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Paul's Letter of Recommendation

Saturday, March 06, 2021

“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 

(2 Corinthians 3:1-3)

A great deal of the space in Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians is taken up by some very weighty arguments defending his ministry as a true apostle of Jesus Christ. There were some "false apostles" (11:13) floating around Achaia assassinating Paul's character. Our culture is well aware of how damaging verbal accusations can be, regardless of their veracity. By studying through the letter, we can infer that Paul’s opponents were calling into question the genuineness of his apostleship by drawing attention to his suffering, poverty, and otherwise sorry state of being. Jesus came to take away our suffering so why would his ambassador be enduring such anguish? This was the faulty line of thinking that led some of the Corinthians to buy the lie that Christ really wasn't speaking in Paul (13:3).

One of the best arguments Paul makes to prove his sincerity as a true apostle of the Lord is from the above passage (3:1-3). He poses two rhetorical questions fully expecting negative answers, as if to say, “Do I really need proof? Do you think I need a letter of recommendation to prove my apostleship?”

Paul’s purpose was certainly not to “commend” himself. He wasn’t designing arguments just to make himself look better against his opponents. No, those were the cheap tactics employed by Paul’s enemies who gloried in appearances (2:17; 5:12). In fact, he just got through making the argument that he was not capable by himself to bring about spiritual life to some and spiritual death to others. “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2:15-16) Obviously, no mere man by himself is sufficient to cause eternal salvation or destruction. Yet God was able to make Paul sufficient by equipping him for a sufficient ministry (the new covenant ministry) with a sufficient message (the gospel of light). So, he says, do you need a letter of recommendation?

Letters of recommendation have great merit. The church in Ephesus sent such a letter along with Apollos when he traveled to Achaia exhorting them to welcome him (Acts 18:27). I needed some kind of referral before I could labor among you. You needed some proof of my sincerity before you would allow me to speak God’s word to you on a regular basis. But Paul is saying that he doesn’t need such a letter written in ink vouching for his sincerity. Why not? Because he already had one and it was far more powerful than any letter written by human hands.

His “letter of recommendation” was the Corinthian church itself, which was nonexistent prior to Paul’s coming to Corinth. He was the very first to bring the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6) to the Corinthians who were “blinded... by the god of this world” (4:4). Indeed, he saw himself as Christ's messenger (3:3). The fruit of his labor should have been proof enough. The eighteen months of blood, sweat, and tears that went into reconciling these idolaters to God, an end he was still determined to bring about (5:20), was all the proof they needed of the effectiveness of Paul’s message and the genuineness of his apostleship (cf. Acts 18:11).

God himself authenticated and endorsed Paul by the fact of the Corinthians’ conversion to Jesus. This “letter of recommendation” was just as much “a letter from Christ” written by God’s hand in the eternal and life-giving ink of the Spirit. Even though Christ never came to Corinth in the flesh, Paul, like an ambassador, “delivered” the message of the gospel for him (5:20). The beautiful story of their conversion was “written” or “etched” on Paul’s heart. Their conversion story was living on in him and he carried it with him wherever he went. How much Paul loved these people!

These Christians were like a living epistle that could be “known and read by all.” The church was like an open book for the unbelievers in Achaia to read and know. Their absence in the idol temples could be felt. Their strange and joyous singing on Sundays could be heard. Their neighbors would learn, through their denial of ungodliness and commitment to love, about the power of God's grace to transform sinners into saints.

Lastly, Paul makes a contrast between the old and new covenants in mentioning letters inked on “tablets of stone,” the medium of the old covenant that kills (3:6), and the Spirit written on “tablets of human hearts,” a life-giving medium of the new covenant (3:6) in direct fulfillment of prophecy (Ezek. 11:19-20).

May we all be filled with such love and devotion to each other! May we all be living testimonies to the transformative work of God! May we always remember that we are being “known and read by all”! May God's living Spirit dwell within our hearts by faith!

