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Game On

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The Apostle Paul often used figures of speech from arena competition.  In Corinth, the people were most familiar with the Isthmian Games.  Since Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 9 in that context, it’s worth learning a bit more about the games before looking at the passage.

      Athletes had to have the right credentials. They could not compete if they did not pass a background check that had to do with social class (they could not be slaves or criminals) and personal character (they could not be liars and cheats). They trained with intensity for ten months before even being allowed in the games. They ate a particular diet; they exercised a lot; they sacrificed many comforts for the sake of the games.

      During the games, a herald (which we translate “preacher”) had quite a few roles:

  • display the prizes
  • encourage the contestants
  • convince the audience they should emulate the contestants
  • explains the rules of each contest
  • announce the victors and crown them

     In fact, when the athletes entered the venue, the herald would loudly announce: “Who can accuse this man?” If no one did, he would say that since the contestant was not a slave, thief, or person of corrupt morals, he could enter the games. After the competition, the judges declared one winner, who received a crown of some type of vegetation.

     It’s in this context that Paul writes to the Corinthian church:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”  (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)


Paul is the herald for the church – the “preacher.’ As 1 Corinthians 9 unfolds he displays the prize, exhorts the contestants, encourages people to copy them, declares the terms (rules and boundaries), and declares his own eligibility.

There’s at least one key difference - Paul doesn’t address their origin or training.  There was no herald in the church announcing who was qualified to enter the games based on their history.  If that were the case, no one would be eligible. They couldn’t earn their way into the spiritual arena through birth or hard work. They were in if they followed Christ.

Paul then tells them to train and compete as athletes who really want to win.  Jesus once said, “Count the cost if you want to follow me.” Paul picks up this theme – following Christ will demand time, attention, and effort. It will change your life if you run is such a way as to win. 

In order to do this, Paul had to discipline his body, literally “making it a slave.”  This is a wrestling analogy. Paul is going to put his sinful urges into a headlock and put them down for the count. If you’ve heard the phrase “like a boss,” that’s what’s going on here.

Then Paul says, “I do not run like one running aimlessly (ignorantly), so that I myself will not be disqualified.” No athlete would start a contest without knowing the rules. Paul was basically saying, “I do not follow Christ like one ignorant about life in the Kingdom of God. What I do is purposeful.”

 What was the prize? The New Testament refers to a number of different prizes, goals, or rewards:

  • "the calling that is above" (Galatians 4:26; Colossians 3:1)
  • "the heavenly calling" (Hebrews 3:1)
  • "the crown of righteousness" (1Corinthians 9:24; 2Timothy 4:8)
  • "crown of life." (Revelation 2:10)
  • "a crown of glory that does not fade away." (1Peter 5:4)
  • “prize of the upward call of Christ” (Philippians 3:4)

These are all part of the broader “citizenship of heaven” Paul talks about in Philippians 3.  We are citizens of Heaven, but right now we live here. There is a race and a prize even while we wait for the Ultimate Crown of Life. The most direct language Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 9 is connected with his calling as a minister of the Gospel. The prize is the blessing and reward of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ:

“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord…?  Don’t we have the right to food and drink?  Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?  Is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk?  ...If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?” But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ…What is my reward? That in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge…. “   (1 Corinthians 9:1-12 – excerpted)

Who goes to war, plants a field, or raises a herd at their own expense? Nobody – at least not willingly.  In the same way, Paul had the right to be honored and supported for the spiritual service he has given them. But Paul said that really didn’t matter. What mattered was the work of the gospel, not whether or not he was underappreciated and treated unfairly.  He went on to clarify:

“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) 

Remember, he’d just written about how they were to honor each other in midst of the “MeatGate Scandal.”  The ruling principle in that situation applies here as well: Paul would give up all kinds of rights and privileges and non-compromising issues to spread the gospel. Rather than make all people become like him, he was going to become like them.

So he went to the Jews and observed their ceremonies - and the Gentiles said, “What? Is he reverting to legalism? We’re the freedom people! You’re ruining the gospel!” He went to the Gentiles and hung out with them - and the Jews said, “What?  They are law breakers! You’re ruining the Gospel!”  But Paul was just seeing how he could connect with a group that needed to hear about Jesus in a way that did not compromise his integrity or the Gospel message. 

That’s the race Paul was running and heralding here: sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with integrity will bring about a prize that will not fade for all of eternity.

 

A Christian's Achilles Heel

In February of 2006 I  ruptured my Achilles’ Tendon at a men’s retreat.  In one sudden burst of pain I found that I had a great difficulty walking – and you really don’t want to do that if you have a choice. 
I remember vividly sitting in the doctor's office a day or two before the surgery, getting the low-down on what I would be facing both during the surgery and in the weeks of recovery  that followed: Six weeks in a cast followed by six weeks in a boot.
After going over a lot of details, Dr. Licht looked squarely at me and said,  “I’m good at what I do.  I can repair this tendon perfectly one time!  If you follow my instructions things will go well!  If you don’t follow my instructions to the letter, and you rupture this tendon again, I won’t be as successful, and you’ll likely walk with a limp for the rest of your life!  I want your leg elevated every waking moment unless you are in the bathroom or brushing you teeth.  Do you understand?"

