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Christian Discipline

Strive to enter by the narrow gate.  Press onward toward the goal.  The Holy Spirit describes the Christian life in active, even violent, terms.  How should we pursue God?  What do our spiritual weapons look like?  How do we run in pursuit of the prize while remembering that we are saved by grace?  Join us as we discuss Christian discipline and what it looks like in our daily lives.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Regular Guest: Rev. Aaron Uphoff
Episode: 52

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Thanksgiving Day: 1 Timothy 2:1-4

After initial greetings to Timothy, warnings against false teachers, a summary of the Gospel, and admonitions to remain faithful, Paul writes “first of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…” (1 Tim. 2:1).  These directions are not for Timothy alone, but for the congregations and ministers under his care (1 Tim. 3:14; 1 Tim. 4:13).  Paul desires these sorts of prayers “in every place” (1 Tim. 2:8).

“Supplications” and “prayer” are paired together throughout the New Testament (Eph. 6:18; Phil 4:6; 1 Tim. 5:5; Heb. 5:7).  They are the most general terms for addressing God.  In Ephesians 6:18 and Philippians 4:6, prayer and supplication are tied to the idea that we ought not to be anxious.  Our Heavenly Father promises to hear our prayers and give us what we need (Matt. 7:7-11).  Worry accomplishes nothing (Matt. 6:25-34).

“Intercessions” are prayers to God on behalf of others.  Our Lord Jesus intercedes for us before the Father (Rom. 8:37; Heb. 7:25).  As priests, all Christians are to follow Christ in praying for “all men” with all manner of prayers (1 Peter 2:5-9).

It is only proper that in addition to requesting things from God, we also return thanks to him for his blessings.

These various prayers are to be made for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceable and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Tim. 2:2).  The ruler is “God’s servant for your good” who “carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13:4).  Our God is a God of law and order.  He puts food on our table through a variety of means, not the least of which is through the rule of law and a well ordered society.  Rulers—even bad rulers, even rulers we might not like—do the Lord’s work and bring us great blessings.

Secular power, the use of force, and worldly laws are servants to peace. But peace is not an end in itself.  A peaceful and quiet life is not to be squandered on indulgence.  Rather, the pilgrimage of the Christian this side of heaven is to be “godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Tim. 2:3).  The freedom of the Christian is not the illusory “freedom” of the anarchist or the libertine.  Rather, the Christian is liberated from the dead-end of selfish indulgence in order to pursue that which is pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Phil. 4:8).  We who believe in God are to “devote ourselves to good works” which are “profitable for people.” (Titus 3:8).

Peace and good order on this earth serve yet an even greater purpose—and eternal purpose.  Through worldly rulers, God maintain peace so that we may lead a quiet life—so that we can hear the Gospel.  “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:3).  Just as women are to “learn quietly with all submissiveness” (1 Tim. 2:11) so the church, the Bride of Christ, humbly submits to Jesus, listening to his teaching at his feet.

On Thanksgiving Day, we remember God’s blessings, which are too many to count.  Let us strive to be content with—and even more, thankful for—our allotment in life, for “godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.  But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (1 Tim. 6:6-7).  We should continue in various types of prayer to Our Father in Heaven.  Most especially, we should remember our Mediator, “who gave himself as a ransom for all” (I Tim. 2:6), and let our gratitude overflow in thanksgiving for God’s grace.

Twentieth Sunday after Trinity: Ephesians 5:15-21

Ephesians 5 flows quite naturally out of Paul’s previous discussion of unity.  Just as there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6), so also are we unified in Christ.  If we are in Christ, our head, then we are no longer “children,” or rather “infants,” prone to being led astray or deceived (Ephesians 4:14).  Therefore, our former way of life is put off in Christ.  We have learned Christ, and therefore we are walking in the way of the Spirit, no longer corrupted.

Yet our mature manhood means that we remain “imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1).  We are not young children needing discipline, but grown sons honoring our Father in heaven.  Our childish things have been put away, because our understanding has grown accordingly (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).  Being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) is growth and movement.  What was once tolerated because of our youth has passed away as we become more and more like Him.

