Greek women presented shields to their sons going to battle and said, "Either bring this back, or be brought back upon it." Sometimes they would give them their fathers' shields and say, "Your father always preserved this shield; preserve it, or perish." Either one was a proof that a soldier had faithfully persevered until the end. You may die, but you will never run.So when the writer of Hebrews says, “Don’t abandon your confidence,” he is saying, “Don’t abandon your faith. It is your shield.” This is not the only time we see this language in the New Testament. “Above all, take the shield of faith.” (Ephesians 6:16)
Paul, an emissary of Jesus the Anointed, commissioned by order of God our Savior and Jesus the Anointed, our living and certain hope, to you, Timothy, my true son in the faith. May the grace, mercy, and peace that come only from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ mark your life. As I said that day I left for Macedonia, stay in Ephesus and instruct the unruly people in the church, once and for all, to stop teaching a different doctrine. Tell them to turn away from fables and endless genealogies. These activities just cause more arguments and confusion. Instead, they should concern themselves with welcoming in and bringing about the Kingdom of God, which is all about faith. Our teaching about this journey is intended to bring us to a single goal—a place where self-giving love reigns from a pure heart, a clean conscience, and a genuine faith.Yes, some have wandered away from these traits and have fallen into a life of endless blabber and nonsense— they wish to become scholars of the law, but they don’t know what they are talking about, and they make these grand pronouncements but clearly don’t understand what they just said. (1 TImothy 1:1-7, The Voice)
Kids ask all the time, “What’s that for?” It's a natural question. We see designed things, and we figure they were designed with a goal in mind. But even when we know what something is for, we are very good at coming up with all kinds of ways to use things differently than the designer intended.
- I remember telling Vince what the intended use of the family scissors was, but he soon realized it could also be used on the dog.
- Sheila told him the purpose of having good clothes and run-around clothes….
- Heads: You should think; you can run full speed into other people (football concussions)
- Lungs: You should breathe; you can inhale substances
We can get frustrated if we aren’t on the same page with other people about what a thing is meant to be. What is the purpose of the following:
- Fishing – To catch fish? To relax? To talk?
- Supper - To eat? To connect?
- Marriage - Happiness? Family? Love? Growth? Spiritual symbolism?
- Think of the tension in our culture as we disagree about what it means to be male/female, or masculine/feminine. We are disagreeing on fundamental questions of design and purpose.
It is important that we learn the purpose of a thing and then commit to fulfilling that purpose. So what is the purpose or the goal of the Church? According to Paul, the church exists to bring about the Kingdom of God, through faith, characterized by love.
At least three things stood out in Timothy’s church that undermined this goal. (I’m trying to summarize in a way that takes a particular situation and generalizes the principles. Plus, it’s not entirely clear what Paul meant by some of these, so there is some speculation involved).
- Righteousness By Association. Genealogies were a big deal in ways we don’t understand. Herod tried to erase all record of his genealogy because he was ashamed of it; in doing this, he destroyed a lot of Jewish historical records. Apparently, the Jews were trying to reconstruct lost genealogies by finding obscure people and basically make up a story for them, and they would make every connection they could to try to fit into the family of someone important, mainly because they wanted to be in the line of the anticipated Messiah – as if that somehow made them better. This is the group that in some fashion asks the question, “Do you know who I am?” with the assumption that if you only knew, you would know how important and valuable they are.
- Religious Jet Set Fantasies. The Greeks were more enamored with the myths, the equivalent of Hollywood gods and goddesses, fantasizing about a life of luxury and indulgence with the gods.[i] Perhaps the Greek converts were trying to apply this kind of thinking to heaven. When Jesus gave the Beatitudes, the Greek word ‘blessed’ (makarios) had to do with ‘participating in the life of the gods’ – and Jesus made clear it’s not a jet set fantasy. The poor, the humble, the persecuted, the mourners – they all have a place in the Kingdom of God. Apparently, early preachers were replacing the reality of the kind of blessedness that comes with ‘taking up your cross’ with an early version of the health/wealth/prosperity Gospel. This is the group that in some fashion asked the question, “Do you see what I have?” as if cultural standards of health and wealth somehow translated into revealing that they are clearly good people. If you could only see how God has apparently blessed them with comfort and things, you would know how important and valuable they are.
- Worshiping The Law. Apparently the Judaizers were returning to teaching that observance of the Law could save people – our righteousness, God’s favor, and our worth was earned by being a good person. This is the group that in some fashion is asking the question, “Do you see what I do or don’t do?” with the assumption that if you only knew, you would know how important and valuable they are. In a church that taught that our attempts at self-earned righteousness was worthless, and God’s loving grace was the only thing that will justify and save us, this was ‘blabber’ and ‘nonsense’ that was causing confusion.
This strikes me as revealing three ways in which people fight for acceptance, value or a sense of worth: family of origin, success by cultural standards of success, and a resume of good works. This can even become something we believe will help us gauge whether or not we have God’s attention or affirmation.
But what happens when your family of origin is lousy? What happens when you live paycheck to paycheck, or when health and comfort disappear? What happens when, despite your best efforts, you fail to do what you ought to do? If we have placed your hope and worth in those things, then our life crumbles. Our stability is gone. We try harder and harder to make those things bring our life meaning – and that leads to pride and judgment if we achieve it, or anger and bitterness if we don’t.
So how do we avoid this? How do we accomplish the goal or design for the church? We live IN FAITH and WITH LOVE when we surrender to Christ three crucial things.
- A Pure Heart: “The heart was regarded as the inward part of the person and the center of one's spiritual and thought life. The total inner life of the believer, cleansed from sin, could be depicted with the term pure heart” (biblegateway.com).
Right away, we are relieved of the obligation to be good enough on our own power. We find stability in the positional purity that Jesus offers; that is, when we surrender our life and commit our self to Jesus, He purifies our heart. This is a supernatural work of God. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they will be as white as snow…create in me a clean heart, O God.” Nothing we do contributes to this. Our dirty heart is made clean because God makes it clean. God moves us out of spiritual darkness and places or positions us into the light of righteousness. Our positional purity as a Christian never wavers even when we sin, because it was never about us being good enough. It was about Jesus being good enough.
Our family, success or moral strength do not place us here. There is no room to boast and no need to despair. God does the heavy lifting.
- A Clear Conscience: [ii] A pure heart had to do with our interior life; a clear conscience reminds us that our actions need to align with a pure heart. This is a part of what we call conditional purity. We can make choices that either encourage or undermine the new purity God has given us. We can say anything we want to about how we feel about ourselves and our relationship to God, but what do we do matters. Does our exterior lives confirm what we claim is happening on the inside?
“The conscience is that part or faculty of the mind that gives awareness of the standing of one's conduct as measured against an accepted standard.” (biblegateway.com)
I may say that I love my wife, but if I constantly mistreat her or betray her with my words or actions, you would have good reason to believe that I am lying. My conscience would in no way be clear. Our interior lives and exterior lives are meant to align. A positionally pure heart is meant to lead to conditionally pure actions that result in a clear conscience.
And in that kind of community – whether in the home or in the church – the Kingdom of God flourishes not just because of what is happening in us, but what is happening around us because of Christ at work in us. None of us are perfect – there’s a reason the church must model repentance, grace and forgiveness – but the more we are committed to living in a way that our conscience remains clear, the more we make the beauty of the Kingdom of God tangible.
- Genuine Faith: This has to do with what we believe. It’s about embracing the fundamentals of Christian doctrine – particularly, the person and work of Jesus. We need to increasingly understand “the reason for the hope that lies within in us.” [iii] We don’t all need to be Bible scholars or answer all manner of obscure question, but we need to be committed to “rightly dividing the word of truth.”
A pure heart and a clear conscience are built on the person and work of Christ, and it’s in the Bible that God has revealed what we need to know in this area.
God promises that the Holy Spirit will work in those who have committed to following Jesus, but we are tasked with knowing Scripture so that we can know more about Jesus: studying, listening, talking with other Christians, praying, etc. Look at any other area of life: if you want to become knowledgeable, you must do the hard work that leads to knowledge. God will help to turn your knowledge into wisdom, but knowledge doesn’t occur magically. We ‘study to show ourselves approved unto God” even as “he who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it.”
We live in a culture that is increasingly dismissive or hostile toward Christianity. Some of it is unfair; a lot of it is because the world is having a difficult time seeing pure hearts, clear consciences, and genuine faith. That’s a call to revival. Perhaps more than ever, it is important that the church as a body fulfill God’s design and purpose for his representatives on earth.
