Tag Archives: Christ

Haggai for today

secondtempleHaggai 1:4-6 (ESV) says, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.”

Sadly, this passage is one of the many taken out of context and misused by well-meaning pastors. It is quoted most often in sermons on tithing, telling people that they must give more to church or God will not bless the works of their hands. This is done by equating the local church with the Old Covenant temple. It is this assumption that causes the problem.

Yes, the passage does command building a temple. Yes, the people were to bring in their tithes (the portion of their wealth owed to the upkeep of God’s worship). However, equating the temple with the local church facility twists scripture. The Old Testament temple was never meant as a picture of the local church (by this word I mean the building). The Old Testament temple was a picture of Christ. The temple was symbolic of his body. This is why he said “Destroy this temple, and in three days I’ll raise it up.” (John 2:19 ESV)

Understanding the temple was symbolic of the physical body of Christ—and his dual role as King and High Priest—helps us to better understand how to apply the words of Haggai, today. In Haggai’s day the people had decided it was time to concentrate on their own wealth, homes and farms, but was not yet time to build the temple, the House of God. I’m certain they assured themselves that once they were financially secure there would be time to build the temple and restore the worship of YHWH. God points out to them that without his blessing their efforts to provide for themselves were futile. Their best efforts would reap substandard results unless God worked on their behalf. This blessing was tied to their priorities. Haggai commands them to reevaluate their priorities and put God and His worship above their own drive for prosperity and security. They were to look to God for these.

How does this look today? While this is not a command to build a local church building, there is something to this passage about building the Church. But first we need to see the New Testament equivalent to the command of Haggai. We see this in Matthew 6:31-33 (ESV), “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Just as they were to place a priority on building the temple, we are to place a priority on building the Kingdom of God. So, how do we build the Kingdom?

We build the Kingdom by obeying Christ in morals, so the world is attracted. We build the Kingdom by obeying Christ in reaching the lost, so the world is transformed. We build the Kingdom by standing for righteousness in the face of the world’s onslaught. We build the Kingdom by being the very hands of Christ ministering to the physical needs of those around us. These are our priority and meeting our physical needs comes after these. Obedience to Haggai is found in obedience to Matthew 6:31-33. But does this have nothing to do with the local church?

The local church (the body, not the building) is the physical manifestation of the body of Christ in a local community. This means building up the local church, if it is a true church manifesting Christ to the world, is a major part of building the Kingdom. Actually, the lion’s share of our Kingdom building will be done in the local church—and should be. But to make Haggai into a command to tithe or to build a nice church facility is like painting the Mona Lisa but stopping with her nose.

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Christ the Triumphant

Colossians 2:14-15 speaks of Jesus’ accomplishments on the cross. In the NIV this says:

“[…] having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

This translation says it was the ‘charge of legal indebtedness’ which was canceled. Other translations make it sound like the law itself was canceled. The KJV for example says:

“[…] blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.”

One reading the KJV and several others (including the original NIV from 1984) would assume it was the law being canceled (KJV: ordinances; 1984 NIV: written code).Those reading the latest NIV or others, like the LEB, would see this as canceling the list of debts (violations). This distinction is important because if only the debts are canceled, then the law is still in force. If the law is canceled then the debts against the law go with them. The latter removes not only the current debt, but also removes any possibility of future indebtedness. The former removes past debts, but leaves the possibility of future indebtedness. So, it is important to know exactly what is said here. The word used is δόγμασιν, which is the word for ordinances, or commands. Its root is the origin of our word ‘dogma.’ The passage says the ordinances (laws) themselves, which once condemned us, have been removed from the page. The NAS translates it as:

“[…] having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”

The word for ‘canceled’ or ‘blotting out’ is the word for a scribe using a sponge to remove the ink from the page. In their day, they had no pencils and erasers. To erase something from the page the scribe would use a damp sponge to blot the ink from the page. It is this which Paul says Jesus did to the ordinances which were bringing us condemnation—he washed the words right off the page.

The passage goes on and says Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities, making a spectacle of them. He triumphed over them by the cross. The imagery here is that of an ancient Roman Triumph. When a general returned from campaign, the Senate would often vote them a triumph. This would involve what we would recognize as a parade. During this, the enemy leaders captured would be paraded through the city before the people. At the end of the triumph the captives would be killed. It is this graphic image that Paul uses to describe Jesus victory over the ordinances and law.

