Bondage No More (Gal. 5:1-6)

Welcome to the first installment of #WordforWednesday. In this series, we will study a passage of Scripture once a week in an in-depth manner to pull out its teachings so that we may apply them to our lives. Just a note: These posts may tend to be longer than the average blog post. But that’s why we are only doing one per week! Take time and really think through the passage and what we learn from it.

This week, we will look at Galatians 5:1-6, Paul’s defense of justification by faith alone.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (Gal. 5:1-6).

Some Context

[Note: We should always read passages in context (that which comes before and after), to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpreting the passage. The rule should be, “Context rules!”]

Galatians was written not to a single church but to “the churches of Galatia” (1:2). This was a province rather than a specific city. We find mention of this region in Acts when Paul visit such places as Antioch of Pisidia, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium (Acts 13-14). After Paul left that region, word came to him that certain Jews had gone through the churches “teaching them, Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). By this, they were teaching that to be saved one had to essentially become Jews and keep the law of Moses.

The church at Antioch decided to send Paul, Barnabas, and some others to Jerusalem to seek a common mind on the question. Though the Jerusalem church wrote a letter that should circulate  through all of the Gentile churches, Paul wrote Galatians specifically for those churches, since he founded them.

In the first part of the letter, then, Paul sets out to defend the idea of justification by faith alone. Using such Old Testament examples as Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, he argues that justification has always been by faith—even before the law was given. Thus, the law that came later could not set aside the promise which is realized through faith. The Galatians, it seems, having begun by faith, wanted to now turn to the Law as a means of righteousness.

The passage can be broken up by looking at two (unasked but implied) questions of the Galatians: 1) “Why Christ?” [or “Why did Christ come?”]; and 2) “Why not the law?”

Why did Christ come?
This passage starts out with Paul’s bold declaration: For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (v. 1). Paul tells us that Christ came “for freedom . . . to set us free.” What did this mean to the original readers of Paul’s letter?

In the context of the first century, slavery was common. One could find himself sold into slavery because of debt or as part of a conquered people. Slaves were bought and sold in slave markets, which functioned much like those described in the American South in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More often than not, freedom for a slave had to be purchased. But that freedom was not done in a vacuum, so that he belonged to no one. Rather, the slave was purchased by a god. The owner of the slave paid the money to the temple treasury and a document was drawn up containing the words “for freedom.” As the slave was now the property of the god, no one else could enslave him.

Thus, Paul’s words to the Galatians would have had an immediate impact. They would have understood the import of the phrase, “for freedom.” And Paul would clarify it later in another letter, when he wrote, “You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men” (1 Corinthians 7:23). Thus, He is telling the Galatians two things. First, they were purchased by Christ, so that no one or nothing else may enslave them. Second they were purchased so that they might be set free.

What kind of freedom is Paul talking about? In other letters, he often refers to freedom from sin’s dominion over the believer (freedom of the will). In this passage, however, he is referring to sin’s guilt (freedom of conscience). The believer no longer has to work and struggle to keep the law’s demands as a means of obtaining or maintaining the favor of God. The law has been fulfilled in Christ and applied to the believer through His sacrifice.

Why not the Law?

After declaring the purpose of Christ’s mission, Paul then turns to the second question, “Why not the Law?” To put it another way, “Why shouldn’t we accept the law as a means of righteousness?” The Galatians, according to Paul, had begun their journey by the Spirit, but were now trying to be perfected by the flesh (Gal. 3:2-3). Paul gives four answers to this question, which are separate but related.

* The obligation to do the whole law (v. 3). Paul tells the Galatians that to accept circumcision is to place oneself under obligation to the whole law. It seemed the Galatians just wanted to be circumcised, without worrying about the rest. Throughout his writings, Paul sees the Law as a unified whole, not able to be split (as we so often do) into convenient categories—and he often uses circumcision to represent the Law. His argument is obvious: If the Galatians accept circumcision, then they are obligated to keep the whole law. If they are under obligation to the whole law, then they are also under a curse, because no man can keep the whole law (Gal. 3:10). It seems the Galatians had not thought this far ahead.

* Alienation from Christ and His grace (v. 4). Paul plainly tells the Galatians, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” This verse has sparked widespread debate in the church over it’s meaning.  Whatever else this verse means it means this: The Galatians would have to choose their means of righteousness. One cannot live in the realm of faith and the realm of law at the same time. Does this mean can lose their salvation? Losing one’s salvation is not the issue here. What Paul is talking about is rejecting the sufficiency of Christ’s grace for salvation in favor of the false salvation of the law. The believer, in Paul’s view, is saved by faith and indeed kept by faith.

* Righteousness comes by faith (v. 5). After giving reasons why the Galatians should not turn to the law for salvation, Paul proceeds to show why the Galatians cannot be saved by the law. “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” Not by the law. Not by flesh. By faith, he says. The law, he says, simply cannot give the hope of righteousness.

* Love, not law, is the Issue (v. 6). Paul’s final answer to the question show that in the eyes of God, the only thing that counts is “faith working through love.” He puts circumcision and uncircumcision on the same level, just in case the Galatians reverse course and think there is something inherently wrong with being circumcised. Neither matter when it comes to the means of righteousness. Both Jew and Gentile are equal before the cross.

