grace

The Training Field Of Grace (Titus 2:11-15)

We have cause to celebrate because the grace of God has appeared, offering the gift of salvation to all people. Grace arrives with its own training instruction: run away from anything that leads us away from God; abandon the lusts and passions of this world; live life now in this age with awareness and self-control, doing the right thing and keeping yourselves holy. Watch for His return; expect the blessed hope we all will share when our great God and Savior, Jesus the Anointed, appears again. He gave His body for our sakes and will not only break us free from the chains of wickedness, but He will also prepare a community  (a peculiar people, a treasure) uncorrupted by the world that He would call His own—people who are zealously passionate about doing good works. So, Titus, tell them all these things. Encourage and teach them with all authority—and rebuke them with the same.

______________________

I want to talk today about grace.[1] The classic biblical definition is ‘unmerited favor’ – God has given us favor not because we are good, but because God is good.  

  • We are saved or justified by grace (Romans 3), which is why we can’t boast in our own righteousness.
  • Our spiritual gifts are determined by the grace He gives us (Romans 12)
  • Grace is how God’s power is seen in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12)
  • Our faith is a gift of grace (Ephesians 2)

But we also hear interesting language about how we can grow in grace.

  • Luke 2:52 says that Jesus increased in wisdom , stature, and favor with God and man. ‘Favor’, though, is charis, the word most commonly used in the New Testament for ‘grace.’ Jesus increased in grace – which is not how we normally think of grace.
  • Paul talks a lot about the unmerited favor God gives – then notes in Romans 15 that duties come with it (proclaiming the gospel)
  • Grace can even be set aside (Galatians 2:20-21).

So while we receive grace, we are not meant to be passive recipients.  We have been given a gift that we must steward. Let's revisit this passage to see how this unfolds.

"We have cause to celebrate because the grace of God has appeared, offering the gift of salvation to all people. Grace arrives with its own training instruction: run away from anything that leads us away from God; abandon the lusts and passions of this world; live life now in this age with awareness and self-control, doing the right thing and keeping yourselves holy."

The first work of grace is salvation. It cannot be earned or bought; it must be given by God, who has offered this gift to all people. But there is an ongoing work of grace in our life that continues to do something spiritually profound in us.

“God’s saving grace is a training grace which makes man’s life sound in every respect.” (Concordia Self-study Commentary)

“Grace has a discipline. We generally think of law when we talk about schoolmasters and discipline; but grace itself has a discipline and a wonderful training power too. The manifestation of grace is preparing us for the manifestation of glory. What the law could not do, grace is doing…. As soon as we come under the conscious enjoyment of the free grace of God, we find it to be a holy rule, a fatherly government, a heavenly training.” (From Spurgeon's sermon Two Appearings & the Discipline of Grace)

Spurgeon observed that the discipline of grace had three results —denyinglivinglooking.

DENYING

Grace trains us to “love not the world, neither the things that are in the world” (1John 2:15). “Be not conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2), because the “friendship of the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4). We are admonished to run away from anything that leads us away from God; to abandon the lusts and passions of this world. This is not about rejecting popular cultural trends that are morally neutral. You can love baseball and apple pie and even U of M football and not be in sinful conformity to the Spirit of the Age in the United States.

This has to do with our spiritual allegiance. What do we love? Who do we worship? What gets our ultimate allegiance?  To what do we give our bodies as a living sacrifice???

We cannot be a holy people – separate, distinct, called out – without there being some kind of separation from the worldview of the earthly kingdoms around us. 1 John 2:16 puts ‘everything in the world’ in three categories: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.

  • The lust of the flesh: bodily pleasures such as sex, food, drink, entertainment. This is the over-indulgence, misuse, and perhaps addiction to God-given physical gratifications. It’s a relentless catering to our appetites, living as if we are nothing more than animals driven by instinct and programming.
  • The lust of the eyes: envy and greed for things that are not bad in themselves but which we don’t have and we covet: money, things, homes, vacations, cars, clothing – dare I say even spouses? It’s a relentless unhappiness with what we have while craving what others have. This is different from admiring beauty or success, or seeing things around us that inspire us to do or achieve more. This has to do with lustful attitudes of the heart.
  • The pride of life: an unquenchable thirst for popularity and applause and a prideful display of success. Some translations say “the pride of the age” – craving and flaunting that which people associate with success.  This isn’t about legitimate satisfaction in our accomplishments or the gratification of being recognized. It’s the flaunting of ourselves, the relentless self-promotion because of how amazing we think we are. It’s easy to point at the rich kids of Instagram and think, “Stop showing off”; it’s harder to look at ourselves and offer the same critique.

Grace has training instructions: run away from these things because they will lead you away from God. But Paul does not simply tell us what to reject; he tells us what to embrace.

LIVING

Our life: self-controlled (sensible).

This is restraint over our thoughts and actions. If we are growing in grace – if God is at work in us – we will be in the training process of becoming more self-controlled. God’s grace enables us to govern ourselves in ways we could not before and that we could not do without Him. This does not mean we will be perfect. It does mean that one sign God’s grace is real and active in us is that the trajectory of our life is characterized by self-controlled living.

  • Not responding with knee-jerk anger like we once did
  • Learning how to think two or three times about that defensive comment we were about to post on Facebook
  • Counting to ten before responding to our kid who pushes our buttons
  • Not wasting time watching TV when we should be honoring other responsibilities in your life.
  • Not being controlled by our appetites (food, drink, sex, money, pleasure)

The grace of God enables us to grow in self-control.

Our relationship to others: righteousness

This is conformity to the will of God (Matthew 13:17; 23:29; Matthew 27:4, 19, 24) and the teachings of Jesus ( Matthew 5:17-20 ). It is doing something God commanded as an act of worshipful obedience for His glory.

We are righteous when we are in a right relation with God through the salvation that He offers through his grace. Since Jesus has made us righteousness – that is, placed us in right relationship with God through his death -  it is our duty and privilege to live righteously – that is, live as those who are in right relationship with God (more on this next week).

Our relationship with God: godly

This simply means to be fully devoted to God.

"Ungodliness refers to lack of reverence for, devotion to, and worship of the true God … Unrighteousness… focuses on its result. Sin first attacks God’s majesty and then His law. Men do not act righteously because they are not rightly related to God, who is the only measure and source of righteousness. Ungodliness unavoidably leads to unrighteousness. Because men’s relation to God is wrong, their relation to their fellow men is wrong. Men treat other men the way they do because they treat God the way they do. Man’s enmity with his fellow man originates with his being at enmity with God. (John MacArthur)

This is why we can’t settle for sin management or self-help, or think that we can ultimately solve our deepest problems apart from God. Why do we argue, really? Why do we judge, really? How do we account for our inhumanity to others? We are at odds with God, and until that is fixed, everything else will be a bandage on a wound that will never heal. It may be a helpful bandage; it may stop the relational bleeding, but it will never solve the problem.

LOOKING

"Watch for His return; expect the blessed hope we all will share when our great God and Savior, Jesus the Anointed, appears again."

There seems to be two parts to this: first, never losing hope in the midst of the hardship of this life because we know what God has promised for those who love Him in the life to come.

Second, never forgetting to keep our spiritual house in order. To use imagery from the Bible, we are God’s servants entrusted with stewarding the world. Just because the master has not yet returned, we aren’t excused for letting the lamps die out (Matthew 25) or squandering his money (Matthew 25) or letting his house become cluttered. It keeps us on our toes: the master is returning, and the house must be in order (1 Peter 4:17). How do we do that? Theologian A W Pink notes:

“My head may be filled with prophecy… I may think and say that I am “looking for that blessed Hope” but, unless Divine grace is teaching me to deny “ungodliness and worldly lusts” and to “live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world,” then I am deceiving myself. Make no mistake upon that point. To be truly “looking for that blessed hope” is a spiritual attitude: it is the longing of those whose hearts are right with God.”

_____________________

I’m going to add one more to Spurgeon’s list: Communing, or building community.

He gave His body for our sakes and will not only break us free from the chains of wickedness, but He will also prepare a community  (a peculiar people, a treasure) uncorrupted by the world that He would call His own—people who are zealously passionate about doing good works.

Envision a church community passionate about doing good work – not out of self-righteous attempt to earn salvation or impress others, but as a response to God’s grace. Jesus has placed us in right standing with God; how can we do anything less than honor him with our life through our obedience? This a what a community uncorrupted by the world looks like:

  • Self-controlled instead of giving in to the lust of the flesh. Committed to learning what it means to respond carefully and wisely; to make choices that honor the pleasure God has placed in the world without giving in to sinful self-indulgence.
  • Content instead of giving in to the lust of the eyes. Committed to applauding the success of others without anger and jealousy; thanking God for the blessing He has given rather than thinking of all the potential blessings He has not. Enjoying our success with humility.
  • Humble rather than full of the pride of life. Committed to rejecting the desire to be applauded and seen and instead faithfully doing what God calls us to do even if no one notices.
  • Alert for Christ’s return, which means we are always house-cleaning our own house first, then helping others where it’s appropriate while never forgetting the future hope that awaits us.
  •  Zealously passionate for good works.  Actively looking for every opportunity to pass on what the grace of God has given to us.

This is the kind of community that Christ would call his own – and dare I say, a community that gives us a taste of heaven.

____________________________________________________________________________

[1] http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/grace.html

 

The Meeting of Misery and Mercy (John 7 - 8:12)

In the story of the Woman Caught In Adultery, we see Jesus embody God’s perspective on how to balance judgment and mercy.[1] We will first look at the context of the story, then at the person of Jesus, and finally why this story matters to us. Let’s start with some background.

  • This happened on the day after the eight day celebration of the Feast of the Tabernacle/ Feast of Booths. The Jews lived in huts during this time to commemorate how the Israelites lived in tents during the Exodus.
  • Moses had commanded that during the days of this Feast the law be read, so this was an annual, purposeful focus on the Law of God.
  • The main purpose was to thank God for his provision during the past in the wilderness wanderings (Lev 23:39-43) and in the present as seen in the harvest just completed (Deuteronomy 16:13-15).
  • The people were reminded of their profound dependence upon God for provision. They would recite Psalm 118:25 every day: “O Lord, defend/rescue/deliver us, and prosper us.”
  • They had a ceremony in which four different types of plants were brought to the altar. These four plants symbolized four different kinds of Jews. One plant had a good fragrance and a good taste, symbolizing knowledge of the Torah and good deeds. One only had fragrance (only good deeds); one only had taste (only knowledge of the Torah), and one had neither.
  • There was a series of water offerings each morning in the temple, commemorating the provision of water in the wilderness. When Jesus tells them to come to him to drink (7:37-38), he is linking himself to God’s provision in the Exodus.
  • Menorahs would be lit in the House of Water Drawing, which was in the Court of Women in the temple. People would dance and sing, “Blessed be he who hath not sinned; and he who sinned and repented, he is forgiven.”[2]
  • Jesus' proclamation that he is the light of the world (8:12) linked him to the feast's lamp-lighting ceremonies that commemorated the pillar of fire during the Exodus. The morning that Jesus is challenged is the morning that four festival lamps in the court in the Temple ("The light of the world") were put out.
  • Jesus had been teaching from, among other things, the book of Isaiah, and he quoted a prophecy about the Messiah and used it to refer to himself.

