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The Christian's Work

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Teach me, my God and King,

in all things Thee to see,

and what I do in anything,

to do it as for Thee.

All may of Thee partake;

nothing so small can be,

but draws, when acted for Thy sake,

greatness and worth from Thee.

If done to obey Thy laws,

even servile labors shine;

hallowed is toil, if this the cause,

the meanest work divine.

(George Herbert)

What is your attitude toward work? We typically view secular jobs as necessary but otherwise undesirable. Work is a means to an end, what we have to do to survive—and the sooner we can stop the better. But is this the mindset Christians ought to have? Let’s take a quick tour through the Bible to see the purpose of work.

Act 1 — Work is a good thing because God created us for it (Gen. 1:28; 2:15). Work is not a result of sin but part of God’s original purpose. God’s ‘cultural mandate’ (Gen. 1:28) explains his vision for humans: we should harness creation through our work, making a positive contribution to the world and deriving joy from it.

Act 2 — Work is a broken thing because it is spoiled through sin (Gen. 3:17-19). Because of humanity’s rebellion, creation itself resists our efforts to subdue and cultivate it. Now that sin has entered the world, work can be toilsome and frustrating, even abused as a tool to exploit people. Because work is a broken thing, we shouldn’t be surprised when we encounter difficulty on the job.

Act 3 — Work is a justice thing because God regulated it (Law & Prophets). God knew labor was affected by sin so he regulated work in the law of Moses: he promoted fair payment of wages, fair money lending practices and labor contracts, protected workers from abuse and commanded loving treatment of others. Because work is a justice thing, our work (and how we do it) must be ethical.

Act 4 — Work is a kingdom thing because the Lord is served by it (Col. 3:22-24). Jesus exercises lordship over every aspect of our lives, including our work. Therefore, the quality of our work, no matter how trivial it may seem, should reflect our King. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

Act 5 — Work is a mission thing because the gospel is commended by it (Titus 2:9-10). Christian work ethic proves the gospel. We can actually show the beauty of the gospel through the work we do when we do it for the Lord. Because work is a mission thing, we should not only work for the Lord’s sake but also for the sake of others, that they may see our good work and glorify God.

Act 6 — Work is an eternal thing because, in the end, God will redeem it (Rev. 21-22). John glimpses the future and sees a garden-like city where God and his people will live together in unity. There, all the redeemed will continue to work by serving the Lord and reigning with him (Rev. 22:5). Because work is an eternal thing, the work we do in the Lord’s name and for the Lord’s glory, no matter how small or insignificant it may look to us now, will not be in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). Somehow, God will make the good work we do for him in this life count in the next. So whatever we do in our work, let us do it well, do it honestly and do it for the Lord.

Sinners or Saints?

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Colossians 3:12

Is it right for Christians to think of themselves as “sinners” or ought we to think ourselves as “saints”? We understand that there is no such thing as a Christian in this life who is without sin for John tells us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” (1 Jn. 1:8-9a) Christians have a real need for God’s continued mercy because we continue to struggle against sin. James says, “if anyone among you [you Christians] wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (Jas. 5:20-21) Again, here is another passage that refers to Christians as “sinners.” But notice these are Christians who have wandered from the truth.

It is much more common for Christians to be described as “saints.” The word “saint” means holy one, consecrated one, one who is set apart by God. Paul calls Christians “saints” forty times in his letters and almost never calls them “sinners” in the present tense. Romans 5:8 says “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The implication is that those who are in Christ are no longer to be identified as “sinners.” Though we still struggle with sin, we are primarily identified by our association with the Lord. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.” (2 Cor. 5:17) Now that we have responded to the gospel and received the forgiveness of our sins we are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.” (Col. 3:12)

To think of ourselves as "saints" or “God’s chosen ones” seems embarrassing, almost arrogant. But these are not titles we give ourselves in hollow self-congratulation. These are names given to us by the God who has justified us in Christ: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession… Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10)

The emphasis of New Testament authors is to motivate Christians to keep in step with their new identity as “saints” by living consecrated lives (see 1 Pet. 1:14-16). In Christ, we really are, right now in the present, “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.” The challenge is for us to live consistent with that spiritual reality by putting “to death… what is earthly in [us]” (Col. 3:5-11; 2:10-11) and walking in newness of life (Col. 3:12-17; cf. Rom. 6:1ff).