In case you are still of the opinion that this only referred to the list of debts for past violations and not a triumph over the law itself, remember that this would leave you facing the possibility of future law violation. However, Paul, in verse 16 says not to let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or judge you concerning religious festivals, holy days, or even a Sabbath day. If the law was still in place, you would still be liable to judgment over these. Christ wiped the law off the page. He took it away and nailed it to the cross. He paraded it in a victory march and dispatched it. The law was taken away and we no longer face the guilt of past violation, neither do we face danger of future violation.

This does not make us free to sin, however. Paul says the law was a shadow of realities to come. The reality is found in Christ (Col 2:17). We no longer live to keep the law. We no longer live to sin. We live for Christ; we live in Christ; we live empowered by Christ.

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My Brother’s Keeper

Matthew 5:21-24 (LEB) says:

“You have heard that it was said to the people of old, ‘Do not commit murder,’ and ‘whoever commits murder will be subject to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry at his brother will be subject to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Stupid fool!’ will be subject to the council, and whoever says, ‘Obstinate fool!’ will be subject to fiery hell. Therefore if you present your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and first go be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your gift.”

If you give this passage a cursory reading you miss something very important. It’s easy to miss the change in concentration. In the first part, Jesus is warning that being anger is the source of murder, and a cause of judgment. It is natural to imagine verses 23f address your response to being angry at your brother. However, it says something very different.

In verse 23, Jesus says “If you remember that your brother has something against you…” This is not saying “Do this, if you remember your brother has something against you, because you are in danger of judgment.” This is actually saying, “Do this, if you remember your brother has something against you, because your actions have put your brother in danger of judgment.” Jesus is telling us to take care for our brother’s emotional condition. He is telling us to care more for our brother’s spiritual well-being than even for our religious observations: “Leave your offering at the altar and go…” In this passage it is the brother who is angry. This anger tempts the brother to sin, and puts him in danger of judgment. Jesus places responsibility upon the errant disciple to go and make things right with one he or she has angered.

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Sailing into Deeper Truth

shipHebrews 6:1 (LEB) says:

“Therefore, leaving behind the elementary message about Christ, let us move on to maturity…”

The second part of this “let us move on to maturity” draws a mental picture. The word used for “let us move on” is the Greek word φερώμεθα. Unfortunately, in the English translations we lose a great deal from this word.

First of all, the word is actually passive. This means we do not move on to maturity; we are carried on to maturity. The action is done to us. Someone else moves us to maturity. Stanley Porter translates it as “let us be brought to maturity” (Idioms of the Greek New Testament: 2nd Ed.). This is an important distinction to understand. I cannot mature myself. Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit must mature me—must bring me to maturity. However, I do have a part in this. I must leave off the elementary teachings. We don’t become more mature without going deeper into the Word, seeking deeper knowledge. Rather than studying the same things over and over we must move into other questions, issues and problems seeking answers in the Scripture. This doesn’t mean rejecting the earlier elementary teachings. This means seeing them as the foundation upon which greater knowledge is built. Nothing gets built if the foundation gets laid again and again. Eventually we have to leave the foundation as is and start building upwards. In the same way, there comes a time when we no longer spend a great deal of time in the elementary teachings of the Word and begin digging deeper for more knowledge; for greater understanding. John Chrysostom complained in Homily IX, that those who should be teachers are handicapped in their learning because they keep hearing the same messages and teachings over and over:

“[…] but ever hearing the same things, and on the same subjects, you are in the same condition as if you heard no one. And if any man should question you, no one will be able to answer, except a very few who may soon be counted” (Schaff, Early Church Fathers).

We must learn the basics and lay a good foundation. But once the foundation is laid we must go deeper into the Word, and rely on the Holy Spirit to move us to maturity, which brings up the second part of this passage and a beautiful word picture.

The Greek word φερώμεθα gives the image of something moved along by natural (or even spiritual) causes. Among other things, this is the movement of a ship being pushed by the wind against its sails. As you move away from the more elementary teachings of the faith, going deeper into the Word think of the Word as your sails. The Holy Spirit uses what you find in the Word to move you to maturity. You move out into deeper and deeper waters, learning more and more. The Holy Spirit acting through the Word carries you forward.

I love that the author, who here brought in imagery of a sail beinganchor pushed by the wind, later (in 6:19) describes the hope we have as an anchor for our lives keeping us firm and secure. As we go deeper into the Word and become more and more mature, we are used by God in different locations and settings. Some of these will be stormy and dangerous. Some experiences will be deceptive. However, we are always kept safe and secure by the anchor of our hope in Christ.