Takeaways From This Passage
[Note: The goal of Bible study is application, not merely the accumulation of knowledge. We are to seek to apply its teachings to our lives, lest we become a hearer of the Word only, instead of a doer.]

There are several important things that this passage teaches us. We should consider them carefully.

* The law was never meant to and cannot provide justification. Though Paul calls the law holy, just, and good (Romans 7:12), it’s purpose was never to provide justification, for Abraham was justified by faith apart from the law. The law was given to point to man’s need and Christ’s work. We could never be good enough or do enough good to earn God’s favor or justification.

* We cannot live by faith and live under the law at the same time. The realm of faith and the realm of law are mutually exclusive. Now, what we are talking about is how we are justified (declared righteous). We, like the Galatians, must choose our means of justification. Will we stumble and fall while walking the road of faith? Most probably. But the solution is not to turn to the law (“Do this more, do that more, and find someone to whom you can be accountable [which equates to outward pressure].”) The solution is to turn to Christ in faith. Believing His Word, trusting His promises.

* The cross of Christ is enough. The sacrifice of Christ is more than enough to cover all of our sin, shame, guilt, no matter how deep it may run within us. The law could never do that. We need only to turn to Christ and see all of that forgiven, redeemed and used for His glory.

Paul’s words to the Colossians serve as a great summary of this passage:  “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Co. 2:6-7). How did we receive Christ? By faith. How are we to walk in Him? By faith. Faith Alone.

[Note: The material in this post has been adapted from my commentary, available for free here.]


Not of This World: Social Media and Discipleship

In this first installment of #MissionMonday, we are going to think about the goal of the church (making disciples) and the place of social media. in that process. I often wonder what Paul and the other apostles would have thought of our world today, with it’s great technology. Judging by what they wrote, I have a sneaking suspicion.

If you have read much of this blog, you will have noticed a frequent theme: change. Those of us who have encountered the gospel and have been born again are new creations. The gospel brings change to a person’s life. We are to believe, think, and act differently than the world because we are different. If, then, we are different, why would we use the world’s methods in accomplishing God’s stated purpose for us?

Now before you click the “close” button on me, let me explain. There’s a difference between using the world’s means and using its methods. The means that we use are those things that are simply available. Some of those means include word of mouth, books, newspaper, television (*gasp* I know), radio, and now the internet and social media. In and of themselves, none of those things are evil. They are simply tools.

The world’s methods, however, are how those tools are used. What strategies are employed to deliver the message?  What message is, in fact, delivered? These are the questions that must be asked when talking about methods. What we are going to do, then, is ask some questions, look at how the disciples and apostles spread the message, and hopefully draw some principles out. Of course, the biblical world of Jesus and Paul differs markedly from ours today. However, the same principles, we will find, still apply in the modern age.

“Friends and Followers, lend me your ears.”

Today, there is the tendency to reach the widest audience possible in the shortest amount of time. Given that the platform we use tends to cost money, that makes sense. But there is another trend embedded in that. It is the trend that pushes us to gain “friends” or “followers” quickly, so that within 6 months someone might have 10,000 followers. And that trend exists outside of social media—it exists in our churches also. Bigger congregations, bigger buildings. When does the desire to spread the gospel cross over to “get more followers for my ministry to show how influential I am”?

Jesus constantly tried to weed out His followers by reminding them what His call was really all about. He started with 12, and by the close of His public ministry, He had maybe 120 followers who were true “disciples.”  Since God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), no doubt Jesus desired that all would follow Him. But, He would not compromise His message to see that happen. If He were on earth today, I don’t think He would be trying to amass hundreds of friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter, just to say “look how big my following is!” He would instead be sticking to His message, and as it was back then, many would turn away from Him. He certainly would not, I believe, play the games that abound online: “follow me and I’ll follow you back,” “for each follow I’ll [fill in the blank].” We should, after all, be careful of who we “follow,” and what it says or portrays about us.

Is it okay to have a lot of followers? Certainly. As ambassadors of Christ, we should pray that the message reaches far and wide—as many as possible. And we should pray that they receive it, embrace it, and act on it. But the goal must remain the same—to truly see people be saved and become disciples—followers of Christ, not me.

What kind of gospel?

If the apostle Paul walked our streets today, I believe he would be appalled at how we “sell” the gospel. By “sell,” I mean that we use slick advertising, cool and colorful banners and signs to get people’s attention to get them into church. When/If they do make it to our church, we give them a feel good, ego stroking message that tells them of God’s love, but neglects to call them to abandon themselves to the cross. Our church sermons and groups are about learning to live a life of blessing and teaching people how to make the gospel relevant to today. The gospel will always prove relevant, and does not need any help from us.

Paul reminded the Corinthian believers:  “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1-5). We would do well to heed Paul’s call. Preach the gospel. Keep it simple. It’s the Spirit’s job to convict and convince. Our job is simply to be a witness and teach.

When that person comes to a meeting of the church, then, what should he or she be hearing? The gospel. Not only the call to come to the cross and be saved, but also a call to surrender their lives to the cross on a daily basis. Within the gospel lay the answers to every human question and condition. Preaching the gospel is about making disciples—those who follow Jesus and become like Him.

