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On the Basis of Love

Sunday, November 03, 2019

"Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you."

(Philemon 1:8-9a)

The apostle Paul's letter to Philemon has an interesting literary parallel in Pliny the Younger's letter to his friend Sabinianus. The two letters are only superficially similar. Sabinianus' freedman (one degree above a slave) had run away and come to Pliny for help in much the same way Philemon's slave Onesimus had run away to Paul in prison. Pliny was a powerful man, a Roman Senator. You may have heard of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was a famous natural historian and contemporary of Paul, who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvious.

Like Paul, Pliny (the younger) writes a letter requesting Sabinianus to accept the runaway freedman back. Unlike Paul, Pliny appeals to self-interest and sides with Sabinianus against the freedman. He says, "Yes, I know you are angry; and I know, too, that you have right to be angry. But mercy earns most praise when anger is fully justified... anger is always torture for a soft heart like yours."

He says of the freedman, "I've given him a sharp and severe talking-to, and I've warned him clearly that I won't make such a request again." His request is not for full reconciliation and peace between the two but rather a concession to the freedman's youth and to Sabinianus' kindness ("He's young, he's in tears, and you have a kind heart."). Pliny wants the freedman to go back to Sabinianus and apologize and for Sabinianus not to beat him too badly for running away. He is perfectly happy to keep the heirarchy in place upon his return.

Compare all that to Paul in his letter to Philemon! Paul's motivations and appeal are entirely different. Paul is not simply asking Philemon to take Onesimus back and let bygones be bygones. He is aiming for the Christian virtue of love that will result in self-sacrificial forgiveness and full reconciliation. This requires humility on both sides - Onesimus must be humble enough to ask for forgiveness while Philemon must be humble enough to grant it.

Paul encourages Philemon and Onesimus to this humility by establishing the theological fact that they both share fellowship (koinonia) with God together in Christ. Now that Onesimus is part of God's new family in Christ he has become Philemon's "beloved brother" and spiritual equal (Phm. 1:16; cf. Col. 3:10-11).

Interestingly, Paul does not request that Philemon release Onesimus from slavery upon his return (though, I believe he may be hinting at such an outcome in v.21). Slavery, after all, was one of the great evils of the ancient world. Certainly, the dehumanizing practice of slavery was part of the old way and not in continuity with the new order of things that Jesus brought about (2 Cor. 5:16-17). Why not order all Christian slave owners to release their slaves?

Paul was committed to Christ's new way over against the old (Col. 3) but he never gave such a loud and clear protest against the institution of slavery. In fact, at that moment in social history, such an outcry might have done more harm than good, making life harder for Christian slaves and painting Christianity as a political and social revolution not unlike the many worldly rebellions before and after it.

His method was much subtler. He knows that, in principle, it is far better to be free than to be a slave (1 Cor. 7:21-23). But, like Jesus, Paul's way of changing the world is to plant a tiny mustard seed, which seems small at first, but grows into a large, speading tree. In the meantime, he teaches Christian slaves and masters to treat each other as human beings, with love, forgiveness, mercy and respect (Col. 3; esp. 3:22-4:1).

Paul appeals to the heart so that the love of God, shown to us in Jesus, takes firm root and his reign over us grows from the inside out. When that tree blossoms in greater understanding of God's love for us we are then equipped to love others in the same way.

The Gift of Full Forgiveness

Sunday, October 27, 2019

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

(Matthew 6:14-15)

Imagine someone you love has given you a package artfully wrapped in shiny green paper and tied with a bright red bow. A tag dangles from a golden thread and on it you see your name scrawled in a tidy script. It looks promising! It looks special! What could it be? You finally tear into the paper and open the box only to find that the package is empty. How upsetting would that be? What a let-down!

We would never think of giving anyone an empty box as a present but we may be giving such "gifts" more often than we realize. Forgiveness is a gift that costs us something. It is a true sacrifice. The words "I forgive you" are just the packaging that holds the real gift of mercy. Sometimes we wrap up our gift of forgiveness in pretty words but it turns out to be empty, void of any tangible, heartfelt mercy.