The church is meant to be a place where being in the family of Christ is far more important than the family from which you came; where spiritual blessings like a pure heart are far more important than material wealth and comfort; where a clear conscience motivated by a pure heart characterizes our community; where God is worshipped not only in spirit, but in truth.
[i] “As the term is used in the New Testament (always in the plural--1 Tim 4:7; 2 Tim 4:4; Tit 1:14; 2 Pet 1:16), myths is consistently a pejorative and polemical classification. It classifies material not simply as untrue or legendary but as pernicious in its (or its author's) purpose to justify immoral or improper behavior on the basis of a divine or traditional pattern.”– commentary from Biblegateway. In the case of the early church, I suspect they brought in the idea of ‘blessedness’ from the Greek ideals and tried to apply them to what God must be like, and to what God had in store for them in this life (and perhaps the next).
[ii] “The concept of individuality bred into us in the West was foreign to Paul's culture. Conscience tends to function individualistically in us to produce feelings of guilt. For Paul and the ancient Mediterranean culture in general, conscience was the internal judgment of one's actions by that one's group--"pain one feels because others consider one's actions inappropriate and dishonorable" (Malina 1981:70). Honor and shame, rather than guilt, were the operative feelings. Therefore, Paul's readers would perceive the conscience as sending internal signals evaluating the rightness or wrongness of behavior (past, present or future) as a member of a group.” – commentary from Biblegateway
[iii] “Heresy in reference to a doctrine denotes one "that was sufficiently intolerable to destroy the unity of the Christian church. In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence" (Brown 1984:2)…doctrines pertaining to God and Christ and the nature of salvation and justification, because the very substance of the gospel message and the salvation that rests on it lies in these things. Teachings that tend to characterize and distinguish the various Christian denominations (views about baptism, Communion, church government, gifts of the Holy Spirit and the role of women in ministry, among others) may certainly be held to with passion, but the differences here derive mainly from biblical passages capable of more than one reasonable explanation. The term heresy is not appropriate in this latter context. As Paul saw it, heresy posed a dual threat. It endangered the church and individuals who would be drawn into error, perhaps beyond the reach of salvation. It threatened the church's evangelistic mission in the world, by contaminating the gospel.” - commentary from Biblegateway
John 4:46-54 As Jesus traveled to Cana (the village in Galilee where He transformed the water into fine wine), He was met by a government official from Herod’s court. This man had heard a rumor that Jesus had left Judea and was heading to Galilee, and he came in desperation begging for Jesus’ help because his young son was near death. He was fearful that unless Jesus would go with him to Capernaum, his son would have no hope.
Jesus said, ”My word is not enough; you people only believe when you see miraculous signs and wonder.”
The official replied, “Sir, this is my son; please come with me before he dies.”
Jesus said, “Go home. Your son will live.”
He believed and returned to his home. Before he reached his village, his servants met him on the road celebrating his son’s miraculous recovery.
The official asked, “What time did this happen?”
His servants replied, “Yesterday about one o’clock in the afternoon.”
At that moment, it dawned on the father the exact time that Jesus spoke the words, “He will live.” After that, he believed; and when he told his family about his amazing encounter with this Jesus, they believed too. This was the second sign Jesus performed when He came back to Galilee from Judea.
When these events were completed, Jesus led His followers to Jerusalem where they would celebrate a Jewish feast together. In Jerusalem they came upon a pool by the sheep gate surrounded by five covered porches. In Hebrew this place is called Bethesda.
Crowds of people lined the area, lying around the porches. All of these people were disabled in some way; some were blind, lame, paralyzed, or plagued by diseases; and they were waiting for the waters to move. The people believed that from time to time, a heavenly messenger would come to stir the water in the pool, and whoever reached the water first and got in after it was agitated would be healed of his or her disease. In the crowd, Jesus noticed one particular man who had been living with his disability for 38 years. He knew this man had been waiting here a long time.
Jesus said to the disabled man, “Do you want to be healed?”
The man replied, “Kind Sir, I wait, like all of these people, for the waters to stir; but I cannot walk. If I am to be healed in the waters, someone must carry me into the pool. Without a helping hand, someone else beats me to the water’s edge each time it is stirred.”
Jesus replied, “Stand up, carry your mat, and walk. ”At the moment Jesus uttered these words, the man was healed—he stood and walked for the first time in 38 years. But this was the Sabbath Day; and any work, including carrying a mat, was prohibited on this day.
The Jewish Leaders said to the man who had been healed, “Must you be reminded that it is the Sabbath? You are not allowed to carry your mat today!”
The formerly disabled man replied, “The man who healed me gave me specific instructions to carry my mat and go.”
“Who is the man who gave you these instructions?” The Jewish leaders asked, “How can we identify Him?”
The man genuinely did not know who it was that healed him. In the midst of the crowd and the excitement of his renewed health, Jesus had slipped away. Some time later, Jesus found him in the temple and again spoke to him. ”Take a look at your body; it has been made whole and strong. So avoid a life of sin, so that nothing worse will happen to you.” The man went immediately to tell the Jewish leaders that Jesus was the mysterious healer. So they began pursuing and attacking Jesus because He performed these miracles on the Sabbath.
But Jesus said to them, “My Father is at work. So I, too, am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
Though the primary reason of these miracles is to establish Jesus' divinity (more on that next Sunday), there are three secondary topics here that I want to address:
- How Jesus works in the world in the midst of our faith and frailty.
- The importance of the question, “Do you want to be healed?”
- How our lives can point toward the awesome work of Jesus
I think you will find that I’m only scratching the surface, and I encourage you to read, pray, and meditate on this passage on your own.
1. Jesus responds to both our faith and our frailty
The royal official sought Jesus and asked for his help. When Jesus told him that his son would be okay, the official believed; specifically, he ‘trusted in Jesus to aid in obtaining or doing something.’ He had faith in Jesus’ power, which was at least a start. After he found out about his son’s healing, he began to embrace what Scott Norris called a ‘full-body faith.” He went from believing in Jesus as healer to believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
The lame man didn’t even know who Jesus was. This man made no cry for help. He didn't grab Jesus and say, "Son of David, have mercy on me." When Jesus asked if he wanted to be healed, he basically dodged the question (more on that later). The text doesn't record that he ever worshipped Jesus as a result of being healed, yet Jesus healed him and encouraged him.
Though the city official exercised a form of belief, neither man was what we would call “saved” when Jesus performed miracles on their behalf. We could even include the Samaritan woman (whom we read about earlier in chapter four) in this discussion. She was worshipping idols when Jesus encountered her, yet he saved her and her village.
There is a perspective in Christian circles that we must reach a certain threshold of faith before God can move. The Bible is clear that it is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11). But these miracles show that God seeks and even helps those whose faith is not full (the city official) or strong (the lame man).
I hope this brings us all great hope. If you wonder if you have enough faith for God to act on your behalf, take heart. Don’t assume that God has given up on you. Pray; ask God for move and work in you to build your faith, but don’t forget - God moves in in our faith and in our frailty. He brings us life and hope not because we are strong, but because He is.
2. “Do you want to get well?” is a question we must all answer
So, Jesus moves in our faith and in our frailty, but if we want God's miraculous intervention in our lives to deepen our spiritual maturity and bear long-term fruit, we must want to be healed. Let me explain.
The Bible does not unpack the lame man’s personality, though there are hints in the story. There are differences of opinion about how to view the lame man, but I side with the majority of commentators: I believe Jesus chose to heal a man who lacked faith (the Bible never records that he became a follower of Jesus) and whose life on the margins of society was probably compounded by his poor choices. I will give you several reasons.
- Most Jews associated sickness with sin. The rabbis said, "The sick arises not from sickness, until his sins be forgiven." (Later, when Jesus heals a blind man, he makes clear that this one-for-one correlation is not true, though he seems to allow that it is true in this case).
- When Jesus asked if he wanted to be healed, the lame man dodged the question. He didn’t say ‘yes’. He basically responded, “I don’t have any friends.” After decades of being lame, he had no family or friends who cared enough to get him to the front of the line. That seems like no small matter.
- Interestingly, he was probably taken care of decently by the Jewish community – which might actually explain his apparent unpopularity. A story in the Talmud gives us some insight: "A beggar once came to Rava who asked him 'What do your meals usually consist of?' 'Plump chicken and matured wine' answered the beggar. 'Do you not consider this a burden on the community?' asked Rava. The beggar retorted: 'I do not take from them – I take what God provides.' At that moment Rava's sister, who had not seen him for 13 years, appeared bringing him a fat chicken and matured wine. 'Just what I told you!' said the beggar."
