand something from God, that some fact about us or our lives gives us leverage to force his hand. Such feelings show that we still place ourselves upon the throne—we seek the place of God. Such feelings show how much we (me included) still need to be transformed. Perhaps that is part of what inspires our suffering.

Do I deserve to have God act on my behalf? Absolutely not! Do I (in and of myself and based upon my own qualities) deserve anything good from God? Again, no! But this is not something to mourn. It should inspire us to celebrate how much he does for us. We can trust him, because of who he is. We can trust him to keep his promises, not because we deserve what was promised, but because he chose to promise and, in that way, bound himself to a course of action—sovereignly.

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