Archive for December, 2013

(71) We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works – Ephesians 2:10

December 9, 2013

The next three of Paul’s letters – Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians – are written to churches he founded. They have different themes and pack a lot of teaching into their few chapters.

The theme of Galatians is justification – being made right with God – by faith. The churches that Paul and Barnabas founded in Galatia had come under the influence of Jewish Christians who taught that the Gentiles had to adopt Jewish customs, including circumcision, in order to become Christians. Paul emphasises his own Jewish background and heritage and yet says that we “know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). In every generation there has been the tendency to reduce Christianity to a set of rules and regulations – do this, don’t do that – but although this makes it easy to judge ourselves and others it leads to a sense of failure and guilt.

The answer is to live in freedom from the law’s demands and freedom to walk in step with the Spirit. As we do this daily we will see the fruit of the Spirit, which Paul describes as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV), developing in our character and we will be closer to obeying the law than if we try in our own strength.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians starts by describing our redemption as part of God’s overall plan, which was conceived before the world was created and will be brought to full implementation when everything in heaven and on earth will be united. He then describes how God’s grace to us is seen in that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10). The best demonstration of love in the world does not come from self-made men and women but from people who allow God to work in them and through them.

When he turns to practical matters Paul emphasises unity in the body of God’s people and love for one another. He addresses relationships between wives and husbands, fathers and children, and masters and slaves, setting out radical teaching, including that husbands should love their wives, “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25) – a very high standard to aspire to.

He ends with advice about how to “take your stand against the devil’s schemes” by putting on “the full armour of God.” Using the picture of the Roman soldier he tells us to stand firm wearing “the belt of truth”, “the breastplate of righteousness,” the shoes of “the gospel of peace,” “the shield of faith” and “the helmet of salvation.” In the same way as this equipment safeguards the soldier in battle so these godly character traits provide us with a strong defence against the attack of the devil and the world around us who would like to see our faith destroyed. The only offensive weapon we have is “the sword of the Spirit,” a reference to the word of God which we are to use under the Spirit’s direction to provide guidance and truth for ourselves. Fully equipped with the spiritual armour we are also to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions” (see Ephesians 6:11-18), maintaining constant contact with our heavenly commander.

Paul wrote to the Philippians to thank them for a gift they had sent him when he was in prison. Despite being in chains his letter overflows with joy, his personal joy and his joy for them. He tells them to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) and not to be anxious about anything but to give everything to God in prayer, a practice that will bring us peace as we learn to trust in him.

Paul encourages them to love one another, humbly putting others ahead of themselves. He quotes from a poem, possibly an early Christian song, which describes how Jesus, despite being “in very nature God”, “made himself nothing” and came to earth as a man and humbly gave himself to die on a cross for us. It was his humble act that resulted in God exalting him “to the highest place” and giving him “the name that is above every name” (see Philippians 2:6-11). We should imitate Jesus’ humility in our relationships.

Those who think that Christianity is an easy option have not read the high standards that Paul sets before us.

(70) And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:13

December 6, 2013

Paul’s relationship with the churches he founded was like a father with a child. He loved them deeply but was not afraid to address their failings as he wanted them to grow to maturity. We see this most clearly in his relationship to the church in Corinth as we have two letters that he wrote to them. 1 Corinthians covers a range of questions and issues while 2 Corinthians is a much more personal letter in which Paul defends his work as an apostle.

From 1 Corinthians we learn that the church had different factions, it had problems with immorality, members had lawsuits against each other, there were issues with idolatry, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was chaotic, they didn’t know how to use spiritual gifts and they were unclear about the resurrection. This is quite a list but reflects the growing pains of a church established in a pagan seaport which, like all churches, is influenced by the community it is part of.

Given Paul’s strict upbringing as a Pharisee it is all the more remarkable to see his love and patience for a church with such problems. He starts by thanking God for them, praying that they will be enriched and strengthened by God.

With regard to the issues that they had written to him about, he appeals to them to put aside their divisions, to stop giving their teachers marks out of ten and to see them as servants who contribute to their growth in God. He is adamant that there is no place for immorality in the church and urges them to flee from it saying that “your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you” and “You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19). We are to honour God with our bodies.

