Posts Tagged ‘church’

Get Ready! Get Set! Go!

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Hebrews 12:1–2 (NLT) Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.* Because of the joy* awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.

These 2 verses are very important to me.  In fact, they are my life verses.  Christians sometimes have a life verse, one or 2 verses that seem to speak to the person’s life and purpose in Christ.  For me these 2 verses offer direction and inspiration for my life and walk with Jesus Christ.

The first thing that the author reminds us is the great cloud of witnesses of which he has just spoken in ch. 11:  Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samson, David, Samuel and all the prophets.  And not only these witnesses, but the great cloud of witnesses that have come down through the centuries, the great saints through the ages:  Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and John Wesley, just to name a few.  And all those who have influenced me:  Thomas Oden, Eugene Petersen, Justo Gonzalez, and all my seminary professors:  John A. Cook, Joseph Dongell, Jeffrey Frymire, Richard Gray, Craig S. Keener, Kevin Kinghorn, Frederick Long, Ellen L. Marmon, Stacey Minger, Steven O’Malley, Greg Okesson, Joseph Okello, John Oswalt, Michael Petersen, Stephen Seamands, Timothy Tennent, Thomas Tumblin, Russell West, Ben Witherington III, and many others especially my friend and mentor Rev. Dr. William Sillings.  Then I think about the great saints of the churches I have served and where I grew up in the faith.  I think about Calvary UMC, Windber, PA and especially Rev. Dan Orris who confirmed me and took an interest in me and led me into the life of faith.  I think of all those ladies who took the time to teach children’s Sunday School.  I remember the faith of my grandmother Mary Felix Herdman, and my mother, Carol Martinez.

When you begin to name the names of those people of faith who have influenced me, just one life, it soon becomes a great cloud of witnesses.  I am grateful all those who influenced me for Christ.  I can’t even remember all your names, but in my life y’all have been a great cloud of witnesses, as influential and important as those listed in the Hall of Faith (Heb. ch. 11)

And then the author uses this metaphor of running the race.  Like we are in this great race, like the Olympic marathon, and we are entering the stadium to the cheering throng of believers who has gone before us.  I had the experience of running the Stuttgarter Zeitung Half-Marathon.  It runs 13.1 miles through the streets of Stuttgart.  The finish is in the stadium for the VfB Stuttgart 1893, the professional soccer team.  As you enter the stadium, it was filled with all the well-wishers and family and friends of those running.  They actually film you entering and they announce you as you surge toward the finish line, “Here comes Steven!”  And you feel like a professional athlete, like you are winning the Olympics.  And everyone who finishes gets a medal.

That’s what it’s like to run the race of faith.  “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses to the life of faith, cast off every impediment and the sin which so easily entangles us…”  (Heb. 12:1)  The word translated as cast off is apothmenoi, meaning to lay aside, to put off in a figurative sense.   The word translated impediment is ogkos, meaning a tumor, mass, magnitude, weight, burden, impediment.  The impediments or encumbrances are those things which might not be sins, but are things that might call us away from the life of faith.  In the parable of the sower, Jesus calls these things “the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for others things.”  So Jesus says, “so no fruit is produced.” (Mark 4:19)  Sports are good, but when sports cause us to avoid going to church, for example, they become an impediment or encumbrance to our faith.

The word translated as sin is hamartia meaning sin, missing the mark.  Sin is missing the true end and scope of our lives, which is God.  Sin is an offense in relation to God with an emphasis on the truth.  The basic sense of this word is as if you aiming at a target  and you miss it.  In this case, the author is speaking of “especially the sin that so easily trips us up,” by which he means particular sins and especially the sin of unbelief, that is, leaving behind faith in Jesus Christ.

What the author suggests is that the life of faith is like a race.  And in a race, the runners don’t wear their regular clothing (in fact, in Greco-Roman times, the Olympic athletes would run naked).  But they wear special running clothes, light weight clothing and special racing shoes.  They want to run as fast as they can, so they get rid of every weight that would slow them down.  That is how we should run the race of or life of faith.