When our brother approaches us with an apology we may say we forgive him but the next time we see him do we bring up the very thing we said we forgave him of? Do we decide not to have much to do with him because, we think, he's the kind of person who does that kind of thing we said we forgave him for?

Now, consider if you confessed your sin to God and he responded like that. "I forgive you but I just can't ever get close to you again." Such forgiveness would be rather empty, wouldn't it? "I'll forgive you but things will never be the same between us." We would be devasted if God responded to our apologies in these ways. That's why we are to model our forgiveness of others after God's forgiveness of us in Christ (Eph. 4:32). According to Jesus, we forfeit God's mercy if we fail to show that same mercy to others (Mt. 6:14-15; 18:21ff). Consider the words of Psalm 103:2-3, 8-12 on the subject of God's forgiveness:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and forget not all his benefits,

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases...

The Lord is merciful and gracious,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

He will not always chide,

nor will he keep his anger forever.

He does not deal with us according to our sins,

nor repay us according to our iniquities.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west,

so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

God will never dwell on your forgiven sin – (v.9b) God leaves forgiven sin in the past, not to passively forget about it but to actively leave it behind, choosing never to dwell on it again.

God will never use your forgiven sin against you – (v.9a) God will never bring up our forgiven sins in conversation to hurt us or to win an argument. He does not use forgiven sin as a weapon or as leverage.

God will never talk to others about your forgiven sin – (v.9) God never gossips about our forgiven sin to others. He does not define us as sinners any longer but as recipients of mercy, redeemed from sin.

God will never punish you for forgiven sin – (v.10) While we must deal with the earthly consequences of our sins, forgiven or not, all of sin's death-dealing power is swallowed up in God's mercy. The eternal debt of sin has been paid by Jesus on the cross.

God will never let your forgiven sin come between you and him – (vv.11-12) In mercy, God removes the barrier that once separated us from himself (Isa. 59:1-2). Only through his forgiveness can we enjoy full restoration of fellowship with God.

We must strive to model our forgiveness of one another after the kind of forgiveness which we have received from God in Christ.

Painful Sayings

Sunday, October 20, 2019

“For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not so that you would be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you.”

(2 Corinthians 2:4)

Paul’s love for his brethren can be painful to read. His exertion in the Lord’s kingdom remains an inspiration for Christians today (1 Cor. 11:1). Added to his external sufferings from his many opponents, Paul says, was the “daily pressure on [him] of concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). The love Paul had for Christ and his church moved him to anguish especially when they failed to live the regenerated lives in Christ they were called to live.

Corinth was a church riddled with problems. We see Paul's frustration and sincere love in every word of the two letters he wrote to them. He sent a stinging rebuke at the heart of the congregation appealing to them to heal their divisions (chs.1-4), to purify their immorality (ch.5), to repair their reputation (ch.6), to correct their false views about marriage (ch.7) and dietary restrictions (ch.8). Paul had to correct false accusations made against his character (ch.9), their continued connection to idolatry (ch.10), improper conduct during their worship assembly (chs.11-12), and their general lack of love (ch.13).

Paul was never afraid to say what needed to be said even if it hurt the people he loved (cf. Gal. 4:16). He would rather speak the truth, which may hurt now but heal later, than a tell, a lie which may comfort now but destroy later. As God's children we are also moved to painful sayings.

"I am sorry," is one of the most difficult things to say but admitting our wrongs to God and each other is vital if we desire full reconciliation. The language of repentance is bitter to speak but in Christ it is always followed by sweet mercy. Paul rejoiced in his rebukes not because it caused those he loved sorrow but that through that sorrow they were brought to repentance leading to life (2 Cor. 7:9-11).