So Jesus has been claiming to be the Water and the Light and quoting a revered Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, all to show that he is the Messiah for whom they have been longing. The good news was that the God whom they worshipped during this feast was with them. Many of the people were starting to believe.

The Pharisees want to kill him; they think he was blaspheming. But to kill him they need a formal trial and a Rome-sanctioned execution. So the next morning, on the Sabbath, they meet Jesus in the temple. The temple area was about 35 acres, and in the middle was a courtyard surrounded on three sides by a large, covered walkway that connected the temple court to Herod’s garrison. His soldiers patrolled the courtyard by walking on top of the covered walkways in case anything bad developed. Josephus noted that during feast days, an entire legion (over 4,000 men) would patrol the temple area.

Into this venue, the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery for judgment. They most likely bring her into the Court of Women. If all went well, they might be able to trick him into ordering capital punishment, and then Rome would take care of their problem. If that didn’t happen, they figured they could show how much more they knew about the law with the hope that this crowd of simpletons would finally reject him as Law Breaker and so reject him as the Messiah. Augustine puts it succinctly:

So the Jews said to themselves, “If he says, ‘Let her be stoned,’ we shall say to him, ‘What has become of your forgiving sins? Aren’t you the one who says, “Your sins are forgiven you?’” But if he says, ‘Let her go,’ we shall say, ‘What has become of your coming to fulfill the law and not to destroy it?’”

This seems like a win/win for the Pharisees. Jesus gets arrested or his lack of knowledge of the Law gets him rejected. Things do not go as planned.

  • First, as has often been noted, they only brought the woman. That’s unusual to say the least. Even then, I took two to tango, and the Law demanded that both be brought to the trial.
  • Second, a formal accusation required two eyewitnesses. There was no circumstantial evidence allowed in a case like this. The eyewitnesses would have warned couple ahead of time about the consequences of their action, the couple had to acknowledge this, and then the witnesses had to watch them do it. Odds are really good those standards were not met. I suspect Jesus (and perhaps the whole crowd) realized this.
  • Third, the death penalty was virtually obsolete in Jewish culture by the time of Jesus[3] (in fact, that sentence was highly unusual ever since the time of Moses). Over the centuries, the Sanhedrin had increasingly made the standards incredibly high because they believed the Law was meant to teach, not kill.[4]
  • Fourth, a kosher (?) trial had to happen in front of a duly constituted court, which included over twenty Sanhedrin leaders who sat in a semicircle so they could be sure they were all paying attention. If capital punishment happened outside of a court ruling, those who administered the punishment were considered murderers.
  • Fifth, the Talmudic Sanhedrin trecate (treatise), written before the time of Christ, clarified Deuteronomy’s command that the eyewitnesses should start the stoning (thus the “cast the first stone”).[5] There apparently aren't any eyewitnesses – or at least the text does not record their presence.
  • Sixth, capital punishment could not be carried out on a day sacred to religion – and this was a Sabbath.

So, following a celebration in which the people prayed for God to save them, and in which they celebrated the combination of Law and Good Deeds, Jesus will show what it looks like when their longings are fulfilled. He begins by honoring the Law.

When an accusation was brought, a priest was required to write the law that had been broken, along with the names of the accused, somewhere where the marks were not permanent – which was usually the dust on the floor of the temple. Early Armenian translations of this passage claim that is the proper understanding of this passage[6] - that Jesus wrote first the name and crime of the woman in the dust on the temple courtyard floor.

After Jesus writes, he says, “Let the sinless one cast the first stone.” It’s a brilliant response. First, I suspect it reminded the crowd of the song that had been sung in that very court - “Blessed be he who hath not sinned; and he who sinned and repented, he is forgiven”. If so, Jesus’ comment reminded them of their sin and chastised them for wanting to do something that is at odds with what they just celebrated. Second, it reveals what the heart of a Savior looks like. I like how St. Augustine puts it:

He did not say, “Do not stone her,” otherwise he would seem to speak contrary to the law. But God forbid that he should say, “Stone her,” for he came not to lose what he found, but to seek what was lost.”

After Jesus says this, He begins writing again; considering the Armenian texts as well as the fact that everyone will eventually leave, it seems reasonable to speculate that he wrote the names and crimes of the Pharisees who broke the law, which was all of them.

 As if exposing their hypocrisy wasn’t bad enough, the very act of writing in the dirt likely made clear they had turned aside from the ways of the Lord. Every year on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), the High Priest would immerse himself in a baptismal tank to be ceremonially cleansed. At the end of Yom Kippur, the people rejoiced that everyone’s sins had been rolled forward another year until Messiah comes. The High Priest would quote the following:

"'Oh YAHWEH, the Mikve (purifying bath) of Israel...' just as the mikveh cleansed me on this day, may the Holy One (Messiah), blessed be his name, cleanse all Israel when He comes."

The priest was referencing Jeremiah 17:13:

"Oh Lord, the Immerser (BAPTIZER ) of Israel, all those who leave your way shall be put to shame (publicly embarrassed), those who turn aside from my ways will have their names written in the dust and blotted out, for they have departed from YHVH, the fountain of the waters of life."

By writing, he points to himself as the Baptizer of Israel, and to the Pharisees as those whose name will be blotted out.[7]

And that was that. The crowd melts away. Jesus asks, “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?” She replies, “No one, Lord.” Jesus responds, “I don’t condemn you either [that is, I am not an eyewitness against you], but stop you sin.” Back to St. Augustine for some thoughts:

Neither will I condemn you." What is this, 0 Lord? Do you therefore favor sins? Not so, evidently. Mark what follows: "Go and sin no more." Therefore the Lord did also condemn, but condemned sins, not the sinner. For if he was a patron of sin, he would say, ‘Neither will I condemn you; go, live as you will; be secure in my deliverance, however much you will to sin. I will deliver you from all punishment even of hell, and from the tormentors of the infernal world.’ He did not say this. Let them pay attention, then, who love his gentleness in the Lord, and let them fear his truth.... The Lord is gentle, the Lord is long suffering, the Lord is full of pity; but the Lord is also just, the Lord is also true.” Augustine, Tracates on the Gospel of John)

No one could say Jesus was a Lawbreaker, but He refused to use the Law as a tool of oppression and shame. Going back to the symbols of the previous week: He had the fragrance of the Law and the taste of good deeds. And then, just in case the crowd was missing all the ways Jesus was proclaiming himself to be the Messiah, the Savior they longed for, he immediately says, in a courtyard in which the menorahs and the “light of the world” festival lamps had been lit and then put out,

“I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

___________________________________________

How do we balance judgment and mercy? How should we treat sin – and sinners – in our midst of our church community?[8] This question ought to matter to all of us, because no one in this room is exempt. You will sin; you will have to deal with the sin of others. We are all going to be in the place of either the Pharisees or the woman who sinned at some point in our life. So what do we do? How do we learn from this story? We look to Jesus for our example.

We must exercise righteous judgment of sin and show mercy and grace to sinners. We must love the sinner even as we condemn the sin. This is not always easy.

If we aren't careful we can get so caught up in condemning the sin that we forget to love the sinner. Religious Pharisees think mercy is a sign of moral weakness. They think people get what’s coming to them – especially people whose sins are so visibly public. They appoint themselves as moral watchdogs in the church trained not simply to be truthful and challenging but to tear the sinner to pieces. Their goal is not to point people who deserve judgment toward the mercy found only in Christ. They might never say that out loud, but they condemn the sinner as much as they condemn the sin. Their goal is punishment, not restoration.

When we look to Jesus, we see that our goal should be not to shame, humiliate, or drive to despair those around us who are caught in sin; our goal should be to bring to repentance and restoration those who have fallen. We may need to start by calling sin what it is in the lives of those who refuse to see it in themselves (as Jesus did with the Pharisees). But even if we do that so the self-righteous and proud are humbled – even if we are the self-righteous and proud who are humbled by our honest brothers and sisters in Christ - we must never lose sight of the goal of the Great Physician: to heal the sin-sick soul. The great commentator Matthew Henry wrote,

“In this matter Christ attended to the great work about which he came into the world, that was, to bring sinners to repentance; not to destroy, but to save. He aimed to bring, not only the accused to repentance, by showing her his mercy, but the prosecutors also, by showing them their sins; they thought to ensnare him, he sought to convince and convert them.”

If we are to learn from the example of Jesus, our goal must not be to destroy sinners, but to point them toward a Christ who saves. We must speak the truth about sin, and then show the kind of mercy that leads to a “godly sorrow that brings repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

If the first thing we have to be careful of is too much judgment of sin, the second thing is becoming so focused on extending mercy to the sinner that we forgot there is a righteous anger towards and a just judgment for sin. This story if often cited as an example of why we shouldn’t exercise judgment, That badly misses the point. Jesus absolutely judges. When Jesus wrote in the dust, he (presumably) wrote that they were all lawbreakers. He didn't let the Pharisees off the hook. He didn’t say to the woman, “Hey, it’s no problem. Go do what you want.” He said, “No one hear can formally accuse you, but…Stop sinning.” He didn’t try to contextualize her situation. He didn’t say, “You’re perfect just the way you are.” In his mercy, he gave her the same kind of truth he gave the Pharisees: she had sinned, and she needed to repent.

Telling the truth about sin is not a bad thing. Offering sincere, honest, biblically sound judgment about sinful actions is not a sign that you are mean; it is a sign that you are wise. If we aren’t careful, we will think that in order to love sinners, we must overlook or minimize sin – and then in the process of loving the sinner we enable the sin. And that is neither loving nor merciful.

Love actually requires honest judgment. Why? Because sin destroys. It eats away at your peace with God, with others, and within ourselves. It corrodes relationships, it distorts love, it puts us squarely on the road to the judgment of God who will make sure that someone gives an answer for sin. If that’s what sin does, what kind of God would not hate sin and judge those who do it? A holy, loving God must use judgment in the service of justice so that evil does not have the last word. For all of us who have experienced the sin of others crush our lives, it is heaven’s promise that someone will answer for the evil done to us.[9]

But we have to be careful. If we don’t confront sin in love, we will be abrasive and mean (see 1 Corinthians 13). And if we don’t do this with an eye on the sin in our own lives, we will do this with a kind of pride that God despises.

Here’s the reality: all of us have hurt others with our words, our attitudes, our choices, our violence. A holy, loving God must judge the evil we do too. We long for judgment when it’ meant for people who have done us wrong, but if God’s judgment were to rain down on us all and give us the justice we deserve right now, we would all beg for mercy. There is no one righteous (Romans 3:10). There is no sin that can be hidden from God, even if you can hide it from your neighbor. If Jesus were here, and we all demanded that judgment for sin be rendered, we would all walk away as our names and our sins were written in the dust on the floor of this church.

We must embrace this tension between justice and mercy. We should love God’s justice (as we see the devastation of sin and the need for someone to hold people to account) but we should also crave God’s mercy (as we see our own sin, condemnation and need for a Savior).