The Lord's Day

Saturday, February 27, 2021

"I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet"

Revelation 1:10

Revelation 1:10 is the only verse in which the phrase "the Lord's day" occurs in the Bible. A similar phrase, "the day of the Lord" (which describes a great day of judgment) is used extensively by the biblical writers. However, even though the book of Revelation contains prophecies of judgment, the phrase "the Lord's day" does not refer to a day judgment. If "the Lord's day" is not synonymous with "the day of the Lord" then what is does it mean? I believe John is almost certainly referring to Sunday, "the first day of the week" (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). Consider the evidence:

  • Christians met together to worship the Lord on "the first day of the week" (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). John and the early Christians probably starting calling Sunday "the Lord's day" late in the first century because that's when the weekly Christian assembly took place. 
  • Jesus was raised from the dead on "the first day of the week" (Jn. 20:1).
  • Jesus appeared to the disciples on "the first day of the week" (Jn. 20:19-20).
  • Jesus ascended into heaven and was enthroned as King on Pentecost (which was always on a Sunday, Acts 2:1; cf. Lev. 23:15). 
  • The church of the Lord was also established on Pentecost (Acts 2:37; cf. Mt. 16:18)

This practice of meeting on Sunday continued in the early church. Consider the words of Justin Martyr around AD 150: "...Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For he was crucified on the day before that of Saturn [Saturday]; and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun [Sunday], having appeared to his apostles and disciples, he taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration." (First apology of Justin, Weekly Worship of the Christians, ch.68). 

Also from The Epistle of Barnabas, around AD 100: "Moreover God says to the Jews, ' Your new moons and Sabbaths I cannot endure.' You see how he says, 'The present Sabbaths are not acceptable to me, but the Sabbath which I have made in which, when I have rested from all things, I will make the beginning of the eighth day which is the beginning of another world.' Wherefore we Christians keep the eighth day for joy, on which Jesus arouse from the dead and when he appeared ascended into heaven." (15:8f, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, pg. 147). 

In Revelation 1:10, John also used a special adjective ("Lord's") that occurs only one other time in the New Testament: in Paul's description of communion as "the Lord's Supper" (1 Cor. 11:20). In both cases, the possessive "Lord's" means 'pertaining to' or 'belonging to' the Lord. Just as the Lord's Supper is not a common supper but a special feast belonging to the Lord, so is the Lord's day not a common day but a special day belonging to the Lord. To John, Sunday was not just another day of the week, but a special day which belonged to Jesus when Christians would assemble to honor him in worship (see 1 Cor. 16:2; Acts 20:7).

The same Greek word ("Lord's") was used in other ancient texts as well. It was sometimes translated as "Imperial." Just as Caesar was called "Emperor" in the first century (1 Pet. 2:17), those things belonging to Caesar were "Imperial." There were the Imperial treasury, the Imperial service, and the Imperial army. These things belonged to the Empire of Rome and remained under the Emperor's authority. Since they belonged to the Emperor they were only to be used for that which the Emperor authorized. Both John and Paul borrowed this word from its secular context and applied it to things belonging to the true "Lord of Lords" (Rev. 19:16), Jesus Christ. 

If "the Lord's day" belongs to Jesus, we must:

  • Consecrate "the Lord's day" to Christ. Most early Christians had to work on Sundays because their first-century society did not share their theological convictions concerning "the first day of the week." To the Jews, it was a day to catch up on work after the Sabbath. To the Romans, it was just another day. Nevertheless, the early Christians showed great devotion to Jesus by prioritizing their time and effort to worship him collectively, sometimes at great personal risk (Heb. 10:24-25, 32ff). This meant they would have to either assemble very early in the morning before work or later in the day when their duties were finished (hence the command for Christians to "wait for another" in taking the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:33).

Notice Pliny the Younger's words to Emperor Trajan concerning the practice of Christians around AD 100: "They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath not to (do) any wicked deeds, never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then to reassemble to partake of food - but food of an ordinary and innocent kind." (Pliny, Letters 10.96-97). 

