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The 'Littlest' Christian

Saturday, June 08, 2024

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”

(Ephesians 3:8)

Who was the smallest Christian? We may think of Zacchaeus, who was “small in stature” (Lk. 19:1-10), but Paul claims he was the smallest. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul described the “mystery” made known to him (Eph. 3:1-6) and then the “ministry” entrusted to him (Eph. 3:7-13), which was “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Paul considered this commission an enormous privilege. “This grace,” as he called it, was given to him by God despite the fact that he was “the very least of all the saints.”

This is a striking expression. What did Paul mean by it? First of all, in Paul’s writing, “saint” (one who is holy or consecrated) is a title for every one of the Lord’s people. All Christians are “saints,” being consecrated by God in Christ and having redemption through his blood (Eph. 1:7). Paul was certainly a “saint” but he categorized himself as “less than the least of all the saints” (NET).

Paul was stretching the Greek language for his purposes. He used the superlative “least” or “smallest” (elachistos) and turned it into a comparative “leaster” or “less than the least” (elachistoteros). This may have been a deliberate play on his name. When Paul’s mission brought him into primarily Gentile territory Luke ceased referring to him by his Hebrew name (“Saul” i.e. Shaul = desired) and began referring to him exclusively by his Roman name, “Paul,” which is Latin for ‘little’ or ‘small.’ Tradition says (take this with a grain of salt!) Paul was little in stature as well. Perhaps Paul is saying, “I am little in every way: little in name, in stature, and spiritually littler than the littlest of all Christians.”

But the apostle was not groveling in self-deprecation or indulging in false modesty. He truly meant what he wrote. In other places, he describes, with excruciating sincerity, his deep awareness of his unworthiness even to be saved let alone be chosen as the Lord’s apostle. Taking three of Paul’s self-descriptions in chronological order is instructive:

  1. First, Paul said he was “the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because” he “persecuted the church of God.” (1 Cor. 15:9, ~ AD 55).
  2. Next, as we have already noted, he said he was “the very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8, ~ AD 62).
  3. Later in his life, he said God had appointed him to service “though formerly” he “was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of Jesus. But he “received mercy because” he “had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for” him “with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Tim. 1:13-17, ~ mid-60’s)

As he progressed in his faith, Paul’s view of himself diminished while his view of God increased. This personal humility, however, never hindered him from executing his mission as Christ’s apostle. On the contrary, God's overflowing grace and mercy filled his ministry with divine strength. He “worked harder than any” of the rest of the apostles, though it was not him, but rather God’s grace at work in him (1 Cor. 15:10). When his apostleship was questioned by false apostles he vigorously defended it (2 Cor. 10-11). He appealed to—even commanded—Christians on the basis of his apostolic authority (2 Thess. 3:6). While minimizing himself and magnifying his office, Paul the ‘littlest’ one, was glorifying his Lord. 

Paul's outlook really pours water on any of our delusions of grandeur. It's good to be little if being little means making much of our Lord. 

The Just Shall Live by Faith

Saturday, June 01, 2024

Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.

Habakkuk 2:4

After Solomon’s reign, the nation of Israel was divided into two separate kingdoms: Judah (with Benjamin) in the south and Israel (the other tribes) in the north. The northern kingdom suffered one unjust and idolatrous king after another. Despite the prophets’ pleas for repentance, the people continued in their rebellion against God. This earned them God’s justice which came in the form of the Assyrian army destroying Israel’s capital, Samaria, and taking many Israelites captive in 722 BC.

The southern kingdom of Judah, though blessed with a few righteous kings, was headed down the same road. Meanwhile, Babylon overtook Assyria as the dominant world power and destroyed the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 BC. The book of Habakkuk probably took place some time after this and before the first Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in 606.

The book of Habakkuk is similar to Jonah in the sense that rather than containing the prophet’s sermons, it contains the prophet’s dialogue with God. Habakkuk was deeply disturbed by the moral, social and religious corruption of Judah and wondered why God, who was holy, could allow Judah’s evil to continue unchecked (1:1-4). In response, God—who was well aware of Judah’s sins—revealed his surprising plan to use the nation of Babylon to execute his judgment upon Judah (1:5-11). God warned Habakkuk that the prophet wouldn’t believe his plan… and he didn’t! This seemed an even greater injustice to the prophet; how could a just God use a nation even more wicked than Judah to punish his people? (1:12-2:1) He could not understand the rationale of God’s plan and waited for an explanation (2:1). In response, God assured him it was going to happen (2:2-3) but then provided the only way to survive the ordeal (2:4).

