Tag Archives: Paul

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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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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Disagree but Respect

In Romans 2:17-24, Paul accuses some of hypocrisy. He asks if those who denounce adultery and stealing are themselves guilty of adultery and stealing. He speaks of those who boast in the law while breaking the law. Most of this passage is quite clear, but one part can be confusing. In the latter half of verse 22, Paul asks: “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” It’s confusing because the two are not an apparent contradiction to us. In our minds, robbing temples would contradict our denunciation of stealing, but an expression of abhorrence of idolatry. However, Paul treats them in way showing he intends this to be contradictory: you abhor idols, in keeping with the law, but then act towards them in a way that violates the law. But the behavior towards them is not worship of idols. Paul’s meaning would have been evident had he said, “You who abhor idols, do you worship idols?” But he didn’t. He actually uses a negative treatment of idols (robbing temples) as the moral antithesis of a negative opinion of idols.

This passage, like many, is best understood by keeping it in context. Verse 24 says, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” The word literally translated ‘rob temples’ is also used to describe any act of blasphemy or sacrilege. Paul is decrying those who abhor idols and then act in a way that turns away and offends those who worship the idols. When we act disrespectful to those holding another belief we do not inspire them to adopt our beliefs. Too often such blatant disrespect causes people to shut down and turn off. Few are convinced into the faith. Most are modeled into the faith. By this I mean that few will adopt our faith simply because it is explained to them. Most will come because the faith is explained while being modeled. Paul is saying that just as we should not steal if we are against stealing, we should not live out our opposition to other faiths by being disrespectful to those who practice those faiths. This ill treatment of them is itself equivalent to violation of the law. We must love the person trapped in idolatry. This includes respecting them enough to not blaspheme (or ridicule, or misrepresent) their beliefs. We must take their beliefs seriously, if for no other reason than to respect those holding those beliefs.

Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand what I mean by this. This is not to say we should see all beliefs as relative and therefore true. The idea that whatever you believe is true because it is true for you is laughable at best. Some beliefs are right and some are wrong—holding to a false belief strongly does not make it true. That is simple logic. The opposite is…well…illogical (said in my best Spock voice). Let me give you an example of two beliefs:

Christian: Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God (John 3:16).

Muslim: He (God) neither begets nor is born (Quran 112:3).

It is impossible for these two beliefs to be true because it would violate the Law of Noncontradiction (Av~A). This is because God begetting a Son contradicts the premise that God does not beget. They are mutually exclusive. This means either both are false or one is true and the other false. It is impossible for both to be true.

Respect for another’s faith does not mean accepting it as truth. Likewise, pointing out the facts and even errors of another’s faith is not disrespectful—unless you do it in a way which disrespects the person. This is dialogue and discussion. Actually the issue itself is not even about having respect for the other faith. The passage is warning about treating the other’s faith in a way that drives away the other person—that is, therefore, disrespectful of the other person. While we must stand against false beliefs and share the truth, we must always remember we are dealing with people and not just impersonal premises.

To paraphrase Paul’s question in Romans 2:22b, “Do you who abhor idols drive people away from God and closer to their idols by how you treat them?”

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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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