 For  twelve weeks I did exactly what he said.  Today, my Achilles tendon is perfect and I have no limp and no limitations.  What made the difference?  I chose to trust someone who knew far more than I. 
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Here’s a painful truth: we are headed down a road of destruction because we have trivialized the Word of God.  We bend and manipulate the Word, trying to make it to say whatever we choose; whatever suits our weak behaviors.  We don’t regard it as what it truly is: the unalterable Word of God. 

We view this book as an accumulation of interesting stories, and we assign those stories whatever value we deem appropriate.  We don’t view this as being a book of Words that were divinely inspired, coming from God, revealed by His Holy Spirit to man, and intended to be received and accepted as authoritative.  

Oh, sure, we still check out God’s thoughts on a range of topics - and we blend His thoughts with ours.  It’s not just that it’s wrong thinking, and as such an offence to God.  This kind of worldview tears apart the very safeguards that God established to protect us.  The church at Thessalonica received and accepted what Paul said AS THE WORD OF GOD,"...which also performs its work in you who believe." (Philippians 2:13)


Is it any wonder that the world around us is falling apart?  We have substituted our thoughts for His thoughts, and our ways for His ways! Even worse, some of us in the church of Jesus Christ are falling apart because we’re toying with the Word of God.
Matthew Henry (1662 – 1714), an English Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister, said this about the Bible: We should receive the word of God with affections suitable to its holiness, wisdom, truth, and goodness. The words of men are frail and perishing, like themselves, and sometimes false, foolish, and fickle; but God's word is holy, wise, just, and faithful. Let us receive and regard it accordingly.
When we receive and accept and believethe Word of God, it changes us.  We begin to be transformed into the image of the very One who saves us: Jesus Christ Himself.  Believing is the key to becoming like Christ!  And this happens when His awesome power empowers my humble consent.

Philippians 2:13 also suggests that those who do not believe will not see the transformative power of Christ and His word in their lives! "For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure."

What is “belief” in God really about?  It is when I humble my arrogant self to His glorious Lordship of my life; when I give my humble consent to Him bringing a new governmental structure in my life and my world. When I was a child, our church used to sing this hymn:

When we walk with the Lord in the light of his word, what a glory he sheds on our way! While we do his good will, he abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey. Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus,but to trust and obey.

The foundational premise for “trusting and obeying" lies in having a profound realization of the one in whom I have place my trust and obedience!  Is this God or not?  

It is no surprise that unbelievers ignore God.  They have not experienced the amazing miracle of forgiveness, and they do not possess the Holy Spirit living inside of them.

But when we say we love and follow God, ignore or twist or compromise His word, all while expecting that we’ll still reap His blessings because we’re in the Club, we're in trouble !


If I’ve truly come to trust Him over my years of following Him, then why on earth would I question his Words – His wisdom – His instruction?

- Ted Smith, at Church of the Living God, on Sunday, April 22, 2012

It's Not Rocket Science

I grew up on a small farm, less than a hundred acres. My dad had small orchards of cherries, apples, and some peaches and plums.  Although we were never wealthy, I was very happy.  Well, for the most part!

My neighbor Pat and I (Ted Smith) played together a lot, especially riding bicycles in the neighborhood. We’d pretend that our bikes were cars, and we’d identify them according to what our dad’s drove.  My dad, being a small-scale farmer, drove a rather plain Oldsmobile. 
So --- my two-wheeler became an Oldsmobile.  I was o.k. with that…..at first!  Pat’s father was an Orthodontist, and he drove a Chrysler Imperial (the word “Imperial” even sounds impressive, doesn’t it?)  So there we went, riding around the neighborhood: Pat on his IMPERIAL, and me with a plain Oldsmobile.
There is a streak in us from the get-go that seeks to identify and quantify our existence, and more often than not to exaggerate our importance.  Sometimes, when we become educated and enter the employment realm, we seek to define ourselves by our careers and the importance that comes with that job title.  I guess you could call it “positioning.” 
There’s a new television ad that I’ve seen several times recently – it features a few laborers who work for an electric utility company. They’re in a bar bragging about what they do as workman.  In the conversation they imply their daily labor somehow involves the very beer that they’re all enjoying, so one of the other guys says, “Do you MAKE the beer?”  To which another guys says, “No, We make the POWER that makes the beer!” 

If we can’t get recognition one way, we’ll get it another.  We want so desperately to be “large and in charge!”   And then, operating out of that exaggerated importance, we set out to rule the world.  Well, at least our portion of the world.  And this arrogance has gotten us in trouble since the beginning of time.  Long before Frank Sinatra sang, “I’ll Do It My Way,” we’ve been doing in our way!  Sinatra just gave it a theme song.