“Run with endurance the race God has set before us.”  (Heb. 12:1)  In the Greek, this is the only imperative.  It’s the key part of these verses.  It’s what the author is emphasizing.  The word for race is agon from which we get our English word ‘agony,’ meaning a contest or race for victory such as running, boxing, or wrestling.  So Paul says, “Fight the good fight of the faith…”  (1 Tim. 6:12)  and “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize?  So run to win! ”  (1 Cor. 9:24)

The word translated endurance is hupomone meaning bearing up under, patience, endurance as to things or circumstance; perseverance, patience, endurance, constancy under suffering in faith and duty.  In the letter to the Hebrews, the author is writing to the church who are suffering persecution and as a result are wavering in their faith and in fact, some may have given up the faith and returned to Judaism.  So the author wants to encourage them to continue to run the race with endurance and patience even in suffering.

How do we run the race of faith with endurance?  “We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.”  (Heb. 12:2)  Jesus is the supreme example of faithful endurance (Heb. 3:1)  Our endurance and perseverance in the Christian life will depend on keeping our focus on Jesus and on his saving work .  He is the champion who has gone before us and has accomplished everything necessary for faith under the new covenant to be a reality.  He is our leader and our supreme example, and he is also the firstfruits of salvation in the resurrection.  His resurrection proves the truth of our blessings of eternal life and the resurrection:  our blessed hope.

Lord, we thank you for this race of faith into which you have invited us.  I’m grateful for the great cloud of witnesses who have been influential in my life of faith, both those I have known personally and those whose influence has been through books and sermons.  I’m especially grateful for the example of faithful family, my grandmother and mother who have run the race and are now looking down on my race and cheering me on to the finish line.  Give me that faith of those who went before me that I might too run the race to the finish.  Give me that faith to endure to the end, following my Captain and Champion, Jesus Christ, never losing sight of Jesus, my Lord, as he runs before me.  Amen.

The Rise of Radicalism

 

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Matthew 25:31–46 (NLT) The Final Judgment

31 “But when the Son of Man* comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations* will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,* you were doing it to me!’

41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.* 42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

45 “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

46 “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”

As I write this, I have just heard the news that the UK has voted to leave the EU.  This morning, we awoke to this news with the markets in disarray.  David Cameron, the British PM has resigned.  It seems the Brexit campaign won mostly through a campaign of fear, much those in the American presidential campaign, by preying on the fears of others:  the stranger, the immigrant, and the Muslim.  In the US, we have seen it in verbal attacks on particular groups:  first the fear of Mexicans and other immigrants, then after the recent  terrorist attacks, the fear of Muslims.

But Christians have not been given “a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”  (2 Tim. 1:7)  Throughout the Bible there is a concern for those on the margins of our society:  the poor, widows and orphans, the stranger, the homeless, and the immigrant.  In fact, in many of the OT wisdom writings, “the poor” are synonymous with “the righteous.”  In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus makes it clear that we will be judged, not on the basis of whether we said a sinner’s prayer or any such modern contrivance of what salvation means, but on how we treat the other:  the poor, the immigrant, the stranger, etc.  Jesus calls them “the least of these my brothers and sisters.”  The Son’s words of damnation to those who treated others poorly are: “Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.  For I was hungry and you didn’t feed me.  I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink.  I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home.  I was naked and you didn’t give me clothing.  I was sick and in prison and you didn’t visit me.”  (Matt. 25:41-43)

Karen, my wife, and I have been reading a devotional called A Year With Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Each day has a selection from some of Bonhoeffer’s writings.  The reading for June 23 was entitled “The Rise of Radicalism.”  Bonhoeffer is writing, of course, in Germany during the period of the Nazi regime, probably one of the most reactionary governments that has ever existed.  Hitler rose to power by playing into the fear of the other, in particular, he focused his vitriol on the Jews, and so we had the Holocaust.