Those of us who have a following—whether through TV, radio, books, or an online presence, must evaluate our motives and our ministry. Am I doing this to gain approval or recognition? If God declared that He was moving me into a new season, a new place, with no online presence, would I be willing to forsake that which had been established? Does my online ministry cause me to feel more important, or does it cause me to diligently seek His face, knowing that I am a shepherd of a flock?

Let him who ministers do so by the Holy Spirit and His power, whether it be in the online community or whatever place the Lord has placed him. May we each be sensitive to the position He has placed us in, as a steward who will one day give account to the Master when He returns.

Legalism, License, or Liberty?

Today, we are going to look at an oft-asked question by Christians: What can/can’t I do as a believer? It’s an important question, especially in the ‘post-modern’ time in which we live. Everything is relative, we are told. Situational ethics is not only condoned but encouraged. The Bible, however, takes a far different few from that. Nevertheless, there remain honest disagreements between believers about what is acceptable and what not. We won’t claim to give the final answer in this post, but simply try to look at the whole counsel of the Word.

The Believer is called to Liberty.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. . . . You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another (Gal. 5:1, 13).

The first thing we need to remember is that believers are free. The meaning of this word “freedom” has been much debated. Some say it means “I can do whatever I want.” Some say it means, “I can do whatever I should.” The biblical understanding of this, however, is different. Freedom for Paul meant freedom of conscience. As believers, we no longer have to struggle under the law, trying to follow external rules by which we obtain or maintain our righteousness. Since the Law can only condemn, those under the Law constantly struggle with condemnation, with “not being good enough.” The believer is free from that condemnation (Rom. 8:1). [See the blog post Bondage No More, for a detailed look at this passage in Galatians.]

Paul goes on to warn, however, that we should not use our freedom recklessly. Here’s an example of what he means in context. The Jewish Law prohibited eating certain animals. The believer, however, is free to eat any animal, as the Lord confirmed to Peter in the vision of Acts 10:9-16, and his explanation in verses 34-48. Jesus Himself had said food does not make a person unclean (Mark 7:14-19). Yet, if a believer were to eat such foods in front of a Jew, the latter would be highly offended, and thus the believer might lose an opportunity to be a witness because of his “freedom” (which, in Paul’s thinking, the believer has turned to license). Having said all that, we must also recognize that there are Scriptural limits on our freedom. We’ll look at these as a series of questions.

Is it prohibited in the New Testament?

This should be rather obvious. Jesus and the New Testament writers did name things that are incompatible with living as a follower of Christ. The lists in Rom. 1:28-32; Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Cor. 6:9-11 are good places to start. Remember that these lists deal with both outward actions and inward attitudes.

Is it prohibited to all in the Old Testament?

There are also things that are prohibited in the Old Testament, either by express command (given to all people) or because of theological principles. For example, God gave this command to Noah after the flood: “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen. 9:4). Whatever this means—and there are varying interpretations, it was given to the only remaining people on earth, and thus it is applicable to all humanity. Murder is another example (Gen. 9:5-6).

One example that many misunderstand is that of the Sabbath. In Gen. 2:2-3, we are told that God rested on the seventh day, blessed it and made it holy. Many people see this, in connection with Exodus 20:8-11, as a prohibition to all against working on the seventh day. However, in the Genesis 2 passage, God merely gave us an example. He rested, so we should rest. In fact, that rest is a gift to us, not a burden. The command not to work was given specifically to Israel. In fact, Jesus quoted nine of the ten commandments during His ministry. The one He didn’t quote was the Sabbath. Finally, Paul specifically tells the Colossian believers that they will not be condemned for not keeping the Sabbath (2:16).

Is it beneficial, helpful, or profitable?

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful (1 Cor. 6:12a). Here Paul is giving a guideline that is helpful in judging actions. Just because something can be done does not mean it should. The word translated helpful here literally means “to bring together.” It refers to “gaining an advantage.” When the disciples wondered about Christ’s teaching on marriage in Matthew 19, they said, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry [i.e., “there is no advantage in marriage]” (v. 10). The “advantage” spoken by Paul is not simply an advantage over someone else, but is more about being advantageous to us in our service to God. If it an act will hinder (bring no advantage or actually be a disadvantage), it should be avoided.

Is it an activity that controls me?

“All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything (1 Cor. 6:12b). Here is the second part of Paul’s guideline. This is often misunderstood or misquoted as teaching that we should avoid anything that might control us. That can’t logically be the case because any activity can reach a point where it controls and dominates us. In context, Paul is using this standard to warn against giving into lust and sexual immorality—which, by its strong desires, often do control people. But the general principle applies to any such activity—alcohol, gambling, TV-watching (don’t look at me like that). Anything that dominates my life besides the Holy Spirit should be stopped. The other side of that is if an activity used to control us, it is better to avoid it rather than allow it to do so again. “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

Will it cause a stumbling block in another’s life?