Therefore, we can no longer walk in those things which belong to the darkness.  After all, the immoral and the impure have no part in the kingdom of God.  Paul is not exaggerating, as if his intention were to frighten us.  “What accord has Christ with Belial?  Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever” (2 Corinthians 6:15)?  Ignorance is a cause for mercy only as long as it is genuine.  But we are no longer ignorant, because we have grown up “in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).  Therefore, to walk childishly while knowing better in the ways of darkness is willful disobedience.  The spiritual man-child has no place in the kingdom of God.

Paul’s examples of spiritual maturity are also rather specific.  Sins such as sexual immorality, depraved in themselves, should not “even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:3).  Rather, they must be “exposed” or “rebuked” (Ephesians 5:11).  To name them is to participate in them, however indirectly.  As Jeremiah laments, “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven” (Jeremiah 7:18).  All of these activities, harmless and even good in themselves, participate in idolatry when directed toward that end, and none can claim innocence as a result.

Thus, Paul sets up a contrast in the pericope.  We should be wise, not unwise; diligent, not lazy; understanding, not foolish; filled with the Spirit, not filled with wine; singing psalms, hymns, and songs, not uttering the works of darkness.  Wisdom flows forth from fearing the Lord.  We redeem the time given to us by not frittering it away in useless and unprofitable things.  Understanding the will of the Lord comes from our holiness and being conformed to Him.  We are intoxicated with the Spirit, so to speak, by seeking to do His will in all things.  Finally, because we will be judged by our words (Matthew 12:36), how much more ought we to fill our words with the words of God, singing His praises and calling on His name?  Such things must not be dismissed as legalistic or moralizing.  After all, we are called out of darkness and into light.  We are no longer dead, but alive in God.  We are no longer infants, but rather sons of God.  We are a new creation and being renewed day by day, so that our desires are no longer darkened, but enlightened and seeking after the will of God.

Ninth Sunday after Trinity: 1 Corinthians 10:6-13

Two things spur on the call to imitation.  The first, and more common, is a positive example.  “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17).  Paul, being the spiritual father of the Philippians, shows them the way that they ought to walk.  However, the second, and by no means less important, is a negative example.  By showing where walking contrary to God will lead, a negative example pushes us in the opposite direction.

These things are “types” for us.  Types, literally derived from “a hit” or “a blow,” can be impressions in a material, such as stamping a coin or an engraving.  When applied in a moral sense, as it is here, they are examples provided for us that will shape us in a particular way.  “Those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29).  Yet stamping a coin, for example, is not only a matter of creating a particular image.  It also involves removing material, so that the image can be seen.  Artistic relief in general is as much cutting away material as it is creating the desired image.

Therefore, the example which the Israelites of old provide is a negative one, but an important one, as Paul says.  They are an example of how we must not desire evil, as they did, because God destroyed them.  Even despite their many signs of God’s favor–passing through the Red Sea, food from heaven, water from the rock–they persisted in unbelief.  Sin is not a joking matter or an indifferent thing.  Idolatry and sexual immorality, no less sins in our day than in theirs, put Christ to the test.  It is literally tempting God, because it turns His gracious promises into an opportunity for worse sins than before.  God does not overlook sins because of Jesus.  Being a Christian means walking in a different way than the Israelites did and not as enemies of God.

Christians should also remember that there is even less excuse for us who live in the end of the ages.  God’s justice is not arbitrary, nor is His wrath random or easily excitable.  God provides examples of His mercy and His wrath in order to teach us.  There is no need for further lessons in God’s school.  Scripture gives us sufficient warning by telling us what God did in the past.  “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2-3).  “But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matthew 11:24).  We should not imagine that God is less angry because He has not punished us in the same way.  If, for example, we have not died for abusing the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:30), God is not less angry now, but has shown us clearly what awaits those who abuse His mercy.

Therefore, as Paul says, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).  Negative examples provide a clear warning to us so that we do not imagine that our situation is any different.  “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy?  Are we stronger than He” (1 Corinthians 10:22)?  Shall we abuse His patience by sinning all the more?  By no means!  We are His new creation, called to walk in holiness.  We do not become holy by being unholy.  Holiness is formed by examples which conform us to Jesus, not by the works of the flesh.

Seventh Sunday after Trinity: Romans 6:19-23

In the previous pericope, Paul underscored the connection between Baptism and the new life.  Because the Christian is baptized into Christ, becoming like Him in all things, he no longer sins by necessity.  Sin no longer has dominion over the Christian, just as it has no dominion over Christ.