Bonhoeffer wrote, “Radicalism always arises form a conscious or unconscious hatred of what exists.  Christian radicalism, whether it would flee the world or improve it, comes from the hatred of creation.  The radical cannot forgive God for having created what is… When evil becomes powerful in the world, it simultaneously injects the Christian with the poison of radicalism.  Reconciliation with the world as it is, which is given to the Christian by Christ, is then called betrayal and denial of Christ.  In its place come bitterness, suspicion, and contempt for human beings and the world.  Love that believes all things, bears all things, and hopes all things, love that loves the world in its very wickedness with the love of God (John 3:16), becomes – by limiting love to the closed circle of the pious – a pharisaical refusal of love for the wicked.  The open church of Jesus Christ, which serves the world to the end, becomes kind of supposed ur-Christian ideal church-community that in turn mistakenly confuses the realization of a Christian idea with the reality of a living Jesus Christ.  Thus a world that has become evil succeeds in making Christians evil also.”  (Ethics, 155-156)

In order to remain the church of Jesus Christ, we must resist those in our society who prey upon our fears.  We have not been given “a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”  In order to remain the church of Jesus Christ, we have no choice but to love the other among us, as Jesus has commanded us and as Jesus demonstrated to us through his life, and especially through his death upon the cross.  “For this is how God loved the world:  He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)  Everyone means everyone.  To remain the church of Jesus Christ, we have no choice but to love the other:  no matter whether they are different from us, whether they are Christians or not, whether they speak our language or not.  John Wesley called this perfect love:  “Love for God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and “Love for one’s neighbor as we love ourselves.”

And in the end, we will not be judged in the court of public opinion, but in the court of the Lord on the day of judgment.  I hope that he will say to me, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world.”

 

 

 

The Whole Armor of God

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Ephesians 6:10–17 (NLT) A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. 12 For we* are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

13 Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. 14 Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. 15 For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared.* 16 In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil.* 17 Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Paul’s final word to the church in Ephesus is to “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”  He wants to remind believers of the real power behind the opposition against us, the devil, and to urge us to protect ourselves with the power of God.  So he uses the metaphor of putting on the whole panoply, the whole armor of God.

In the western world, we have come to discount the “rulers…powers…the forces of this darkness…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  (v. 10)  We either say that they don’t exist or we spiritual-ize them, identifying them with abstract evils in this world:  alcoholism, slavery, prejudice, hatred, etc.  However, Christians in the majority world have a different understanding of what is taking place in the spiritual realm.  Just as those who lived in the ancient near east, they recognize that the world as we know it consists of the earth, and heaven, yes, but also the in-between world of the spirit.  Someone has called this the “excluded middle,” and it explains the difficulty that mainline churches have had in reaching immigrant populations in the US.  We’re missing a part of how they understand the world.

Marva J. Dawn tells us that the language of powers fell out of use in the Reformation due to the excesses of certain apocalyptic groups.  The rise of liberalism through Schleiermacher and others led them to view the Kingdom of God as subjective and non-cosmic.  So they spoke about evil of injustice in the economic powers, or the evils of social ills:  prejudice, hatred, greed.

In her book Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (Eerdman’s 2001)asks us to consider that both might be true.  On the eve of the rise of the power of Nazism in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:  “How can one close one’s eyes at the fact that the demons themselves have taken over rule of the world, that it is the powers of darkness who have made an awful conspiracy.”  There seems to be a mind and a purpose that links together evil in the world.  And Paul says that our battle is not just with these human representatives of evil, but also with spiritual forces of evil in this spiritual world.  This helps to explain the pervasiveness of evil in our world.

There is evil in the world, and it is not just evil people.  There is a spiritual battle in the world, and our battle is not against evil people, but against spiritual powers of this darkness.  (v. 12)

Spiritual warfare requires spiritual weapons.  So Paul exhorts us to put on the full panoply, the full armor of God.  He asks us to imagine a Roman soldier as he puts on his gear and gets ready for battle.  (v. 13)  Almost all of the equipment is defensive. “The sword of truth, which is the word of God” is our only weapon.  Paul’s focus is not on the precise function of each piece but on God’s gifts.  Our grounding in Christ and the Word of God provides us the protection and ability to stand your ground.

I was watching a TV show recently that depicted a Roman battle.  As an old soldier, I’m often interested in watching war movies.  This one got it all wrong.  They showed the Roman soldiers jumping out of line and hacking their enemies with their swords.  That was not the case, the armies of Rome always fought in lines and squares.  Each soldier’s shield actually protected their left side and the right side of the soldier next to them.  They marched together as a unit, never breaking ranks.  When they reached the enemy, their “sharp, two-edged sword” was useful for thrusting into the unprotected heart of their enemy.