This is another often misunderstood principle. Paul teaches on this principle both in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. It is often taught that we must not engage in an activity that will offend another. But what Paul is actually teaching is placing a stumbling block before another—particularly one with a weaker conscience. An example in context might look like this: A mature believer believes it is perfectly okay to eat meat that’s previously been sacrificed to an idol, knowing that ‘idols’ are no gods at all. He goes to a dinner party, and at that party a weaker (less mature believer) is present, who believes those idols are real and powerful. If the host of that party should make it plain that the meat was sacrificed to an idol, the mature believer should refuse it. Not for his own sake of course, but for the sake of the weaker brother. If the weaker brother saw the other eating that meat, he might doubt his own conscience and choose to eat—which is a sin to him because “whatever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).

Here’s a modern example: A believer has a strong conviction that use of alcohol is a sin. If another (who believe that alcohol use is fine [avoiding excess or drunkenness of course]) drinks around the weaker brother and causes that brother to doubt his own conscience and drink, the ‘stronger’ brother has placed a stumbling block. In matters of indifference, the ‘stronger’ Christian (more mature) should give up his ‘rights’ in favor of supporting the weaker.

In the end, neither should judge the other on such matters—matters of indifference.

Does it match the characteristics we should be thinking about?

Paul gave us a lot of lists to help us know what is good and what is not. One of the ones we often overlook has to do with what we think about (and as we know, actions spring from thoughts and the heart).  He wrote: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). If it does not match those traits, then we should question whether it is a good thing.

Is it in accordance with biblical wisdom? Is it wise?

Finally, we must ask, “Is what I am contemplating a wise thing?” We are taught over and over in the Bible to seek biblical wisdom. Wisdom is the application of knowledge, and we gain wisdom by studying the Scriptures, and seeking revelation from God. There is actually much practical wisdom in the Bible—in the so-called wisdom books (Proverbs being the most mentioned, though Psalms and Ecclesiastes also have much wisdom). Keep in mind that many of the principles here are just that—principles. They are rarely hard and fast commands.James promises that if we seek wisdom from the Father, He will give it to us liberally and without finding fault (James 1:5).

In the end, we must be led by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. While we are free in Christ, our freedom is given to us so that we may encourage and build up others, instead of ourselves only. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10). The guidelines above are simply starting points in thinking through our behaviors and panting a picture of what a follower of Christ looks like to the world.

The Slaughter of the Innocents—Then and Now

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men (Matt. 2:16).

In the wake of the recent passage of an abortion bill that will legalize abortions past 24 weeks, we in the church are right to be heartbroken. No society can long survive when the murder of infants and children become acceptable and commonplace. History shows us that time and time again. Abortion was allowed in Ancient Rome and Greece, and look where those societies are now. The ancient cultures that practiced child sacrifice are gone. America and other countries that allow, practice, and encourage abortion will fare no better, for God is impartial as well as just.

I have often asked the question, and I ask it again, “What more can we expect from the unregenerate?” We have men and women in leadership that, even though they may claim Christ, their actions show different. The church must shed the long-held myth that America is a Christian nation and embrace the truth that America is run by those who oppose Christ and His teachings. For too long, the church has made America its home, getting comfortable in, and thus being conformed to, a society that shows less and less regard for the truths of the Bible.

Jesus warned us that it must be so: “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12). When the nation as a whole (through its leaders) supports the murder of the innocent, is that anything other than cold, hardened hearts? God has and will continue to use America for His purposes, that is certain. Those purposes now seem to be moving quickly toward the end of the age.

This is no call for revolution on the part of the church. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). This is rather a call to do what the church was created to do—spread the Light. Not by angry picket signs, yelling and screaming at women who have abortions and the medical staff who perform them. Not even by writing your elected representatives—there will come a time (soon, I believe) that the Christian voice will be silenced. No, we are to spread the Light by praying for those people and counseling them in the light of His love. Yes, love. Though they are guilty of the most heinous crimes against God, we must remember this: So were we. I’ll repeat that.

So were we.

You might object, “I’ve never murdered anyone!” To which I reply, “Murder begins with hatred in your heart and words that tear down instead of build up” (Matt. 5:21-22). And again, I remind you, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10-11). In God’s eyes, any stain is worthy of hell. And we were all stained with sin. Yet, when we trusted Christ, He put our sin away from us, washing us white as snow (Isa. 1:18). Therefore, we are no better than they. The only difference is that we have found the freedom of forgiveness.

We will not see lives changed, people set free, crime decrease, abortions stopped, by the force of law or political solutions. We will only see those things change when the heart of stone within people is replaced by the heart of flesh through the Gospel. They need no more condemnation, for they are already under His condemnation. We must be the church. We must be His hands, feet, and voice.

Our hearts must break, yes, for the innocents who are slaughtered. But, until our hearts break for those who are caught in the grip of sin—even this sin—we have no idea what it is to love like Jesus loved.

All Are One: No “Ism” in the Gospel

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all (Col. 3:11)

We have heard a lot over the months and years about such words as sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism. America specifically has a history of racism and sexism (as many countries do), unfortunately, and the scars of those times still linger—those seeds still linger within the church even (and even the seeds of anti-Semitism are still present). If we are to be salt and light to our nation and the world, we must first see our own wounds healed.