As Paul says in Romans 6:6-7, the Christian is no longer enslaved to sin.  Romans 6:12-18, strangely excised from the lectionary, amplifies this point.  Sin no longer reigns, but the Christian who is lax runs the risk of falling back under its dominion.  “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness” (Romans 6:13).  Paul personifies sin here in this section of Romans, making it not a personal failing, but a vicious master.  If one does not have God for a master, then sin will be the master.

The imagery of slavery, though used “because of your natural limitations,” shows the seriousness of Paul’s exhortation.  The Christian is a slave of God.  Our modern aversion to this concept should not color Paul’s point.  If the Christian is a slave, then his obedience is not a matter of choice.  He must obey the master who owns him.  To disobey God, therefore, and to turn toward sin is to run away.  Instead of laboring in the vineyard of the Lord, the Christian who willfully sins leaves the garden in a vain search for something “better.”  Outside the vineyard is only death.

This is especially true for the Christian who imagines that grace removes the need for obedience.  Antinomianism, seeking to magnify the free gift of God in Christ Jesus, slaps God in the face.  The antinomian says to his Father, “I go, sir,” but does not go (Matthew 21:30).  Salvation is not an absolute liberty to do whatever you please.  Salvation is a transfer of masters.

Further, each one will receive his wages, whether he is a slave of sin or a slave of God.  After all, lawlessness leads to more lawlessness, compounding upon itself, and righteousness leads to sanctification, also compounding upon itself.  If lawlessness grows, its fruit ultimately is death (Romans 6:21).  But righteousness also grows, and its fruit is life (Romans 6:22).  This is why it is so serious a matter when a Christian falls back into sin.  Sin is not messing up.  Sin leads to death, and the two ways of life and death do not have the same end.  It is not wandering on a road that more or less leads to heaven, but turning aside and walking down a road that leads anywhere but.

Paul says all of this to avoid a misunderstanding.  Being set free from the Law is not being set free from the demands of the Law, but rather its curse.  We seek after the Law, because it is holy, it is God’s will, not as a means of justifying ourselves.  God’s mercy is certainly magnified when He shows it to an undeserving people, and the Law shows our unworthiness.  Yet God is never glorified by sin.  Let us be careful lest, seeking to magnify God, we actually magnify our own sin.  God has not redeemed us to seek the way of death, but to turn from our wicked ways and live.

Fifth Sunday after Trinity: 1 Peter 3:8-15

1 Peter 3:15, the end of the epistle for Trinity 5, is often cited in favor of apologetics.  The word “apology” in Greek has nothing to do with feeling sorry or contrite for previous actions, the most common English usage.  An “apology” is a defense, even a self-defense (which is how it came to mean feeling sorry, since one would offer a defense by way of an excuse, such as explaining why one was late).

Apologetics are an important aspect of being a Christian.  As Peter emphasizes throughout the whole letter, Christians will suffer for being Christians in the world.  There is no peace between the world and between Christ, so servants cannot expect to be different from their Master.  Therefore, Christians must also be prepared to stand firm in the face of worldly opposition, offering “a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).  The one asking may do so sincerely or derisively, but to deny Christ in such an hour means that He will also deny us before God the Father (Matthew 10:33).

Apologetics certainly involves an intellectual aspect.  Being a Christian means that we must “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).  We are not Christians in one part of our being or thinking and “neutral” in the rest.  Either Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, or He is not.  The Bible is not, therefore, a self-contained document that has reference only to itself and not to the rest of the world.  The Word of God forms the foundation of all of our thinking, which invariably puts it into conflict with the world.  Christians should be prepared to speak clearly, something possible only through abiding in the Word.

This aspect of the apologetical task should not frighten anyone.  After all, it is the Holy Spirit who converts, enlightens, and preserves.  Nor should one think that the only people who can “do apologetics” are those who are the most educated.  The hand of the Lord is not limited to the best of His servants.  Making a defense of the hope within you means standing firm even in the face of opposition, trusting in the Lord to guide and deliver us in all things.

