The Path to Joy

Perhaps you have memorized Philippians 2.3-7:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

You may remember Paul wrote Philippians from a prison cell in Rome. You may also recall a major theme of the letter is JOY! Rejoice in the Lord always.

Where do we find this joy and that deep peace the world cannot know (Phil. 4.6-7)?

The world looks for joy in all the wrong places, because it believes happiness happens (see the relationship between those words?) as we seek it. Yes, the world pursues happiness. After all, is it not written into the Constitution of the United States? They seek happiness in power, prestige, and possessions (connect with the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life–1 John 2.16). The world shouts “Me! I deserve! I want! Give me! You can’t have mine!” If it sounds selfish, it’s because it is.

However, God’s ways are opposite the world’s. When the world shouts “Me,” God says “regard one another as more important than yourselves.” When the world shouts “I want; Give me,” God says, “It’s better to give than to receive.” When the world shouts “I deserve,” God says, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…who emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant.” If anyone deserves, Christ does. If anyone deserves nothing, it is I.

Brothers and sisters, we can only find true joy and peace when we quit seeking them and rather begin seeking Christ and the the interests of others. Have you ever noticed how good you feel after you pour your energy out for someone else? It may be your child, your spouse, or your friend. It may be your neighbor, your coworker, or your enemy. When we expend ourselves for others, God has built into our consciences–into our very beings–an understanding of the rightness of selfless action.

Jesus, of course, perfectly models this mindset, and we should imitate Him.

How will you seek the interest of others today?

Pushed Out

The events which transpired according to John 9 leave us laughing or crying–usually both. What a silly, backwards, upside-down situation!

Wealthy theology-professors lorded it over the synagogues in first-century Jerusalem. Legend records around 400 synagogues in Jerusalem at the time of it’s destruction in 70 A.D. Talk about the opportunity to join the church of your choice! But the leaders of the synagogues were steeped in the traditions of the elders, which had been handed down and compounded over the generations, and Jesus stood strongly against those man-made traditions.

Under a cloud of controversy, Jesus performed an act of kindness and compassion, healing a man who had been born blind. What was Jesus’ sin? He performed the healing on a Sabbath Day, which (according to the tradition of the elders) broke the Sabbath because He performed “work” on the day of rest. The Jews already hated Jesus and had put out an APB: “If anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he [is] to be put out of the synagogue” (John 9.22). So the Jewish leaders already had their guns trained on Jesus, and this event triggered a battle.

Interrogations ensued. The synagogue officials interviewed witnesses, the blind man’s parents, and the blind man himself, all of whom confirmed he was, indeed, the same blind man who had begged for years around the city. All the officials had probably seen him around–but probably had pretended they didn’t. They certainly weren’t showing him any compassion now that he was healed. They told the poor guy, “You were born in utter sin, and you would teach us?” (John 9.34).

While being questioned, the formerly-blind man enjoyed a rare opportunity to confess Jesus publicly before the authorities of his day, and he took full advantage. The tables turned. The great theologians became the ones who knew nothing, and the poor beggar became the bearer of earth’s greatest truth. Instead of agreeing with obvious truth, the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus, His teaching, and His disciples, basically spitting in the face of a man in whom a wonderful healing had just been worked. Jesus had freed this man!

Not only were the man’s physical eyes opened, but also his spiritual. “He is a prophet,” he confidently asserted to his inquisitors. “Lord, I believe,” he boldly declared to Jesus when he met Him again, and he worshiped Jesus (John 9.35-38).

On the other hand, the grand interpreters of the law, the self-proclaimed defenders of truth called Jesus a man “not from God” (John 9.16), “a sinner” (John 9.24), and a nobody as far as they were concerned (John 9.29). What did they do with the formerly-blind man? Did they embrace him as a newly-healed brother? Did they congratulate him on his fresh life? No, “they cast him out” (John 9.34).

How excellent for this poor beggar–to be cast out by these men. With his new spiritual eyes, I imagine he felt little emotional pain from their mistreatment. I doubt the Jewish leaders had ever cared for him, loved him, or helped him. Now they revealed real animosity and hatred! Jesus, on the other hand, showed pity and deep love, sharing the power of God with him. I imagine this man felt perfectly content to remain a disciple of Jesus and leave the hateful synagogue officials behind.