The question is, what does the gospel of Christ say about such things? We must take a hard look at the counsel of God and ask the Spirit to correct us when we stray—and gladly accept His correction. So, let’s start with the two verses quoted above, Galatians 3:28 and Col. 3:11. What do we learn from these verses?

All are on equal footing at the cross.
First, we learn that we are all on level ground at the foot of the cross. The cross of Christ lays a claim—the same claim—on all, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, or socio-economic status. This statement applies both before and after salvation. Jesus looks at each one in the same light, seeing the same need for salvation and providing salvation in the same way—through His blood. Once saved, all are equal in the church, with the same rights, privileges, and access to God. God has obliterated those distinctions when it comes to salvation and spiritual growth.

All are image-bearers of God.
We are reminded from these verses that all bear the same image—His image. Though marred by sin, it is still present in each person. The implication of this? When we define someone first by their color, gender, race, or nationality first, we ignore the image of God within them. Jesus said that we are to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). When pressed on the question, he defined everyone as our neighbor—even the ones we dislike most (the Samaritan, remember, was hated, being considered half-breeds and traitors).

While the sinfulness of humanity is bound to scream “Me first!” in all its forms, the gospel leaves no room for such thinking. That’s what racism, sexism, and all the other ‘isms’ boil down to: one person or one group thinking more highly of himself or themselves than they ought (and then usually resorting to twisting and co-opting Scripture or some other recognized authority to prove their point.)

So now, the hard questions we must ask ourselves. There are no answers given here, as these are questions that we must face within ourselves.

Do I think some people are less worthy of the gospel? or conversely Do I think some people are more in need of the gospel than I am?

We tend to stereotype everyday. Is making such quick judgments okay, even if I have “proof’ to back up that judgement? And does that judgment have implications for the first questions?

Am I afraid of or anxious about certain people because of the color of their skin or their chosen lifestyle? is that fear (unfounded or not) okay in the context of the Gospel?

Do I tend to shy away from others in the group because “we just don’t have that much in common”? (And how such a statement can be true for those who follow Christ stretches the bound of reality.)

There are more questions out there. The Holy Spirit will ask them to those who need it. Let us pray that the Father will bind us together in love—His true love. Not to display a false, paper-thin unity to the watching world, but to truly be one as Jesus prayed we would.

Let Him who has ears hear what the Spirit is saying.

Rejoice and Be Glad—A Call to Biblical Action

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt. 5:11-12).

It’s no secret that Christians are being persecuted around the world. In other countries believers are killed and imprisoned for their faith—something that, at first glance, would seem to be unthinkable in America or a Western democracy. Yet, we are moving toward that time very quickly in many ways. The attacks we see on Christians will only get worse.

Why should that surprise, shock, or anger us? The Lord Jesus told us that we would be hated because of Him: 

If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me (John 15:19-21).

Perhaps we forgot His message. Perhaps we have grown too comfortable with the idea of a democracy, or the idea that “America was founded as a Christian nation.” We have been lulled into a false sense of security, which breeds spiritual complacency. We are not used to this because we have made America our home. This is not our home. The Kingdom of God, when it’s ushered in, will not be like America.

Many in the so-called ‘right’ say that we must fight. Agreed. The question is, “What fight must we join?” Paul reminds us that people are not our enemies: For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). Our fight is not against America. It is not against the “liberal left” or the media, or the government. Our fight must be to keep our faith and a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:19; 1 Pet. 3:14-16). When we believers struggle for our “rights,” we spend so much time doing so that we fail to prepare our hearts for what is coming.

Know this, more is coming. Jesus told us that we would be persecuted on His account:

Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved (Matt. 24:9-13).

Are we not seeing the beginning of that now, even in this country? Who can doubt that a spirit of lawlessness is at work? Who can doubt that many false prophets are now present, leading many astray, or that the love of many has grown cold?

What must we do?

We must pray for our nation.
Even as we stand against the wicked forces behind people, we must pray for our nation and it’s leaders. We are commanded to do that (1 Tim. 2:1-2). We must pray that our leaders lead by godly example. Most of all, we must pray that our leaders come to know Christ and be saved.

We must strengthen our faith.
Even as we pray for our nation to come to Christ, we must be prepared when she does not. The Lord desires that we have a faith that will endure the hardest of trials, and endure them with a good heart and good conscience. Paul and Silas sang in prison. The three Hebrews endured the fire with a good heart, never speaking disrespectfully to the King. Paul maintained his dignity when standing before the Council and Roman governors. The faith to endure to the end is the birthright and inheritance of every believer. But it is our responsibility to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in producing that faith.

Brothers and sisters in the faith, mark these words well. There will come a time—and that time is fast approaching—when the Christian voice in government is silence. There will come a time—and that time is fast approaching—when Christians will not be allowed to own businesses, teach in schools, or worship in the open. We think these things will not happen in America. Jesus, however, said you will be persecuted for My sake. This is not a doom-and-gloom message. This is a call to wake up, heed His warnings, and prepare our hearts. In the end, we hold within us the Final Hope. Nothing this world can do to us can take that away.