That story is one of many in Jewish literature that captures some of the tension in the Jewish community: God commanded them to take care of the poor and lame, but they sometimes took care of them so well that it was advantageous to be poor or lame, and the broader community became resentful.
James Baldwin wrote, “Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch.” Why? Because with great healing comes great responsibility (sorry, Spider-Man.).
- If he became well, the community provision would go away.
- If he got well, he couldn’t complain about his circumstances.
- He couldn’t blame those who didn’t care enough to help him into the water.
- He may need to address sin in his life.
Jesus’ question is loaded with insight into human nature - which makes sense, since He created us as image bearers. And because He knows us, he knows that if we aren’t careful, we can begin to love our sickness.
- Have you ever avoided doing something you didn’t want to by stretching that cold or flu out one more day?
- Have you ever used a stressful day at work to get out of some chore at home that you could have done, or to excuse grumpiness or laziness?
- Have you ever used something from your past as a crutch, a way to justify something you are doing now that you know you should change? (“I know I’m really fixated on money and things, but I grew up poor!”)
- I already find that “I had a heart attack” is a really easy way to not do something I could do because everybody will give me the space.
If we are not careful, our physical, spiritual, or emotional illnesses can give us a reason to blame others, to think God owes us something, or to avoid responsibility. I am not saying we automatically do that; I’m saying we have to be careful. Sometimes, we don’t really want to get well because we can leverage our inability to our favor. Surrendering to the lordship of Christ will involve taking ownership of your life.
If you have ever been in a recovery group or know someone who has, you know this principle to be true. Individuals must want to be clean and sober; if they are forced into it, they almost inevitably revert. They did not want to be healed.
Now let's take this principle to a deeper level. If Jesus really was pointing out the connection between the man’s health and his sin, he is offering an observation that is of eternal importance: some people love their sin so much that they would rather remain spiritually sick then be made well. They might not like what they reap, but they don’t want to stop sowing. They want to be healthy, but they don’t want to be well.
“Do you want to get well?” is a question that must be answered honestly.
- Do you want your marriage to be better even if that means you have to address the dysfunction that you bring to it?
- Do you want your addictions to be gone even if it means rehab and accountability?
- Do you want to fix your relationship with your kids (or parents) even if that means owning the damage you cause with your words and attitude?
- Do you want to let go of that anger, that lust, that pride that has been such a close friend for so long?
Jesus healed the lame man, but the man turned around and reported him to a clearly hostile group of Pharisees. In addition, the Bible does not record that the man became a follower of Jesus after this miracle. Jesus healed a man who was lame of almost four decades, and there was no fruit. How is this possible? Because even though God moves in our faith and our frailty, we must want to be healed if we want God's miraculous intervention to make disciples of us.
3. God intends for our past to point others to Jesus.
Jesus told the lame man to pick up his bed and walk. What better conversation starter was there to point toward Jesus? I can see people who knew him saying, “What on earth happened? How is this possible?” It’s an almost guaranteed way for this formerly lame man to point to Jesus.
The lame man apparently did this, but I don’t think he did it in the way Jesus intended. That unnecessary bed was meant to be a sign pointing to Jesus, an opportunity for others to hear about what Jesus can do – and so point to the Jesus as Lord.
We don’t carry our beds, but we have equivalent opportunities. Karl did that last Sunday. He said, and I paraphrase, “I was a grease fire – and then Jesus.” That’s a powerful story. One of the best ways to point toward the awesome majesty of Jesus is to let people see what God has done in our lives. It’s one thing to say that Jesus saves and heals; it’s quite another to show that Jesus does these things.
- People need to know that God can deliver from pornography – which might mean you have to tell them how he delivered you.
- People need to know that God can heal people with destructive personalities and habits– which might mean that you have to tell them how God healed you.
- People need to know that arrogant, judgmental fools can be refined and matured – which might mean you have to tell them how that happened in you.
- People need to know that those who are spiritually dead in their sins - hurting those around them, imploding through bad choices, ignoring or shaking their fist at God – can be forgiven, restored, and transformed into the likeness of Christ. And that might mean you have to tell them about you.
An author named Asia Mouzone said, "Never silence your testimony. It's meant for someone else; not you." God intends for our past to point toward Jesus. ‘Believing’ and ‘trusting’ includes surrendering our shame, our guilt, our pride. We are meant to take up the beds to which our brokenness had condemned us and carry it with us to a world that needs to see that Jesus saves.
 This passage occurs in a broader context. The gospel of John is famous for Jesus’ Seven Miracles. They progress in interesting ways:
- Water to wine – Jesus shows the power to change elements, and he only reveals this to his mother and servants, two classes of people looked down upon in Jewish culture.
- Healing the official’s son – Jesus shows power over temporary sickness as well as distance (he doesn’t have to go to the man’s house). This miracle was shown to a Gentile from Herod’s court, one of the oppressors of God’s people.
- Healing the paralytic – Jesus shows power over long-term sickness as well as his power over the Law. This third miracle is done once again for one of the culturally marginalized.
- Feeding the 5,000 – Jesus shows power not only to multiply elements rather than just change them , perhaps linking him to God’s provision during the Exodus. This is his first very public miracle, shown to thousands.
- Walking on water – Jesus shows his power over elements once again, perhaps as another purposeful connection with God as revealed in the Old Testament. The Spirit of God moved over the water in Genesis 1; now John, who made a clear connection to Genesis in the beginning of his book, records the Word of God moving over the water.
- Healing the man born blind – Jesus shows he has the power of creation; he doesn’t just heal eyes that had once been good and then gone bad, he creates working eyes where there had been none.
- Raising Lazarus – Jesus shows his power over physical death, which establishes his power over spiritual death (John 11:25-26)
 “Begging and Beggars,” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0003_0_02291.html
 Commentators have different opinions on this. That his particular sickness had been caused by his particular sin seems to be implied by the text. However, Jesus may be telling him that if he thought being physically sick was bad, it was nothing compared to being spiritually sick and going to hell. Or perhaps Jesus was taking the opportunity to remind him of both.
To borrow some words from James (Ja 1:2-4), Paul counted it all joy to live like Christ, to suffer like Christ, and even to die like Christ. Anything it took to be like Christ and to rise from death like Christ – that’s what Paul had signed up for. His singular focus was to live eternally in heaven with his savior.
Paul’s motto: I’ll do whatever it takes.
This is worth stopping to think about. Would you do whatever it takes to be with God in heaven? Jesus talked about the same thing in parable. A couple examples from Matthew 13:
Jesus said the kingdom of heaven was like a treasure hid in a field. When a man found out it was hidden there, it was of such great worth that he sold all he had in order to be able to purchase the field, and therefore acquire the treasure. The kingdom of heaven was worth giving up everything else.
He also compared the kingdom of heaven to the best pearl in all the world. Once a merchant saw it, he rejected all other pearls because they fell short. Again, he sold all he had to acquire this pearl because it had unspeakable worth.
Do you see heaven as having that much value? Do I? Man, I’d like to think so, but there are so many good things in life. Getting that promotion at work or finding that dream job is a fantastic thing. It’s a good thing. God is not a killjoy. Finding fulfilling work is a blessing. But do I seek that more than I seek after heaven? When I do, I’ve found my idol.
Do you look forward to the day that you’re out of debt? That’s a fantastic thing. In fact, God says it is good to keep control of your finances. But do you place a higher value on financial freedom than you do your eternal freedom? If so, that’s your idol.
What are other things that you are unwilling to let go of? Certainly, there are probably sins you continually find yourself committing – but I’ll bet there are good things that occupy your focus too. Does this mean we can’t enjoy life? Of course not. But if we’re honest, a whole lot of what we call enjoyment is actually sanctified idolizing and coveting.
Paul says all of this will fade when we have the singular focus of spending eternity with Jesus. And he’s willing to do anything to achieve that. And this brings us to today’s text.
Philippians 3:12 – 4:1
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
“Brothers (and sisters), join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers (and sisters), whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”
Paul is calling us to endure. He bookends this passage with language of perseverance, pressing on, straining for the goal, being immovable in our resolve. He calls us to live like Christ, and never give up. Stand firm. Will you? Do you really count everything else as rubbish in comparison to this singular goal? Please don’t confuse this with earning your salvation! Because Paul, Jesus, and all of scripture agrees that you can’t. What I am saying – what Paul is saying – is that we should be focused on attaining resurrection from the dead – the afterlife – the eternal reward.
Was Paul Saved?: Already, but Not Yet.