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Pharisee or Disciple

phariseesAn issue often discussed is the relation of Christians to the law. In Matthew 5:19-20 (LEB), Jesus says:

“Therefore whoever abolishes one of the least of these commandments and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever keeps them and teaches them, this person will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

This is often interpreted as a sort of works salvation, claiming law-breaking as grounds for exclusion from the Kingdom. Verse 20, which says our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees or we “will certainly not enter the Kingdom of heaven” (NIV) is a strong contributor this this view. The phrase translated ‘certainly not’ here is a strong emphatic negative (Dana & Mantey). It is a way of saying, “In this condition, this will absolutely not happen.” So one with a righteousness not exceeding the Pharisees is out of luck for entrance to the Kingdom.

Yet, does the passage say that breaking the commands of the law, or teaching others to break them will keep one out of the Kingdom? Actually it does not. It says one must have righteousness greater than the Pharisees, but what this means is explained in the following passages when Jesus gives the commands of the law a deeper and internal meaning—anger equivalent to murder, lust equivalent to adultery, etc. Verse 19 is important to understand because it is this verse which discusses breaking commands and teaching others to break them. However, it never says such behavior is grounds for exclusion from the Kingdom. It says those who do these things “will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.” This is not a statement about how to enter the Kingdom. It is a statement of status among those who are included in the Kingdom. Jesus does not make law-keeping the basis for entrance to the Kingdom. But what about verse 20 when he says those without righteousness greater than the Pharisees will never enter the Kingdom? Since having insufficient righteousness (not greater than the Pharisees) is grounds for exclusion, but breaking the commands of the law changes one’s status within the Kingdom but does not exclude one, the two must not be synonymous terms. In this way we see that Jesus cannot be defining ‘righteousness greater than the Pharisees’ as law-keeping.

The rest of the passage explains that this righteousness is from within. It flows from being a changed person—one who does not unjustly get angry or wrongly respond in anger; one who does not look with lust upon another; one who has no need to make oaths or pledges of right behavior or truth. Such righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees because theirs is simple rote rule-following—no interior change; no new condition. True righteousness is seen in Romans 3:21a (LEB), “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed…” This righteousness is not a matter of law-keeping. This righteousness is a matter of being internally changed. Such a person is more righteous than the Pharisees because the behavior springs from a changed nature—one which naturally obeys God and seeks his pleasure.

This picture of the changed nature fits perfectly with Jesus’ description of true righteousness in the remainder of Matthew five. It is this righteousness which Jesus works in us. It is this change which makes us citizens of the Kingdom, not law-keeping.

“So then, the law became our guardian until Christ, in order that we could be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Galatians 3:24f (LEB)

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The Importance of Fellowship

fellowshipWe in the church are all disciples of Christ and, as such, we have been given the responsibility to take the good news to the world, sharing it with others. Too often we lose sight of the goal of this sharing. We don’t share merely to elicit agreement with our beliefs. While important, this is not the primary goal for which we strive. Neither is the physical response of baptism and church membership the actual goal. The goal of sharing the gospel is taking those who were once enemies of God and making them into mature disciples of Christ. Some will argue that assent to the gospel, baptism and church membership are the definition of discipleship, but I would argue this is only the beginning. Yes, at that point the responder has taken on the status of being a disciple.

There is far more to being a disciple than simply assenting to doctrines, being baptized in water and developing the habit of attending church. A mature disciple is one who exhibits the defining qualities of Christ in the flesh. Because this person has taken on the qualities of Christ, this person responds as Christ would to situations. This person lives as Christ would. The person desires what Christ desired. When one sees the mature disciple, one sees Christ. This is our goal.

Now, think about this definition of a mature believer and ask, “How much of what is done in church actually contributes to this goal?” How many of our programs actually encourage us to live like Christ? Then ask how many of those that encourage this sort of life actually empower us to do this? Think hard about it and I am sure you will notice that few of our most cherished programs actually qualify.

You may say, “Well, Sunday school does this.” You are partly right. Perhaps you will mention Bible Study or biblically focused sermons.  I would argue that very little disciplemaking is actually going on in these settings. Before you accuse me of downplaying the importance of preaching and teaching the Bible, allow me to explain. These educational programs are very useful in teaching what Jesus did. They are very useful in teaching what scripture commands us to do—when and where it commands. They teach us what scripture forbids—too often these even throw in a few things it actually does not forbid. But is this enough to learn how to live as Christ in the world? I would argue that it’s a good start, but only a start.