Even the phrase, "I love you," can be difficult to say sometimes. In fact, the harder it is to say “I love you,” the more pressing the need is to say it! Those who misery dole out words of affection are sorry representatives of a kingom built on the love of God (Jn. 13:34-35). Love is commanded because it is not primarily a feeling but an action of sacrifice and devotion. It is important to vocalize that love even when, or perhaps especially when, it is painful to do so.

"You are wrong," is another saying that brings much anguish but it too is vital to the health and purity of the church. Many think expressing any sort of disapproval contradicts love but love is not blind agreement with someone regardless of their choices. It is possible to both love someone and disagree with them. If love seeks what is best for others, then love demands we rebuke dangerous behavior (Lk. 17:3). This loving rebuke, as modeled by Nathan to David (2 Sam. 12:7), “covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).

Perhaps the most painful saying of all is "I forgive you," because it truly costs us something when we say it from the heart. But the cost is insignificant if weighed against the consequences of witholding it (Mt. 18:21-35). The Lord himself said,“If your brother sins rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him” (Lk. 17:3). We are to model our forgiveness of one another after God's mercy toward us in Christ (Eph. 4:32).

There is no denying these sayings are difficult but learning this gospel language is vital to our development as God's people. When you’ve done wrong, waste no time in your heartfelt apology so that you can be reconciled. Say "I am sorry" and work to make things right. Be the difference in someone else's life by offering a sincere "I love you" coupled with parallel acts of sacrifice and devotion. Speaking the truth in love necessitates that sometimes we say to our erring brother "You are wrong." And be generous and quick to forgive for our fellowship with God depends on it. Embody God's mercy and give good news to those who have wronged us by saying "I forgive you."

God's Gracious Initiative

Sunday, October 13, 2019

"But God..." These two words changed everything, quite literally. They were written by the apostle Paul to the Ephesian church about 2000 years ago. What makes this word-pair so powerful is the context in which it was used. Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians explaining God’s eternal plan that was coming to fruition in Jesus (Eph. 3:10-11).

In chapter 1, Paul pointed out both WHERE God is completing His plan (“in Christ”) and WHY God is completing His plan (“for the praise of His glory”). In chapter 2, he begins to answer HOW God is going about fulfilling His eternal purpose in Christ. God's work begins with regular people like you and me (“you” 2:1).

YOU WERE

• Dead

• Trespassing

• Walking in sin

• Following the sinful course of the world

• Living in the passions of your flesh

• By nature children of wrath

• Separated from Christ

• Alienated from the commonwealth of Israel

• Strangers to the covenants of promise

• Without God

BUT GOD

• Is rich in mercy

• Loved us with great love

• Made us alive together with Christ

• Saved us by His grace

• Raised us up with Christ

• Seated us with Christ in heavenly places

• Recreated us in Christ for good works

• Made us part of His eternal plan

• Is making us His spiritual masterpiece

NOW

• You have been brought near to God by Christ’s blood

• You have been given access to the Father’s grace

• You have been given access to the Father’s power

• You are a member of God’s household

• You are at peace with other Christians

• You are at peace with God

• You are being built into a holy temple for God’s glory

“But God...” These two words changed everything. Whoever you are, these words give you the right perspective. Wherever you are, they define your purpose. Whatever you face, they give you hope.

In Ephesians 2, Paul demonstrates our hopeless and lifeless situation to emphasize God’s unmerited initiative, favor, love and power toward those who believe. Because of “but God” we who were children of wrath are children of obedient faith. Because of “but God” we who were dead are now living in Him. Because of “but God” we who were languishing in the spiritual gutter are raised up with Christ to rule in heavenly places! You are now God’s masterpiece! You are called out of past ("you were") to live in view of God's future ("now") as His rescued and renewed person and God is the one who made it all possible.

Wounding and Healing

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Part of the preacher’s vocation is to make personal application from God’s word to the listening audience. He is not merely to present the information accurately, though that is an essential aspect of his duty (Titus 1:9; 2:1), but he must also persuade, challenge and inspire the hearers to grow. (Acts 18:4)

Many preachers become intoxicated with the ascetic pleasures of gaining Biblical knowledge and mistake it for spiritual growth. They assume everyone who comes to worship the Lord is vitally interested in who the Jebusites were. It’s easy to fall into the trap of presenting a bunch of information and calling it preaching.