So Paul’s motivation is eternal life. Interestingly, in v12, he says he doesn’t consider himself to have obtained it yet. Certainly, by placing saving faith in Christ he had, hadn’t he? This is an example of what theologians refer to as “already/not yet”. Paul was saved when he wrote this, but Jesus was also in the process of saving him, and that salvation will come to fruition at judgment. Paul was redeemed, but Christ was redeeming him. Sanctified, and yet through the Holy Spirit’s convicting work, undergoing the process of sanctification. Because of this “already/not yet”, Paul could talk of having full confidence in his salvation, and he could also talk about running the race in order to win as if salvation was something to earn. Surely, Christ has done the work, but that should not make us complacent – it should make us work all the more!
So, That Means We Earn Our Salvation?
Understanding Paul’s motivation here is also the solution to understanding the seeming disagreement between James and Paul about works. Paul said your works can’t save you. James said your works save you. On the surface, that seems like a problem. Here’s the solution: They’re not talking about the same work. Paul is talking about works of the law. It is true that the work of following rules cannot save us (not to mention that we would fail miserably at this anyway). James on the other hand is talking about the work that we do in response to being saved. If we truly are saved from the penalty of our sins, we ought to do things differently. If we didn’t, would anyone watching think that we actually believed what we said? That’s why James said, “I’ll show you my faith by my works”. In other words, that’s how you’ll know that I’m a Christian and my faith is sincere.
So, who’s right – James or Paul? Yes. They both are. No matter how much you do or how good you think you are, that white robe of righteousness you imagine yourself to be earning is actually seen by God as “filthy rags” or “polluted and permanently stained garments”. (This is a reference to defiled menstrual cloths.) But that doesn’t mean that doing good is bad. It means that what you do won’t save you. You might as well not even try. On the other hand, the pleasing deeds performed by one who has been redeemed by Christ are seen in a much different light. Hebrews 11 enumerates the saints who have gone before, whose deeds were seen as pleasing to God, because of the fact that they had been justified by faith. And further, God saw these deeds as evidence that their faith was legitimate.
- By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous
- By faith Noah, (…) in reverent fear [of God] constructed an ark for the saving of his household (…) and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
- By faith Abraham left his home when God told him to, followed where God led, and offered to God his miracle son, and in doing so please God with his obedience.
- By faith, Moses stood up to Pharaoh and left a life of luxury to lead a stubborn and ungrateful people into the desert, all because he believed God. And God was pleased with this obedience.
On and on we could go with the examples. We don’t obey to earn our salvation, but those who are saved respond by obeying.
The writer of Hebrews notes that “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Do we see ourselves as foreigners here? As exiles on the earth? These mighty people of faith did, and it drove them to please God rather than man. They died without receiving the things they had promised. We’re in something of a wilderness too. Our promised land is heaven. And Paul says we should strive toward that promised land with all our strength.
What Jesus Did
So Paul knows that he could not save himself, but he has been saved by Christ. More specifically, he was saved by a process called imputation. Actually, we should talk about double imputation. Imputation is the process of a thing being counted to someone else’s account. For instance, when Adam fell, we all fell. His sin was imputed to all of us. As in, we were all counted as owing it even though Adam is the one who did it. When Christ came though, he reversed that. The reason we call what Christ did “double imputation” is that two things happened. First, he took our guilt that he did not deserve, and having it counted as his own received the punishment due. Our guilt was imputed to Christ. Second, he gave to us his righteousness that we did not earn. He lived the perfect life that we could not live, and that credit was imputed to us. He lived the life we could not live. He died the death we should have died. That’s double imputation, and it’s an unspeakable gift.
So, are we righteous? No. But God sees us as righteous because he sees Christ when he looks at those who are his. We are not perfect, though we seek to “be perfect as he is perfect”. Perfection means to have no lack. It means there is no deficiency. So seeking perfection is a lifelong pursuit. Will I ever reach it? No – but that is the target that we aim for.
Side note: We ought to understand the purpose of both law and gospel. We cannot follow the law or attain perfection. But in attempting to do so, we see our weakness and we have a greater appreciation for who God is. The law says “do”, the gospel says “done”. And yet, until we try to “do” and fail, we do not see how sunk we are. We are truly lost. The good news of the gospel relies on this. Without bad news, there is no good news. The gospel says you are an incredibly bad person, but you have an incredibly good savior.
Notice the end of this verse (v12). Paul makes it clear he isn’t seeking to save himself. This is not the law at work here. He says “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own”. In other words, this is all his response to Christ. There is a huge difference between duty and response.
In the Count of Monte Cristo, there is a scene where Edmond Dantes finds himself washed up on a beach. Soon thereafter, he finds he is not alone. The island is occupied by a band of pirates. They find Dantes and decide they will use him to determine the fate of one of their own. The smuggler Jacopo was a traitor. He had betrayed his own crew and was sentenced to death. The leader of the smugglers saw Dantes as a convenient way to wash his hands of the matter, and ordered the knife fight. To add to the difficulty, Jacopo was the best knife fighter in the world. The hitch is that this was to be a fight to the death. Surprising everyone, Dantes won. All that was left was for him to kill his opponent. Still poised over Jacopo, knife in hand, Dantes appeals to the leader to spare Jacopo’s life. When he agrees, Jacopo tells Dantes, “I am your man forever”.
Did Jacopo have anything to earn? His life had already been spared, so this was not a promise to earn his life. Rather, seeing the great gift he had been given, his response was to devote his life to the one who saved him because of his sincere gratitude.
This is a dim comparison to what Paul is talking about here. He’s not saying such actions save him. Rather, he’s saying that this is the natural response of one who realizes the gravity of what Christ has done. Have you ever stopped to consider this?
Paul knows that he wants eternal life. He knows that Christ attained this for him. And yet, he does not consider it to be his own, lest he be complacent. He presses on. He ignores past failures and past victories. He thinks only of the goal ahead: eternity with Christ.
Like Jacopo, this response is always at the front of his mind. There is not a day he wakes up and forgets that he should be dead, but for his savior. And so he presses on out of love and thankfulness. Paul says if we are mature, that will be our response as well (v15).
Beware the Dogs
Before Paul closes this chapter about the importance of putting our faith entirely in Christ, he offers an admonition – an instruction that also carries a warning . Paul starts by getting personal. It seems like the Philippians were especially interested in copying other people. (Are we really so different today?) Remember back at the beginning of this chapter he gave his pedigree? Noble birth, highly trained, well respected, hard worker, etc. By all measures, he was the high-water mark. So now he says, “You want a target to aim for? You need a mentor? Pick me. Just remember what I’ve said! None of these criteria got me anywhere with God. The only thing that matters is my devotion to God – my commitment to following after Christ with all I have – no matter what that means for me. You need to follow a human? Then copy me as I copy Christ.”
And then there’s the warning. You can’t follow just anyone who claims to follow Christ. Paul praised the Bereans for not just listening to his message, but for examining the scripture to see if what he said was accurate. Paul said not to blindly trust other prominent leaders – Paul’s peers essentially – unless they live like Paul in abandon to God. He refers to there being many people – people he has warned them about often – as being enemies of the cross. Don’t miss the weight of what he is saying here! In fact, Paul says he weeps for them because he knows their end is destruction. He is saying there are people who are quite well known, that others might compare to him because they claim to preach Christianity – who are going to hell! Let that sink in. Jesus said “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to eternal life – and those that find it are few”.
Those who say the way is easy are wrong. If you are listening to people who say you can have your best life now, please stop. If they say salvation requires adherence to Hebrew rituals, paying money to a ministry, or performing acts of contrition, don’t follow them. Ignore them. If they claim to be modern apostles or prophets on par with those who brought us Scripture, with insider knowledge from God about how God will grant your every wish for comfort, success, money, fame, and ease, don’t follow them. Run. There are no super-Christians to follow because of how impressive they claim to be personally. Paul could not have been more clear. He had nailed the Law, he performed miracles, he displayed spiritual gifts, he had visions of heaven – and all that mattered to him was that he was like Christ. That was the only thing to copy.
Listen again to what Paul has to say:
“For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
If this sounds harsh… good. Christianity is not a life of ease. You don’t tack God onto the lifestyle you’ve chosen - that’s not transformation. The way is narrow. The gospel is an offense. If you are a Christian, you will live differently. If you are a Christian, you will tell others about Christ. If you are a Christian, you will weep for the lost. If you are a Christian, you will be troubled by your own sin, and will war against it. Paul made clear at the beginning of the chapter not to follow those who count on the rigors of the Law is the path to be saved. Now he’s exposing the other side of self-made righteousness: don’t follow those who claim indulgence (full bellies, ease, comfort, money) is the reward of the saved.