The Law reveals the condition and drives us to grace. No one in the Law was saved by keeping the Law because no one could satisfy the requirements of the Law. Instead, the Law drove them to grace. That is why David, in his marvelously repentant Psalm 51, says of his sin: “Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your loving kindness. According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.” The superscription of the Psalm says, “For the choir director. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone to Bathsheba.” (https://bible.org/seriespage/john-chapter-8)

When justice and mercy work together, just judgment drives us to our knees at the foot of the Cross; mercy reaches down from that cross and pulls us to our feet. This is where we look back to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), the embodiment of God’s justice and mercy.

It is on the cross that God’s holy justice was perfectly satisfied while His holy mercy was perfectly displayed.[10] Someone has to pay the price for sin, and God in his mercy said, “Let it be me.” There would be a day when Jesus would take upon himself the sins of the world – and that included the woman and her accusers. And all of us. The Israelite prayer, “O Lord, rescue us, deliver us, save us,” has come true because Jesus has come so that the world through him might be saved.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BY6VAy9y_iQ]

 

____________________________________

[1] Your Bible may note, “Many early manuscripts omit 7:53–8:11.” Eusebius, the first historian of the Church, claimed to have learned the story from Papias, who lived from about 60 AD to about 130 AD.[1] The picture is from the earliest known manuscript of John, an Egyptian copy from around 180. Augustine thought the early church removed the story out of fear that adultery would be encouraged by Jesus’ display of mercy. Whatever the reasons, the event is alluded to very early, it appears to have been widely known and accepted in the early church, and it soon appears in the canon.

[2] http://www.agapebiblestudy.com/john_gospel/Chapter%208.htm

[3] (Mishnah Makkot 1:10): “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: even once in seventy years. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon say: had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says: they would have multiplied shedders of blood in Israel.” Read a good article here: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-death-penalty-in-jewish-tradition/2/

[4] http://www.reformjudaismmag.net/02summer/focus.shtml

[5] “With reference to two offenders subject to this penalty, the Pentateuch says, "Thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people" (Deut. xiii. 10 [A. V. 9]), and again (ib. xvii. 7), "The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people." (Sanh. vi. 4; 45a et seq.; Sifra, Emor, xix.; Sifre, Num. 114; ib. Deut. 89, 90, 149, 151). “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_and_corporal_punishment_in_Judaism#In_Rabbinic_Law

[6] https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/john-8.html

[7] The Bible does not connect those dots, but considering the audience and the context, it seems like a reasonable connection.

[8] I realize the ‘church’ had not started yet, but the religious Jewish community is probably the closest comparison we have before the NT church community began.

[9] So is there any place for judgment and justice when God extends mercy? First, the Bible clearly teaches that there will be practical consequences to our actions. Forgiveness does not necessarily negate the fact that we will reap what we sow. The woman’s adultery may still have ruined her marriage even thought the forgiveness of Christ was available to her. Second, there are consequences to our actions within God ordained systems of government. Those harmed by rape may extend forgiveness, but the rapist will still go to jail – and rightly so. Finally, there is an ultimate day of judgment when we will all give an answer to God for what we have done. It’s possible to the first two forms of judgment can be avoided depending on the nature of the sin, but no one will escape the final accounting.

[10] Read “The Only Thing That Counts” for a better understanding of why Jesus needed to die in order for God’s justice to be satisfied. https://clgonline.org/the-only-thing-that-counts-galatians-51-8/

 

 

Grace, Like Water, Flows Downhill (John 4:1-26)

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” For Jews do not associate with Samaritans. (John 4:1-9) I [Karl Meszaros] have always felt a certain kinship to woman at the well. Like her, I was once very much on the outside looking in at a proper relationship with God.Let’s set some history. For our purposes, I think it’s necessary if we are to get a good idea of what’s about to transpire here at the well.

We often think of the Samaritans in terms of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable, you kind of get the idea that the Samaritans are basically good but, misunderstood people. I often assumed that the Samaritans and the Jews basically had a religious misunderstanding. I thought that both groups were Jews and that they were divided by some small points of theology. As it turns out, I was very wrong.

When Solomon dies, Israel splits into two kingdoms. The southern kingdom which consists of Judah and Benjamin. The northern kingdom which consists of all the other tribes. The Samaria consisted of the tribes of Ephraim and Mannasseh. The northern kingdom placed temple on Mt Gerizim. They also have their own bible. At one point, the northern kingdom including Samaria is taken into captivity by the Assyrians. The Assyrians forced them into intermarriage. This caused the northern tribes to lose their heritage.

Samaria would be passed between conquering nations, eventually landing in the hands of the Greeks. Antiochus IV Epiphanes will eventually force all Jews everywhere into Zeus worship. The Samaritans agree, the Jews don’t. The Samaritans will have their temple dedicated to Zeus. The Jews have it forced upon them. The worship of Zeus in the temple along with the sacrificing of pigs pushes the Jews into a revolt. During the revolt, the Jews would sack the Samaritans, burn their temple, and forced them into slavery. All this to say that they didn’t get along.

Now, let’s set the stage for what we have going in this particular story.

It’s the middle of the day. Jesus is tired, thirsty, and in enemy territory. Mt Gerizim (home to a temple that was built in defiance of Jesus) stands in the distance. He goes to rest at the well and there he meets the woman. Most times Jews would cross the Jordan to avoid going into Samaria, yet verse four says Jesus had to go through Samaria. This is a matter of mission, not geography.

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. 11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:10-15)

“Everyone who drinks this water will thirst again.” This is an interesting statement. Notice it’s all- inclusive. Though his comment is directly addressed to the woman who had a thirst for love that left her thirsty, I believe Jesus is saying this about any appetite. The Samaritans had an appetite for spiritual nourishment that they tried to fill in their own way, and it left them wanting. This is true for all kinds of things: food, love, money, sex, power, reputation - the list is extensive. These things will never fill us like we wish.  One of the things that struck me with Prince’s death was how he seemed to bounce between sexual promiscuity and a deep desire for more spiritual things. He was thirsty; he just didn’t fill it like God intended. Jesus offers us a salvation that doesn’t leave us wanting is because it’s based not merely on our desires  but on our actual need.

Henry Nouwen tells a story of working in an AIDS clinic. He had just returned from San Francisco, where he spent a week in an AIDS clinic visiting patients who, in the days before antiretroviral drugs, faced a certain and agonizing death. “I’m a priest, and as part of my job I listen to people’s stories. So I went up and down the ward asking the patients, most of them young men, if they wanted to talk.” Nouwen went on to say that his prayers changed after that week. As he listened to accounts of promiscuity and addiction and self-destructive behavior, he heard hints of a thirst for love that had never been quenched. From then on he prayed, “God, help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people. And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water, which alone quenches deep thirst.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” 17 “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” 19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:16-26)

This well isn’t the normal one for drawing water, nor is this the normal time to draw water. Odds are she’s here because she is embarrassed by her lifestyle; perhaps she is somewhat of an outcast in her own town. She is clearly confused about this kind and insightful stranger. She is thinking about her desire for water and not her need for a savior. Jesus’ question forces her to consider her need. She tries to change the subject to anything else, but even that works in Jesus favor.

Jesus contrasts the Jews with the Samaritans by saying that the Jews KNOW who they worship, and the object of their worship is the true source of their salvation. Jesus has gently made a crucial point: there can’t be true salvation and the accompanying grace outside a gospel message that is centered on the person and work of Jesus. God loves us and offers us grace not because of who we are, but because of who God is.To experience the true grace the comes from Jesus, one must actually worship Jesus. Right theology and true grace are connected. Sometimes we think of grace as excusing or overlooking sin. We can also mistake grace with getting along with people. People who try to extend grace without proper doctrine and Godly understanding can often times do more harm than good.

On that other hand, it is a beautiful thing when done properly.We see thisat work in the life of Norma Leah McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of the famous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case of 1973.

After the court case, she converted to Christ, got baptized, and joined the pro-life campaign. Most astoundingly, it was the director of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue who influenced her. As she tells the story, the change occurred when that director stopped treating her like an antagonist. He apologized for publicly calling her “baby killer” and started spending time with her during her smoking breaks in the parking lot that, oddly enough, their offices shared. In time McCorvey accepted an invitation to church from a seven-year-old girl whose mother also worked at Operation Rescue. Pro-abortion forces had dismissed McCorvey — her dubious past of drug-dealing, alcohol, and promiscuity made bad public relations — but Christian leaders took the time to counsel her in the faith while keeping her out of the spotlight for some time.

Grace, like water, flows downhill. The director extended to McCorvey the grace he had received, and in so doing he pointed toward the source of it all: Jesus.

Trustworthy Sayings (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

"I thank our Lord Jesus the Anointed who empowers me, because He saw me as faithful and appointed me to this ministry. Despite the fact that at one time I was slandering the things of God, persecuting and attacking His people. He was still merciful to me because I acted in ignorance apart from faith. But He poured His grace over me, and I was flooded in an abundance of the grace and faith and love that can only be found in Jesus the Anointed. Here’s a statement worthy of trust: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, and I am the worst of them all." (12-15) 

There were a number of hymns or of catechetical teaching in the early Church. This appears to be one: "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners." But then Paul adds to it: “I am the worst of them all.” He talks about his new life in Christ in other places in his writings:

  • ‘If any man be in Christ Jesus, he is a new creation; old things are passed away’ (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • ‘I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in this body I live by the faith of the Son of God’ (Galatians 2:20)

So Paul is new!  There is no doubt about it! But nothing can alter the fact that Paul was the man that did all these things and is capable of doing them again without the presence of God in his life. You’ve heard the phrase, “That’s gonna leave a mark?” Sin leaves a mark. I will bear the scar of my shoulder surgery. No matter how healthy I get, I am the man with a repaired shoulder. Paul bore the scars of his sin even as those scars revealed the kind of healing only God can give.

 The apostle Paul never forgot his former sins and the grace of God that transformed him. The story of Paul’s conversion is repeated no less than six times in the New Testament (Acts 9, 22, 26; Gal. 1 & 2; Phil. 3; 1 Tim. 1).  And as Paul himself tells it, his awareness of his sinfulness actually escalates:

  • 1 Corinthians 15:9 - “I am the least of the apostles.”
  • Ephesians 3:8, written later – “I am the very least of all saints.”
  • 1 Timothy 1:15, written later still, and after probably about 25 years of walking with God -  “I am the chief of all sinners.”

He does not say, “I was the chief of sinners.” He says, “I am the chief.”  He does not single out the sins that previously defined him. He does not say, “I am the chief of persecutors.” He is not wallowing in a past that haunts him. This is more of a general realization.

“The sign of growing perfection is the growing consciousness of imperfection.... The more you become like Christ the more you will find out your unlikeness to Him.” – Alexander Maclaren

“When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less.”  C.S. Lewis

Paul doesn't kill Christians anymore, but he is more aware than ever of his constant need for God’s mercy.  The closer a person walks with God, the more he is aware of the depths of his sinful nature, which in turn drives him to a deeper appreciation of the grace of God.

"But it is for this reason I was given mercy: by displaying His perfect patience in me, the very worst of all sinners, Jesus could show that patience to all who would believe in Him and gain eternal life." (v. 16)

Notice: the main reason Paul was given mercy was not so that he could be awesome. It was so he would have a testimony for the Kingdom of God. Christians can see in Christ's dealings with Paul the pattern which they can expect for themselves. (The word translated “who would believe” is literally “who are about to believe.”)