But Paul commanded Timothy “to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:2) You get the strong sense that Timothy’s heart was to be fully invested, not only in his study of God’s word, but also in his delivery of it to the church.

This requires making application, showing the audience how to apply God’s word in their lives. The preacher who ends the sermon with, “May the Spirit of God apply this to all our hearts, Amen!” probably doesn’t have a clue how to apply the text himself. It is much easier to  inform than to persuade. This is because preaching persuasively requires an engaged heart and may call for wounding the audience a bit - two activities that are rarely comfortable and always costly.

This is why persuasive sermons are both draining for the preacher to present and draining for the listener to hear. Because the goal is not merely the acquisition of Bible knowledge but to produce a real change in behavior and attitude, it takes listening with all your mind, heart and soul to truly benefit. (Jn. 16:8)

Knowledge alone makes arrogant (1 Cor. 8:1). For knowledge to be fruitful, it must be enjoined with active faith and love (Gal. 5:6; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:3; Jas. 2:18-22). The goal of growing in knowledge is growing in character, transformation of life (Rom. 12:1-2). Part of the role of Scripture is to teach, reprove, correct and train us to live as God's renewed people (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

One man said the job of the preacher is to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Someone else once said the job of the preacher is to “break the hard heart and heal the broken heart.” Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah’s task was to “pluck up and to break down, to overthrow and to destroy” but also “to build and to plant.” (Jer. 1:10) Notice the balance. In other words, he was to wound and to heal, to sting and to sing, with God's message.

This challenging balance between wounding and healing sets the preacher apart from the false prophets who preach “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace. This false hope, God says, “healed the wound of my people lightly” and “misled my people” (Jer. 6:14; Ezek. 13:10). There are many beloved and popular Zedekiah’s of our day who prophesy only good concerning others (1 Kgs. 22). Jesus once warned, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets the same way.” (Lk. 6:26) A preacher’s great popularity is usually purchased at the expense of his integrity.

A preacher’s role may involve confronting false teaching. Most false teaching is safely ignored but sometimes an influential person can persuade the weak to lose their faith (2 Pet. 2:18; Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Tim. 1:19; 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 2:17-18; 4:3-4). Paul, speaking from experience, said such false teachers “must be silenced” (Titus 1:10-11; cf. Gal. 2:11). There is a time and place for calling down error but, the preacher must remember, it is not every Sunday.

It is easy for preachers to lose the delicate, Biblical balance of wounding and healing. We may wound well but never heal; believing faithfulness in the kingdom is measured by the hostility and fervor with which we point our finger at others. But this kind of one-dimensional, negative preaching leaves a congregation starving and paranoid. The problem with calling out everything Jesus is against is that we never learn what Jesus is for.

The opposite problem can exist as well. It is easy for preachers to heal but never wound. This preaching is so shallow and syrupy it leaves a congregation starving and sick to their spiritual stomachs. It feels good to go to church every week but inside, the soul is atrophied and feeble, not “being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). A steady diet of spun sugar leaves a Christian spiritually weak, just one tragedy away from giving up on the Lord. 

A Biblical balance must be struck between wounding and healing. It is the burden of the preacher to learn how to wield “the sword of the Spirit” not only with accuracy but also with wisdom and love so as to both wound and heal, sting and sing, with God’s word (Acts 2:37-38; 3:19; 1 Tim. 1:5). Consider the words of the prophet Hosea (6:1-3):

“Come, let us return to the LORD;

    for he has torn us, that he may heal us;

    he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.

After two days he will revive us;

    on the third day he will raise us up,

    that we may live before him.

Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD;

    his going out is sure as the dawn;

he will come to us as the showers,

    as the spring rains that water the earth.”

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