The Other 60% of the Bible

If you have read or followed this blog for any length of time, you probably have noticed a strong emphasis on salvation by faith. Almost every post. “Salvation by faith. Salvation is by faith alone.” And that is the truth of Scripture. Law-keeping has no place in the life of the believer (by “law-keeping,” we mean observing external regulations in the hope of obtaining favor or right standing with God). In fact, some might wonder if I’m against law in general. It is possible to slide so far into the “by faith” category that we dishonor the Law.

So, what do we do with that whole body of biblical literature called the “Old Testament,” which contains the Law as given to Israel? Some people don’t even read it, some preachers avoid preaching from it, for fear of becoming “legalistic.” Yet, the Old Testament (and even the Law) has a valuable place in the life of the believer. It may seem obvious, but when the church in Acts 15 was debating whether Gentiles had to keep the Law, they only had the Old Testament to look at! The New Testament, of course, was not written. The same goes for Paul’s letter to the Galatians, often called the “Magna Carta of Christian Liberty” for its emphasis on salvation by faith alone. The quotes and examples Paul used in that (and his other letters) come from the Old Testament. How, then, do we view the Old Testament and the Law?

We learn about God and man.

The Old Testament has a lot to say about God. In fact, in terms of the Bible, the Old Testament is where we get most of our knowledge of Him. We learn about Him from His own pronouncements (example, Exodus 20:1-2; 34:6-8) and from the statements of others (for example, many of the Psalms). We learn of His character, love, holiness, and justice. In learning about Him, we also learn about ourselves through the lives of others. We see men and women fall, though they sought to obey Him. We see God forgive and cover sin. We see people rise up against God and His people only to be judged. In short, we learn that God is holy and righteous, and we learn that man is by nature sinful and unrighteous. Thus, the stage is set for the New Covenant and the ministry of Christ.

We are taught attitudes to avoid and to cultivate.

Throughout the Old Testament, we learn that God looks with favor on those who walk before in Him humility and seek wisdom. In contrast, He disdains the proud and arrogant. By studying the people and events of the Old Testament we gain an understanding of how God wants His people to walk with Him.

We are inspired to believe God.

David and Goliath. Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Samson, Abraham, Gideon, Deborah, Ruth. The list could go on and on of the men and women in the Old Testament who believed God and because of their faith saw their world change. God gave them a word, a promise, and they acted accordingly. Even though they were under the Law as Israelites, it was their faith that made them righteous, just as their father Abram, who “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). We can learn from them, that when God gives us a promise, He will be faithful to keep it, no matter how long it takes.

The next time you are tempted to think of the Old Testament as irrelevant, think again. Open it up, and read some of the Psalms or Proverbs, or read of the faith of men who believed God, or read of God’s faithfulness to His promises, and you’ll change your mind.

Just Who He’s Looking For

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound . . . that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations (Isa. 61:1-4)
When Jesus came to earth, He came with a mission. Actually, He came with two missions. He came to set His people free and to set His people free to be used of Him. The type of people He chose only gives greater emphasis to those missions. He told the people, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32, emphasis added). He wasn’t looking for the ‘righteous.’ He was looking for people who needed Him, who were willing to abandon themselves to Him. 
Paul reminded the Corinthian believers of the same thing, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1 Cor. 1:27-28). He got even more specific than that: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:9-11a, emphasis added). Those were the people God, in His infinite wisdom chose to call. And then Paul continues: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11b). 
When Jesus proclaimed the start of His earthly ministry, He told us exactly what type of people He was looking for: These are the kind of people Jesus calls:
* The poor. The good news to the poor (both in resources and in spirit) is that there is One who looks down on them with love, compassion and forgiveness, and has an inheritance waiting for them.
* The brokenhearted. “Bind up” is another phrase for mending or healing. In this fallen world, most or all of us fall into this category at one time or another. We suffer disappointment, rejection, hurt, and loss. He knows our pain, and has come to mend our hearts.
* The captives and the bound. Jesus has come to set the captive free of whatever holds him in bondage–whether it be fear, hatred, or addictions. There is healing, forgiveness and restoration in Him.
All of us fall into some of those categories, if not all of them. No matter what we have done, He calls us to Him. Not only to cleanse and restore us, but to use us. He says that He will plant them as oaks of righteousness unto the Lord. An oak is a strong tree that does more than just stand tall; it produces acorns that grow new trees–it multiples. Its branches stretch out to proved shade and places for birds to nest.
Not only will those people who were once broken and bound be oaks of righteousness, but they will rebuild the ruins. For many of us, we spend many years sitting in the midst of ruins. Ruined lives because of sin, hurt, rejection, the fallen world we live in. We wonder if the world can ever be put back together. We can read these words and take courage: “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations.” With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what was broken can be rebuilt and restored. What was dead can become alive again.
There is one more thing He says about these once-broken people: “They shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” The people who are the most damaged, the ones who the world will reject and look down upon, those people are the ones who will repair the damage done by previous generations. They will spread the Gospel until all the nations hear His Word, and then the end will come.
If you think God can’t use you because of your past or your brokenness, it’s BECAUSE of your past or brokenness that He will use you.

You’ve had four husbands and the man you are with now isn’t your husband.

