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Practicing the Very Same Things

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The second half of Romans 1 presents a stark condemnation of the way that the world proceeds in its denial of God. It’s a descending spiral of rejection upon rejection, with the concluding statement, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

When we read Romans 1.18–32, it is easy for us to join Paul in heaping coals of fire upon the ungodly and unrighteous. After all, “they” have rejected God. “They” have refused to honor Him as God. “They” have exchanged the truth about God for a lie. And so it goes. One preacher once said that he could imagine this letter being read to the saints in Rome and the them responding with enthusiastic “Amens.” We do much the same at times. I don’t mean to say that we’re somehow happy about the state of the world, but we’re very quick to agree with the conclusion that those being described in chapter 1 will receive God’s judgment for the path they have chosen to walk.

This same preacher went on to observe that whatever vocal affirmation may have gone on would have turned to silence as the one reading the letter continued into what we have as chapter 2:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?

This is the kicker for a lot of us, whether we realize it or not. While we may not practice some of the specific sins mentioned in Romans 1, we can still find ourselves heading down the same path. It is interesting to me that when Paul talks about various sins in chapter 1, those sins are the result of what God “gave them up to” in response to their attitude toward Him. Because they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images of the creation, “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (1.23–24). They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped the creature rather than the Creator, so “God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (1.25–26). Because “they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (1.28). We can be just as guilty of the attitudes described in Romans 1, if not the specific acts mentioned in the chapter.

It is possible for us to “suppress the truth” about God (1.18) when we choose not to accept that which is plainly revealed about Him. We might not have the problem of rejecting that which is “clearly perceived…in the things that have been made,” but we might reject that which is clearly perceived in the word He has given, simply because it doesn’t fit our idea of God and how He operates. Instead, we’ve “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (1.25). We construct a god who resembles the way that we think and what our desires are. This is what we do every time we rationalize something with, “Well, I think God would be okay with…” or “Surely God wouldn’t…,” and aren’t able to substantiate such a statement with Scripture.

It’s also easy for us to adopt the mindset of the world and fail to acknowledge God or give thanks to Him. The myth of the “self-made man” is attractive to us, and we can get caught up in the idea that we earned the things we have strictly by our own will and ability, rather than by the grace of God. On top of this, even while we acknowledge God in some parts of our lives, there are others where we proceed as if God doesn’t exist. We engage in business without any real consideration of how our submission to God requires us to conduct ourselves. Our social life sometimes fails to consider whether the things that we do are pleasing to God. Frankly, our politics often do a better job of conveying our trust in picking the right earthly rulers than they do in recognizing an eternal King who forever sits on His throne.

Just as the world—the ungodly and the unrighteous—will be judged for the ways that they have rejected God in their lives, we will also be judged if we have rejected God in any part of our lives and have failed to render full submission to Him who is blessed forever.

The Work of an Evangelist (1) (1 Tim 1-5)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The New Testament readings for this week and next week cover the two letters to the preacher Timothy. As we read these letters, we need to remember that they were primarily written to a preacher to give him instruction and encouragement in his work with the church in Ephesus. This is important for perhaps three reasons. Firstly, we need to understand that some of the instructions in these letters (as well as Titus, to be read in a couple of weeks) may be primarily connected to the specific role that Timothy filled among the Ephesian Christians. Secondly, these letters give us an insight into some of the struggles that an evangelist may deal with in the course of his ministry: doctrinal issues, treatment by brethren, and the general stress of the work.

The third reason it’s important to keep the primary audience in mind is because when we look through the lens of a letter to an evangelist, it helps us to understand what “the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4.5) is, and to set our expectations accordingly. We see two “kinds” of evangelistic work in the New Testament. We are more familiar with the work of men like Paul, Barnabas, and others as they went from place to place proclaiming the gospel (literally what an “evangelist” is) primarily to those who are not already disciples. This is often what we think an evangelist ought to spend most of their time doing. But in 1 and 2 Timothy, we have a somewhat different picture.

Note that Paul’s reason for having Timothy remain at Ephesus was “so that [he] may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.” This isn’t work related to those outside the faith, but inside. What’s more, pretty much everything else Paul wrote to Timothy in these two letters is related to Timothy working with the brethren:

  • Proper conduct by both men and women (ch 2).
  • Qualifications of elders and deacons as they serve the church (ch 3).
  • Teaching the brethren and being an example to them (ch 4).
  • How to treat various groups in the congregation (ch 5).

This doesn’t discount the need for an evangelist to proclaim the gospel to those who have never known Christ. It does, however, show that the lost aren’t the only ones who need the gospel proclaimed to them. God’s people often need particular care, and when an evangelist is working among them, it’s as much his work to be among them and not to “cease night or day to admonish every one with tears” (Ac 20.31).