Paul’s metaphor for spiritual warfare goes against our lone ranger mentality in the US.  We admire the heroes who jump out and go it alone, who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  But there are no lone rangers in the Kingdom of God.  We are supposed to be in this together.  Almost every book in the NT was written to the church (the exceptions being Paul’s letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon).

Yet people think they can live the Christian life apart from the church.  Is it no wonder, we so often fail?  Is it no wonder, we fall away from the faith?  Is it no wonder the church in the western world is so weak?  Why is the church in the majority world so strong?

They recognize 1.  We are in a spiritual battle.  2.  They recognize that they are not in the battle alone, but together in the church of Jesus Christ.  3.  They put on the whole armor of God so that they may stand in the fiery trials they face on a daily basis.

In contrast, we crumble and fall away at the least bit of opposition.  It is why the devil has had so much success in causing the church in the US to fall away and wither.  We don’t recognize that we are even in a spiritual battle.  And we don’t use the gifts that God has given to us in that battle.

Paul says earlier in Ephesians why God has given to us the church:  “to equip God’s people to do God’s work and to build up the church, the body of Christ…until we all come to such unity in our faith and understanding of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.”  (Eph. 4:12, 13)

You want to be strong in the Lord.  You want to stop failing in your walk with Christ.  You want to be able to stand firm against the devil:  Get up and out of bed 15 min. earlier and read the Word of God and pray each day.  Get up out of bed on Sunday morning and get to church.  The secret ingredient is there is no secret ingredient.  It’s simple obedience to what we should know are the Lord’s commands.

 

The Church, the Bride of Christ

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Ephesians 5:21–33 (NLT) And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  22 For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. 24 As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.

25 For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her 26 to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word.* 27 He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault. 28 In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself. 29 No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church. 30 And we are members of his body.

31 As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.”* 32 This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. 33 So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

This passage is about marriage (Eph. 5:21-33).  It comes in a larger passage that is about relationships in Christ (Eph. 5:21-6:9).  It’s part of what is called Paul’s household code.  Household codes were a common form in the Greek and Roman world.  In a household code, authors would express how one should behave in a family in the light of Greco-Roman moral values of family or kinship, honor and shame, patronage and reciprocity, and purity.  The Christian church had values that were shaped by the Scriptures (in Paul’s case, the Old Testament).  So Paul sets out to express how Christians should live within their homes in the light of the framework of faith he has set out in the preceding chapters.   Paul has a similar household code in Col. 3:18-4:1 and there is one in 1 Peter 2:18-3:7.  In this household code, Paul is concerned that Christians should live lives that glorify God.  So he has instructions for wives and husbands (5:21-33), children and parents (6:1-4), and slaves and masters (6:5-9).

But Paul makes an analogy which helps us not only to understand the nature of marriage, but to also understand the relationship between Christ and the church.  In vv. 21-24, Paul focuses on the role of the wife.  “For a husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.  He is the Savior of his body, the church.  As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.”  (vv. 23, 24)  Much of the emphasis in teaching this passage in hte past has bee on the role of women and submission.  There is a mutual submission that is taught here.  The wife is to respect the husband, and the husband is to love the wife sacrificially.

Yet, how does this relate to the church?  Christ is the head of the church, which is his body.  If Christ is the head of the church, which is his body, then we should act that way.  We should seek the will of Christ in our planning and execution.  It seems to me that we go about our business doing all sorts of things that have nothing to do with the mission of the church:  Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  (Matt. 28:19-20)

I just got back from the North Texas Annual Conference, and we had to close a church.  The discussion over whether to close the church centered on if there were any signs of life in the church:  baptisms, professions of faith, new members, outreach to the community, etc.  It’s always sad to close a church.  But in this case, it was clear (at least to the overwhelming majority of members there) that this was a church that had ceased to be vital.  In other words, it was dead.  Even though there were a few members left alive, keeping the doors open so that they can have their funerals in the church is not a good enough reason to do so.  The church is not a funeral home, nor a wedding chapel.  Funerals and weddings are ministries of the church, but not the purpose.  Our purpose is to make new disciples of Jesus Christ.  When a church ceases to do that, then it needs to be closed.  Maybe it’s reached the natural end of its life cycle:  Perhaps the neighborhood has changed, the community has changed, or the neighborhood has died.