How could anyone hope to survive the oncoming Babylonian onslaught? God answered, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4). Nothing could stop the Babylonian invasion but the people could survive by putting their complete trust in God. Practically, this meant that those in Jerusalem during the siege should trust God’s word by not fighting against the Babylonians or making military alliances with other nations. They were to willingly go into captivity and thus “live by faith” in God’s plan.

Though Habakkuk was utterly terrified by this coming invasion, his prayer at the end of the book reflects his trust in God, modeling the kind of faith God was calling for (3:1-19). This phrase is quoted three other times in the New Testament, each time highlighting a different aspect of its meaning.

Romans 1:16-17 emphasizes justice — In Romans, Paul explains how our sin separates us from God and earns us God’s wrath. Who can possibly survive God’s justice when we have all sinned? The gospel reveals God’s righteous plan to make sinners right—that is, able to stand in judgment. Like God’s plan in Habakkuk’s day, it may be hard to believe that guilty sinners could be right with God simply by putting their faith in Jesus. But God is just in making us just because our sins have been fully atoned for by Jesus’ death on the cross. It takes faith to accept and obediently respond to God’s plan of salvation, but it’s the only way to life beyond the judgment.

Galatians 3:11 emphasizes faith — Jewish believers had perverted the gospel by requiring Gentiles to observe the law of Moses in order to be right with God. In response, Paul wrote that no one could be right with God through keeping the law of Moses. He marshals several arguments to prove that faith, not the law, is and always has been the way to salvation. Abraham, who lived prior to the giving of the law, was justified by his faith. Anyone who tries to live by the law must live a morally perfect life or else be under its curse. But Jesus, who did live a morally perfect life, took that curse upon himself and died for us so that we could put our faith in him. Paul clinches his point by quoting Habakkuk 2:4. We are saved by faith.

Hebrews 10:38 emphasizes life — Hebrews was written to encourage Jewish Christians not to throw away their salvation in Christ by relapsing into Judaism for fear of persecution. The book is filled with arguments that show how the glory of the new covenant established by Jesus far outshines that of the old established by Moses. In chapter 10, the author both warns and promises of a day of judgment that is drawing near (10:25). If they are to survive that day of judgment, they must maintain their confidence in Christ and endure temporary hardship by faith. Then Habakkuk 2:4 is quoted to show that bold faith that draws near to God—the opposite of shrinking back in fear—is the way to life.

What may at first have seemed like an obscure verse from a so-called “minor” prophet turns out to be the linchpin of humanity’s response to God’s grace. Whatever troubles we face in this life, remember the words of Habakkuk 2:4, “the just shall live by his faith.” Put your faith in God’s plan and obediently follow his commands. No matter how difficult it may be, no matter how counterintuitive it may seem to our instincts of self-preservation, God’s way is always right and leads to life—even if it passes through death along the way!

The Lord's Supper

Saturday, May 25, 2024

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day the U.S. federal government dedicated to honoring and remembering the military personnel who have died in service to their country. Jesus instituted his own memorial that disciples celebrate each Sunday (1 Cor. 11:23-26; Acts 20:7). All that is needed in this memorial is two common and inexpensive ingredients (grape juice and unleavened bread) and minds that are focused on the right thing. The Lord’s Supper has us looking in four directions at once. Let’s notice them.

Looking outward in faithful preservation of Christian unity. The Lord’s supper is a symbol of the unity of the church. The bread that we share represents Christ’s body. Though we are many, we share in that one bread (10:16-17). The church in Corinth was physically assembled to honor the Lord but because they were spiritually divided, they were, in fact, dishonoring him (11:17-22). Because the rich were shaming the poor (11:21-22) their assembly was doing more harm than good! (11:17)

Is it possible that some in our church are nurturing resentments against other Christians? If there any some jealousy, suspicion or rivalry beneath the surface it may go unnoticed for a while, but it will eventually manifest itself in division. The Lord’s supper, a symbol of our spiritual unity, should motivate us to look outward toward our relationships with others. We should attempt to heal any animosity or tension in our relationships before we come to worship our God (Mt. 5:23-24).