I have taught many people to drive. I’ve taught my wife, my three children and several immigrants how to drive. Let me use driver instruction as an illustration of disciplemaking. When you teach someone to drive, the goal is getting them to be able to safely, legally and responsibly handle a moving vehicle in a variety of situations. The possible situations one will face over a lifetime of driving are so numerous no one could predict all the possible scenarios. Now suppose I want to take someone who does not know how to operate an automobile and make them into a skilled driver. I could start with classes—and classes are important. We could teach them about the parts of the car; the way the parts work; the way to maintain them. When they understand these we might have a class on the laws of the road. Then we could teach them about what to do when the roads are slippery or when driving at night. We would, of course, want to teach them how to merge on to a highway (as one who lives in San Antonio, I can assure you many people need a refresher course on this one!). They need to learn how to change lanes safely (don’t get me started on this one!).

Suppose we sat our prospective new driver down, gave them classroom instructions in all of these and then simply threw them a license and a set of car keys, and cut them loose. You’d have chaos (something very close to Loop 1604 during San Antonio rush hour). You would have just guaranteed that person’s failure. What did we miss? We missed practical application. We missed road instruction. Someone learns to turn safely by actually turning a vehicle—they learn the feel of the car pulling to one side, the feel of the accelerator and the brake. They learn how to change lanes by actually doing it. They learn to merge on the highway by getting onto and off of the highway multiple times. They learn to drive at night by driving at night.

Learning to drive has a great deal in common with making disciples. We want people to live, walk, and talk like Christ. Sunday school and Bible Study lay a good foundation when done properly. Church programs can attract people in, and give them some instruction. However, those who come in will never really learn to be Christ in the assortment of situations life throws at them, unless they observe someone else living like Christ. This is why fellowship is so important—I define that here as the personal interaction between the present and the potential people of God (between those who have been reached, but also between us and those we strive to reach).

We make disciples by being disciples in the presence of those who are either non-disciples or who are immature disciples. We make disciples not merely by teaching what Christ did in the past, or what Christ has commanded. This is insufficient because life is full of decisions that Christ did not have an opportunity to model. This does not detract from him being tempted in every way as we are. However, it recognizes the difference between our world and theirs. Neither does scripture offer a black and white command for every possible decision we face. This was actually a major contributor to the strife between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. Life was full of situations for which the scriptures gave no direct command so the rabbis had to interpret. They often decided a safe choice was to pile rules upon rules. Jesus showed a different way. He lived for years with his disciples modeling the right way to them. They saw how to live a righteous life through close proximity to one who was living a righteous life.

Disciplemaking must include practical field training. This means getting into the lives of other disciples. This requires us to spend time together—to visit with one another; to talk; to interact at various levels. The church has a long history of fellowship—usually defined as a Potluck meal. I would contend that biblical fellowship is far more than a meal, and that biblical fellowship is to be a primary activity of God’s people in church—not something relegated beneath the message, but an essential part of learning the lessons of the message. The church meeting (the service set aside for worship and the message) is the classroom. The world is where we practically apply what we learn. However, our preparation is not complete without the lab between the lesson and the application. Our fellowship is the lab where we learn to apply the things we learned from the message and the exposition of scripture. It is where we learn to interact in a godly way, to handle strife, to forgive, to bless, etc. Then, after we have not only absorbed the facts of the lesson, but have learned to apply them, we are prepared to go out into the world and live them out.

Biblical preaching and teaching are important. But fellowship between those so taught is equally important. We must build into our churches more opportunities to fellowship with one another. We must stop relegating these opportunities to the occasional second tier status to which such fellowship has for too long been exiled. The interaction of God’s people is just as important for making disciples as anything that will ever come from the pulpit.

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The Life Pleasing to God

In 1 Thessalonians chapters four and five Paul lays out eight elements of a life pleasing to God. He wraps these elements in a literary tool known as inclusio. This method of bracketing information tells us the elements all work together to form a single picture of this life. These eight elements are:

  1. (1 Thess 4:3-8) A pure life, which he defines as one avoiding sexual immorality and marked by bodily self-control. He compares the two extremes of behavior. On the Christian side there is bodily behavior that is controlled in a holy and honorable way. On the heathen side is passionate lust that knows not God and respects not the brother or sister created by God. We conduct our physical lives above reproach and separate from sexual impurity.
  2. (1 Thess 4:9-10) A loving life, which he doesn’t define here—though he gives illustrations of their obedient love elsewhere (their concern for him, their giving, their acceptance of his words, etc.). However, the important thing to notice is the command to “do so more and more” (verse 10b). This is a very open ended command. When have you loved enough? What defines the proper amount of love? Whatever way you love others, to whatever degree you love others, you have not exhausted the limit. You are still to love them “more and more.” We can never love enough, but should always love more tomorrow than we do today.
  3. (1 Thess 4:11-12) A quiet life, which he offers as a sort of paradox. He says to make it our ambition (NIV), or aspire, to lead a quiet life. An ambitious life and a quiet life are, in common usage, opposites. However, the life pleasing to God is not one constantly striving for greater and greater worldly success—though there is nothing wrong with being successful, the Christian defines success very different from the world. What matters is the aspiration. He tells us further that this quiet life we aspire to involves minding our own affairs, and working with our hands. This doesn’t mean Christians must limit themselves to craft trades, or manual labor. The intent behind this is illustrated in the reasons he gives to defend this aspiration. By taking care of our own business and working with our hands we win the respect of others (which helps in sharing the gospel) and we will not be dependent upon anyone. We should be dependent upon God. This is what we are to aspire to: a life of quiet, respectable, self-provisioning work.
  4. (1 Thess 4:13-18) A hopeful life, Paul defines as one that is not ignorant and hopeless about those who have died—or about our own afterlife. This is a life that knows and stands upon the promises of God. This life is one of hope for the future, even the future after our bodies have gone to the grave. Such hope only grows by studying the Word of God and through standing upon the promises during times of hardship.
  5. (1 Thess 5:1-11) An alert life is illustrated with the difference between night and day. He points out that most who sin are more comfortable doing so at night, under the cover of darkness. However, we recognize that we always live in the light of God’s truth. We are always to live as people in daytime, alert to God’s presence, and equipped with the understanding that God has not called us to suffer wrath but to be saved. Therefore we avoid the life that deserves wrath and encourage our fellow believers to do likewise.
  6. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15) A respectful life, which is defined as respect for those in the church who labor at teaching, correcting, and admonishing. We are to hold them in loving honor. We are also to respect and live at peace with each other. This respect for each other will even include the hard work of urging the idle among us to take action.
  7. (1 Thess 5:16-18) A devout life is one defined by joy, prayer and thanksgiving. This life recognizes that in all situations—good or bad—there are things for which one can thank God and be grateful. When I think of such a life, I consider the story shared by Corrie ten Boom, from her life in a German concentration camp, where her family was sent for aiding Jews. She tells of her sister ministering to the women in their barracks. One day during prayer, her sister was encouraging her to thank God for everything, including the lice from which they constantly suffered. Corrie insisted that was too much. Later, they learned they had such freedom to minister undisturbed because the guards didn’t want to enter the barracks due to the lice. Corrie’s sister saw a blessing from God where Corrie herself saw nothing but vermin. The devout life is one that looks for reasons to praise and thank God. But not only does this life look for such reasons. This life finds them.
  8. (1 Thess 5:19-22) A spiritual life is the final one in Paul’s list. The spiritual person knows the Spirit can act, the Spirit can speak and respects the Spirit’s right to do so, but also understands there are imposters. Such phenomena must be weighed and tested. The spiritual person holds onto all things that are good and rejects evil—in any form.

After beginning chapter four by saying he had taught them how to live this sanctified life, Paul ends chapter five by telling them that God will develop this life within them. He will sanctify them. He will bring these elements of the sanctified life to being in their lives. He will bring forth the spiritual fruit of such a life. The section ends with what is arguably the most beautiful promise in all of Paul’s writings: “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (1 Thess 5:23-24 NIV, emphasis added).

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Transformed

In 1 Samuel 10, the Prophet tells the newly anointed King Saul of a transformation soon to come upon him. Verse six says, “The Spirit of God will come upon you powerfully, and you will prophecy. Then you will be transformed into a different person.” If you ask the average person to define themselves they will give you a list of attributes or characteristics. 1 Corinthians 5:17 assures us that we who have come to Christ have been transformed into a new creation. This transformation literally means the list of attributes once describing you has been replaced with a different list. Many of the old attributes remain, such as parenthood, your marital status, or your occupation. But where the list once included such attributes as ‘sin-stained,’ ‘unrepentant,’ ‘self-centered,’ ‘opposed to God’ and many others, it now includes cleansed, repentant, Spirit guided, friend of God. Never forget that when the Holy Spirit came upon you, you became a very different person.

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