The local church body might die, but the Church, the body of Christ will go on.  New expressions of the body will grow up, that are better able to meet the needs of those around them.  Our job, then, as leaders of the body of Christ is to remember our mission.  How can we reach the people in our neighborhoods?  How can we find new ways to get outside the 4 walls of the church on Monday through Saturday to minister to those around us who do not know Jesus Christ?  When we understand the cultural context of the community in which we live, and reach them, then the local church in that place will continue to thrive and not just survive.  There will be new people coming to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  People in the community will come to know the love of Christ through the many ways in which the church is loving them.  And that is a beautiful thing.

Lord, help us as the church and leaders in the church to do your will.  Help us to love those around us who do not know you as Lord and Savior, so that we will accomplish our mission:  making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Amen.

 

The Riches of God’s Grace

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Ephesians 1:19-23 (NLT) I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power 20 that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. 21 Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. 22 God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church. 23 And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself.

Ephesians is one of the so-called Prison Letters (along with Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon).  Traditionally, these letters were supposed to have been written while Paul was in prison in Rome from AD 60-62, before Paul was executed around AD 64-65.  So these would be some of Paul’s final thoughts.

The church in Ephesus was one of the churches founded on Paul’s third missionary journey.  He spent some 3 years in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-41) from about AD 53-56.  Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia, which is located in what is now Turkey.  It was an important port city with a population of perhaps some 500,000.  It was a Greek city, and the home to the famous temple of Artemis.  The temple of Artemis at Ephesus was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.

More than any other book of the Bible, Ephesians is filled with thanksgiving for the saving grace of God for those who believe in Jesus Christ.  One of the key themes in Ephesians is the richness of God’s grace.  Paul begins his letter with a greeting (vv. 1-2), and as is usual, a prayer for thanksgiving, but Paul’s prayer for thanksgiving seems to get away from him as he is overcome by speaking about the richness of God’s grace, so the prayer goes from v. 1:3 to the final “Amen” in v. 3:21.

In v. 18, Paul is thinking about the confident hope that believers have in anticipation of Christ’s return and his future blessings that they will share joined with Christ.  He calls us “his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance.”  (v. 18)

Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus is also Paul’s prayer for us today.  He wants us to understand the richness of God’s saving grace, which is “God’s power for those who believe him.”  This power is the Spirit of God at work in and through God’s people (Rom. 6:4-14; Col. 2:12).  Paul wanted to experience this same power in his life (Phil. 3:10).

Paul says something about Christ since his resurrection and glorification.  We often think of the blessings of heaven as being something for the future.  But Paul says:

1.  Christ is presently seated on the throne in heaven.  He is currently seated at the right hand of God. To speak of Christ seated at God’s right hand is an analogy, as God is Spirit.  In Biblical times, the place of honor was always on the right hand of the person (Ps. 110:1; Acts 7:56).

2.  Christ is far above all other authorities in heaven or on earth, not only in this world, but in the world to come.  (v. 21)  Jesus’ power and authority transcend all rival powers, whether human or spiritual, in this age and in the coming age.  (Rev. 12:7-9)

3.  God has already put everything under the authority of Christ and has made him the head over all things for the benefit of the church.  (v. 22)  The text says literally that God has put everything under the feet of Christ.  Paul pictures the practice in the ANE of conquerors symbolically.  Victorious kings would demonstrate their power and authority over those conquered by forcing them onto the ground in front of them and putting their feet on their necks.  What Paul means is that Christ has already defeated all his enemies and already reigns as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  All of God’s enemies were defeated by Christ upon the cross.  There downfall is already secured and certain.  The wedding party of the Lamb is simply the final victory celebration.  (Rev. 19-21)

4.  The church is the body of Christ.  (v. 23)  Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ.  The body of Christ is a metaphor for the whole church, a unity of believers connected with and dependent on Christ, who is the head (1 Cor. 12:27)The first use of the Greek word for church (ekklesia) is in Matt. 16:18, where Peter makes his great faith statement, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus responds, “Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means rock), and upon this rock I will build my church.”

5.  The  church as the body of Christ is the full expression of Jesus Christ in this world.  In some way, the church expresses everything about Christ (apart from sin).  The church is not perfect.  But someday the church will be perfect.  But even in its imperfection, the church is still the body of Christ.  Christ’s presence and power are still felt in and through the presence and work of the body of Christ in the world.