Looking backward in solemn remembrance of Christ’s death. The Lord’s supper also provides a time to remember Christ’s love and proclaim his death. The main command that Jesus gives concerning his memorial is to “remember” him. One would think the church could not possibly forget such a central thing as our Savior’s death. It is through that death, after all, that we live. But the Lord knew our weak and distracted minds could marginalize something so crucial.

We need to be told the story of Jesus simply, slowly and often because we soon forget. That’s why the Lord’s supper is a means of proclaiming his death, a verbal decree spoken in conjunction with eating and drinking elements symbolic of his death. It’s designed so we would never forget.

Looking forward in hopeful anticipation of Christ’s return. The Lord’s supper is a temporary, anticipatory celebration. We proclaim his death “until he comes.” So while we are looking backward to the cross and the redemption Jesus accomplished, we are also looking forward to his return when he will come with his angels in glory to complete our salvation by raising our bodies incorruptible and bringing final judgement against evil. So while the Lord’s supper is a solemn memorial it is also a hopeful celebration.

Looking inward in reflective discernment of Christ’s body. The Lord’s supper also provides a crucial opportunity for self-examination (11:27-29). Paul says we can observe the Lord’s supper in an “unworthy manner.” That is, we may eat the bread and drink the cup without any kind of repentance, self-examination, contrition or faith in our hearts. How can we take the Lord’s supper on Sunday while, throughout the week, we lie on our income taxes, feed secret addictions, abuse our spouse or give free reign to our anger? To “remember” Christ and “proclaim his death” in a “worthy manner” merits some serious preparation and self-examination both before and during the Lord’s supper. A failure to judge ourselves properly before we take the Lord’s supper will result in us condemning ourselves in the act, inviting God’s judgment upon ourselves (11:30-32). But if we do examine ourselves in reflective discernment, observing this memorial becomes a weekly form of covenant renewal.

May God help us take the Lord’s supper in a worthy manner today and every week. Let us solemnly remember Christ’s sacrifice for us and examine ourselves in the light of the gospel of his grace. May it always be a time of spiritual growth and renewal of our commitment to Jesus and each other. May our observance of the Lord’s supper be an accurate symbol of the unity that Jesus died to create and a bold proclamation of his death until he comes again. He came first to bring salvation to us by dying on the cross. Because he was raised from the dead, we believe he will come again to bring judgment and complete our salvation, ushering us into eternity with him. Come Lord Jesus!

Home Makeover

Saturday, May 18, 2024

God give us Christian homes!

Homes where the Bible is loved and taught,

Homes where the Master's will is sought,

Homes crowned with beauty Your love has wrought;

God, give us Christian homes!

A good home does not happen by accident. True, a Christ-centered home is a gift from God, but it is a gift that is prayerfully sought, patiently cultivated and faithfully protected. Don’t think that just because the New Testament teaching on building a Christian home is easy to comprehend that it is easy to implement (Eph. 5:22-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1). Like watching a 30-minute home makeover show on HGTV, what may look relatively painless is much more challenging and costly when we pick up our tools and get into the actual work. Note three things that a spiritual home makeover requires.

Christian homes require a divine blueprint. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psa. 127a). Here, Solomon provides us with the ideal blueprint for our homes: God must be the architect and builder of our families. But for God to build our families necessitates our following his wisdom and plan. Therefore, Scripture must be at the heart of home life (Deut. 6:6-9). Lois and Eunice evidently understood this, training Timothy from childhood in the sacred writings (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15). Families must not only listen to God by reading together but also speak to God by praying together (1 Pet. 3:7). When families read and pray regularly together, it creates an atmosphere conducive to spiritual growth. Spouses will learn to give the unconditional love they receive from Jesus (Eph. 5:22-33), parents will learn to train their children with the same patient and loving disciple they receive from the Lord (Heb. 12:3-11) and children will learn to respect and obey their parents because it pleases God (Col. 3:20-21).

Christian homes require some holy demolition. We have all brought some bad habits into our families, perhaps carried over from childhood or picked up along the way. Just like our home renovation projects, before we can install anything new we must rid ourselves of anything old and out of date—i.e. dangerous. God tells us what is clearly not ‘up to code’ and instructs us to put it to death. These are things like sexual immorality, greed, anger, slander and lying (Col. 3:3-11). Because these selfish practices are unsafe for any family we must be ruthless in removing them from our lives. This violent reordering of priorities and cessation of harmful habits can be a messy, painful and slow process, but it is necessary.