In 2 Corinthians Paul talks about a collection for the church in Jerusalem which had been hit by a famine. He encourages regular giving so that those who have plenty share with those who are in need, telling them that “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously” (2 Corinthians 9:6). Paul is clear that giving is a voluntary act given in response to what God has given us, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

In 1 Corinthians Paul talks about the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to individuals to build up the church. These include gifts of speaking words of encouragement and wisdom, gifts of teaching and healing, gifting in leadership or administration. Paul says that all are given “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7), but human nature being as it is, we quickly become proud of what we see as our gifting and ability, rather than on where the gifting came from and its purpose.

Paul uses the picture of the human body to illustrate how we are to think of ourselves with our gifts in the church. The body is made up of many members – the foot, the hand, the ear, the eye – each with its own place and function in our body. Paul imagines the foot saying it doesn’t belong to the body because it isn’t a hand or the whole body being just an eye – which can’t hear! These ridiculous scenarios illustrate that just as God arranged the various members to form one body so in the church, members are arranged “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:25).

Underpinning all of Paul’s instructions is the paramount importance of love in the church and in the middle of this passage he gives one of the most sublime descriptions of love ever written. 1 Corinthians 13 is often read at weddings but its message is about love for all, not just within a marriage. If we were to regularly meditate on these words, written to a divided church, then all our relationships would be greatly enhanced.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

(69) But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us – Romans 5:8

December 5, 2013

Acts describes the growth of the early church and gives us glimpses into how it operated but we get much more insight into what it means to be a Christian from the New Testament letters. There are twenty-two, thirteen from Paul and nine from other apostles. The first nine of Paul’s letters are to churches while the other four are to individuals. They are roughly arranged in size order – see the Bible Bookcase.

Paul’s letters to churches tend to follow a similar pattern. He introduces himself and tells them how he is praying for them. He expounds doctrine – explaining who Jesus is and what he has done – before moving on to practical application and final remarks. Different letters have different themes depending on the need of the specific church he is writing to.

The first letter in the New Testament is Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. It was written before he visited them so does not contain some of the corrective challenges found in the letters to churches he knew. Romans provides a comprehensive explanation of God’s plan of salvation as fulfilled through Jesus.

Salvation is about being saved from God’s wrath. This is an unpopular idea today but Paul describes people’s wickedness in turning our back on God’s righteousness – his perfect standard – which is inexcusable given the evidence of God’s character and nature as seen in the creation around us. We all judge right and wrong in others, and are keen to see justice done on those who do bad things, but this means that we are without excuse in our own behaviour which we know often falls short of the standards we set, let alone God’s perfect standard. Paul summarises our position by saying that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

This is a bleak assessment but it is only half of the sentence. The good news is that all “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). ‘Justified’ is a legal term meaning that we are declared right. That takes effect immediately, but it does not mean that we suddenly become perfect. That is a process of continual improvement, called sanctification, which takes the rest of our lives.

The reference to redemption would have reminded people in Paul’s day of the slave market where slaves could be set free for a payment. When Paul says that Christ redeemed us, he means that he paid the price for our sins so that we could go free from the punishment we deserve. This is available to all, but it is not forced on us: it has to be received by accepting that we need to be set free and that Jesus has died to make that possible.

The extent of God’s love for us is shown in that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Paul is supremely confident in the power of God’s love for us and says, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Some saw this as an opportunity to live as they pleased as God will love them whatever they do. Paul strongly dismisses this idea and insists that we must not live to please our sinful nature but live in tune with the Holy Spirit who lives within us and who equips us to live as God’s children. He exhorts us “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1). We do this by avoiding taking on the world’s way of thinking and being transformed by the renewing of our minds through reading God’s word and walking in step with the Spirit.

Paul concludes with a number of instructions on how to live. These cover the different gifts we each have, our relationship to the state, and being kind towards those who have a different approach to their faith on practical matters. Paul is very clear that we cannot earn our salvation by keeping the law, but that if we truly appreciate the extent of what God has done for us in his love then our response will be that we will keep the law by loving others. “Love is the fulfilment of the law” (Romans 13:10).

(68) Paul took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus – Acts 19:9

December 4, 2013

At the end of his second missionary journey Paul visited Athens where he demonstrated his knowledge of Greek culture and writing. The Greeks worshipped many gods and, afraid to upset any of them, even had an altar dedicated “To an unknown God” (Acts 17:23). Paul took this as a starting point for preaching to them about “The God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24), and quoted from their literature before talking about Jesus. He then spent over 18 months in Corinth, establishing a strong church before setting sail back to Antioch.