Many people say that they love Christ, but hate the church.  But how can you say that you love Christ and hate the body of Christ.  Certainly, the church is not perfect as it is now expressed through sinful humanity.  But the church is filled with redeemed sinners who are being made holy through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit day by day.  The church is not yet who it will be, but when the church is revealed as the bride of Christ at the end of the age, then we shall the see the church as Christ intends it to be.

 

Freed From the Power of Sin

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Romans 6:15–23 (NLT) Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! 16 Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. 17 Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. 18 Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.

19 Because of the weakness of your human nature, I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy.

20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the obligation to do right. 21 And what was the result? You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom. 22 But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Under the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses was the governing power.  Now, believers are set free from the Law.  We are no longer under the Law, but that does not mean that we are lawless.  And in fact that is what the Jews accused Paul and Christians of being.  If we are not under the Law of Moses, they reasoned, then we must me lawless, as the Gentiles were deemed to be lawless, and therefore, sinners.

The key word in this passage is righteousness (dikaiosune).  (Rom. 6:16) Vine defines righteousness as “the character or quality of being right or just”.  The English word righteousness was formerly “rightwiseness,” which clearly expresses the meaning.  Righteousness is one of God’s communicable attributes (Rom. 3:5), that means that God is able to communicate, to give God’s own righteousness to humanity.  And righteousness is only available through God, and in fact, righteousness cannot be gotten in any other way, except by grace through faith.  For the Scriptures say, “All our righteousness is as filthy rags.”  (Isa. 64:6)

In this passage, Paul is using righteousness in a judicial sense, referring to the activity of God to set people in a right relationship with himself, or to the righteous standing that believers enjoy as a result of Chrsit’s work (Rom. 1:17; 3:21, 22).  This is essentially the same as in the Old Testament (Hebrew tsedeq or tsedaqah, meaning righteousness), meaning the right behavior that God requires from God’s people.  In this case, obedience to the Law.

The second key word in this passage is the flesh (sarx) (v. 19).  The flesh refers to human nature, and especially to the sin nature, that is, the inclination to sin that characterizes all humanity apart from Christ.  Paul uses the illustration of slavery to show that humanity is enslaved to sin.  He defines sin as both impurity and lawlessness.  But now we are no longer slaves to sin, instead, we are slaves to righteousness (v. 18).

Apart from Christ, the person who is a slave to sin cannot choose any other direction except to sin.  How can we ask people who are slaves to sin to behave in any other way except sinfully?  They have no choice.  We cannot expect sinners to behave in any other way.  If we expect alcoholics and drug addicts or prostitutes or “name your favorite sin here” to meet our standards of behavior before they come to Christ (or rather, before they come to our church), then we are placing an impossible barrier to the Gospel before them.

I wish that the church that I serve would be filled with sinners.  We hope that our churches are welcoming to sinners, to strangers, to those who are on the margins of our society.  But the fact is most churches are only welcoming to those who are like the ones who are already filling the pews.  This creates a barrier to the Gospel.  And this barrier is itself sin.  If Christ himself showed up in my church dressed as a beggar, how would he be received?  Would we offer the best seat in the house?  Or would we turn him away and throw him out?  The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is instructive.  (Luke 16:19-31)  We are all the same before the throne of God with nothing about which to boast.  We come to the throne of grace as sinners saved by grace alone.

But sin always has a cost and a penalty.  The eternal consequences of sin are death (Rom. 5:12-21; 6:16-23).  Wages are something that you earn.  In other words, sinners are working for a penalty that they have earned:  death.  And Paul is remembering perhaps God’s warning to Adam in the Garden of Eden, “If you eat of the fruit of this tree you will die.”  This death is not primarily physical death, but death in a spiritual sense means eternal separation from God.  But thank God, there is a remedy for sin, and it came through Jesus Christ.  And eternal life is not something that you can earn, but is the free gift of God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.  (v. 23)

John Wesley believed that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the greatest outpouring of God’s grace upon the earth.  In Christ, the power of the sin nature was broken.  So Christ cancelled the debt of our sin and guilt before God.  He took the penalty for our sin, so that we would not have to pay the price (redemption).  For Wesley, this is the work of divine grace that turns us away from sin and draws us toward God, that pardons and renews us through the free gift of faith in Jesus Christ, that moves and enables us to seek and receive the benefits of new life in Christ.