Paul explores this tension between being clean and continuing to cleanse ourselves: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” (1 Cor. 5:7) Because we have been forgiven of our sins in Christ, we “really are unleavened” and yet we must continue to “cleanse out the old leaven.” Again, Paul outlines several sinful practices that keep us from inheriting God’s kingdom and says of the Corinthians, “such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified…” (1 Cor. 6:11) Yet, later, he tells these same washed, sanctified, justified people, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” (1 Cor. 7:1)

While Christians still struggle with sin, we must see ourselves primarily as “saints”: not sinless, but those who, in Christ, are empowered to sin less and less and look more and more like our perfect Savior. John strikes the balance between the responsibility of holy living and the need for grace: “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 Jn. 2:1)

The Twelve Sent Out

Saturday, November 04, 2023

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.

Mark 6:7-13

Jesus’ ministry entered an important new phase in what some call the ‘limited commission.’ The “twelve,” a theologically significant number reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Israel indicating a fresh beginning for God’s people, would be crucial in the spread of the gospel throughout the whole world (Mt. 28:18-20; Col. 1:23). To prepare them for this monumental task, Jesus, the Father’s “Apostle” (Heb. 3:1), trained them, commissioned them and “sent” (apostellō) them out to the Galilean villages as his ambassadors. Endowed with the authority of Jesus, they presented the gospel in both word and deed, preaching the message with accompanying miracles. Christians, though not apostles, can learn several practical lessons from this Galilean mission. Those who are saved have a responsibility to proclaim that message of salvation to others.

First, notice that Jesus sent them out in pairs. There may be several reasons for this: traveling with companions is a safeguard against physical threats and increases the reliability of one’s testimony. Christian coworkers also provide much needed encouragement in the often lonely and difficult work of preaching.

Second, Jesus told them to take nothing with them in the way of supplies. They were to go out with the bare necessities and rely solely on the kindness and hospitality of those who would “receive” them (Mk. 10:10). This would be an act of faith on the apostles’ part. They had to believe they would meet receptive people in the villages and learn to trust their hospitality (3 Jn. 5-8).

Third, Jesus prepared them for a varied response. The apostles could expect to find people receptive to the message but should not be surprised to encounter those who would refuse it. Earlier, Jesus taught that the gospel would elicit a wide variety of responses in his parable of the sower with its four different soils (Mk. 4:1-20).

Fourth, Jesus told them how to respond to rejection. They were not to retaliate against the unreceptive in any way. Rather, they were to simply move on after shaking the dust off their feet “as a testimony against them.” Why this action? It was customary for Jews who traveled abroad to shake the dust off their feet before returning home, so as not to defile the holy land with the soil of heathen lands. Similarly, Jews who rejected the gospel were to be treated as heathens. By doing this, the apostles signified that those who rejected God’s salvation were fully responsible for their own spiritual condition. Paul did this very thing in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:51) and in Corinth adding the verbal warning, “Your blood be on your own heads!” (Acts 18:6; see also Ezek. 3:16-21).

The apostles obeyed these instructions and experienced success in their mission. There are doubtless many other lessons for us in this text but let us, at least, learn to speak the gospel by the authority of Christ (Col. 3:17), to labor with faithful companions, to trust that God will care for us as we do his will and to respond to opposition with gravity and grief but never vengeance. There are receptive soils waiting for the seed. We are called to sow that seed in faith and leave the results to God (1 Cor. 3:6-7).

"That's Just Your Interpretation"

Saturday, October 28, 2023

When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.

Ephesians 3:4-5

Sometimes when discussing a disagreement with someone about what a certain passage of Scripture teaches, we may hear the response, “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” This may be said in an attempt to backpedal a previous statement, devalue another’s point or even end the discussion. Though this is a difficult barrier to overcome in a Bible study, disciples must try to build a bridge of understanding as we work toward unity (Jn. 17; 1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:1-6). Here are a few principles to keep in mind if you are ever met with the common response, “That’s just your interpretation.”

First, try asking, “What’s your interpretation of the passage?” This is what the Lord himself did (Lk. 10:26). To interpret something is to explain its meaning. It’s only fair to honestly hear out another’s point of view. It could be that their interpretation was correct all along! Listening to someone else’s understanding of a passage demonstrates the virtues of integrity, fairness, humility and open-mindedness, all vital qualities of the honest truth-seeker (Prov. 18:12-13). A great example of this wisdom playing out in a positive way is found in Acts 18:24-28 when Priscilla and Aquilla, who had a fuller understanding of God’s will, gently and privately taught an honest preacher “the way of God more accurately.”