Paul’s third journey took him to Ephesus, a town on the west coast of Asia (present day Turkey), where he spent three months teaching in the synagogue before opposition caused him to move to “the lecture hall of Tyrannus.” Luke says “he had discussions daily” (Acts 19:9), indicating that this was a dialogue, not just preaching. People were able to raise their questions and the question and answer style is evident in some of Paul’s letters as he raises objections to his own teaching and deals with them – see for example Romans 6:1 & 6:15. Ephesus was a commercial centre for the region with many people coming and going and “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10) as a result of Paul using the city as his base for two years.

Paul’s time in Ephesus was brought to an end by a riot in the city which was started by the silversmiths who were concerned for their livelihood. Their main income came from selling images of their goddess Artemis (the temple of Artemis, also known as Diana, was one of the original seven wonders of the world) and sales were falling as people became Christians. Not for the first time, the spread of Christianity had an economic impact on a community.

After visiting the churches he had founded in Macedonia and Greece, Paul set off for Jerusalem. When they arrived at Caesarea they stayed with Philip the Evangelist, which is probably where Luke heard the account of his time in Samaria and with the Ethiopian official, and a prophet called Agabus came and said that Paul would be bound by the Jews in Jerusalem and delivered to the Gentiles. The disciples, including Luke, urged him not to go but Paul was convinced that he should go saying that, “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).

Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem was low key. He met with James, the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the Jerusalem church and told him and the other elders about what God had done among the Gentiles through his work. They were pleased, although their main concern was still to avoid offending the Jewish believers wherever possible. After a week Paul was spotted in the temple by Jews from Asia who stirred up the crowd against him saying that he his teaching was contrary to Jewish laws and customs. This led to a riot which the Romans stopped by arresting Paul.

Paul then spent over two years under arrest in Caesarea and appeared before a number of Roman Governors and local kings. He was a Roman citizen, which gave him various rights, and during his trial he used his right to appeal to Caesar. As a result he was sent to Rome for trial. Luke records the journey in detail, including a dramatic account of a storm and a shipwreck on Malta. Paul was under house arrest for two years in Rome where, despite being in chains, he had considerable freedom to preach. Luke ends his book by writing that Paul “welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ – with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30-31).

We do not have any record of Paul’s trial before Caesar – the infamous Nero – but it is traditionally thought that he was released and undertook further missionary journeys (his letters make references to places not mentioned in Acts) before returning to Rome where he was martyred.

Paul’s life made a huge impact on the people of his day. But his impact on Christianity comes from his letters, thirteen of which are in our New Testament.

(67) They examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true – Acts 17:11

December 3, 2013

After recording Peter’s experience with Cornelius and the conversion of Saul, Luke moves his focus to the church in Antioch. Antioch was the leading city of Syria at this time, and the third city of the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria in Egypt (its ruins are near the current town of Antakya in Turkey). It was a very multi-cultural city and when disciples who were scattered after the stoning of Stephen arrived there some of them preached to the Greeks as well as the Jews. As a result, a large, multiracial church was established.

When the Jerusalem church heard about this they sent Barnabas to check it out. He was very pleased with what he saw and stayed to encourage the young church. He also went to find Saul, who had returned to his home town of Tarsus, and asked him to come and join him in Antioch to teach the new converts.

Luke notes that “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). Whether this name was used proudly by the disciples or was a term of mockery used by outsiders we are not told, but it stuck and became the name for those who followed Christ.

The second half of Acts is dedicated to Paul’s travels around the northern Mediterranean – known as his missionary journeys – taking the good news of Jesus to Jews and Gentiles and establishing many churches. His first journey started in Antioch when God told the leaders of the church to “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2), which was to go and spread the good news to other regions. They set sail for Cyprus and then to towns in the province of Galatia (in present day Turkey).

Their time in each town followed a similar pattern. Paul, as he is called from this time on, started by preaching to the Jews in the local synagogue. As a consequence, some Jews accepted that Jesus was the promised Messiah and became Christians while others opposed the message, both verbally and physically. As a result, Paul and Barnabas were excluded from the synagogue and went to preach to the Gentiles, many of whom responded positively and became Christians. Paul’s preaching was accompanied by “signs and wonders” (Acts 14:3), including healings and the popularity of their message led to great jealousy from the Jewish leaders who had them driven out of the town or, in some cases, even stoned.