Yet, while the power of sin is broken in our lives, we are still sinners in a fallen world.  Our sanctification, that is, our being remade into the image of Christ, is a lifelong journey that is only accomplished by walking in the Spirit day by day (Rom. 8).  Our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ signifies the power that makes the life of faith and holiness possible.

Lord, help me to live each day in the light of my baptism.  Help me to walk day by day in your righteousness, and to live as I should, not to bring shame upon your name, but to glorify you through holy words and actions.  In Jesus name, Amen.

 

 

 

The Workers in the Vineyard

vineyard_13420acMatthew 20:1–16 (NLT)
  “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay the normal daily wage* and sent them out to work.
3 “At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. 4 So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. 5 So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.
6 “At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’
7 “They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’
“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’
8 “That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. 9 When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, 12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’
13 “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’
16 “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”
Ch. 19 concludes with a discussion between Jesus and the disciples about the rewards of the Kingdom.  The parable of the workers in the vineyard illustrates Jesus’ point made in 19:30 “But many who are the greatest now will be the least important then, and those who seem last now will be the greatest then.”
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard.”  The parable reflects the practice of hiring unemployed and tenant farmers for the grape harvest.  These free men would gather in the marketplace before sunrise, hoping that they would be hired by the large landowners for the harvest.  Those who were hired early in the day agreed to the usual wage of a denarius.  If they were not hired, they would often travel to the next village to see if others there were hiring.  As a result, the landowner could expect to find additional laborers in the marketplace at various hours.  In this case, the landowner must have a particularly large harvest, as he continues to seek workers even into the very late hours of the day.
At the end of the day, the landowner gathered all the workers to pay them beginning with those who were hired last.  He pays each the expected wage for a day laborer.  In this case, the landowner was particularly generous to those who were hired last.  However, he pays those who were hired first the same wages as those who were hired last.  This seems unjust to those who had worked all day.  The problem is that those hired first were envious.  They expected because of the landowner’s generosity that they would be paid more than a day’s wages.
The parable speaks about the generosity of God.  God’s grace is freely given to all who will accept it.  In the context of Jesus’ ministry, the parable points to the response of the Pharisees who objected to Jesus invitation to sinners and tax collectors to enter the Kingdom.  The vineyard was a typical symbol for the nation of Israel.  The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law (scribes) considered themselves to be the workers in the vineyard.    They expected that they would receive a larger reward in heaven, because of their birth and position.  In general, the Jews expected a greater reward in heaven than those Gentiles (not Jews) who were late comers to the great banquet of God.  Jews in the first century prayed a prayer thanking God that they were not born a Gentile.  They thought that their birth gave them greater rights than any Gentile.  Even Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, salvation is from the Jews.  God first revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the patriarchs of the Jews. Jesus teaches that the rewards of the Kingdom of God are offered and open to all.  To whoever will accept Jesus’ invitation to come.  In the church, it matters not whether you have been a Christian all your life, since birth and were raised in the church, or whether you labored as a pastor or ministered for 60 years or more, or whether you are a person who comes to the Lord at the end of your life, the rewards of the Kingdom of God are offered freely to all without regard to the work they have done.
Peter and the 12 expected a greater reward because of their great sacrifice and commitment (19:27).  The parable tells us that God does not judge on the basis of what is earned (wages), but on the basis of grace.  The parable of the workers in the vineyard gives us another opportunity to reflect on God’s amazing grace.  In the Kingdom of God, the values of the kingdom are upside down from the values of this world.  In the Kingdom of God, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Lord, it matters not whether we come to the labor of the field early or late.  The important thing is that we answer Jesus’ call:  “Come!”  When we answer the call to come and work in the fields of Jesus, then we all receive the blessings of the Kingdom of God.  Help us to redeem the time we have on this earth, by laboring honestly and with all our strength for the Kingdom of God.  Lead people in our area of influence:  our friends, relatives, associates and neighbors, to hear and answer your call.  Give us boldness to share the Good News about Jesus Christ with them, that all may come to know you as Lord and Savior.  Amen.