Then you might ask, “How did you come to that conclusion?” For an interpretation to be valid or at least believable, one must provide some evidence for its validity. In math class, the teacher called this ‘showing your work’. This is an important tool for Biblical exegesis and Christian apologetics (Acts 17:11; 1 Pet. 3:15). By substantiating your beliefs with evidence you are being reasonable and persuasive (Acts 18:4). For faith to take shape through studying God’s word one must be convicted of its truth (Heb. 11:1). Jesus called on people to believe because of the evidence not in spite of it (Mt. 11:4-5; Jn. 5:36-40; 10:25, 37-38; 20:27, etc.).

Finally, it is critical to note that “There is a correct interpretation,” otherwise every interpretation would be equally valid. Granted, a passage can have multiple layers of meaning and complimentary interpretations, but a text cannot mean one thing and its opposite simultaneously, for this would violate the laws of logic. A pluralistic approach to Scripture, where every interpretation is as good as the next, undermines the very definition of truth. Instead of truth being that which corresponds to reality, truth becomes subjective and devolves into what is most meaningful or helpful to us. If Jesus said that all people will be held accountable to the words that he spoke (Jn. 12:48) how can we be held accountable to a standard that is unfixed and dependent on our individual interpretations? Others claim that truth cannot ever be attained. Because of our weakness and fallibility, the truth will always remain out of reach. There are philosophical problems with this claim (such claims are themselves truth-claims and, thus, self-defeating), but if the words of Jesus which we are accountable for (Jn. 12:48) cannot even be understood, then either we are all without hope or all communication is meaningless.

God’s word is the “revelation” of his otherwise hidden mind (1 Cor. 2:10-13). He revealed his mind through his Spirit in Scripture to be understood by us. Why else would one speak if not to be understood? It was written so that we can “understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17). Correctly interpreting Scripture is hard work and an important part of developing our faith (2 Tim. 2:15). It is also an indispensable tool for explaining the gospel to unbelievers and working toward unity among disagreeing brethren.

Why Me?

Saturday, October 21, 2023

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

John 9:1-3

Several years ago I drove to Chicago to visit my longtime friend and college roommate in the hospital. Eric had always had the physique of a bodybuilder and was one of the strongest guys I’ve ever exercised with. But something had gone terribly wrong. He began losing energy and dropping weight fast. His wife called to tell me things had gotten so bad he had been rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. He had some rare disease and infection in his gut. I don’t remember what it was called but I do remember walking into his hospital room and seeing him. I barely recognized him. His cheeks were sunken, his eyes bulged, his skin was grey and arms were as thin as rails. He may have weighed 100 pounds. We spoke just before he was rushed into the operating room. He asked, “Why is this happening to me?” His career was just getting started, his boy had just been born. Why was God doing this to him? He wondered why everyone else got to live such trouble-free lives while he had to endure this pain and the prospect of an early death. I said I didn’t know but we prayed and the nurse wheeled him out.

By the grace of God, Eric pulled through that day. And after many more surgeries over the next few years, and through a very dark period of related depression, he is doing much better today.

Pain and grief often force these searching questions out of us. In our lamentation we cry out “Why me? Why must we suffer?”

If the man who was born blind asked, “Why me?” the answer would have been “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (Jn. 9:3) If Mary and Martha, after losing their brother Lazarus to illness, would have asked, “Why us?” the answer would have been “so that you may believe.” (Jn. 11:15) If the paralytic man would have asked, “Why me?” the answer would have been “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” (Mk. 2:10) If Paul, pondering his thorn his flesh, would have asked, “Why me?” the answer would have been “so that the power of Christ may rest upon [you].” (2 Cor. 12:9)

As Doy Moyer pointed out, ““Why me?” need not be a negative question, but it does need to be self-reflective. It can lead to an answer demonstrating selfishness and bitterness, or it can lead to a God-glorifying response that demonstrates reliance on God.”

We all need to seriously evaluate how we view and respond to life’s trials. It is easy to affirm the value of affliction when life is delightful. We can quote James 1:2 with a smile on our face and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” with a twinkle in our eye. But can we trust that passage and sing that song when trials come?

If we believe the Lord knows what he is doing, we will rely on his strength to see us through the trial. If we believe it is God’s will that we be “conformed to the image of his Son” who “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8), we won’t ask “Why me?” so much as “Why not me?” Those moments when God feels most distant may very well be the times he is forming Christ within us.

Only in our weakness can we learn the sufficiency of God’s grace and the perfection of his power. Only in our affliction can we learn to “rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:9)

Paul and Silas sang hymns in the darkness of their prison cell in Philippi (Acts 16:25). May God shine the light of his word into the darkness of our trials. May we learn to sing: “Let the treasures of the trial / Form within me as I go / And at the end of this long passage / Let me leave them at your throne.”

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