Who needs the blessing of hateful men? Who needs great theologians if they don’t have the love of Christ? Who needs elders who refuse to open their eyes to such obvious truth?

Have you been there, friend? Have you unsuccessfully attempted to win the favor of men who turned out to be missing the truth? Have you been marginalized or pushed out? Don’t fear! Don’t hate the haters. But love the One who opens your eyes to the real truth.

On the other hand, as Jesus said, we should learn to judge with righteous judgment, and we will find men and women who truly do know Jesus and actually love Him, follow Him, and live for Him. They will love you as Jesus loves you.

If men push you out of their midst, just go–shake the dust off your feet and move on. It’s not important to stay with those who push you away; it’s important to stay with Him who opened your eyes!

Work Out Your Salvation

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

This conundrum is, perhaps, not such a problem for the creationist who understands that God created the chicken fully-grown and mature. But that’s not really the point, is it?

The serious Bible student will discover questions like this regarding his salvation. Which came first, God’s will or mine? Which came first, God’s work or mine?

Philippians 2.12-13 encourages us to ponder this very question:

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Notice:

  1. Obedience links with “work out your salvation”
  2. The “for” stands as a “because,” so the actions in verse 12 result from the actions of verse 13
  3. God produces a will and a work in us
  4. Everything results in His good pleasure

Many use verse 12 to insist that we are, indeed, saved by our works. Besides running counter to so many other clear New Testament scriptures (i.e., Eph. 2.8-9; Tit. 3.3-7; Gal. 2.16; Rom. 11.5-6; etc.) which say we are not saved by our works, that understanding also violates the immediate context by not considering verse 13 and GOD as the ultimate cause of our salvation.

These verses do not appear in isolation; we must consider the context of the entire letter to be faithful to God’s meaning. We may back up to Phil. 1.27:

Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel;

Paul reminds them (and us) that their conduct should be worthy of the gospel. “How does our conduct reflect the gospel?” we might ask. Reading the rest of the letter answers the question. So God desires–in fact demands–obedience and a “worthiness” of conduct.

But why should we obey? Why attempt to walk such a high path? Do we obey and work in order to be saved? Are we keeping ourselves saved by walking in the right way? The answer is yes…and no. God is certainly telling us to walk this way and it will result in our salvation.

Back up to Phil. 1.6 for one more insight:

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

This answers the question, “How did my salvation begin?” God began it.

It also answers, “How will I continue to be saved?” God will continue to perfect it until Jesus returns.

Notice Phil. 1.11 says, “having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

Who has been filled? We who are in Christ! Who does the filling? God!

And so “walk in a manner worthy of the gospel” and “set your minds on things that are above” and “whatever you do in word or deed do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” and “draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” All those passages tell us to obey, to work, to do. We now understand our obedience is a loving response to the work God has already done in us and continues to do for us.

When I work out my salvation with fear and trembling, I do not work to get saved or stay saved. I’m working because I am saved and I want to show the fruit of God’s work in my life. May my life and your life result to the praise of His glory.

Solar Eclipse: Cosmic Coincidence?

On an NPR program this morning by Nell Greenfieldboyce, I heard how lucky we are to be living exactly at the right time to observe a total solar eclipse. A few million years this way or that and the moon wouldn’t match totally up to the sun as it does now.

The sun is 400 times farther away than the moon, and it just so happens the moon is 400 times smaller in diameter…so that’s why they look exactly the same size when they overlap.

Over and over the NPR commentator expressed how lucky we are and what an amazing cosmic coincidence this is–an attitude approaching awe.

“humanity is lucky to live on a planet that even has this kind of celestial event”

“Earth only gets its gorgeous total solar eclipses because of a cosmic coincidence”

“that perfect kind of magic”

“It’s just chance that humans exist [at this time]”

So these folks stand in awe of a cosmic coincidence. Yesterday, I heard another NPR program by Adam Frank as he explored the human response of awe. Here is a poignant paragraph:

For me, sacredness is an experience that rises above any particular religion and speaks to those moments when we feel the essential, original and irreducible potency of life. It need not refer to anything anyone would call “supernatural” but, instead, is rooted in our very real and very natural experience of the world. In that way, it is also a root of the aspiration to do science. As Eliade wrote: “The sacred is equivalent to a power and in the last analysis to reality. The sacred is saturated with Being.”