By All Means
So what’s motivating all this? Let’s let Paul round out his earlier discussion about the importance of Christ.
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
Remember back in verse 11 – “that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead”? Here’s the “by all means” that Paul was talking about: Christ. He will transform our body. He will make all things right. He will give us eternal life. He is our hope and our salvation.
So, what does Paul want us to do? If we ignore the chapter and verse numbers, we’ll find the answer: “Therefore, stand firm.”
There is a casual phrase that carries more meaning than we often realize. Have you “put your faith in God”? I don’t mean have you checked the Christian box on the census form. I’m talking about something much more real.
After a cast is removed, you might be tempted to favor that leg. You avoid putting any stress on it out of fear that it will be painful, or even break again. You don’t truly believe that you are better until you put weight on that leg. You need to walk around, kick a ball, do the things that you’re supposed to be able to do. That’s “putting faith in your leg”. You can say all you want about the doctor’s skill and your belief in the process. But until your actions prove that there is substance to your words, there is good reason to question your faith.
Have you ever put your full weight on God? Do you really trust him? The heart of man is desperately wicked. But God saves men by extending to them his grace. We respond in faith. Not some vague notion or belief. This faith is a sincere and firm trust that God exists and he rewards those who seek him. If you have not repented and placed your trust in Christ, I implore you to do so. He is the only hope you have for finding peace with God. If you are a Christian, I’d encourage you to examine yourself to see whether you are in the faith. Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Put to death whatever is earthly in you, because these are why God’s wrath is coming. These encouragements are not just something to do when you receive Christ – they are your new lifestyle.
The author of Hebrews would have us look to the examples of those who trusted God and then obeyed. Seeing their example, lay aside everything that might distract you as you run with endurance the race that has been set before us, always keeping our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith
This message is a serious reminder of our responsibility to obey God. But it is also a fantastic message of assurance. If you are saved, you cannot be snatched from his hand. So, trust God! Run the race. Press on. Be aware of the wolves. Keep your eyes on heaven.
How Great Thou Art
Listen to a few verses of a poem (later turned into a song) written by a Swedish pastor:
O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder, Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
When through the woods, and forest glades I wander, And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees. When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing; Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in; That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin.
These are the words of a man who understands the gravity of what God had done. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:1-5 ___________________________________
 Philippians 3:12 – 4:1
 Romans 8:38,39; Philippians 1:3-6
 1 Cor 9:24; Hebrews 12:1
 Galatians 2:15-21
 James 2:14-26
 Isaiah 64:6
 Hebrews 11:13
 Acts 5:29; Galatians 1:10
 Romans 5:12
 Matthew 4:48
 Acts 17:11
 Matthew 7:13-14
 Philippians 3:18-19
 Philippians 3:20-21
 Hebrews 11:6
 2 Corinthians 13:5
 Romans 12:2
 Colossians 3:5-10
 Hebrews 12:1-2
 John 10:27-29
"Finally, brothers and sisters, draw your strength and might from God. Put on the full armor of God to protect yourselves from the devil and his evil schemes. We’re not waging war against enemies of flesh and blood. No, this fight is against tyrants, against authorities, against supernatural powers and demon princes that slither in the darkness of this world, and against wicked spiritual armies that lurk about in heavenly places. And this is why you need to be head-to-toe in the full armor of God: so you can resist during these evil days and be fully prepared to hold your ground."
Here we see individual responsibility in the midst of corporate unity. This is not like spiritual gifts or the “Five Fold Office” mentioned earlier in Ephesians where God gave “some” to be apostles, evangelists, etc. This is a clear call to all of us.
"Yes, stand—truth banded around your waist, righteousness as your chest plate, and feet protected so you are steadied by and ready to proclaim the good news of peace with God. Don’t forget to raise the shield of faith above all else, so you will be able to extinguish flaming spears hurled at you from the wicked one. Take also the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray always. Pray in the Spirit. Pray about everything in every way you know how! And keeping all this in mind, pray on behalf of God’s people. Keep on praying feverishly, and be on the lookout until evil has been stayed. And please pray for me. Pray that truth will be with me before I even open my mouth. Ask the Spirit to guide me while I boldly defend the mystery that is the good news— for which I am an ambassador in chains—so pray that I can bravely pronounce the truth, as I should do."
In Romans 13: 12-14, Paul writes, "Put on the armor of light… clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ." He was expanding on the words of Isaiah:
- “Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash round his waist.” Isaiah 11:5
- “For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, and an helmet of salvation upon his head” (Isaiah 59:17).
Paul talked other places about the nature of our fight. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds. We destroy arguments…and take every thought captive.” (2 Corinthians 10:3- 5).
Let’s be clear: God makes the armor. We ask for it, and He gives it, not because we are awesome, but because He is. Then we have to put it on. Paul says, “It’s time to move. Put on that which God offers you for your good and His glory.”
- Put on: The Belt of Truth (aletheia, reality as opposed to illusion).
- Stand For: The truth that God is real; Jesus was God in the Flesh; his life, death and resurrection bring us salvation, forgiveness and hope. If this is not true, “we are of all people most miserable.” (1 Corinthians 15:19)
- Stand Against: The error that Christianity is wishful thinking (“I want it to be true!”), merely human thoughts (“The Bible just shows us how people thought about God”), or only one way of many equally effective ways.
- Put on: The Breastplate of Righteousness (dikaiosune, right standing with God)
- Stand For: The truth that it is only through Jesus Christ that we are absolved from the penalty of sin, freed from the power of sin, and guarded while in the presence of sin.
- Stand Against: The error that we are born good (“I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way”), or that we can become righteous through our works .
- Put on: The Shoes of Peace (eirene, peace with God; tranquility in salvation)
- Stand For: The truth there is spiritual peace with God through our commitment to and ongoing life with Jesus Christ. This is not the same as saying that if you are a Christian, there will be peaceful coexistence of others on earth, or that you will always feel interior peace. This is a claim about a truth that is greater than our circumstances or our feelings. Romans 5:1-2: “Therefore, since we have been made right in God's sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God's glory.”
- Stand Against: The error of false saviors (spiritual or material) and fleeting peace, which is usually some form of indulgence or avoidance. If something calms the chaos in our life no matter how little and how temporary, we tend to overindulge. Money? Sex? Being noticed and admired? Food? Vacations? Or if something brings anything unsettling, we avoid. People who annoy us…situations that aren’t just to our liking…a controlled environment (diet, exercise, social groups)
- Put on: The Shield of Faith (pistis; “Trusting, holding to, and acting on what one has good reason to believe is true in the face of difficulties.” – Tim McGrew)
- Stand For: The truth that there is wisdom in an ongoing trust in and response to God. A belief that the Bible matches the world. We often think of faith as just trust in God. I think we have to include trust in God’s revelation. The Bible tells us that we are to be faithful in little things if we expect to be trusted in big things (Luke 16:10). But if the Bible is wrong, then God has not been faithful in little things. If you don’t understand the little things in the Bible, press in to them. Read. Study. Pray. Ask qualified, godly people for advice. Trusting that the biggest things are true in Christianity will trickle down; trusting that the smallest things in Christianity are true will build up.
- Stand Against: The error that we should trust in Idols (self, hidden knowledge, politicians, the economy, health, pop psychology, etc).
- Put on: The Helmet of salvation (soterios; saving)
- Stand For: The truth of God's promises of eternal salvation and ongoing sanctification in Jesus Christ. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind… “ (Romans 12:2) “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:5) “…be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24)
- Stand Against: The error of gaining salvation from anything other than Christ, or evolving spiritually by thinking positively
- Put on: The Sword of the Spirit (The Bible)
- Stand for: The truth of the power, trustworthiness and sufficiency of God's Word to tell us what we need to know about Christ and His plan for the world.
- Stand Against: The error of giving anything else equal weight in your spiritual formation; trusting outside sources or inner revelation over clear Biblical truth.