Look at what scripture says about this:
• Judges 17:6 (NLT) In those days Israel had no king, so the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. 
• Psalms 10:4 (NIV) In his pride the wicked does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God. 
• 1 Samuel 2:3 (NIV) “Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed.
Like I said, this has always been a serious problem for mankind, but today it’s causing us pain and heartache like never before.  And I don’t think people realize the source of the pain.  There is hardly anything we haven’t changed to suit our wants and wishes and whims.  
  • We’ve seen the legalization of abortion --- the taking of life of a human being before birth --- and now we’re dangerously close to decisions that will withhold life-sustaining services for the elderly on the grounds of viability or practicality.  I remember when life was precious.
  • Sexual intimacy outside of marriage is no longer considered a bad idea --- in fact, it’s nearly a given that couples will live together while they contemplate marriage, if they marry at all.  The Bible still calls this sin, because it is still outside God's design and plan for our holiness. 
  • Marriage itself was once an untouchable institution.  Just a decade ago, no one would have assumed that something other than “one man and one woman” would be said to constitute a marriage in America, but as you know, state after state is challenging that standard.  
Individuals are being encouraged to accept moral lifestyles of any kind as normal, and perhaps even God-given.  Unfortunately, what is touted as a right and good for them will only prove to make their already pained lives worse, as both biblical revelation and societal analysis makes clear.  

Proverbs 14:12 (NIV) says:  "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." The result of all sin is destruction -- unless we humble ourselves and repent and turn from our wicked ways!"         

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Rather than elaborating on all that we’re doing wrong, I want to take a look at a group that got it right!  I want to look at the written record, left us by Paul as he writes to this church in Thessalonica, a church that he helped to establish on an earlier trip. 
Paul writes a tremendously encouraging report about this young church, and I hope it becomes instructional for us today. 1st Thessalonians 2:13 (NASB) begins:
"And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it ..."

Two words are extremely crucial if we wish to learn and grow by this verse.
     
Received  (Greek: paralambano, par-al-am-ban´-o).  It means simply to receive something from another. In this case it’s not the whole story of benefitting from divine wisdom, but it’s the starting point. 
In some of the these early churches (Iconium, Lystra, Corinth and Jerusalem) the crowds did not even do this; they didn’t receive, nor examine nor inquire into the word of God that Paul and others delivered; rather, they drove them out of town or imprisoned them.  They failed even the first level of receiving!  So, the first noble thing we’re told about the folks in Thessalonica is that they “received” the word. 


 But let’s look at more of the verse:
 “…when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it….”

Accepted  (Greek: dechomai, dekh´-om-ahee)  This word means to welcome; to receive favorably; to give ear to; to embrace; to make one's own; to approve.

The Thessalonian believers not only heard and intellectually understood the message, but also welcomed it into their hearts and made it a part of their lives. And I still haven't finished verse 13. 1st Thessalonians, chapter 2, verse 13 (NASB)  --- again, from the start, with a little more this time:
"And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us
the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for
what it really is, the word of God..."
  

Not as the word of men, but as THE WORD OF GOD.

(Stay tuned for Part Two: "A Christian's Achilles Heel")

Teachers Good and Bad (Part 1)

     When I had my blood clot in my right calf, the first specialist I went to recommended immediate, life-threatening surgery.  The second specialist recommended blood thinners and no worries.  Hmmmm. Tough call.  (I took the blood thinners.)   Both doctors were highly qualified, but the second one was right. 

     That experience highlighted a key question in life: 
how do I know who to trust?

    From whom should I get my news? CNN? Fox? MSNBC? CBN? Washington Times or Washington Post?  Time or World Magazine? 
    What about theology and advice for kingdom living? Mark Driscoll? Rob Bell? Benny Hinn? Joyce Meyers? Andy Stanley? Beth Moore? Sojournours or Focus on the Family?  There are so many competing voices, and it is sometimes hard to know who to listen to.
     The church in Thessolonica had this problem.  At the beginning of Thessalonians, Paul spends some time defending himself and his message, as if the church was doubting both. He begins by telling them:
“Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake.  You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. “  (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6)

     Sounds perfect! But the next chapter takes a slightly different tone.  After giving them two thumbs up for their faith,  Paul takes a little time to help them understand why they could trust him and his message (almost as if there have been some rumors, or questions, or other teachers going against him and his message).  As he does this, he tells them the difference between good and bad teachers so they would now who to follow and who to leave.

"You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results.  We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.  For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you.  On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests (or refines) our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority (not looking for weightiness, or glory).  Instead, we were gentle among you, like a mother who tenderly cares for her children.

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.  Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil (weariness) and hardship (sadness); we worked night and day (labored) in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.  You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed (holy – worthy of reverence;  just – approved by God; and blameless – God’s actions manifesting into space and time). For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory."

     The passage in chapter two is painting a sharp contrast between the imitation of Christ (which we should follow) and the imitation of something else – (which we should not).

    DON’T FOLLOW                                                                    FOLLOW           
Error                                                                                                 Truth
Bad Motivation                                                                   Good Motivation
Pleasing people                                                                        Pleasing God
Flattery                                                                                           Honesty
Greed                                                                                             Generosity
Abusive Authority                                                                     Gentleness
Entitlement                                                                                Engagement


     In the next post, I will use the standards Paul sets down to help us analyze words and deeds so we can better discern where to place our trust. 
      I am also going to broaden this principle to include all our speech, because I believe Paul clearly does this in his other letters and in his life (think of his speech on Mars Hill in Acts 17).