Any testimony that points to the saved instead of the Savior misses the point. Paul didn’t want Timothy to think about Paul; Paul wanted Timothy to think about Jesus. God saves us not because we are awesome, but because he is awesome. We give our testimony so that others gain hope: if God is patient and loving with them, God will be patient and loving with me.  No case is too hard for God. He delights in hard cases. If Paul can be saved, you can be saved.

A side note about testimonies: Paul is writing this to Timothy, who knew Paul’s story. Paul is trying to show Timothy the proper kind of humility he needs to have. I think Timothy is supposed to take up this mantra: “I, Timothy, am the chief of sinners. If anyone is in desperate need of God’s grace, it’s me.” Yet Timothy did none of the obviously bad things Paul did. Every testimony counts as a story of how God has shown patience and love to a sinner in desperate need of salvation. ALL have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. While WE were sinners, Christ died for us.

We have a tendency in Christian circles to put certain kinds of testimonies on a pedestal. I know why we do that – it is meant to find a “chief of sinners” whose life gives us hope (if God can save them, He can save me). I wonder if, at times, we kind of slip down in our chairs and think, “I will never give my testimony. I am just too ordinary…my sins are not that exciting…no one will be in awe when I am done talking.” Don’t ever think that God can’t use your life to show the glory of his patience and love. Every testimony counts as a story of how God has shown patience and love to a sinner in desperate need of salvation.

"May the King eternal, immortal, and invisible—the one and only God—now be honored and glorified forever and ever. Amen." (v.17)

Paul’s acknowledgment of who he is does not push him into a dark corner of shame and despair. It brings out worship, as if the only way we can appreciate the beauty and grace of God’s forgiveness is by continuously seeing the ugliness of who we are without God.

­­­­­­_________________________________________________

The “gospel” we hear preached in our day is a positive message that will help you achieve your full potential or feel good about yourself, succeed financially, or solve your problems.

That’s not the heart of the gospel. Biblical principles will help you in practical ways, but that’s not the good news. The Gospel is that Christ came to save sinners. If you think you’re a basically good person, you are not going to fully understand why Christ came to save you. If you think you have few faults and shortcomings, you will not understand what it means that Christ came to save you.

In Luke 7 we read a story about the connection between honest acknowledgment of who we are and deep response to Christ.  Jesus contrasts the casual and even disrespectful way that one of the Pharisees treats him and the way a local prostitute responds to him. She knew she was in desperate need of Christ and needed an ocean of forgiveness. The Pharisee thought he was tight with God and barely needed any.  What does Jesus say? “Those who are forgiven little love little. Those who have been forgiven much love much.” 

In other words, grace flows from us to the degree that we recognize the grace that has flowed into us.

Do you ever find yourself in a place where you don’t care about other people, or you lack empathy or kindness, or you feel lukewarm in your faith? If so, you may not need to work on feeling kinder or more passionate. You probably are forgetting how much you have been forgiven, how much God loves  you, how much he has given you grace when you were a mess.

You know when I love my wife the best? On the days I realize how much she puts up with from me. I melt inside. I am humbled and amazed at her love.  In fact, the more I am aware of my faults, the more it keeps me in a place of humility, gratitude, and service. On the days I forget, I am a jerk. On those days, I am better than her; I deserve her respect and admiration; I have the right to be treated as if I am awesome! And that never ends well. But if every day I am humbled by an awareness that I must be forgiven much – that in our marriage I am the worst of spouses, the chief of sinners – than I have to approach every situation from a place of gratitude and perhaps even awe at her capacity to love me.

To remember how much we have been forgiven is the surest way to fill our hearts with gratitude. Paul says, “May the King eternal, immortal, and invisible—the one and only God—now be honored and glorified forever and ever."

Look at the God he praises: eternal, not limited like us; immortal, not mortal like us; Spirit, not bound in flesh like us. In other words, only a God can save me – more specifically, only this God, revealed in Christ, can take the disaster of a man and make something beautiful.

I often hear the longing expressed that it’s hard to have a heart of worship.  A heart of worship cannot be taught. It cannot be forced or orchestrated. You can go to the biggest conference with the biggest band and the most emotional preacher and the coolest arts and have a great emotional response to all that’s going on around you. That’s an experience of a particular kind of worship, but I don’t think that’s the heart of worship.

We see hear in Paul’s letter to Timothy where the heart of worship begins: a recognition the wretched, broken life that we bring to the table – followed by an awareness of an indescribably powerful and holy God who loves us anyway, who offers us enough grace and forgiveness to cover any amount of sin and damage we have accumulated. That’s when the overflow of our hearts becomes the worship of our lives as we humbly take the grace we have been offered and pass it on to those around us.

That’s a statement about life in the Kingdom of God that is worthy of our faith and trust.

____________________________________________

“Unless you have been down into the depths of your own heart, and seen the evil that is there, you will not care for the redeeming Christ, nor will you grasp Him as a do those who know that there is nothing between them and ruin except God’s strong hand… Unless we feel the common evil, and estimate by the intensity of its working in ourselves how sad are its ravages in others, our kindness to others will be as half-hearted as our love to God…. Those who know the plague in their own heart, and how Christ has redeemed them, will go, with the pity of Christ in their heart, to help to redeem others.”
- Alexander Macleran

We may say, “I am a thief,” or, “I am a liar,” meaning that I have committed these sins, they weigh upon my shoulders, they are the splinters of my self-hewn cross... We say so in shame. But we do not thereby express an ultimate or God-ordained identity. Quite the contrary. We mean, “This is what I am in a disordered sense, because of what I have done, and because of the evil that I am still fearfully tempted to do.”  Or we might put it this way: “This is the fashion in which the image of God has been deformed in me, so that I am not myself, and my face, my very identity, is sludged up with sin.” - Hutchens and Esolen, “Identity Thievery,” Touchstone

Backpacks, Burdens and Blessings (Galatians 6:1-10)

"If someone is caught in a sin, you who live in step with the Spirit should restore that person gently instead of ignoring or shaming them. But watch yourselves; you could get too close to the sin and be drawn in, or you could begin to feel superior and become proud. If either one happens, you will not be able to effectively bear the burdens of those around you. This is crucial, because it’s in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. This is fruit-bearing faith expressed in love." * Christians are called to challenge people caught in sin with the goal of gentle restoration. We need to walk with the Spirit toward them…and then with them.  The burdened might not like the help at first. The Greek word here is a term to describe setting a dislocated bone back into place. To put a bone back in place will inevitably inflict pain, but it is a healing pain. It’s crucial that we are gentle and clear about what we are doing. We must listen, understand, empathize, care, and speak truth boldly and carefully.

If the sin becomes compelling, we need some distance. If we become proud because of how spiritual we are, we need to repent and take a good honest look at ourselves.

If anyone of you smugly thinks you are too spiritually pure or important to get involved, you are deceiving yourself. If you are tempted toward pride, refocus on your own life. If you are living well in the midst of trials and temptations, take satisfaction in your personal integrity.  Don't worry about comparing yourself to others. If you are honest, you will see that the load of your own life – circumstances, gifts, weaknesses, struggles –  is challenging enough. You might not have the burden your neighbor has, but your backpack has enough to keep you humble and gentle with others.  You don’t know what God has given others to carry. They may have more or less than you. Don’t judge; worry about yourself - but don’t live in isolation."

God has given each of us a different set of difficulties and opportunities, a different set of weaknesses and gifts: personalities, family of origin, economic reality, skill sets, right brain/left brain, introvert/extrovert, broken home/intact home, /math/sports/music, pride/low self-image, a particular area of sin that is a temptation…

We carry this personal load by ourselves. We shouldn’t compare ourselves with someone who has done less than us (and feel conceited) or someone who has done more (and feel envy). If we see life this way, we keep our attitudes in check. We don’t know what their load is, or how well they are actually carrying it.

"I’ve already talked about those whose burdens come from sin and failure, but people can also become weary as they live well for Christ. That’s why you need to be generous with those who are instructing you in the Word of God.  Don’t be a consumer who takes and never gives. You can bless others by sharing of resources, friendship, and service. In this way, we share our mutual gifts from God as an act of deeply committed fellowship."

We also see the necessity of looking to helping those who are weary. Ministry is costly no matter who does it or where it is done. People burn out. In true Christian community, we should look for ways to ease that kind of burden too.

"There is a spiritual principle at work here.  Don’t be deceived: God cannot be mocked. Just like a farmer, you harvest what you plant. Whoever plants a crop of self-centered gratification, personal pleasure, and arrogant pride will harvest rottenness, corruption, disillusionment. Whoever plants a crop of self-sacrifice, humility, gentleness and love will be walking in step with the Spirit of God, and from the Spirit of God will harvest an eternally enduring life. This is life indeed."

God’s moral universe has processes. Sin makes things fall apart. If you eat bad foods, you harvest poor health. If you give in to your sinful nature, you reap spiritual breakdown and destruction. Dishonesty produces distrust; honesty produces trust. Jealousy produces bitterness; contentment produces affirmation of the success of others. Harshness produces anger; gentleness produces vulnerability.

"This is a sacrificial life, but don't become weary; you will inspire others. When God decides the time is right, we will have a harvest full of blessings if we do not give up. Therefore, as we see the opportunity, we should do good to everyone around us - but especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

We should do good to all “as we have opportunity.” We can’t personally meet all the needs of all people all the time. Opportunity and ability must work together.  Sometimes, we are not able to step up because carrying our own load is taking all we’ve got. Other times, our load feels light, and we look around for ways to match opportunity with ability.

This is the lifestyle from which, “if we do not give up,” we “will reap a harvest”—real, fulfilling, lasting life.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

* I have drawn from numerous commentaries and translations for this presentation of Paul's writing in Galatians. Think of it as a commentary.

Inheriting the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:13-21)

Maps do several important things.

First, they show you where you are at the moment.  Being in the center of the Sahara Desert is different than being in the center of New York City. Knowing where you are affects your planning and decision-making.

Second, they will help you accomplish a goal.  If, for example, you are in New York City and you need to be in Charleston, South Carolina, the map will help by showing you that you must travel in a southwesterly direction.

Third, they will help you to identify obstacles such as mountain ranges and major congested cities.  A good map will also help you maximize advantages such as timesaving freeways and bypasses around bottleneck areas. In both cases, knowing these things will impact your travel. 

Paul writes in Galatians in 5:17, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.”  There are only two natures descriptive of mankind – the first is our fallen, sinful nature and the second is a regenerated, Spirit-led nature. We are all born into the first category and remain there unless we humbly repent of our sinfulness, accept the forgiveness provided by Christ’s death on the cross, are reconciled to God, and receive His Holy Spirit within in us as a guiding influence.  

 Now, it would be nice if, at the moment that this happens, our old nature would just curl up and die.  But that does not happen. What happens, scripturally speaking, is that we now have options.  Now we need a map, because (as Yogi Berra noted),  if we don't know where we're going, we might end up somewhere else. 

 Prior to salvation and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, our old nature was ruling our lives unopposed. This is what Paul says is true of all of us until we are 'born again' and the given the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the freedom for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1). This is good news, but we’d better understand what freedom means before we go too far. 