Note: In Bible times, there was no stainless steel. A sword unused became rusty, dull, and pitted. Swords were kept clean by frequent use or by honing them against a stone (the Rock of Ages) or another soldier’s sword. “Iron sharpeneth iron” (Proverbs 27:17)
- Put on: Prayer (proseuchomai; literally, to interact with the Lord by switching human wishes (ideas) for His wishes. “They Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) “Whatsoever you ask in my name…” (John 14:13) Accordingly, praying is closely inter-connected with pístis ("faith") in the NT. – (biblehub.com). In fact ,James 5 talks about the prayer of faith (“
- Stand For: The truth that prayer is powerful and necessary. We are told to constantly pray (1 Thessalonians 5:16) “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12) “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16)
- Stand Against: the error that prayer manipulates God or that prayer is unnecessary. God is not a machine. He’s not programmed in such a way that we can manipulate Him. God will answer prayer how he chooses to answer prayer. The prayers of the righteous are powerful, but not coercive. On the other hand, prayer is clearly not irrelevant. Part of being faithful is praying faithfully, and in the end praying what Jesus prayed: “Not my will, but yours be done.”
A final thought involving shields: We often read this individually: “You, Anthony! Stand!” But this letter was written to the churches in Ephesus. It’s a group command. Everyone then who saw the Roman army knew how this principle worked (see the cover of your bulletin). Now, in order for the group to stand, individuals need to stand to. It doesn’t absolve us. But it reminds us again of the importance of unifying around Christ, then standing against everything that comes against us – together.
Paul, an emissary of Jesus the Anointed commissioned by order of God our Savior and Jesus the Anointed, our living and certain hope, to you, Timothy, my true son in the faith. May the grace, mercy, and peace that come only from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ mark your life. As I said that day I left for Macedonia, stay in Ephesus and instruct the unruly people in the church, once and for all, to stop teaching a different doctrine. Tell them to turn away from fables and endless genealogies. These activities just cause more arguments and confusion. Instead, they should concern themselves with welcoming in and bringing about the Kingdom of God, which is all about faith. Our teaching about this journey is intended to bring us to a single goal—a place where self-giving love reigns from a pure heart, a clean conscience, and a genuine faith. Yes, some have walked away from these traits and have fallen into a life of endless blabber and nonsense— they wish to become scholars of the law, but they don’t know what they are talking about, and they make these grand pronouncements but clearly don’t understand what they just said. (1 Timothy 1:1-11)
Kids ask all the time, “What’s that for?” It's a natural question. We see designed things, and we figure they were designed with a goal in mind. It’s cute when you are explaining tools, funny when you are walking through a store, and awkward when they start discovering themselves. Then they start to discover they can come up with all kinds of ways to use the new things they find. You tell them what a hammer is for, but they find out all kinds of things they can do with it. You tell them what the intended use of the family scissors is, but they soon realize it can also be used on the dog. You tell them the purpose of having good clothes and run-around clothes….
Part of growing up is understanding the purpose and design of things. We can get frustrated if we aren’t on the same page with other people about what a thing is meant to be. What is the purpose of the following:
- Fishing – To catch fish? To relax? To talk?
- Supper? - To eat? To connect?
- Marriage - Happiness? Family? Love? Growth? Spiritual symbolism?
- Church services? - For the saved or the unsaved? To learn? To connect? To feel?)
Another part of growing up is learning the difference between what we CAN do with things and what we SHOULD do with things. We can harm ourselves and others if we ignore what we should do with a thing and instead settle for what we can do. For example, we should use our Lungs to breathe, be we can inhale harmful intoxicants if we want to. Sex should be an activity that both creates new life and unites us physically, emotionally, even spiritually with our spouse. We can use our sexual organs to do a lot of other things instead.
Part of growing up is learning the purpose of a thing – What is that for? – and then committing to fulfill that purpose. Part of growing up in Christ is learning the purpose and design of the church - Not what CAN it be, but what SHOULD it be?
According to Paul, the Church (of people) exists to bring about the Kingdom of God, through faith, characterized by love. Love is not Eros - the love of the worthy, the beautiful, that you take for your benefit. It is Agape love, which is irrespective of the merit of the object of love. It acts sacrificially for the benefit of the other.
How we won't accomplish the goal: ignoring core doctrine and engaging in endless debate about secondary issues or speculative ideas. The goal of church is not to get so caught up in speculation and debate about issues that do not involve Jesus Christ, the Cross, the Resurrection, and the necessity and means of salvation he offers us.
- The Jewish people in Paul’s time did this with genealogies. They would find obscure people and basically make up a story for them, and they would make every connection they could to try to fit into the family of someone important… but none of it mattered.
- The Greeks were more enamored with the myths, the equivalent of Hollywood gods and goddesses, fantasizing about a life of luxury and indulgence with the gods.
It doesn’t build anyone’s faith and it certainly doesn’t promote love. It’s a religion of trivia. And it usually results in self-promotion, pride, and self-righteousness. We have our own things within the church that distract and polarize us. When I was growing up Mennonite, churches split over whether or not women should wear a head covering. One church started over a hymnal issue. That’s silly. I am not sure it’s any sillier than some other things we divide over.
- Demanding that others agree with a particular Bible teaching from a particular perspective (Creationism; End Times)
- Overhype of encounters with the supernatural (stories of visiting Heaven or Hell)
- Following people or movements religiously (Leaders become infallible; conferences or churches become meccas)
- Arguing about a particular approach to a complex issue (Growing Kids God’s Way; Marriage teacher X; Biblical Economic Model)
- Hyper Patriotism or political loyalty (“You aren’t following the issue like I am? You aren’t an unwavering Democrat or Republican or Independentt?)
God created the world in a particular way; there will be a time when God wraps up the world; Heaven, Hell and the supernatural are very real; marriage and the family are big deals Biblically; we are supposed to be good stewards of our money; as long as we have the freedom to impact our government by our voices and our votes, we should. So please hear me clearly. NONE OF THOSE THINGS I LISTED ARE BAD THINGS. But they shouldn’t consume our time or become our priority. None of those issues further the goal of the church. They can help us; they can give structure to how we live and view the world, but they should not dominate your thoughts, time, or conversation.
They CAN, but it SHOULDN’T. If you are passionate about any of these things personally, awesome. Study, learn, pray, be discerning, be God-honoring in how you prioritize it and in how you communicate about it to others, But these things should not divide us. It’s not what church is about. Part of growing to maturity in Christ is understanding the purpose of the Church and committing ourselves to fulfilling that purpose. Speculation and division and anger over secondary issues is not the purpose of the church.
If it doesn't inspire us to the kind of love Paul mentions here, it’s doing nothing to build our faith characterized by love for the purpose of building the Kingdom of God. We need to major on the majors. We need to be about the Gospel.
How do we accomplish this goal, this design? We live IN FAITH and WITH LOVE when we surrender to Christ three crucial things:
- A Pure Heart: What We Want (Attitudes, motives, priorities). This is not a call to perfection. It’s asking, “Do you love what God loves? Do you value what God values? Are you motivated by love or guilt? Are you earning God’s favor by right living or honoring God through right living? Do you treat others well because they bear God’s image or to impress other people?
- A Clear Conscience: What We Do (Actions, thoughts, words). A pure heart had to do with interior motives; this reminds us that our action need to align with our heart. We can say anything we want to about how we feel about ourselves and our relationship to God, but what do we do matters. Does our exterior lives confirm what we claim is happening on the inside?
If I said that I loved my wife – my attitude, motives and priorities were all aligned properly – that would be admirable. But if I constantly mistreated her or betrayed her with my words or action, you would have good reason to believe that I am lying. My conscience would in no way be clear. Our interior lives and exterior lives are meant to align. A truly pure heart leads to a truly clear conscience. And in that kind of community – whether in the home or in the church – the Kingdom of God flourishes not just because of what is happening in us, but what is happening around us because of us.
- Genuine Faith: What We Believe (Doctrine, truth). We need to increasingly understand “the reason for the hope that lies within in us.” The reason we even care about a pure heart and a clear conscience is because of the person of Christ. And we learn about Christ through Scripture. Genuine faith is built on a trust in the person and work of Christ and the reliability of the message in Scripture. For this reason, a church community has to be one in which we all are continually striving to learn the truth of Christ and experience the presence of Christ.)
The reason we even care about a pure heart and a clear conscience is because of the person of Christ. And we learn about Christ through Scripture. Genuine faith is built on a trust in the person and work of Christ and the reliability of the message in Scripture. For this reason, a church community has to be one in which we all are continually striving to learn the truth of Christ and experience the presence of Christ.)
If Christ is who he claimed, and the Scripture reliably tells me about Him and His plan for the world, then my response is to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love my neighbor. If that is the priority of our heart, and that is what is expressed in our actions, then that is “the journey intended to bring us to a single goal—a place where self-giving love reigns from a pure heart, a clean conscience, and a genuine faith.”