Looking for Loopholes

Sunday, April 30, 2017

In Luke 10, a lawyer had a question for Jesus. This was, as Luke pointed out, a test, but the question was there nonetheless. He asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked the lawyer what the law said on the matter, and the lawyer answered with what we call the two greatest commandments: to love the Lord with everything and to love neighbor as self.

When Jesus responded in agreement with this answer, Luke records in 10.29 concerning the lawyer, “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” The lawyer wasn’t happy with Jesus’ answer. His unhappiness was at least partly because Jesus had avoided getting caught in the lawyer’s test. But we are also given the impression that part of the lawyer’s problem was that he might not have been living up to this, so he wanted to define a neighbor. Like many lawyers today, this lawyer was looking for a loophole.

Unfortunately, we can be guilty of the same problem. As we read the Scriptures, or as we participate in a Bible class or listen to a message from the pulpit, we might encounter something that seems not to line up with how we've conducted our lives. There are two possible responses to such an encounter. On the one hand, we can make the changes in our lives needed to align with what we’ve learned. On the other hand, we can try to rationalize the discrepancy. We can look for a loophole.

While there are times when apparent discrepancies are resolved by proper study of the Scriptures (such as when one passage provides context or explanation to another), most of the time our efforts to justify ourselves are merely loopholes. How might we make loopholes?

We can restrict the application. This is what the lawyer wanted to do in his conversation with Jesus. The Jews commonly interpreted the idea of a “neighbor” as applying only to other Jews (and even then, they might have excluded some, such as tax collectors). Most certainly, no Samaritan was a Jew’s neighbor. But yet, Jesus showed the problem with this idea by presenting a parable wherein a Samaritan of all people was the one who “proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers.”

We can force a conflict/contradiction unnecessarily. In Matthew 15, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for setting aside the commands of God for the sake of their tradition, noting the exception that they had carved out to honoring father and mother by declaring something devoted to God. Aside from this “loophole” allowing them to make personal use of what had been “devoted,” it was a conflict that didn’t have to exist in the first place!

We use good intentions to excuse poor execution. In Matthew 21.28–31, Jesus told the parable of two sons: one who initially refused to work in his father’s vineyard but ultimately did, and one who said he would but ultimately didn’t. It was the first who found favor—who “did the will of his father”—but we often want the second to find favor as well when it comes to our own lives. We know we’ve missed the mark, but we really wanted to do the right thing. We were really sincere in our actions. Jesus had an answer for this. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

We look for the line. Most of the commands we find in the New Testament are given as principles without specific procedures for carrying them out. When we appear to be going against a principle that God has given, we might try to justify our action by saying that it isn’t specifically condemned. To do so misses the point of the principle, and rather than looking to the Lord to fulfill His desires, we’re looking to the line to satisfy ours!

We minimize God’s judgment. When nothing else works, we decide that in the big picture, God won’t really hold someone accountable for something. “Surely God won’t send someone to hell for…” But to make such declarations (especially about something God commanded) is to challenge the very nature of God as a righteous judge.

While loopholes may justify things in our own minds, God is not fooled by them, nor will He be swayed by them. We cannot think that we are so clever that we will be able to outmaneuver God on the day of judgment and find some loophole that will add our name to the book of life or keep it from being erased.

Reaching People Where They Are (Acts 13–17)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

In this week’s reading, we see Paul preaching to a variety of individuals in a variety of circumstances. The two major sermons in this section—in Pisidian Antioch in 13.16–40 and in Athens in 17.22–31—are markedly different sermons. Both sermons end up at the resurrection, but the first reasons from the fulfillment of prophecy while the second shows God’s relationship to His creation.

The reason for this is that Paul was dealing with two different audiences, and he met those audiences where they were at the time. Paul’s sermon in Antioch was to Jews. He was dealing with people who were familiar with the Scriptures and who would have looked to Scripture for any claims about God’s Messiah. So by showing Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy, Paul was able to bring his hearers from where they were to where they needed to be: understanding Jesus as God’s Chosen One. Granted, many rejected this message, but they had the knowledge they needed to make a decision. In contrast, Paul preached to Greeks in Athens who had no such knowledge, but rather prided themselves on their general piety toward the gods and their knowledge of the natural world. Paul started with this and built upon it to understand the true nature of God and His Chosen One. Again, not everyone accepted the message, but they were able to make an informed decision about it.

When we proclaim God’s message to people we need to consider where they are and how best to get them to where they need to be. The jailer in chapter 16 knew nothing about Jesus; he needed to believe in the Lord Jesus before any other steps could be taken. Once Paul and Silas taught him, the rest fell into place.

This consideration is needed even with believers. The letter written to the Gentile brethren dealt with the issue at hand. It told them what they needed to hear at that time so that they could continue on serving the Lord. Luke tells us that when they read the letter, “they rejoiced because of its encouragement.”

There is no one-size-fits-all sermon. Nor will we always have the perfect words to say. But we can do everything in our power to help someone come to the point of making an informed decision about whether they will follow God or not, and whether they will submit themselves to the authority of Jesus or not. That is the task set before us in preaching the gospel to all.