  • Prepare for "the Lord's day" in advance. Since Sunday belongs to Jesus, disciples should prepare themselves mentally, physically, and spiritually to give him their best devotion during the assembly. We may prepare by praying for the right mindset, reading Scripture, or simply setting aside some quiet time prior to the assembly to meditate on the significance of the Lord's day. 
  • Engage in "the Lord's day" activities. We are given examples of Christians worshiping Jesus together on the Lord's day by singing, praying, teaching, giving, and observing the Lord's Supper. God has provided us with these examples as a pattern for us to worship him in ways that are both pleasing and acceptable to him and spiritually beneficial to us. Worship is not passive but active. We must engage, not only in these outward forms of worship, but engage our hearts in these special activites (Mt. 15:8; Eph. 5:19).

Everyday belongs to Jesus but only Sunday is "the Lord's day." This does not mean, of course, that Sunday is the only time when Christ can be honored by his church, but there is significance tied to the first day of the week that we must consider. Are we giving Christ what belongs to him? 

The Obedience of Faith (in Christ)

Saturday, February 20, 2021

"But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed."

Romans 6:17

Paul began and ended his letter to the Romans with the same phrase: "to bring about the obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). This was the purpose of his ministry as an apostle and the goal of God's eternal purpose revealed through the gospel. Paul's aim was to establish this "obedience of faith" within the hearts of others not only because it was what Jesus called for in the kingdom (Mt. 5:20), but because it is the only reasonable response to what Jesus has done for us (Rom. 12:1; Eph. 4:1). 

But what is "the obedience of faith"? It certainly is not "faith in our obedience." Paul is not saying that our confidence rests upon our perfect obedience to Christ (little comfort that would be!) but rather that our obedience springs from a heart of faith. We obey God because we trust God. We trust God because he has proven himself trustworthy. John summed up the correct order of things when he said, "We love because he first loved us" (1 Jn. 4:19). In the gospel, God took the initiative by sending his own Son (Jn. 3:16). Proclaiming the gospel means reporting good news of events which have already taken place, namely that "Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Therefore, we obey God because of what he has done for us. Our obedience springs from a heart of faith. It is an "obedience of faith." 

Paul gives his own summary of this phrase in Romans 6:17: "But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed." Let's break that down.

First, Paul says that they were obedient to the pattern (17c). When Christians obey the gospel, they are obedient to a "standard" or "form." This is a technical term for a pattern or a mold that a sculptor might use to pour plaster into, so that, when the plaster dries and the mold is removed, it conforms to that image (see Rom. 8:29). It could also mean "type," as in the mark of a stroke from a typewriter. This is the impression the keys make on the page that conforms to the image of the letter (see Rom. 5:14). Here, Paul says that the Romans were obedient to a "pattern of teaching" which was "committed" to them. The objective "standard" of the gospel was presented to them (Phil. 3:16; 2 Tim. 1:13). It was then met with consideration and resulted in willing obedience. But mere outward conformity to the pattern is only one aspect of "the obedience of faith."

Second, Pauls says that they were obedient from the heart (v.17b). That "standard of teaching" demanded a complete reformation of life, from the inside out. The Romans didn't obey the gospel simply to check a box. Their obedience was rendered "from the heart" because they were inwardly transformed. The wonder (and "power," Rom. 1:16) of the gospel message is its ability to melt our hearts and humble us before God. In it, we learn of God's unconquerable love and our unworthiness of his gift of salvation (Rom. 5:5-8). That inward faith motivates outward obedience (confession, Rom. 10:10; baptism, Rom. 6:1-4ff) and results in salvation. Obedience to the gospel is rendered from the heart and is proof of inward change. 