That’s right. Let’s not think anything supernatural has to exist in order for us to be struck with awe. This can all be defined and realized scientifically. Better yet, let’s make sure awe is defined as an entirely INTERNAL experience of the individual–more about YOU than about anyone else (and shhhhh! don’t think about a Someone who might have created all this).

What these folks either don’t know or are not explaining is that this focus on our internal BEING comes from eastern philosophies such as Buddhism. Enlightenment and truth, they believe, is found within, and truth comes from our own experiences. So, they insist, always look inward–never outward–for spiritual realization. Always believe you are in control of your own world; don’t think a Creator controls the world and that you exist as part of His creation.

“Sacredness is an experience…” the man says. The Bible defines sacredness as that which is holy, set apart to God. If you want this eclipse to be a sacred experience, then glorify God in it! Stand amazed; the Creator has built into His creation lovely, carefully-timed wonders that thrill and excite! Be in awe–but not because of a cosmic coincidence. Be in awe of the Creator and Ruler of the cosmos.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world. — Psalm 19.1-4

The Pattern of Sound Words

I just listened to a sermon which the preacher began by reading 2 Timothy 1.13:

Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.

He then proceeded to tell the congregation they should hold fast to the Bible patterns of…

  1. The Name of the Church
  2. The Organization of the Church
  3. The Activities of the Church, including…
    • Lord’s Supper every Sunday, and only on Sundays
    • Singing without instrumental music
    • No Church-sponsored Orphans’ Homes
    • No Church-sponsored Widow’s Homes
  4. The Five-Steps to Salvation

I’m sure I missed a few things, but those I remember.

What troubles me is that his beginning verse contextually has nothing to do with any of those issues. He committed a classic blunder by reading a passage and then going wherever he pleased with it, completely disregarding the context. This sort of slipshod treatment of Scripture leads to a watering down of the word and really tends to obscure the truth God has set forth.

We should demand preachers and teachers keep verses in context. That is not to say everyone should read the entire chapter every time, but certainly teachers must do their homework and understand the meaning and purpose of the text before presenting it as God’s word!

If we read 2 Timothy 1.13 in it’s immediate context, we find the “pattern of sound words” has to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (1.10). It has to do with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. It has to do with the grace of God and sharing in the sufferings on behalf of Christ (2.1-3). It has to do with dying with Christ (2.11) and enduring (2.12). It has to do with unity (2.14ff) and holiness (2.22ff).

I recommend preachers actually preach the word itself instead of “choosing a passage and then going everywhere preaching the gospel” (as one sarcastically remarked). If you don’t understand the context of the passage, you may end up harming your hearers. At the very least, your lessons will lack meat. At worst, you’ll end up preaching entirely your own thoughts and not the thoughts of the Lord. Those who study God’s word will stop listening to you.

It there a place for preaching on all those topics above? Certainly! If the Bible talks about it, we should teach about it. But allow the Scripture to lead!

This preacher missed many deep truths to be found in 2 Timothy because he wanted to preach on certain pet subjects. I hope he one day gets around to preaching on what 2 Timothy 1.13 is really about! It’s ironic that he so abused a passage on sound words.

Does Bible Study Make You Feel Guilty?

The preacher hammers the importance of daily Bible study, and most of the church sits feeling condemned, inadequate, and guilty, because we sure messed that up last week!

Does Bible study make you feel guilty?

It’s actually not the study itself, but our failures along the way. We make commitments (or at least have a vague idea of what we ought to do) and end up not fulfilling them. We don’t hit our targets, don’t actualize our vision, don’t work the plan perfectly. And our hearts condemn us.

It’s as if we feel that God accepts us on the basis of whether or not we hit our targets for the day.

I have this feeling that God wants me to spend some time in the word today (a minimum of 15 or 20 minutes?), and I never got around to it. And I missed yesterday, too. The days pile fast and guilt grows. I’m failing God, myself, my family, my church. I can’t let the church know I’m a failure at this because this is what being a Christian is all about, right? If I’m not in the Bible every day, they might think I’m not really a Christian–or at least not a serious one. I’ll tell everyone else they should be reading the Bible every day, I’ll put on a face like I’m getting it done, and I’ll continue to feel bad every week when I don’t make it.