. . . bound to drugs, alcohol, sex, power, fame, fear, hatred.

. . . abused, violated, neglected.

. . . lost your whole world because of bad choices.

. . . drunkard.

. . . loser.

. . . swindler. 

. . . depressed and anxious.

You’re exactly the person He’s looking for.

Growing in Christ: On the Job Training

Unlike most jobs that have a period of training before starting, the life of the disciple (and thus his calling) starts from the moment of salvation. Thus, the training we undergo is “on the job” training. We mentioned in previous pots that the Bible was given to us, among other reasons, to serve as our training manual. If the Bible is our manual for training in righteousness, the Holy Spirit is our teacher, coach, and cheerleader.. Jesus gave us specific information on the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. . . . He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. . . . He will bear witness about me. . . . He will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 14:16–17, 26; 15:26; 16:13-14).

If you’ve read the New Testament much at all, you have read of the Holy Spirit and His work. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit lives within us. He indwells the believer from the moment of salvation. What is His function? To speak to the believer. The Spirit’s job is to guide the believer. The most important thing to know about what He does is that He always points the disciple back to Christ.

Jesus said the Helper would “bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Thus, He works alongside the Bible. Often the Spirit will bring a Scripture to mind when we are in a situation and need guidance, encouragement, or correction (Is. 30:21). By implication, the Spirit will never contradict the teachings of the Bible. (There may be times when the Spirit directs us to do certain things without reference to a specific passage of Scripture, but that’s a different matter.) His mission in our lives is to glorify Christ and draw us closer to Christ.

The most common questions that believers have about the Holy Spirit are: 1) In what ways does He speak to believers? and 2) How do I know when it is the Holy Spirit speaking? (A related question to this is, “How does one learn to hear Him?”)

We can hear the Spirit.

Jesus not only assumes that we can hear the Holy Spirit speak to us, but He says that we will. He told the Jews, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). It is not so much a promise as a statement of fact on His part: “My sheep hear My voice” (meaning, “If I am part of His flock, then I will hear His voice [through the Holy Spirit].”) The world, the flesh, the devil will try to convince you that He does not speak, that you cannot hear or understand Him, and/or that you are crazy for trying. In these times, rely on Jesus’ words. His sheep hear His voice. Now that it’s settled….

The Spirit speaks….in whatever way He wants.

To try and list every way the Spirit can or does speak to the believer is to put Him in a box (and He just really doesn’t like being put in a box). However, without limiting Him, there are some primary ways that He speaks to believers.

  • Through Scripture – This is by far the most often way the Spirit speaks to us. Remember that Jesus promised that the Helper would “bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” He reminds us of Jesus’ teaching.
  • Through people – This is another way that He often speaks to us. Whether the person is quoting Scripture or simply sharing something, often the Spirit will use that person to give us the word that we need at that time, whether it be encouragement, correction, or guidance. There are many instances in both the Old and New Testaments of the Spirit using a person to deliver a word or message to another person or a group. (This is an area where it is wise to be cautious. Not every word spoken by another person to us is of the Spirit. See below.)
  • Through circumstance – Sometimes the Spirit speaks and guides through circumstance. For example, on Paul’s missionary journeys, the Spirit initially forbade them entrance into Asia (probably Ephesus and Turkey). There is no mention of a specific word or vision; the text merely says, “having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia” (Acts 16:6). So, Paul and his companions went down to Troas and waited (being sort of hemmed in at this point). That night he received a vision to go to Macedonia and preach the Gospel. The Spirit often closes doors by what seems to us the most mundane of circumstances. (This is another area of caution; sometimes the Spirit wants us to wait, while other times, He seeks for us to pray in faith that the door be opened.)

These are the “primary” ways that the Spirit speaks to believer, but of course, they are not the only way. God, being God, can choose to use any instrument at His disposal (even a donkey that He gives voice to!)

He that has ears to hear…..

How do we know when the Spirit is speaking? How do we distinguish His voice from all the other voices in our world? First, we must be convinced that Jesus wants us to hear Him and that we can hear Him. As we said above, Jesus has said that His sheep hear His voice. I hear the Holy Spirit’s voice. The question is, which voice is His? We live in a world of unending voices, whether it be TV, music, advertising, friends, or our own voice. So, the question really is, “How do I distinguish His voice from the rest?”

  • Commitment – Once we have established that we can hear Him, we must commit to listen and obey His voice. As we commit to obeying His voice, it becomes easier to distinguish it. Conversely, if we hear and refuse to obey, the saying “light rejected is light denied” applies, meaning that it will be harder to hear His voice in the future. We must pray to keep our hearts soft and open.
  • Test – The Apostle John warns us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). Paul echoes this statement when he writes, “We . . . take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). The baseline to know whether a thought or spirit is from God is the teachings of Christ. Notice I didn’t say, “Judge it by Scripture.” There are many times where a thought or a word from another person cannot be proved or repudiated by directly referencing Scripture. However, there are guiding principles in Scripture that will help. This is one reason (among many) why knowing the teachings of Scripture is vitally important. If a thought or word is not in accordance with Scripture it should be rejected.
  • Counsel – Proverbs tell us, “In an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). God provides mature, Spirit-led people to disciple the younger in the faith. It’s important to not surround yourself with people who will just tell you what you want to hear, but what is best for you according to the Spirit. Of course, even many counselors can (and have been) wrong at times, but among mature believers, this is the exception, not the rule.
  • Peace – Paul tells us, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col. 3:15). Paul refers to peace as an “umpire.” If the thought or word from another is accompanied by peace, then it should be accepted. Without that peace, the word should be suspect.  Now, lest you misunderstand: If the word is a word of correction or a call to simple obedience, peace is not the requirement. Obedience is the requirement.