Freedom does not mean permission to be a jerk!  It does not mean I get to live my life any way I want, destroying myself and the lives of those around me with my selfish actions.  Freedom doesn’t mean that I get a free pass on sin with a promise that “it’ll all work out in the end.”

No, freedom means that we are no longer imprisoned by our old sinful nature. “Freedom” means that once we place our trust in the person and work of Christ we now have options. God’s Holy Spirit indwells us and will offer to lead us in the way that we should go. 

How do we get to the goal of experiencing true Christian freedom?  What does that freedom look like?  And how does God lead and guide us?

Like a navigation system in a car, the Holy Spirit is able to lead, guide, and empower, but He will not overpower!  He won’t force us to live righteously.  He will however, make righteous living a genuine possibility in our life. We were stuck in sinful self-direction. Now we can travel in the direction God has in mind.  

“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Galatians 5:13, 14)

The goal of God’s restoration process in each and every one of us is that we set aside our self-serving lives and live in love and service of our fellow man. The Law is meant to show us what true righteousness looks like in practical, day-to-day life.

But if instead of showing love among yourselves you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another. So I advise you to live according to your new life in the Holy Spirit. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. 

The old sinful nature loves to do evil, which is just opposite from what the Holy Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are opposite from what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, and your choices are never free from this conflict. But when you are directed by the Holy Spirit, you are no longer subject to the law.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, your lives will produce these evil results: sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:15-21)

So, what are we to do with a list like this?  It’s pretty intimidating, especially given the fact that we all fit on this list somewhere! In the last part of verse 21, Paul says, “… anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”  That’s pretty strong language.

These “deeds” are the unavoidable traits or manifestations of the core problem: living a self-directed life that neither acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus Christ nor allows the guidance of His Holy Spirit in our life. If these deeds are a fair description of your ongoing acceptance of a life characterized by habitual sin, then you have cause to question if you are following Christ at all.

Please note: If you are following Christ, temptation, and even momentary failure enters our lives.  This is the residue of our sinful nature that still wages war within us.  But as that temptation presents itself, there ought to be an ongoing struggle in your inner being when it comes to these “deeds of the flesh.”Paul is not saying that anyone who has been guilty or at a future time will be guilty of one or more of these deeds is outside of the kingdom! The Christian life does not demand perfection, but it does call for an unwavering devotion to the person of Jesus Christ.  

We’re told over and over in the New Testament that we are to be changed into His image. The distinguishing feature of this image change throughout the entire New Testament is love - an undeserved, unconditional, and almost unbelievable love.  

It is because of our new spiritual freedom that we are able to love and serve in a way that reflects the character and love of Christ. Conversely, it’s in the midst of loving and serving in this way that we find our freedom.  

The Only Thing That Counts (Galatians 5:1-8)

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace…. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.” (Galatians 5: 1-8)

___________________________________________________________________________________

We live in a consumer culture. We basically say, “If you please me, I will reward you.” If my garbage doesn’t get picked up, I’m getting a new collector.  If another phone company is cheaper and better, I’m switching.  It's just business. It’s entirely conditional.  If I don't like the product, I move on. This is what we know – and in America we are very good at it.

This is not necessarily bad, but it becomes bad when we begin to treat people from a consumer perspective. We say to our friends, family or spouses:“If you please me, I will reward you. I’ll be good only if you provide something good.” It’s a consumer approach to relationships.  It’s entirely conditional. If people don’t give us what we want, we dump them and move on.  

The Gentiles were coming from a religious system in which their gods were consumer gods. They basically said,  “If you please me, I will reward you.” They had to impress their gods constantly so that the product – in this case, the worshipers – pleased them. If Zeus tired of them sufficiently, he would dump them and move on. Even worse, they weren’t entirely sure what pleased the gods, so there was the tremendous insecurity, which lead to desperate work to please as many gods in as many ways as possible so that they would be rewarded.

Paul had told them that God does not relate to us as a consumer God. We are not obligated to earn God’s blessing. Unfortunately, the teaching of the Judaizers was leading them back to their old way of thinking about God. Apparently, something about their understanding of God was flawed as well even though they were pulling from the Old Testament. To correct this misunderstanding with both parties, Paul needed them to understand what it means that God is a covenant God.

_________________________________________________________________________________

God always relates to people through covenants. In the Old Testament we see a suzerain covenant in which the stronger party – the suzerain - initiated the covenant with the weaker party. Multiple records exist that show a common format in the nations of that time. In every other nation, lords or kinds made suzerain covenants with ordinary folk. In this case, God made a covenant with His people.

  •  Identify the suzerain
  • Historical prologue
  • Stipulations  (tributes, obligations, etc.)
  • Public readings
  • List of witnesses
  • List of blessings and cursings
  • Ceremony of agreement
  • Sealing the Oath. A covenant was sealed with a ceremony (the weaker party walking through the parts) as a way of saying, “If I break this covenant, may this be done to me.”

We read in Deuteronomy a reference to the ceremony when the Children of Israel entered into Covenant with God through the Mosaic Law. 

You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God, a covenant the Lord is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 29:12-13)

The stipulations (or laws) were written in Deuteronomy already, but so we read the “blessings and cursings” next:

“Keep the words of this covenant and do them so that you may prosper in all you do…When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,’ they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry.  The Lord will never be willing to forgive them; his wrath and zeal will burn against them.” (Deuteronomy 29:9, 19-20) 

In other words, God will uphold his end of the covenant. But you must continue to choose to be the kind of person you said you would be in the covenant if you want to live under the blessing. If you don’t, you will live under the curse. This is the essence of the Mosaic Covenant that the Judaizers were looking to for their salvation and righteousness. When the Judaizers read this, what stayed with them was the fact that they could screw up so badly that God would never forgive them. 

It was good to have a God who wanted to covenant with you, who wanted to bless you.  It was good to know the terms and conditions. But if they failed, the cursings (or the punishment) were overwhelming. No wonder obeying the law was a big deal to the Jewish converts. And yet there was more – they were building an understanding of God based on only part of the text. 

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deuteronomy 30:7-8)

Here we read that God will never break the covenant even if the Israelites don’t live up to their end of the deal.  No matter what they do, God will in a sense overlook it. God will not enforce the very consequences that he said just a couple chapters earlier. Do you see the tension here? How are we supposed to view God?

On the one hand, God cannot bless disobedient people. Justice can’t simply overlook guilt. But if God just punished them and walked away, then He was not a faithful God. So they had to work as hard as they could to please God. On the other hand, God said He would never leave, never give up, and never forsake them. But if God just gave in and accepted everything they did without consequence, then He was not a holy God.

What are we to think when it comes to a question of our relationship to God today? The Bible lets this tension hang all throughout the Old Testament. In order to resolve this, we have to look more closely at God’s covenant with Abraham. 

When God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 (and following), He used the standard form of suzerain covenant-making I mentioned earlier. Abraham killed some animals, cut them in pieces, and arranged them to walk through.  But then God, the stronger party, passed through (as a fiery pillar) – but never made Abraham, the weaker party, do the same.

By passing through the slaughtered animal, God was saying that if He didn’t bless Abraham and honor the covenant, God – the stronger, initiating party - would have to pay the penalty. That alone would be unusual, but that wasn’t the most incredible point. God was saying that if Abraham doesn’t keep the covenant, God would pay the penalty for Abraham.

This was unprecedented. God was clearly not a consumer god, paying attention and blessing us because we made him happy.  God was a covenant god, but completely different from the wealthy, powerful lords of earth. He gave the rules, established the penalty of rule-breaking, then committed to paying that penalty for everybody.

What kind of God would do that? A God who arrives in the person of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus fulfilled the conditions of the covenant by paying Abraham’s penalty. We commemorate this every time we partake in communion – His body broken, His blood spilled. The covenant must be honored. Someone must pay for breaking the agreement.

Jesus’ death and resurrection paid the penalty of  covenant breakers so that God could see them as covenant keepers.

If we break the law, we deserve punishment. We have to take the law as seriously as God does, and He thought it was so serious that death was the appropriate punishment. Fortunately for us, the One who kept it perfectly paid for those who couldn’t.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse by becoming the curse so the blessing of Abraham could come to us all by Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:13)  

God himself paid the penalty of our broken covenant. God’s love is a love that is offered freely to us in spite of who we are, not in response to us because of what we bring to the table. “We love Him because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)  Obedience to the law is not what we offer to impress God; it's what we are free do to express our faith through love (Galatians 5:6).

The law is not our savior; it is a gift from our Savior.

The law is not our lord; it is a gift from our Lord.

The law does not set us free; it shows us how to live freely.

The more we grasp the beauty of God’s covenant, the more we are driven by love and gratitude to do good for the privilege of delighting God and loving. The law is not a roadmap for earning salvation or righteousness, but it is a manual for how to properly express love for God and others.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

 Recommended Resources

"Slaves, Students and Sons" (from Galatians 3)

"Substitute Saviors" (Galatians 2-3)

"Living In Freedom" (Galatians 4:8-5:1)

Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You , as well as his podcast on "Covenant Relationship" to which I am highly indebted for helping me to think more clearly about Galatians.

Living In Freedom (Galatians 4:8-5:1)

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.

Slaves, Servants and Sons (Galatians 3:15-4:7)

In the beginning of Galatians, Paul makes clear that we are saved and made righteous because of the work of God, not our own effort. Our merit is insufficient to ever make us good enough. How, then, do we best understand the existence of the Law? Paul said he "died" to it – all those rules and regulations were not where the spiritual action is. Paul "came alive" in Christ when he was filled with the Spirit.  That sure sounds (on the surface) like the Law is no longer part of the discussion at all.

On the other hand, Jesus himself said that he came to fulfill the law, not destroy it. Jesus clearly was not anti-law. He was, however, opposed to the way in which His people had misunderstood and distorted its purpose and use.

So were Paul and Jesus contradicting each other?  Do we have to worry about trying to be good? Is the law of no use? In Galatians 3 and 4, Paul talks about three ways we can experience the law: a slave to a Law that feels like a jailer; a student to a Law that feels like a tutor; a son to the Lawgiver Himself.

WHEN WE ARE SLAVES TO A JAILER

Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until [Christ] had come…  But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin...  Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:19-24)

The Greek words denotes people are “held prisoners” and “locked up” by military guards.  They are forced to adhere, to go through the motions, because they have a harsh, controlling master. In this scenario, the law enslaves us to an unreachable standard. There is no way anybody could do it right.

My dad was a really good piano player. When I was a kid, he asked me if I wanted to learn to play piano like that, and I said, “Sure!”

I endured lessons for a year or two. I resented it. I played incredibly basic things because I had to.  It was hard to do anything right. During this time, my dad would have me play whole notes for a while, then maybe half notes, then maybe a scale if I was groovin’.  On good days, I could play “Chopsticks,” but even then I was forced to use one hand instead of the obviously necessary two.

I would be bored the whole time, complaining. Dad would say, "Do you want to play piano?” Sigh…yes… then back to the drudgery of those little notes inside those little lines. I liked the idea of being a really good piano player, but I just wasn't feeling it. Every day, the structure of music just showed me what I wasn’t good at doing.