Third, Paul says that they were obedient for the Lord (v.17a). He begins this verse by expressing his gratitude to the one who makes this wonderful change possible. "But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart." When it's all said and done, after we have obeyed the gospel and done all within our power to do, there is no room for pride (Lk. 17:10). Instead of giving us the "death" we deserve, God has given us "the free gift of... eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23). So Paul rightly gives God his due and so should we. It was, after all, God who made known to us the path of life; God who took the initiative and sent his Son; God who provided the sacrifice for our sins; God who raised Jesus from the dead; God who revealed these truths by his Spirit; God who planned and executed his will to perfection; etc. We who are saved thank God our Savior (Jude 1:25). 

Jesus deserves our obedience. After all, "though he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (Heb. 5:8-9). Let us remember there is a standard of teaching to which we must conform, that our obedience must spring from a heart of faith, and that we ought always to thank God who saved us from the slavery of sin to become his obedient servants.

Responding to God's Invitation

Saturday, February 13, 2021

"For many are called, but few are chosen."

Matthew 22:14

Jesus told a story about a king whose son was getting married (Mt. 22:1-14). To celebrate the occasion, the king threw a huge party. He sent out his servants to call those who were invited but they refused to come. He sent out other servants with the message that the feast was all prepared, the food was ready and the party was about to begin, but the people "paid no attention" to the invitation. They went about their daily business and ignored it. Surprisingly, there were others who attacked the king's messengers and killed them! These violent people were, of course, punished by the king but what was to happen with the party? Who would attend the feast and honor the king's son? 

The king determined that those who refused the invitation, though they seemed at first respectable, "were not worthy." So he instructed his servants to go out into the country and invite everyone, "both bad and good," to come to the feast. Finally, the day arrived and "the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who" wasn't dressed properly. He had somehow slipped into the feast with "no wedding garment." This was a grave offense, so the poseur was bound and thrown out so that the feast could commence with those who truly belonged.

With this parable, Jesus is teaching us what "the kingdom of heaven" is like (vv.1-2). He is underscoring the danger that people find themselves in when they reject Christ and showing his acceptance of spiritual outcasts over seemingly "respectable" religionists. The characters in the parable are clear: God is the king, Christ is the son and we are the people who respond to the king's invitation. The invitation is the gospel and the wedding feast symbolizes the blessing of salvation that is enjoyed through obeying the gospel (see 25:10). This parable not only intructs us about the nature of the kingdom but also invites some much needed self-reflection. 

How do we respond to God's invitation? 

Are we ignoring it? (v.5) The king wanted to celebrate his son by serving his guests the best of everything at the feast (v.4) but some evidently didn't care. Their farms and businesses were their first priority and they were not willing to change their schedules or halt their work. Sadly, those who ignore God's gracious invitation don't know what they're missing. God wants us all to celebrate Jesus' victory over sin and death and follow Jesus into the blessings of eternal life. But, because many are blinded by the trinkets of this fading world, they ignore God's invitation (Lk. 8:14; 1 Jn. 2:15-17). What about you? Does your life take precedence over God's invitation? If so, you're missing out on life itself (Mk. 8:35). 

Are we attacking it? (vv.6-7) Who are these spiteful people who brutally attack the king's messengers? They are those who, when invited to take part in the kingdom, instead, take offense and lash out against the messengers. Jesus warns his disciples, who are tasked with extending this invitation, of people like this (Mt. 5:11-12; 21:34-36; 23:29-36). What about you? How do you respond when a loved one approaches you with the gospel? An invitation to reflect upon your own decisions? Your sins? An offer of life in Jesus? If you respond in anger and mistreat the King's messengers, beware the King's wrath and repent (v.7; 23:37-24:41). 

Are we faking it? (vv.11-13) The fate of the guest who was caught not wearing the appropriate clothes to the feast is a surprising element to the parable. While verses 5-8 are a warning to unbelievers, verse 11-13 are a warning to believers. Simply responding to God's invitation is not enough. By responding to the gospel, we commit ourselves to follow Christ and abide by his 'dress-code,' so to speak. Christians must "put on... compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience," forgiveness and, "above all... love" (Col. 3:12-14) Those who are caught at the wedding feast without this essential Christian wardrobe are subject to the same judgment of those who rejected the invitation in the first place (Rom. 11:18-22). What about you? Are you faking it or is your faith genuine?