Christians Are Like Waffles

Sunday, April 23, 2017

In 2001, Bill and Pam Farrell wrote the book, “Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti.” Much like the similarly titled “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus,” it sought to explain the differences between how men and women think and act, but with a readily understood metaphor. They argue that men are like waffles: their lives and thoughts are compartmentalized into little boxes that don’t overlap if at all possible. They have a “work” box, a “home” box, a “fishing” box, and even a “nothing” box. In contrast, women are like spaghetti: everything runs together and touches everything else. Their lives are a connected whole, and so there is no practical distinction between “work life” and “family life” and so on.

The point of mentioning this isn’t to debate the virtue of whether men or women have it right or to talk about passages like 1 Peter 3.7, but to extend that same metaphor to the way Christians live their lives. Frequently, Christian (male or female) are like waffles. That is, we compartmentalize our spiritual life away from other aspects of our lives. Intellectually, we recognize the need to “let our lights shine” in every part of our lives. Whatever our intellectual recognition may be, though, our practice is all too often dramatically different. We do our best to be lights in things that are directly related (in our minds) to our spiritual service to the Lord. When we talk about the Bible, we’re in sync with what God’s word says. We make sure that we never miss an assembly of the saints. We may even be enthusiastic about spreading the gospel. But when we aren’t actively engaged in those kinds of activities, we let our lights flicker a bit. Maybe we let loose on the reins of our mouths. Maybe our tempers flare because of something going on. Maybe we’re a little more willing to “stretch” the truth.

The problem is that the world is like spaghetti. When the world looks at a Christian (especially when said Christian is trying to bring them to Christ), they don’t see a separation between a Christian’s directly spiritual activities and how they might act in other areas. If they see something in that Christian’s life that even smells of an inconsistency, they will throw the “hypocrisy” flag and stop listening. That, of course, presents problems for spreading the gospel because the world is so much like spaghetti that they don’t separate the gospel from the one spreading it. If a Christian is a hypocrite, then their entire message must be no good.

In truth, though, the world has a point when it comes to inconsistency in a Christian’s life. Perhaps they understand it better than we do. But how did we get to the point of being blind to this inconsistency in our own lives? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but perhaps one contributing factor is the way that we talk about priorities in our lives. We understand that we ought to put God first in our lives. But when we talk about it, we often put God first “before” everything. Back in Kentucky, I had a manager who was a Christian who would say, “God first, then family, then the store.” While this approach is good for resolving conflicts between competing activities (do I take the kids to a ball game or to the assembly?), it might have the unintended side effect of separating God from all those other parts of our lives.

Consider, by way of contrast, the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10.31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Before moving on to the final part of this sentence, consider the context, “Whether you eat or drink.” While there are broader applications of the principles discussed in 1 Corinthians 8–10, the immediate issue Paul was addressing there was one about how the Corinthians were eating. That isn’t something that we even normally put on that list of priorities (okay, maybe some people do), but Paul says that whether we glorify God can be affected by our food choices.

Think about what Jesus said regarding the “greatest commandment.” He told the Sadducees that loving the Lord with all heart, soul, mind and strength was the greatest and that loving neighbor as self was the second greatest because “on these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” That is, every other commandment found in the law of Moses was an extension and application of loving the Lord with all and/or loving neighbor as self. It hasn’t changed.

Rather than saying, “God first before everything,” perhaps we ought to be saying, “God first in everything.” When we’re on the job, we do all to the glory of God. When we’re with family, we do all to the glory of God. When we’re interacting with others, we do all to the glory of God. And yes, when we assemble to edify one another and praise the God of heaven, we do all to the glory of God.

Coming back to our waffle metaphor, serving God isn’t another square in the waffle. Our service to God should be like pouring syrup on the waffle. When we put syrup on our waffle, we want every square to have syrup in it (or at least, that’s how I like my waffles). In the same way, every part of our life needs to have God in it. Whatever we find ourselves doing, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I putting God first by the way I’m acting? Is what I’m doing for the glory of God?”

The apostle Paul told the brethren in Rome, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12.1). Our entire lives are declarations of God’s worth. There is no point at which we can say that we’ve finished with God’s things so that we can move on to the next item on the list. God’s things are the list. Dave Ramsey says that in making a budget, we need to give every dollar a name, i.e., designate its use. For the Christian, every dollar we make has God’s name on it. Every minute in our schedule has God’s name on it. All that we have and all that we are belongs to God.

When we put God first in every aspect of our lives, the person in the world won’t be able to sustain a charge of hypocrisy against us. We may not be able to do anything about their perception of “Christianity” on the basis of wrong done in the name of Christ in the past or how someone else acts while wearing the name of Christ, but we will be able to show them a God-glorifying life. And that may make the difference in the ability of our declaration of the gospel to reach them, since we’re no longer getting in the way of the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

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