Remember that the Holy Spirit will always direct us toward Christ and away from the flesh. He will encourage us, guide us, and correct us, if only we will commit to hear and heed His voice.

Growing in Christ: Kingdom Perspectives

Have you ever looked at the world through a frosted glass or frosted window? Perhaps you had those cool colored lenses (blue or red) that you could look at things through? We all have ‘lenses’ through which we view life. The Bible presents two different perspectives: that of the world, and that of the Kingdom. As subjects of the King, we are to adopt Kingdom perspectives. We look at life through the ‘lens’ of the Kingdom. Jesus gave us some of His perspectives in Matthew 6:1-7:12.

Seek rewards from the Father, not from man.

In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus gives us three examples that illustrate this first perspective. These three examples focus on the three Jewish acts of piety: alms giving, prayer, and fasting. In each case, Jesus warns, “When you,” instead of “If you.” He presupposes that subjects of God’s Kingdom will practice these things. So, His guidelines are on how they are to be practiced.  He uses the same structure for each example:

  • When you …. do not be like the hypocrites. He first lays out the perspective of the world. Give to be seen (so you can give and get more)! Pray and fast publicly to show how spiritual you are! This, He says, is wrong. Those who practice these things with these attitudes have received their reward–whether money, fame, influence, or praise of men. That’s all they get.
  • But when you…. Jesus then turns to His perspective on the practice. Give in secret. Pray in your closet. Do not proclaim your fast publicly. The point is not that we are to do them “in secret,” as though hiding. The emphasis is on the motive for doing them–the attitude of the heart.
  • And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. In each case, Jesus declares that the Father will see the attitude of the heart and reward the practitioner with an eternal reward, instead of an earthly, temporal reward.

By the way, Jesus says, those treasures that men seek after on earth are vain and temporal things and will be destroyed by moth and rust or taken by thieves (or simply left to someone else when we die!). In verses 19-24, He makes the point that the treasure one seeks after shows where his heart is. Those whose hearts are set on the Kingdom will receive the Kingdom rewards, which do not perish or pass away.

Trust the Father to take care of you.

While some people seek after earthly things for the sake of those things and the power or fame that accompanies them, others seek after things because they feel, “If it’s going to happen it’s up to me!” When we have this attitude, we show that we do not trust God to take care of us. Jesus makes a logical, yet compassionate argument to show that the Father already knows what we needs–and He will take care of it!

  • He points out the natural world. The birds do not sow or reap, yet the Father feeds them. The lilies of the field (there were probably some even around where He sat, a handy visual aid) did nothing or provide for themselves (“they neither toil nor spin [cloth]”), yet Jesus pronounces that even Solomon in all his grandeur and glory was not arrayed like them. The Father takes care of the lilies. 
  • Then He reminds them (and us!) that we are worth far more than the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, which are here today and wither and die tomorrow. So then, why should we worry? The Father already knows what we need, and as we set our minds on the Kingdom, He will take care of us.

Lest we misunderstand, Jesus is not telling us not to pray. He has already assumed that we will pray and ask for things (vv. 9-13, the Disciple’s Prayer). He further tells us to ask for what we need and want. The only negative command He gives is do not be anxious. Do not worry. To pray does not imply that we are worrying. In fact, Jesus tells us to ask the Father for things, both wanted and needed (hence the term “gifts” instead of just what we need). The Father, being good and gracious will give us good things (7:7-11).

Be careful how and when you judge.

  • Judge not, lest you be judged (7:1). This is perhaps one of the most often-quoted, as well as the most often mis-quoted, verses in the Bible. Jesus is not throwing a blanket ban on any kind of judgments. In order to exercise His other commands, it is necessary to make judgments. He presupposes some judgment when He says, “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (v. 2). The question is not if judgment is to be made, but what kind of judgment.
  • If we are not merciful, then mercy will be denied us. If we are merciful then we will be shown mercy (5:7).
  • If we show hatred and contempt, then we will be in danger of judgment (5:22).
  • If we are not meek (gentle and kind), but proud, harsh, or vindictive, then we will be judged accordingly (5:5, 9; 6:14-15).

The main point is that neither you nor I are perfect. We will not be perfect until we are called home. We are to extend and receive grace to and from each other as we journey together. In the end, the way we want to be treated is the way we should treat others. I want others to show me grace. Therefore, I will extend grace to my brother or sister, while encouraging them to continue growing in Christ. I want others to be kind toward me and others, so therefore I will do the same.

When we learn to live life through the lens of the Kingdom, we have taken one more step to becoming like our King, which is, after all, our ultimate goal.