Christian homes require framing in godly values. Once we have learned to continually put off the old ways, we will be ready to start framing in the new values that will form the boundaries of our home. Paul instructs us to “put on” the heart of Jesus: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and mercy (Col. 3:12-17). These attitudes form the new walls and roof that keep our family safe. God protects us through our honesty toward one another, our willingness to forgive one another and our commitment to love one another, no matter what. A good home is like a spiritual and emotional shelter where the weary can come in from the world and enjoy rest. Christians deal with enough problems in the world. We need a place of mutual love and understanding, a place where we can truly let our guard down, be ourselves, joke around and ask questions without feeling embarrassed or afraid.

It is a tragedy when the home is the source of distress and guilt, suspicion and hostility. It is sad when the home is a place of are slammed doors, raised voices or grim silence. Perhaps you were raised in such a home. If so, by the grace of God we are given a chance to break that pattern and do things God’s way. Do you need a home makeover? Seek God’s design in his word and get to work tearing down the old and building up the new.

Three Levels of Service

Saturday, May 11, 2024

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

Galatians 5:13

The gospel has “called” us out of the spiritual bondage of sin—and the guilt associated with it—into “freedom” (Gal. 5:1). But rather than freeing us from every restraint so that we can pursue selfish goals (“an opportunity for the flesh”), Christian freedom exhibits itself in loving service to others. It is a freedom from sin to service.

Christians ought to know how important it is to serve others. Loving service is one of the defining characteristics of God’s people (Jn. 13:14-15, 33-34). In serving others we are really serving our Lord (Col. 3:24). Leadership and greatness in the kingdom is all about service. Our King himself said (and exemplified), “the greatest among you shall be your servant” (Mt. 23:11) and “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20:26-28)

As we mature in the faith we find ourselves growing in this ability to serve. To do anything well takes practice and consistency. There are three levels of Christian service: beginner, intermediate and expert.

The beginner stage is simply doing acts service. When we first “put on Christ” (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27) we start the lifelong process of learning how to think and behave like him (Eph. 4:22-32; Col. 3:12-17). In the realm of service, we take that initial step by looking not only to our “own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). This movement away from selfishness toward the needs of others sets us on the path of Christian service. We can serve in thousands of ways: a phone call, a visit, lending a listening ear, helping someone with tasks around the home, teaching, praying, etc. The first step is just doing it.

The intermediate stage is doing acts of service without grumbling. Paul said we are to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” so that we can stand out in a grumbling and disputing world (Phil. 2:14-16). Peter admonishes us to “show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Pet. 4:9) Sometimes our struggle is not serving other people but serving them with a good will. This can be especially difficult if the ones we are trying to serve fail to show any gratitude or complain themselves. Serving others while constantly fussing about it makes the ones we’re trying to help feel guilty and ashamed of being in need and less likely to ask for help in the future. Many people in the world understand their obligation to serve others. We will only stand out from the ones that do if we serve without grumbling.

Why is much of our service tainted with grumbling? When our service seems burdensome it might be because we are not “serv[ing] by the strength that God supplies,” (1 Pet. 4:11) i.e. we are relying too heavily on ourselves and our own resources. But it’s not all on our shoulders. When we enjoin our acts of service with a faithful trust in God, knowing we are doing his will and pleasing him no matter how it is received on earth, our burden of service will be noticeably lighter (Mt. 11:28-30).

The expert stage is doing acts of service with love. When we genuinely love those we are serving, even the ungrateful ones, we are truly behaving like Jesus. Remember Paul’s instruction in Galatians 5:13, “through love serve one another.” Our service may start with mere obligation and graduate to a service without complaining but, ultimately, we must strive for a service that issues from a heart of love.

This love-service opens up new possibilities to stand out in the world and testify to the truth of the gospel. When other people feel and know that we desire to help them, genuinely want them to succeed, and even enjoy serving them, it is enough to make them stop and wonder. We are shining God’s light upon them, the perfect God who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Mt. 5:45) If you have ever been helped by someone in this expert stage then you know how impactful it can be!

Where are you in your journey of service? Perhaps you are new to the faith and just now learning how vital it is that you take that initial step and start helping. Maybe you are doing what you can but are struggling with your attitude. Remember to serve with the strength that God supplies. In the end, we must all strive to reach Christian maturity and serve with love just like our Lord Jesus. God can help us get there if we but trust him and take the initial step.

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