This left new church congregations which had the Old Testament and what they had heard about Jesus from Paul and Barnabas. Revisiting the churches on their return journey they appointed leaders, known as elders, to oversee the churches. This was Paul’s pattern throughout his three missionary journeys recorded in Acts.

Paul and Barnabas had taken John Mark, the author of the second gospel, with them on their first journey but he deserted them when they got to Galatia. As they planned a second journey Barnabas, always the encourager, wanted to give John Mark a second chance but Paul saw him as a liability and refused to take him. Luke records that “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” (Acts 15:39), an example of how the Bible records its great men’s failings. It also shows how God works through our weaknesses as this resulted in Barnabas and Paul going separate ways so doubling the area covered.

Paul had many companions who travelled with him, including Timothy, Titus, Silas and Luke who wrote the Gospel and Acts. He was also later reconciled to Barnabas and John Mark.

On his second journey Paul went through Cilicia and Galatia to the Roman province of Macedonia (present day Greece) and established churches in Philippi, where Paul and Silas were released from prison by an earthquake, Thessalonica and Berea. Rather than being hostile, the Jews in Berea “were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). They set us an excellent example of neither rejecting what we hear out of hand nor just accepting it at face value. Christianity does not require blind faith. The balance of being open to what people have to say but weighing it carefully to see if it is true is to be commended.

(66) As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him – Acts 9:3

December 2, 2013

The central character of the second half of the book of Acts is Paul. Paul was an intelligent, passionate and courageous man who was brought up as a devout Jew and became a Pharisee, a teacher of the Old Testament law. He lived in Tarsus, a city in the Roman province of Cilicia (in present day Turkey) and didn’t meet Jesus during his lifetime but came to live in Jerusalem during the time of the early church. As a Pharisee, Paul was convinced that the growth of the early church was a bad thing. He thoughtthe disciples of Jesus who worshipped him as the Messiah were dangerous heretics and he set out to persecute them into silence.

We first come across him at the stoning of Stephen when he is called Saul, which was his original name. As the crowd stoned him Luke notes that, “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58) and that he approved of Stephen’s execution. Saul then took the lead in persecuting the church, dragging men and women from their homes and putting them in prison.

As the church spread so did the persecution and Saul set off for Damascus with the authority of the high priest to arrest “any there who belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:2) – this is what disciples of Jesus were known as at this time – and to bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. But near the end of his journey Saul had an encounter that dramatically changed the course of his life. ‘Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, he replied”’ (Acts 9:3-5).

Saul was left blinded by this experience and had to be led by his companions – who had heard the voice but not seen anyone – into the city. For three days he was blind and so stunned that he neither ate nor drank.

A man called Ananias, one of the bit-part heroes of the Bible, was told by God to go and find Saul and pray for him to receive his sight. Ananias is naturally concerned at the thought of going to meet Saul given his reputation and tells God about his evil exploits (just in case God was not aware of this information!). God then tells him that Saul “is my chosen instrument to carry my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Ananias goes to see Saul, prays for him and he regains his sight. He was immediately baptised into the Way of Jesus.

Saul had clearly done some thinking during his three days of blindness, combining his deep knowledge of the Old Testament with what he had learned about Jesus because he immediately goes into the synagogues proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God. This completely bewildered the Jews in Damascus who were expecting him to come and arrest those who followed Jesus and after a short period of time they decided to kill him. Saul the persecutor had become Saul the persecuted and he had to escape from the city by being lowered down the city wall in a basket.

We still use the expression ‘a Damascus Road experience’ to refer to a sudden, life-changing experience. For Saul, it turned his whole thinking upside down and set his life on a completely different course. However, the transformation didn’t happen overnight and we know from his own writing that he then spent three years in Arabia (see Galatians 1:18) where he must have done a lot of rethinking about everything that he had learnt as well as praying about his future. After those years he returned to Jerusalem. The church, understandably, was very wary of him until a man that the apostles had nick-named Barnabas, meaning encourager, took Saul to the apostles so they could hear his story.

Without the bravery of Ananias and the encouragement of Barnabas, Paul might not have become such a key member of the early church and we might not have had his letters which make up a quarter of the New Testament. We do not know the impact that it may have when we encourage other people.