 When it comes to our ability to "play life well" – follow the notes and stay within the moral lines – the law will do is highlight our insufficiency. If this is how we experience the law, we may obey it, but we will learn to hate it. We will resent the success of others, minimize our insufficiencies, and probably conclude that moral living is overrated. We may begrudgingly adhere to the law, but we will never love it. 

WHEN WE ARE STUDENTS TO A TUTOR

"As long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees (tutors) until the time set by his father." (Galatians 4:1)

A Greek tutor was hired by a father to prepare his children for life as an adult, as knowledgeable, healthy, free persons.  If all went well, the adult child will not have to be coerced into following the teaching of his father, but would instead willingly choose to pattern his life after his father.

As we begin to understand salvation and grace, the Law no longer forces begrudging obedience through coercion and fear. The Law no longer feels like a jailer. The Law begins to make more sense, and we increasingly appreciate why God found certain moral guidelines to be important.

When I was a kid, I eventually began to understand how chords and scales worked. I started to play piano on my own. While this was an improvement, it was just knowledge at this point. It didn’t mean that the art of playing a keyboard was becoming ingrained in my life. I just learned more and it was easier to do.  Practice no longer felt like prison. I played sometimes in my free time and when I was bored.

People no longer covered their ears when I sat down on the piano stool, but I was far from amazing. My increasing knowledge and ability was helpful and good, and I was beginning to understand why my own father was excited about this piano thing, but it wasn't yet me. It felt good and seemed important in some way, but it still wasn't clicking.

When we see God's law as a tutor, there is at least a comprehension of what the law is trying to accomplish. There is understanding and perhaps even appreciation (“Oh! Hey! If I play these keys together in this progression - if I make these good choices - cool! That wasn’t bad!”).

We no longer obey God for our sake or to get the “jailer” off our back. We use adherence to the law to purposefully live well, and to please and maybe even to bring glory to God. That’s far better than the first level of understanding law, but it’s still not what the law was made to do.

The Law can guide me just like a musical score – I can learn to play precisely or live morally – but that doesn’t mean that I can make music or life come alive.  Being capable is not the same as loving the music or the composer or the God to whom I have given my allegiance. And honestly, I am probably hoping people notice me more than anything else.

WHEN WE ARE SONS OF A FATHER

“God sent his Son, born of a woman -  born under the law - to redeem those  under the law, that we might  receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” (Galatians 4:1-3)

 Paul uses the illustration of a young child who is the heir of a great estate. In most ancient cultures, daughters could not inherit property. Therefore, “son” meant “legal heir,” which was a status forbidden to women. Paul even adds another layer that broadens this message of hope. In the Greco-Roman world, a childless, wealthy man could adopt a servant. This servant immediately received all the financial and legal privileges due to a son and heir. Though by birth he was a slave without status or relationship with the father, he was now a son with a new life of privilege.

 This is the heart of the Christian life:  There is no slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Now, we can all be adopted into God's family and become equal heirs to the promises and privileges that come with being part of the family.

 The piano "tutoring" bore some fruit – even though I never really went anywhere with the piano, I practiced other instruments and eventually picked up a bass. I learned to sing 8-part classical music. I increasingly saw the worth of musical knowledge and ability, and I started to enjoy it more. But I never followed up on the piano. Why?

Because my earthly father couldn't give me his spirit.

 My dad gave me the privilege of being “son.” No matter what I did or didn’t do on a piano, I was his son.  It didn’t hang on my ability. But Dad was human, and he had no way of putting his musical spirit in me.

That's the beauty of what Paul says about what happens when we become sons of God. The sense of coercion to the Law is gone. Even knowing and understanding it is no longer enough. Now, God's moral code becomes part of who we are because it’s part of who we want to be. We call out, “Abba, Father,” in a voice of awe, not fear.

The Law as Guard controlled our actions no matter how the we felt. The Law as Tutor instructed us with the hope that we would at least understand the ways of God (the Father) so that we would live holy lives not out of coercion, but out of admiration and appreciation. But when we are adopted into a family in which we grow to love the one in whom the Law is grounded, we inherit the moral nature of our spiritual father.

Notice that the Law is not gone; it’s very much still there. In fact, one way we can be sure we are living by the Spirit is if we in conformity with the Law. It helps us make sure we are experiencing God’s spirit within us accurately.  True musicians play particular notes in particular scales in particular ways. The laws of music are not suspended just because great musicians hardly think about them; the structure is just so deeply ingrained in them that mastery of the score flows out of them.

In the same way, the Word and the Spirit are deeply intertwined. Without the Spirit, the Word is just ink on paper, the musical notes we follow without soul. Without the Word, the Spirit can be misunderstood, like a musician who takes off on a solo in the wrong key.

The law may keep us from going astray no matter how much we want to; it may tutor us in a healthy way, but that was never going to be enough. Through the work of the Spirit within, we can experience the certainty that God has embraced us into his family, and from that place of… privilege…we naturally play/ live in a way that points to the one who loved us, saved us, and made us His own.

 It is then that the song of the redeemed plays most beautifully.

___________________________________________________________________________

 I am indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for helping me to think - and write - more clearly about Galatians.

“Substitute Saviors” (Galatians 2:11 – 3:14)

Peter began a ministry to the Gentiles after God had sent a vision showing him why the Old Testament ceremonial law was finished. This vision revealed that animals formerly off limits for being unclean were now clean: “Kill and eat … Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 11:7, 9). Peter realized that this was not just a message about animals: “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him” (Acts 10:34-35). 

He ate with the Gentiles despite criticism from the formerly Jewish Christians (Acts11:2); he defended the Gentiles as being “purified [made clean] by faith.” (Acts 15:7-9).  God had called him to minister to a particular group of people that had been considered (in a sense) unclean, and Peter was effectively ministering in a way that was God-ordained. It just wan't  necessarily approved of by others.

In Galatians 2, we read Paul's opinion on a new development: because of pressure from his Jewish peers, Peter had changed his stance on how he should interact with Gentiles. Not only was he drawing back, but he claiming that they needed to undergo circumcision in order to be "clean" and acceptable to God.  Paul realized that a lot was at stake:

When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because what he did was wrong. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (Galatians 2)

In Judaism, circumcision symbolized the covenant between God and Abraham and God and the Jews. It also showed that a man had become a member of the Jewish community. Spiritual and communal identity were on the line. But Peter had received a clear message – the people who you thought were outsiders to God are tied to Him now the same way you are. One does not have to be a Jew to be one of God’s children. In spite of a specific calling God placed on Peter, he was willing to hinder the advancement of the Kingdom because of the petty opinion of others who thought that being a Christian meant meeting their non-essential standard of holiness and becoming specifically part of their group.

The Jewish converts were claiming to be religious purists, but it was a cover for judging other Christians who they thought had an inferior understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Christ just because they didn’t conform.

When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "Since you, a Jew by birth, have discarded the Jewish laws and are living like a Gentile, why are you now trying to make these Gentiles follow the Jewish traditions?”

Notice how Paul doesn’t say it’s simply a matter of Peter enforcing uncomfortable social customs (though it was that too). Paul said the truth of the Gospel was on the line. Peter was compromising the Good News that salvation is an unearned gift from Christ. Being in right standing with God did not require people to conform to one particular groups customs or symbols. How is it possible to convey this message when Peter was telling the Gentiles that they needed to be circumcised even when they clearly did not?

“We who are Jews by birth and not “sinful Gentiles” know that a person is not made right by obeying law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by obedience to the law no one will be justified (given a verdict of approval) “For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law--I stopped trying to meet all its requirements--so that I might live for God. My old self has been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. I live in this earthly body by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness (right relationship) could be gained through keeping the law, there was no need for Christ to die!”

By adding this one extra hurdle – the gospel + something - Peter has set aside the grace of God. (Other places in Galatians Paul mentions holidays and other observances). That is living for the law, not for Christ.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ's death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. Are you so foolish? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect (be made complete) by your own human effort? (Galatians 3)

Foolish and Bewitched

Paul stresses in Galatians that we are justified (cleared of all charges of sin) by accepting what Christ has done through his death and resurrection, not by anything we do.  If we could wipe our ledger clean or get God’s approval by our own effort, than Christ died for nothing. Think about it: if someone gave their life for you and you didn’t need them to, they wouldn’t be heroic. They would be tragically mistaken.

Paul is not dismissing moral living (check out his letters to the Corinthians). The examples Paul uses in Galatians are things that are not necessarily wrong but can be wrong if we think they are necessary to save us or sustain us. Paul was no longer going to look to The Law as a savior, but he also wasn’t going to look at it as the means of gaining righteousness either. We don’t begin by faith and then proceed and grow through our works.

Well, we shouldn't. Let’s be honest - we are like that. It’s what we see all around us. Singers on American Idol have to earn the approval of the audience; athletes have to earn your admiration; politicians have to earn your vote; you have to earn the promotion at your job It’s what we know.

It’s probably no surprise that we tend to feel we have to do things to be acceptable for God’s salvation (which is a gift), then do things for our righteousness (which is also a gift). Do you ever feel obligated to do any of the following things because you think this will make you look better in God’s eyes,

  • have longer devotions
  • read more books on theology
  • only read/watch/listen to Christian entertainment
  • give money to Israel/ the pro-life movement/pro-family groups/any missionary organization
  • go to the right conferences
  • know something about certain bands/speakers/books
  • develop the right spiritual gifts
  • learn every aspect of apologetics
  • sing more vigorously at church
  • evangelize everyone compulsively
  • give money until It hurts
  • volunteer for everything

Now, are any of the things in the previous list bad? Not at all. Neither was circumcision. It’s not the activity that’s the problem. It’s the reason for the activity. We started our Christian journey when God’s spirit in us justified us (brings us approval in the eyes of God). We continue the journey because God’s spirit makes us righteous (right relationship). We will never be able by our actions and willpower to do anything that is sufficient to cause our salvation, maintain our righteousness, or ensure our reward. If we rely on working to earn or be worthy in the eyes of God, we will never understand grace, and if we preach this false gospel to others they will never understand grace either. It is a great formula for despair.

Substitue Saviors

The gospel + something is not the gospel. Really, it’s a form of idolatry. When we try to earn our place in Christ or in His church by adding a “work” to the Gospel, something has now become our functional savior in place of Jesus. Instead of believing that Christ alone is our hope for life and godliness, we look to something else that we can do to make us complete. Of course,  we can never be sure that we are living up to the standard that works require, and it messes us up.

We become overly sensitive to criticism. We do our best to make sure no one can ever fault us, and we become enslaved to the opinions of others. We will go to every function at church because we don’t want people to think we are not committed. If someone says, “I’m not sure your understanding the Bible properly here,” we are humiliated and defensive, as if we were supposed to have perfect knowledge.We don’t go to people who are far from Christ, because we might be seen in places where rumors could start.

We become envious and intimidated by others who outshine us. If we are asked to do something unnoticed, it seems like a waste of time because no one will know and other people are front and center. Being an “unsung hero” sounds really good until the un-song is about us.  When others flourish, we pick at them to try to bring them down to our level.

We become timid - and then boastful.  We only do things that make us comfortable, because we know we can knock them out of the park. So we don’t put ourselves in situation where we might fail, because we have to always win. We might witness by posting verses on Facebook, but we will never talk about our faith with someone at work, because posting on Facebook is an easy win, but we could fall on our face in front of someone we have to see every day. Then we talk about our wins over and over again so people know for sure that God approves of us.