Like most Greeks and Roman citizens, the Galatians grew up worshiping the gods of the local pantheon. Three aspects of their worship provided a foundation from which they built an understanding about how people were supposed to relate to the divine.
- Votive offerings. The people gave gifts to the gods who then gave them gifts. The fundamental idea was that if you were nice to the god, the god was nice to you. God was a cosmic slot machine: you put your spiritual money in, pulled the lever, and hoped you won.
- Competitions. These were the first Olympic Games. Nothing mattered but first place. To win, of course, you had to compete with everyone else. The gods would both notice and favor the winners, while the other competitors dropped of the radar of the divine until they did something to get noticed again.
- Processions. These parades for the gods involved a lot of pomp and pageantry. People showed off how much they were willing to give, how far they were willing to walk, etc. Everyone around them could see how much the gods must love them.
In Galatians 4, Paul reminds the new Christian converts what they had put behind them - but not completely:
“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable spiritual principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” (Galatians 4:8-9)
While it is easy to equate idolatry with idols, idolatry is far more complicated than merely the statues to which people bowed. It’s the “weak and miserable spiritual principles” that live in the heart of idolatry. It's the worship of something other than God - the giving of ourselves completely in the service or slavery of a particular thing that we think can fulfill our deepest longings or ease our greatest fears.
We worship that to which we give our heart, soul, mind and strength. It doesn't have to be a god from a classic pantheon. It can be the very Western idols of Approval, Comfort, Control, Independence, Achievement, Ideology, or Image. When these are the things we trust to meet our deepest longings and desires, they will destroy us in some fashion. Idolatry is a hard taskmaster.
The late writer David Foster Wallace captured this concept of slavery well. He was not a Christian, but he seems to have understood the tyranny of idolatry:
“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough… Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”
When we give ourselves to the worship and service of Christ, we are freed from the destructive, never-ending tyranny of desiring false gods. The Galatian Gentiles had converted from following false gods to following the true God, but they had not yet learned how their worship needed to change. To understand why this disconnect existed, we have to go with Paul back to Genesis.
God had promised that He would provide Abraham with an heir to live in a land of promise (Genesis 12:1-4; 15:4-5), and his descendants would be the line through which salvation was brought to the world.
Abraham was old and his wife Sarah was barren. The fulfillment of the promise seemed improbable ad best. So Sarah suggested that Abraham sleep with her maidservant, Hagar, so they could “build a family through her” (Genesis 16). This was a customary and legal (though not good) practice. Abraham decided not to wait for God to enact the promise. Instead, he decided to get a son of promise through his own effort. Hagar conceived and Ishmael was born. Fourteen years later, Sarah miraculously became pregnant, and Isaac was born (Genesis 21:1-3).
The Jewish people knew that they were the biologically the children of Abraham, descended from him through Isaac. They also believed they were heirs of God’s promise in the line of Isaac. So certainly agreed when Paul wrote this:
“Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman [Ishmael] was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman [Isaac] was born as the result of a divine promise.” (Galatians 4:22-23)
So far, so good. The Jewish converts are tracking with him. Unfortunately, what Paul had to say next was not going to make them as happy:
These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother…Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise… (Galatians 4:24-28).
WHAT!?!? Paul just said that the traditional Jewish understanding of what it meant to live in the line of promise was entirely wrong. Apparently, when the Galatians were becoming followers of Christ, they were being told that in order to enter into the line of promise (Isaac) they had to adopt all the Old Testament Mosaic law, because Moses was clearly part of the line too.
By conceiving a child with Hagar, Abraham was choosing to rely on his own capabilities to make God’s promises come to pass. So all the Jewish people who were relying on their own effort to gain the promise of salvation were actually in the tradition of Ishmael, not Isaac.
God chose to save the world through His promise not our power. When we look to something within our power, something we can manipulate, to meet our deepest longings, it’s idolatry. When we look to something within our power, something we can manipulate, to bring us salvation or righteousness, it is still idolatry.
“But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you. I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you…” (Galatians 4:9-12)
The Galatian converts had left their Greek idols that enslaved them, but looking to God's law to save them brought them right back into slavery. In fact, their new religious life looked a lot like their old religious life.
- Christian votive offerings. Remember - if we are nice to God, God will be nice to us. We have more devotional time, tithe more, we volunteer more in hopes that we can force God’s hand. Moral living, family, church attendance, Bible-reading, prayer — these can all become attempts to earn a response from Go
- Christian Competitions. When something in our life falls apart we assume God is punishing us, and when it flourishes He is rewarding us. And we begin to assume the same of others, then wonder what they did or didn’t do to force God’s hand. If that is how we view God, then it becomes very important to know who is the most rigorous in obeying the Law. After all, it should be clear who is winning, right? The one who is most obviously, outwardly successful – by our measure of success – must be the one whom God favors.
- Christian Processions. When we do “win,” we let everyone know. Apparently, our success means we’ve found the code. We have prayed a particular way, or read the Bible just right, or finally spent enough time doing some good deed… and God responded.
If you think God’s promise will only be achieved when you do those things to an acceptable level, you have placed something else in the position of telling God when He is free to extend His promise of salvation and righteousness.
That’s idolatry. Can you see how experiencing “freedom” and “life more abundant” will seem baffling in this context? This is why Paul is in “fear for” the Galatians. They were being pulled away from a God of grace and into a religion of works. It was not freeing them from idolatry. They were never going to understand or communicate a gospel ofpromise and grace. That's why Paul says:
“Those [false teachers] are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good…Christ is formed in you.” (Galatians 4:17-19)
Paul wants them to be full of excitement and commitment when it came to their new faith in Christ. But it had to be genuine, and to be genuine it had to embody the gospel of grace.
God is not a votive God. He isn’t waiting for a gift from me before He lets me experience life as his child.“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved—“ (Ephesians 2:4-5). Living well has its own reward – if I spend time in the Bible, I am absorbing God’s truth. If I spend time in focused prayer, I am purposefully humbling myself to God’s will and power. If I volunteer and help others and watch every word I say and give my money freely – good things happen all around me and within me. But I don’t want to be zealous to earn God’s favor be noticed by others. I want to be zealous because I want to participate in the character of Christ and the Kingdom of God.
There are no Olympian Games in which I have to outperform others for God to love me. I don't have to constantly compare myself to others. God is not arbitrarily cutting off the number of people who can come into His family. Paul says other places that he runs his spiritual race with endurance (Hebrews 12:1) and care (1 Corinthians 9:27) while still recognizing that Jesus is the “author and finisher of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2). But that is so he can fully appreciate the life of grace and freedom God offers and spread the good news of the gospel without detracting from it (Colossians 1:29).
I don’t need a processional. I don’t have to impress others by displaying my blessings or successes. There is no Mr. or Mrs. Kingdom of Heaven contest. I don’t have to impress a panel of earthly judges in order to be righteous before God. I am free to live without the need to self-promote because my identity comes from Christ. By the grace of God, I am what I am. (1 Corinthians 15:10). I am free to relax because Christ in me is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourself be burdened again by the bondage of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)
I am indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for helping me to think - and write - more clearly about Galatians.
The Apostle Paul often used real-life situations to highlight the unchanging truths hidden beneath the surface. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addresses an issue that, while not sinful on the surface, was still causing harm to members of this fledgling church.
“Now let’s talk about food that has been sacrificed to idols. You think that everyone should agree with your perfect knowledge. While knowledge may make us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one God knows and cares for.” 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 (NLT)
Corinth was filled with pagan temples. It was common for worshipers to offer animals to the god as a sacrifice. After a tiny part was burned on the altar, the remainder would be given to the temple priest, servants or local magistrates who then sold the surplus to the town butchers. If you lived in Corinth, there were several ways that you might come in contact with meat that had been sacrificed to idols:
- Buying meat in the marketplace. At the end of the day, a lot of meat was taken from the temples and sold. Christians who was shopping always encountered the possibility that they were purchasing meat previously offered to an idol. (1 Corinthians 10:25).
- Eating dinner at the home of friends and neighbors. If your neighbors invited you to dinner, there was no good way to know if the meat they served had been sacrificed to an idol (1 Corinthians 10:27).
- Eating in the pagan temples themselves. Some of the pagan temples could accommodate huge crowds for public affairs or community social functions. The subject had nothing to do with the idol worship, but often the meeting would include a meal. If you were a Christian attending one of these public meetings, the meat served at this banquet had probably been offered to the temple god earlier that day.
Two different views arose in the church at Corinth about how a believer should handle this. One group considered the food to be defiled by its association with the pagan idol. This group refused to eat the food, and they were offended by other believers who did eat.