Are we changed by it? (v.10) A person doesn't have to be "good" to be invited to the wedding feast (9:10-13), but responding to God's invitation should result in a changed life. Those dressed in Christ's character, who consistently "put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:24), are privileged to enjoy the great wedding feast with God. God's grace motivates us to "walk worthy" of our calling (Eph. 4:1), to "keep in step with the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25), to be renewed in the spirit of our minds so that we may live the life of Jesus. Are you changed by God's invitation? 

We all fit into this parable somewhere. God invites everyone to participate in his kingdom. We are "called" but are we "chosen"?

The Unlimited Love of God

Saturday, February 06, 2021

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." 

(John 3:16)

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) is often regarded as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. His work influenced the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Jürgen Moltmann and John Updike. What's more, he actively opposed Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, and vigorously attempted to prevent the Nazis from establishing a state church. 

On one occasion, Barth was asked, "What is the most profound thought that ever entered your mind?" After a brief moment of reflection, this learned theologian replied, "The most profound thought I have ever known is the simple truth: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." The love of God stretches human comprehension and "surpasses knowledge" (Eph. 3:19). Jesus' statement in John 3:16 succinctly describes the infinite dimensions of God's love. 

First, God's love is universal. God loves the entire "world." There is no qualifier or prerequisite. God's love is not conditional. Even our sins don't stand in the way of it. His love extends to everyone, even those who slip through the cracks of society, the marginalized, the forgotten and the despised. He "desires all men to be saved..." (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). His grace appeared "bringing salvation to all men" (Titus 2:11). There is no one so low whom God's love does not reach. 

And God's love is not simply a warm feeling of affection. It is deeply personal and intimately tied to each one of us (Mt. 10:30). He knows everything about us. He knows our needs, our joys, our desires and our sorrows. And in sending Jesus to share in the human experience, that knowledge is empathetic (Heb. 2:14; 4:15). We might even say, despite knowing everything about us, God still loves us. What a thought! "To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” (Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage). 

Second, God's love is unselfish. When Jesus says, "For God so loved the world" he is saying "God loved the world in this way" or "This is how much God loved the world." Jesus shows both the degree of God's love and the manner in which he chose to express it. We tend to love those who love us, those we deem deserving of it or at least capable of giving us some return on our investment. But God loves even his enemies, "the ungrateful and the evil," and teaches us to do the same (Lk. 6:35; Rom. 5:6-8). 

Consider also that God gave his "only Son." The word "begotten," found in some translations, is unfortunate because it may imply a metaphysical relationship. Here, it means "unique" or "one-and-only" (see Jn. 1:14, 18). The same word is used to describe Abraham's son Isaac in Hebrews 11:17. Isaac was, strictly speaking, not Abraham's only child (remember Ishmael?) but Isaac was Abraham's unique child, the child of God's promise (Gen. 22:2). In a similar way, Jesus is God's "unique" Son, the only one of his kind. But whereas the voice of God intervened to prevent Isaac's sacrificial death (Gen. 22:12), the divine voice was silent while Jesus died on the cross. Knowing what his death would accomplish for us (Isa. 53) and that he would be raised from the dead (Psa. 16), God "gave his only Son" for us. 

God's love is truly unlimited. His love is without equal in its scope because it is given universally. His love is without equal in its extent because he unselfishly gave his unique Son. His love is without equal in its duration because it is itself unending and able to bring us into an eternal relationship with him. God loves us and there is nothing we can do to stop it. However, to fully benefit from his love we must turn to him in faith and give him all we are, for this is what he has done for us in his Son Jesus. While the love of God is unlimited, God's power to save is limited to those who have faith (Rom. 1:16). 

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