We do our best to control our lives. We organize, and plan, and map out our day/week/month/year/life. We know where we want our education, family, job, church, marriage, friendships and health to go, and we know how we will get there. When anyone or anything crosses our radar that is not part of our plan, they have got to go. People might need money we have earmarked for something else or need someone to spend time with, but that would disrupt our plan. God might even be speaking to them in a way that feels utterly foreign to how we experience God, and we would not be able to manage the relationship or talk about faith on our own terms, so we don’t. • We demand that everything fits our template so, once again, we can win, so we can justify ourselves.

We become legalists. We elevate our preferences and experiences and comfort zone to the level of necessity – maybe even holiness.  We endlessly keep track of all the ways in which we have earned approval and other have not (as least that’s how we measure it).  When people don't prioritize things in the Christian life like we do, we think of them as uncommitted, second-class Christians who just aren’t as spiritual as we are. That is not life in the Spirit; that is life in the Law. That is spiritual bondage.

A Gospel of Grace

The result of believing the gospel of Christ is that we receive the Spirit. The Holy Spirit enters our life through belief in salvation by grace alone through Christ alone. We are given our new birth through the Spirit (John 3:5) and through the word of God (James 1:18). When grace saves us – and we really grasp this – we truly realize that beauty of Christ dying for us while we were sinners. Not after we were sinners. Not when we got it all together. Not when we were sufficiently capable of making good decisions. While we were yet sinners. We didn’t have to earn salvation then; we don’t have to earn righteousness now. These are gifts that only need to be embraced.

This is part of the "good news" of the Gospel: God embeds His living presence in us in spite of who we are. In the midst of our brokenness and sin, God moves in. It is His spirit, not our striving for perfection, that brings strength, renewal, hope, peace, and comfort. Now we are free from the obligation to earn anything from God or others. The bad news was that we could never do enough to become righteous. The good news is that we don’t have to.

God grants us His righteousness. We find our identity in Christ. Now it is no longer us, but Christ who lives in us. We don’t have to earn his attention; we don't have to prove anything to him. We do not begin with grace then continue “by human effort”, as though we must now earn ongoing blessings. That is “foolish.” God works from within so that we can be made right with him.

So how do we see all those things in the earlier list in such a way that our good deeds are not self-righteous works the cause us to rely on substitute saviors, but Spirit-motivated overflow of the righteousness God in his grace is working in us? If you are going to read more books on theology…sing more vigorously at church… get involved in causes… work on developing the right spiritual gifts…. learn every aspect of apologetics… volunteer for everything... don’t do it to impress others or earn approval from God; that’s foolish. Do it as God’s Spirit freely works His righteousness within you. Do it boldly without compelling others to be just like you.

 We are not called to create CLG’ers or Webers or Smiths or Norris’ or Mennonites or Charismatics or Reformed or non-denominationals. We are called to make disciples of Christ. Our message should never add to the gospel: “God so loved the world that He gave His son, and those who believe will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  That is sufficient. 

__________________________________________________________________________

I am indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for helping me to think - and write - more clearly about Galatians.

"I Am What I Am": Resurrection and Grace in 1 Corinthians 15

heaven.jpg

In Chapter 15 of the first letter to the church in Corinth,  Paul brings his readers back to the heart of their commitment to Christ. If there if one core truth that ought to provide the foundation for their lives, this is it:

 “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken a firm stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  For what I received I passed on to you as of primary importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.  (15:1-8)

The city of Corinth offered a lot of ideas about what should guide someone's life. It was a city of temptations, pleasure, and distractions of all kinds, full of popular slogans that were easy to say and dreadful to live:

“Everything is permissible” (6:12; 10:23)“The Food for the Stomach and the Stomach for Food” (6:13) •“Let us Eat and Drink, for Tomorrow We Die!”  (15:32)

People in the Corinthian church were not immune to the influence of their city.  Even as followers of Christ, they used the first slogan to justify flaunting their freedom in Christ, the second as an excuse for sexual immorality, and the third to live like there was no tomorrow.  Somewhere, I suspect there is Greek version of YOLO carved in temple stone.

Paul refocuses them on the person of Christ.  Jesus was dead, and He’s not anymore. He conquered death. There is no greater miracle. There is no greater sign of power. There is no other aspect of our faith that trumps this one. If Jesus rose from the dead, everything changes. Paul should know:

"For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. I have worked harder than all of them—yet I can’t take the credit for what I have accomplished.  God has been working through me by His grace. Whether, then, it is I or they who preach this message, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.” (1 Corinthians 15:9-11)

Paul reminds them, “I was who I was.” He earlier referred to himself as "one abnormally born."  This world literally referred to a miscarriage or an abortion. It was a slang term used by the common people in Rome to describe Senators who got into the Roman senate by favor or bribery. They were "abortives"  -  they did not deserve to be there.  Paul says that's who he was.  Then he says, “By the grace of God, I am something different and new.  Look what God’s grace can do.”

Paul was dead in his sins; now he was alive because of Savior who was once dead came back to life, and it changed everything.  Later in the chapter he calls Jesus the “firstfruits,’ which is just another way of saying, “Look what Jesus started. Now, people who are dead can be brought back to life.”

    A God of Resurrection can resurrect you. 

Because Christ died and rose again, those things within us that have died can be brought back to life. Our passions, emotions, longings, loneliness, our despair, our depression, our aimlessness, our grief - all can be made new.

 Because Christ died and rose again, death is not the end. 

“Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you."  (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Letter to a Corinthianized Church

About 2,000 years ago, Corinth was a financial, religious, and cultural mecca.

  • It was a major commercial hub located on a four-and-one-half mile wide isthmus of land. Sailors wanted to avoid the danger of sailing around Malea, so they would move their ship across the isthmus on a series of log rollers. If the ship was too large, the cargo was unloaded and loaded onto another ship on the other side of the isthmus.
  • “Corinthian brass” (a mixture of gold, sliver and copper) was widely renowned. 
  • Athletic contests known as the Isthmian Games - second only to the Olympian Games - were held at the temple of Poseidon in Corinth every two years. 
  • Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Hermes, Isis, Serapis, and Asclepius, among others, had temples to their honor in Corinth. It was common to have feasts in those temples – they were very much a center of community.
  • Aphrodite had more than 1,000 hierodouloi (female prostitutes and priestesses) in her service. The present museum in Corinth boasts a large number of clay emblems offered to Aphrodite for healing of a particulular part of the body ravaged by sexually transmitted disease. 
  • The name “Corinthian" had become synonymous with sexual immorality and drunkenness. Aelian, a Greek writer, noted that Corinthians in Greek plays were always drunk.

     Gordon Fee summarized it well: "All of this evidence together suggests that Paul’s Corinth was at once the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world: Intellectually alert, materially prosperous, but morally corrupt.”
     They had money, business, athletic prowess, temple worship involving sex and free food – it was just one big party in Corinth.
   The book of I Corinthians was written to a church living in a culture similar to ours. When the Apostle Paul wrote to them, their primary problem was not persecution. They were a church in lap of luxury, full of people who had been Corinthianized from birth, but who were now trying to begin a new life in Christ.
     Why am I not surprised that, only five years after he left, the Corinthians wrote Paul a letter asking for advice.
1 Corinthians records his response.

1 Corinthians 1:1-3 

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

     Paul begins by reminding them that they have been sanctified (hagios – “called out”) and called to holiness (agios – once again “called out”). God had pulled them from darkness to light, from being like Corinth to being like Christ. They clearly weren't to leave the city or shun their neighbors, but they were different now in attitudes, priorities, passions, loves, hopes and dreams.
     It’s not easy to be the “called out” counter-cultural ones, so Paul reminds them that they are not alone: they are part of the ekklesia, the assembly, the church. They are not alone.
    Then Paul gives a blessing that we read numerous times in Scripture.

  • Grace (favor, joy, pleasure. The image of God “leaning in”).  God is for them.  God is not anxious to judge, or petty, or requiring them to self-destruct in order to worship like they had before. They did not need to merit this kind of favor.  Because He loved them, God was interested in and engaged with their lives. In the midst of a city where favor was earned and pleasure was fleeting, Paul says, "May God give you grace."
  • Peace (wholeness; unity; quiet and rest).  In the midst of where business, chaos, idol worship and temple revelry brought fragmented souls and shattered lives, Paul says, "May God give you peace."

     "Grace to you" was a standard Greek greeting; "Peace" was  the Jewish blessing of "Shalom." Though the church contained both groups, Paul didn't say, "Grace to you Gentiles, and peace to you Jews." The entire church community was to receive God’s grace and peace.
_________________________________________________________________________

1 Corinthians 1:4-6 
"I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus, For in Him you have been enriched in every way —with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge — God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 

     Apparently when God through His grace “leaned in,” He spoke a lot through His Word and His people. The knowledge they had gained in the five years since Paul had visited has  thoroughly confirmed what Paul said about Christ.

   
God had enriched their lives by filling them with the knowledge of Him. But knowledge was not the point:
     Because of God's grace, He has enriched them and confirmed Himself to them. For that reason, they did not lack any spiritual gift.
     That’s quite a statement. (We will see later in 1 Corinthians why Paul makes this point at the beginning. A lot of division had begun within the church as people followed one particular leader or wanted one particular gift).  Paul begins 1 Corinthians by saying, “How amazing is it that you, as a unified church, the ekklesia, have been so blessed by God (grace) that you are rich and lack nothing (peace)?”
___________________________________________________________________________

1 Corinthians 1: 8-9 
He will sustain you to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

     While reading and re-reading this opening in preparation for a sermon, I couldn't get rid of the nagging thought that more was being communicated here than simply a reiteration of facts. After all, the church apparently heard plenty of speeches and had gained a lot of knowledge. They knew this. Why would Paul need to remind people:

  • that there will be a day when they are blameless? 
  • that God is faithful?
  • that they are called into fellowship with Jesus Christ?
  • that they are holy and sanctified?
  • that there are others like them?
  • that they are spiritually rich?
  • that they have spiritual gifts?
  • that Jesus is returning?

Because they are people. They are just like us. In spite of being given grace and peace, they didn’t always feel God “leaning in.” They didn't always feel whole, complete, and at peace.  We are not so different today, in the modern American Corinth full of business, money, luxury, ease, and 21st century gods of sex, pleasure, and indulgence.

  • We don’t live like we are “called out,” and we're not sure we want to ignore those alluring cultural sirens.  
  • We think money = wealth.
  • We think pleasure=happiness.
  • We think sex=love.
  • We know we are not blameless, and we wonder how we ever will be.
  • We don’t feel “in fellowship” with Jesus. God seems distant, or even absent. 
  • We wonder if God will give up on us, because so many people around us have rejected us. 
  • We feel like we are alone in the world. 
  • We wonder, in the midst of overwhelming despair, if God will ever make things right. 

     In his letter to the Corinthian/American church, Paul with a hopeful yet poignant reminder: “You truly do have fellowship with Christ. In spite of your weariness, He will sustain you;  others may forsake you, but He will “lean in” with gifts of grace and peace; your sins may seem insurmountable, but one day you will know what it is like to never be worthy of blame, and you will be truly free.”
__________________________________________________________________________

For those of us who are tired.

