Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

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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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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Moral Confidence

Galatians 2:20 ESV, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

 

In the world of Christian ethics there is a tendency to imagine the lines between right and wrong being drawn much more precisely than is the actual case. As Christians, we view the scriptures as our “rule for faith and practice.” We seek within the pages of holy writ guidance for right and wrong, so that we can live a life pleasing to God, the author of scripture. This search for moral direction within scripture is admirable. It is also wise. However, we have to agree that not every choice in life is spelled out within scripture. When facing such choices we have to look in a different direction. Fortunately, God has given us tools to use to find the right course of action.

Before getting into the details about making such decisions, let me remind you of another problem. Many people wrongly assume that every possible choice can be decided by looking for a command in scripture. “I am considering action A. If I look hard enough there should be a scripture telling me to do A or to not do A. Then I simply obey the words of scripture, and morality is easy.” However, Christian morality, like all moral reasoning, is far more complex than that. This error comes from two false assumptions:

  1. All actions can be classified as morally forbidden or morally binding.
  2. Scripture provides exhaustive moral guidance—covering all possible moral questions.

The second is easy to address. Scripture’s moral instructions were never meant to be exhaustive. A human life is made up of innumerable choices, from the moment one is capable of moral choice to the moment one is no longer capable to make such choices, one must decide moment by moment what action to take. Some choices will require little thought—for example, we make some choices simply because of our culture or from long practice, as a sort of ethical muscle memory. However, even a moral choice without thought is still a moral choice, just a habitual one.

In case you think all of life’s possible choices can be found in the pages of scripture remember the one life which scripture records in far more detail than any other—that of Christ Jesus. John tells us that not all the books in the world could hold all the things that Jesus did (John 21:25). If this is true of simply recording the deeds done in a three year period of a single life, imagine how many books it would take to lay out “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” commands for every possible choice faced in every possible human life in every possible time.

This erroneous thinking is actually tied to the first false assumption above. We imagine the world as “black and white” in all moral questions. In doing this we classify everything as either right or wrong. So long as we understand right or wrong to mean “acceptable or unacceptable” this is fine. Acceptability is morally vague. If an action is acceptable, then it is something I may choose, but if I do not choose it then no harm, no foul. This is because acceptable is not obligatory—it is…um…acceptable. However, a problem arises when we try to give the impetus of moral force to every choice by classifying everything as either morally obligatory or morally forbidden. If we imagine that every possible action is either morally forbidden by God (Thou shalt not…) or morally demanded by God (Thou shalt…) then life is lived far more harshly than scripture ever intended. We can easily find ourselves in situations where one must choose between two equally immoral actions. This usually happens because we have applied scriptural morality in a way that was never intended.

When morally right and wrong are understood to mean moral obligation to act or to act not, we see the two extremes of black and white separated by a great gulf of grey. By this, don’t imagine that I mean vague or relative morality. What I mean is, along with the morally obligatory and the morally forbidden, there is also a category of morally neutral actions. These are actions that God neither demands nor forbids we perform. In these actions, we are free to choose either way without moral violation. In these cases I may go right or left without any moral results.

If I am sitting here on a morning and want to spend the day at the local amusement park for some entertainment, are there any moral imperatives to consider? Well, if it is a workday, and to go I would have to call and lie to my boss, then going to the amusement park would be immoral. Let’s imagine that I have volunteered with a local agency and promised to take some children to the amusement park, but decide that I would rather not go and break my promise by calling and pretending to be sick. In this case, not going would be immoral. But are these the only possible scenarios? Of course not. If it is my day off and I have no other obligations, the decision to go to the amusement park is morally neutral—I am neither obligated to go, nor forbidden to do so.