The other group claimed that the food itself was not defiled in any way. Since these idols were not gods at all, the meat was not really defiled. It could be eaten guilt-free. Paul goes into great detail as to why this belief is better than the other – but he doesn’t stop there.
This second group of believers looked down on other believers who abstained from eating the meat sacrificed to idols. The first group thought those eating were traitors to their faith. Predictably, the church was full of confusion, tension, arrogance, and probably a lot of gossip.
This tension is bigger than just meat offered to idols, though. It’s really about relationships in the community --- and that community is the church of Jesus Christ.
“Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1)
Paul isn’t saying that knowledge is unimportant. Having correct knowledge is crucial! Rather, he’s saying that knowledge alone tends to create pride. But when knowledge is joined with love, it becomes a much better guide to righteous behavior.
"If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know" …" (1 Corinthians 8:2)
We use factual knowledge in much the same way a building uses a foundation. I’ve been watching the construction of a drugstore here in Traverse City. It is a very well built structure – cement blocks covered with a brick veneer. There is nothing flimsy about that building! But before any of that construction began, they spent over a week digging and pouring massive foundations, wide and deep. The building will be secure for a long, long time.
I think we use knowledge is a similar way – to substantiate our worth and position in a world where we are often timid and uncertain of ourselves. Sometimes it’s a tool to establish ourselves as worthwhile individuals among others who are obviously less well-informed. Remember, the foundation isn’t wrong or unimportant to that drugstore that is being built. Nor is knowledge bad or unimportant in the relationships we’re building. It is a tool - and like any tool, must be used properly.
So, the first step in making knowledge useful is to know its limitations. Christians are fallen creatures with limited knowledge – being saved doesn’t miraculously turn us into all-knowing beings. God alone has unlimited or complete knowledge! Humility is precious, and nothing tempers our knowledge like humility. The true purpose of knowledge is to promote the welfare of others. Knowledge must be accompanied by and delivered in love.
Those who have the greater knowledge and spiritual maturity are the ones who should accommodate the less mature. They should abstain from activities that might harm the faith and life of those who are weaker. Paul already said in verse one that the whole “eating thing” doesn’t make believers better or worse in God's eyes, but that this sense of superiority can cause harm to others. It’s a stumbling block to the weaker brother or sister and it can lead them into confusion…and possibly even lead to sinful behavior in the young believer’s walk. So, rather than causing a brother to sin, it was better for them to forgo their Christian liberty (change their behavior) in these cases.
Our choices and our behaviors should be motivated and characterized by self-sacrificing love for those around us, rather than by knowledge (or freedom) alone.
- (Romans 15:4) - “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
- (Colossians 1:5) - ”For the hope that is laid up for you in heaven, which you have heard in the word of the truth of the gospel.”
- (Galatians 5:5) - For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.
So hopes builds on the firm foundation of faith. Hebrews 6:18-19 says, “The hope set before us…as the anchor of the soul.” It is meant to keep us stable through the storms of life. As Billy Graham said, "I've read the last page of the Bible. It's all going to turn out all right."
- Romans 5:5 “For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.”
- Ephesians 5:2 ”…and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us.”
- Galatians 5:14 - "For all the law is fulfilled in one command: "You should love your neighbor as yourself."
There are things we pray for already knowing God’s will. Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Gentleness, Goodness, Kindness, Self-control, Holiness, Purity, Faith, Hope, Forgiveness, Humility. You don't have to pray, “God, do you want me to have these??!?!”
James warns against "double-minded" prayers, prayers that waver when we doubt that God’s plan for our character is really the best option.
“Purity? Really? Self-control? I have to forgive her? I have to love him? That can’t be right. I’ve seen the gods of this world and they are self-indulgent, tough, and certainly not pure. And look what a good time they are having on Jersey Shore!”
Then there are things we pray for without knowing God’s will: A new job…a spouse….College….. money…. government leaders...vacation plans….business decisions…. amajor purchase…health.
We may not know these with certainty – maybe we’re not supposed to. We would never have to “step out in faith” if we knew with certainty. We waver here when we doubt that God is sovereign no matter what we choose.
“How could you have let me do this? I don't see a why out! Why did you let this happen to me?”
Do we believe that God is truly in control, or are we confident that our perspective is the one that should win the day? This prayer of faith is one in which we say, alongside Christ in the Garden, "Not my will, but yours be done."
James 4:4-5 “You have committed spiritual adultery against God! Don’t you know that the love of this world’s pleasures is an act of hostility against God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the corruption of the world becomes an enemy of God. Do you think that the Scripture was lying about this, or that the Holy Spirit which dwells in us wants us to envy others instead of being contented with the provision of God in our lives?”
Envy is an ugly thing. It eats away at our should while tearing apart our community. It manifests itself in mean gossip, destructive whispering, and petty complaints. We want and want and want more - often specifically what someone else has. More often than not, envious people are pretty sure the problem is that they just haven't received what should have been coming to them. "I deserve better!" may not be spoken aloud, but it is certainly believed.
Here is a transformative principle: Our community life is connected to our spiritual life. The way I treat people reflects they way I view God.The way I view God will be expressed in the way I treat others. If there is ongoing tension and disruption in church life, perhaps the issue is a spiritual one.
Let’s be clear: some conflicts are genuine and needed. If there is disagreement about whether or not Jesus rose from the dead, or if clear issues of moral behavior are right or wrong, then conflict can be necessary and hopefully redemptive. In fact, sometimes the phrase “I deserve better” is true; abuse victims truly do need saving.
This is not what James is talking about when he writes about envy and the role it plays in destroying communities. He is talking about:
• the petty bickering,
• the simmering undercurrents of hostility,
• the unresolved, unending tension that keeps cropping up in church
• the feuds that fester,
• the rumor that someone won’t let die,
• the reputation that keeps coming up to the embarrassment of the one
who once failed,
• the muttered remarks meant to shame those blessed by God with
We don’t have to actually steal stuff and kill people to take from them what is rightfully theirs and destroy their lives. We can do it with words, attitudes, and emotions too. James’ words on this subject are hard and demanding: You have a tough time living well in community because something bad has happened to your relationship with God.
But there is good news:
James 4:6-10 “God’s lavish grace enables us to resist the temptations and bear the trials of life with humility and trust, knowing that God’s Holy Spirit has said, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” So, submit yourselves to God; resist the devil (who would tempt you to envy) and he will flee from you; walk closely to God, and God will be close to you.
If you want inner contentment and community peace, there is a way: resist temptation, repent, live a life of humility, and remain in submission to God.
A couple weeks ago Madonna sang during half time of the Superbowl. As the last notes faded, the phrase "World Peace" appeared on the field. That's a great goal, but I wonder: does her plan include resisting temptation, being humble, repenting, and submitting to God?
We want peace in ourselves, our families, our church. That's a great goal too. Does our plan include resisting temptation, being humble, repenting, and submitting to God?
But whoever studies and knows God’s perfect law of liberty that brings true freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard and seen about themselves, but actually changing because of it—they will be blessed as a result of their honesty and obedience. Real faith, the kind that honors God, expresses itself: it reaches out to the homeless and alone, and works to keep itself pure in the midst of a godless world. (James 1:25-27)
Ever watch kids play when one of them makes up the rules as they go along? Their freedom with the rules has robbed the others of the freedom to enjoy the game, and usually of their good attitude. This in turn robs us parents of the freedom to talk with little Bobby’s mom or day while the kids play. That’s not perfect liberty, that’s chaos.
Ever driven with someone who apparently has no sense of the rules of the road? Stop signs are pause signs, speed limits are silly, merging is an opportunity to show people you aren’t scared, double yellow lines are mere suggestions, maybe even blood alcohol levels are irrelevant. Their freedom is robbing others of the ability to drive free from the worry of accidents. It might rob their family of money if they have to pay a fine. It might even rob somebody of their life. That’s not perfect liberty, that’s chaos.
Or perhaps you know someone or have experienced yourself what happens when addictive behaviors result from freely chosen decisions.
When your freedom destroys you and hurts those around you, you need a different definition of freedom. A true exercise of freedom simultaneously brings life to us and brings life others.
As followers of Christ we are freed from the bondage of sin. We are released into the “perfect law of liberty,” not into the perfect lawlessness of liberty.James’s perfect law of liberty does not mean, “Do what you want. You now have free access to the world without having to think about anybody but yourself. ” It means you had once been a slave to things that were breaking you down and ruining you and those around you, but God in his mercy has shown you how to be released from that bondage and live in such a way that God is seen in and through you.