For those of us who struggle to be holy in the Corinth of our time, so easily distracted and engaged by the American gods of money, sex, and entertainment.

For those of us who are covered with shame and blame.

For those of us who feel alone and unwanted.

For those of us who feel like we have nothing to offer because God has given us nothing.

For those of us who don’t feel like God is near.

For those of us who lose sight of the hopefulness of Christ’s return, because so many things are broken that it’s hard to believe that one He will make all things new.

Grace and Peace. 
__________________________________________________________________________

Jason Gray, “Remind Me Who I Am”



Finding Stability in a Turbulent World

     The time: 52 AD, twenty years after Christ died and rose again to life.  Paul, writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit,  writes this second book to his dear friends at the church in Thessalonica --- a church he had helped to start (ref. Acts 17:1-10).  Paul has received a report about how they were currently doing. 
     The truth is, this community of believers is being hammered --- subjected to persecution from outsiders because of their newfound faith, and frightened by insiders who brought misleading messages (false teachings) about the Lord’s return.  And as is common to mankind, the believers in this young church moved toward a couple of different extremes.  I still see these extremes exhibited today when confusion sets in.
     Here are the two extremes:
  • Lethargy (or adjective: lethargic) ~ Definition: state of sluggishness, inactivity, and apathy. These folks carry on life as usual with no recognition of the turbulent situation around them, nor the things that God has said about this life that they are living. The lethargic person has no driving purpose and is content to simply let things happen.  Paul will address this in his letter.
  •  Panic  (or adjective: panic-stricken)  ~  Definition: afraid / anxious / fearful / petrified / immobilized / terrified.This group of people exhibited irrational responses to the troubling circumstances all around them.  They overreact…and in so doing, ignore God’s promises and guidance. 

     Both kinds of extremes are being exhibited in the Thessalonian church…so Paul begins his letter by approbating them for their faith….but then he also addresses the false beliefs that they are listening to --- false beliefs about the Lord’s second coming --- and as the letter goes on he gives them reminders to calm their fears. Let’s look at the scripture text.  We’ll see in Paul’s letter, a three-fold purpose:   
1) To encourage them in their steadfastness under persecution
2) To correct their misunderstanding about the imminence of the Lord's return. 
3) To instruct the congregation on what disciplinary action to take toward those who became idle.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1) To encourage them in their steadfastness under persecution
2 Th. 1:4, 5  (NASB) therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure. 5 This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.

Verses 4 and 5constitute one thought and must be read in that way.  The two words that begin verse 5 (“this is”) were added by translators to help make the sentences flow and read better, but in doing they also made it possible to miss the point of Paul’s message if we’re not careful. Read again without those two words:

2 Th. 1:4, 5  (NASB) therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure, a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.

     The Greek text simply refers to their suffering as - “an evidence or sure token of God’s righteous judgment --- proof, as the result of a test.” And it doesn’t say that the suffering makes us worthy….only the shed blood of Christ and our faith acceptance of His forgiveness makes us worthy.  The verse simply says that our patient suffering is an indication (or proof) of our already having been made worthy (and this brings Him glory).What was the suffering? Paul uses two words here: “persecutions” and “afflictions.”
  • Persecutionsis diogmos, a word used primarily of religious persecution, and describes the hostile actions of others.
  • Afflictionsis thlipsis, “pressure, stress, tribulation, affliction.”  The first is a special term for external persecutions inflicted by enemies of the gospel; the second is more general, and denotes tribulation of any kind.

     Why were they suffering? They were suffering because they believed in the Lord Jesus.  They believed that Jesus would come again.  And they believed that he would set up his own kingdom.  Now, we have to remember, they lived in a hostile environment.  Rome originally thought that Christianity was simply an offshoot of Judaism, and Rome had a long history of tolerating Judaism. 
But as time went on it became more and more clear that Christianity was a force to be reckoned with, and that its followers saw it as a kingdom….one that had a King.  This allegiance had all sorts of ramifications in this part of the world.  They were destined for a clash of kingdoms. Nevertheless, these Thessalonian Christians were suffering in quiet patience. The result of all this persecution was to make their faith in God so much stronger. The writers were so impressed and pleased by this that they wanted everyone to know about it.
    Paul tells the readers in verse 5 that their patient endurance is “a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.” We don’t learn to trust God in the tough places of life by simply reading about suffering or being told about suffering. We have to suffer. Suffering is a necessary tool.  It was so for Jesus – It was so for the Thessalonians – and it is so for us, today. (See list of scripture references at end.)
     In the plains of the Serengeti,in southeast Africa, about the only thing that grows are gnarly old Acacia trees or bushes. These don’t provide very straight arrow shafts for the little Bushmen that inhabit the plains, so they’ve formulated an ingenious process to keep their quivers full.
First they go out and find a suitable branch; it doesn’t matter if it’s got a 30-degree angle in it, just so it’s the proper thickness and length. Next they’ll build a fire, and right beside the fire they’ll drive two rows of pegs into the ground, about six to eight inches apart. Then they’ll put the branch into the fire to get its juices flowing making it pliable.
     When it’s hot enough, they’ll fish it out of the fire and jam it between the two rows of pegs and let it cool. It’s a little straighter. Then back to the fire, back to the pegs, back to the fire, back to the pegs … until finally the pegs are right next to each other, with only an arrow’s width between them. When the bushman pulls it out this last time, he’s got a perfectly straight arrow that’s useful to its maker.
We like the words in scripture about being “useful to the maker,” but it’s the fire and that bending we’d just as soon avoid.  If we want to be made useful, though, we’ve got to receive the hard part along with the easy part.
    I think in our delight of understanding the new life Christ gives and the new creature He’s made of us, we skipped over some parts…the hard parts...and as a result, we’re not seeing the success in our lives we’d hoped for as followers of Christ. This current turbulent time in which we live --- a time with growing hostility toward people who hold sincere faith in God --- will likely give us some unique opportunities to demonstrate the depth of our faith in God by the way in which we endure persecution and live well for all to see.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2) To correct their misunderstanding about the imminence of the  Lord's return.
     The Thessalonians had some strange ideas about the return of Christ.  Some said that the Lord had already come.  Others thought that the Lord would come “at any moment,” suddenly, without warning.  But Paul reminds them that there are things that must happen before Christ returns.  I’m going to read a passage from 2nd Thessalonians, chapter two, and make comment as I go along.  (ch. 2, verses 1-12)
2 Th. 2:1 Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to Him, 2 that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.

     This suggests that those who were bothering the church with the false information were making three distinct claims as to its source.  The first“either by a spirit” --- Some were claiming to have been given a prophetic word given by the Spirit of God.  However, as Paul pointed out, these “words” could not have been from God because they were not in keeping with the Old Testament, nor what they had heard from Paul in his previous teachings.
     The secondsource, “nor by a word”, refers to something said, not by way of prophecy, but simply from one person to another. It may have been just someone’s opinion in view of the current living conditions, or perhaps they claimed to be relaying a verbal message from Paul or one of his companions.
     Then, thirdly, “nor by a letter”….the final source of the false teaching. Someone had evidently forged a letter, claiming it was from Paul and his associates, but it was in direct contradiction to what Paul had repeatedly taught them, both in person and by letter (again, see 2:15).
     Today, all threeof these (spirit/word/letter) are appearing and will likely increase.  You can count on it! One reason is….we may well be in the end times (or, “end times of the end times”).  There continue to be disturbing events globally, that seem to point to that “end time” conclusion.  In addition, Satan is ever at work attempting to confuse and disturb the clear, historic, reliable message of God, concerning the end time events.
     Day of the Lord: refers to the Lord’s end time day of judgment --- for believers, it will be a day of blessing --- for the wicked, however, the Day of the Lord will bring judgment, destruction, and terror.  In light of this understanding of the term, it’s easy to see why the folks in the church in Thessalonica were upset.
3 Let no one in any way deceive you, for it (the day of the Lord) will not come unless the apostasy comes first, (I’ll define some of these words at the end of the passage) and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. 5 Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? 6 And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he may be revealed. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. 8 And then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; 9 that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11And for this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.
     So, here is what Paul is saying (it’s actually a reminder of previous teaching he had brought them): TWO THINGS must occur before the “day of the Lord” comes. The first is the apostasy…or the rebellion; not just any rebellion, but THE rebellion. Not merely disbelieving in God’s message, but rather an aggressive and positive revolt.
1 Timothy 4:1, 2 Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from what we believe; they will follow lying spirits and teachings that come from demons.  2 These teachers are hypocrites and liars. They pretend to be religious, but their consciences are dead. ….

     The day of the Lordwill not be present until this great apostasysweeps the earth.  This rebellion, which will take place within the church, will be a departure from the truth that God has revealed in His Word.
     And then the secondphenomenon necessary for the day of the Lord to be present is the revealing of one whom Paul called, “the man of lawlessness,” and “the son of destruction.”  This person is the one known elsewhere in the New Testament by the term, the antichrist (see John’s writings, 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). 
     From time to time, evil men have appeared in the world, and some may even have been called antichrists --- Antiochus Epiphanes, Nero, Diocletian, even Hitler --- but when THIS antichrist appears, there will be no question! 
      He will be the personification of evil and the culmination of all that is opposed to God.  He will be Satan’s tool, opposing both God and Christ, but he’ll also be presented as one who is to be worshipped and obeyed in place of Christ. The presence of this apostasy and counterfeit god will NOT be hidden.  The entire world will observe it. And unless these things are occurring….the day of the Lord has not arrived.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
3) Instructing the congregation on what disciplinary action to take  toward those who became idle.
     Some of the Thessalonian Christians had given up their work and depended on their friends to keep them and feed them.  They figured, since the Lord is coming soon….why do ANYTHING?  Paul gave instruction regarding this in his first letter. (1Th. 5:14 And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly.) {other translations say the idle, or lazy}
     This is a difficult situation --- The New Testament DOES teach the imminent (any-moment) possibility of the return of the Savior for His church No one knows when He will return.  It could be today, but it might not be.  And this has been the case for hundreds of years. The principle is that we are to live as though it will be today, while working and continuing on in life as though it won’t be for years to come. So how do we do this?  How do we posture ourselves in a turbulent world?
     Paul gives a couple significant clues!  In 2:10 he says, “they did not love the truth so as to be saved.”  Survival in these difficult times is not merely an issue of knowing or believing something in a merely mental sense --- it is an issue of loving!  We must become lovers, both of God….but also of His truth. And then, finally, we’re encouraged to live in Grace and Peace, at the beginningof the letter, and again at the close:
1:2 grace and peace come from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3:16  Now may the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace in every circumstance. The Lord be with you all!
3:18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
When we live in the love of the truth we don’t drift into lethargy…nor to we fall prey to panic.  We are, instead, kept focused and useful as we wait for His return.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Additional references on suffering, enduring, etc.
Heb. 2:10; Heb 12:7; 1 Peter 2:19, 20; 1 Peter 4:12; Rev. 1:9; 1 Cor. 4:12;  2 Tim. 2:3; 2 Tim 4:5; 2 Cor. 4:17-18