Many Christians put little thought to the morally neutral. Some of the more legalistic among us imagine there is no such thing as morally neutral. They often do this by misapplying James 4:17. The problem comes from reading it in the King James Version, which says, “Therefore, to him who knoweth to do good, but doeth it not, for him it is sin.” It is too often assumed this means that if I see possible action A, and I can tell that it would have some good result—perhaps it would help someone, or would improve someone’s life—then I am obliged to perform it. This would change any action with a possible good result into a moral imperative. However, this is not what the passage is saying. It is a bit more obvious in modern translations, such as the ESV which reads: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” The issue in James 4:17 is showing that moral imperatives can be positive or negative. They can command us to act, just as bindingly as they tell us to refrain. It is too easy to say, “I have not done x, y or z, so I have behaved morally.” But morality can also bind us to an action so failing to do something morally binding is just as immoral as doing something forbidden. However, this does not make everything binding. It merely addresses those things that are truly binding.

Part of the problem with applying everything as morally obligatory or morally forbidden is that it destroys the concept of an action being praiseworthy or of an action going beyond one’s moral duty (supererogatory actions). Actions beyond one’s duty and therefore praiseworthy are actions where the person was morally free not to act, but chose to act anyways. They were not obliged to go either way, but they took action. Was Jesus morally bound to die on the cross? If so, then he deserved the death. He was morally free to choose to escape that death. His death is praiseworthy because he was not morally obligated to die, but chose to do so. You can see even greater danger to the “all actions are always morally obligatory or morally forbidden,” when you apply this back to this example of Jesus’ death. If this is true (one is always morally obligated either to act or not act, with no morally neutral) then since we have already determined that Jesus was not morally obligated to die, then he must have been morally obligated to live. If so, then receiving the death that we all agree he had the power to prevent would mean Jesus acted immorally by dying for us. If all choices are either black or white with no grey, meaning all actions are either morally forbidden or morally obligatory with no morally neutral, then either Jesus died because he deserved it as a sinner, or he sinned by dying. It should be obvious that such a dichotomous look at all moral considerations is indefensible. We must recognize the morally neutral in order to have any sensible morality.

One reason many want to deny the idea of moral neutrality of certain actions or choices is because it is in this area that most moral difficulty arises. If I accept that scripture does not lay out exactly how I must act in each and every choice of life, then I am forced to expend great effort in making my own choices. This effort is actually a sign of maturity. Years ago, when working as a substitute teacher in a small rural school on a Native Reservation, I was often assigned to work with the middle school because they were the most difficult. I would always tell the class, “If you act like an adult, I will treat you like an adult; act like a child, I will treat you like a child.” One day a student raised his hand and asked, “Mr. Cluck, what’s the difference?” I responded that “A child does what is right because doing otherwise brings punishment, but an adult does what is right simply because it is right.” The mature must learn how to know right from wrong and learn to act in the right way by internalizing these so that there is no more need for direction (this is the essence of the morality of the New Covenant, Heb 5:12-14 and Heb 8:11). The mature does not act out of a fear of punishment but out of a developed desire to do right.

Most effort to find a direct command in scripture to morally require either action or abstinence are inspired by a lack of confidence. We may believe the other person incapable of making a right choice, so we look for guidance for them. We may believe ourselves unable to convince them, so we look for a written command to force them. These may be what we admit to inspiring us, but there is one thing we will seldom admit though deep down it is the most likely cause of this effort. We simply do not trust the Holy Spirit to guide them. We do not trust the Holy Spirit to change them. We want to play the part of the Holy Spirit by finding a way to make our own moral pronouncements binding. When we do this to ourselves, we may simply not trust the Lord’s resolve to save us. We may fear that God is just waiting for some reason, some excuse to scratch our name out of the book of Life.

Don’t misunderstand me. If scripture says “Do it” then you do it. If scripture says “Do it not” then do not do it. If there is no command, look for a principle to guide you. However, if there is no scripture to command and no principle to guide then choose wisely, and confidently. Of course, someone may always come to you later and show you a principle or passage you missed. When this happens, accept the correction, repent of the action, ask forgiveness and move on. Christian morality was meant to improve us, not to condemn us—“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Romans 8:1).

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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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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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