Have you ever felt this way?

Trade Law for Grace!

We feel like this when we still place ourselves under law. When we don’t understand why Jesus died for us in the first place, we can get the idea that God is pleased with us when we have our act together and displeased when we don’t get the works in we feel we should. As if our works keep us holy and in His grace.

Get this, Brothers and Sisters: as many of you as have been baptized have put on Christ, you are one in Christ Jesus, and you are sons of God through faith (Galatians 3.26-4.7). Because you are sons, you are heirs alongside THE Son, Jesus. You inherit eternal fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! God adopted you into His family while you were spiritually immature and broken–and He continues to cover you by the blood of His Son while you grow in Christ. You have freedom in God’s house even while you are not perfect! God does not accept you on the basis of what you do for Him, but on the basis of what Jesus Christ has already done on the cross. Nothing you do for God now will make you more holy, more righteous, more acceptable to Him–you are totally accepted right now in Christ Jesus!

So don’t feel condemned and guilty when you don’t get the works perfect. Keep loving God; keep loving your neighbor; keep loving your family. Keep striving to know and understand more, but don’t feel like you have fallen out of God’s favor when you fail.

In God’s grace is an amazing freedom–including the freedom to fail and keep right on going. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.1).

Being under a heartless law system stifles growth and kills the spirit. But being under the grace of a kind and loving God provides and promotes an attitude of steady joy in the face of all our failures. I hope you and I forever revel in that joy!

Interestingly, those with the perspective of grace find their Bible study becomes even more frequent and fruitful!

Habits for Every Christian: Walk in Love

“Walk in love…” (Ephesians 5.2)

How, Paul? What does that mean, to walk in love? Does it mean I should have gushy feelings for everyone as I plod through my day? Should I attempt to warmly hug everyone I meet? I’m a tad uncomfortable with that thought.

The whole verse says:

“And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph. 5.2b)

So JESUS is our standard of love! On the one hand, He had compassion for individuals, touched lepers from time to time, took little girls by the hand, reclined at the table with His disciples in close sharing. On the other hand, He overturned table in the Temple, seared the Pharisees and Lawyers with condemnation and judgment, and preached in such a way that many of His followers deserted Him. He’s our picture of love.

We’re not talking about FEELING love. We’re talking about GIVING love. This kind of love (ἀγάπη agape in the Greek) concerns a selfless giving of yourself to others. It’s doing for others what you’d like them to do for you, loving them like you’d love yourself, doing what is best for them, regardless of how you actually feel about them at the time.

Imagine Jesus on the cross, experiencing some of the most excruciating pain a human can endure and having been deserted by all His disciples. Lonely. Shamed. Being murdered by lawless men. Can you imagine the human feelings He must have experienced? Surely He was not wishing He could hug those at the foot of the cross. He was holding back His awesome power in order not to annihilate them all! He spoke words of forgiveness. He cared for one of the thieves beside Him and for His mother below Him.

Now imagine your family. It’s late, everyone’s tired, and you’re trying to cobble together a quick supper before bedtime. Children complain. Your spouse grumpily pokes around, getting in the way more than helping. What words slip your tongue at times like this? What thoughts run through your head? What complaints of your own do you mumble to yourself?

Are you truly thinking about your family, how you can bless and serve them? Do you pray for God to forgive your children for their complaining…”for they don’t know what they’re saying”? Do you speak kindly and gently to your spouse even when the words coming your way are less than gentle? A soft answer…a soft answer…

Brothers and sisters, “we who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15.1). “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” How, exactly, has Christ welcomed you? Would Jesus say, “You need to learn to speak more respectfully before I love you.” Or “You got yourself into this mess; you can get yourself out”? Or “I’ll only help you when you start to help yourself”?

Or did Jesus die for us WHILE WE WERE STILL WEAK (Romans 5.6), WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS (Romans 5.8), and WHILE WE WERE HIS ENEMIES (Romans 5.10)? And does He continue to put up with us despite our severe weaknesses and stark flaws?

God expects you to walk in love and has shown you how to do it. May God give you opportunities today to show the love of Christ to your child and to your neighbor and to your boss and to your waitress. Keep the cross forever in mind–the absolute love Jesus showed for you–and let Him be your motivation.

God, teach us to walk in love!