More than this, making a defense is not limited to the intellectual aspect.  It’s not even the primary part of it.  The surest defense of the hope within you is to “honor Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Peter 3:15), and this is Peter’s primary point.  Unity, love, and humility, some of the fruits of the Spirit, mark the Christian as belonging to Christ.  “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  Peter also makes this point prior to this passage when he exhorts Christian women to “not let your adorning be external–the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear–but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4).  Virtue does not consist in what is seen, but in what is not seen.

It may very well be the case that such a defense will only increase the hatred of the world.  Christians may suffer for righteousness’ sake.  But a Christian does not suffer for the sake of Christ by giving way to sin and unrighteousness.  Punishment follows wickedness, even if the deed was done for seemingly the right reasons.  Christians rather are called to follow after Christ all the more in the midst of suffering, because “when He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

Vengeance Belongs to the Lord (Psalm 5)

Imprecatory, or cursing, psalms sometimes distress Christians.  Why would we call upon God to curse, when the New Testament seems to say the opposite?  After all, Romans 12:14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

What is often forgotten about the imprecatory psalms is that they are not a case of personal vengeance.  Our tendency is to see the assaults of the wicked as intensely personal, and therefore cursing is likewise personal.  However, the wicked man does not fight against other men, but against God.  Imprecatory psalms therefore call upon God to defend His own honor and glory against the wicked.  Vengeance belongs to the Lord, after all, and should be left to Him alone.  A Christian may in fact pray imprecatory psalms as an expression of a deep trust in the Lord, even in the face of great evil.  The Lord will vindicate His holy name.

Psalm 5 opens with an intense prayer.  “Listen to my words, Lord.  Pay attention to my sighing.  Listen carefully to the voice of my cry for help, my king and my God, for to you do I pray.”  The word translated as “cry for help” suggests a series of shouts, like someone in distress.  Further, the form of the world translated “pray” may also suggest that it is continuous.  The psalmist is in a deep distress and calls upon God.  Such a cry for help is not a case of doubting, but intense trust, for who would call upon God thinking that He would not answer?  Even if He seems distant, God hears the prayers of His people.

“Lord, [in the morning] you hear my voice.  [In the] morning I set in order to you and watch.”  “Set in order” is the language of sacrifice, just like in Leviticus 1:8, 12, where the word describes laying out meat in order for a burnt offering.  Prayer is the spiritual sacrifice of the New Testament, the daily sacrifice of the priesthood which all believers hold.  Not only are we to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but we should also turn to God as our first act of each day.  “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

“For you are not a God of delighting in wrongdoing.  Evil does not sojourn with you.  The senseless will not take their stand in the presence of your eyes.  You hate all the doers of wrongdoing.  You destroy the speakers of falsehood.  A man of bloods and fraud you abhor, O Lord.”  The psalmist testifies to the holiness of God here as a way of contrast with the next section.  An evil man cannot stand before God.  Note that there is also no distinction between the sin and the sinner.  Sin is not an alien act, but an expression of one’s inward nature.  “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speak” (Matthew 12:34).  For the righteous man, sin is something which is in fact foreign, and he sins out of weakness rather than deliberate intention.  But we cannot distinguish between sin and sinner out of a desire to make excuses for sin.  The all-holy Lord cannot abide the presence of sin, as this psalm so clearly testifies.

“And I, in the greatness of your steadfast love, will enter your house.  I will bow down to your holy temple in the fear of you.  Lord, lead me in your righteousness on account of my enemies.  Make straight your path before my face.”  The righteous man does not enter the house on account of his own righteousness, but on account of the steadfast love of the Lord.  It is the Lord who leads him.  It is the Lord who straightens his way before him.  God alone leads a man out of the ways of wickedness.  The psalmist is able to pray to the Lord confidently because of what the Lord has done for him.  It is true that he here alludes to his own righteousness, because without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).  Yet this should not be understood as self-righteousness in the negative sense, attempting to stand before God on the basis of one’s perceived righteousness.  The psalmist clearly testifies that he stands before God only because of God’s love and mercy.  He is truly and actually holy in a real way, but only because of God.

“For there is not firmness in his mouth.  [In his] inward parts destruction.  An open grave their throat.  With their tongue they smooth out [or flatter].”  Paul uses part of this verse to declare that all have sinned in Romans 3:13.  It is a clear description of the deeds of wicked men.  “Firmness” has to do with what is in the mouth, that is, the words one speaks.  The wicked man is a liar (John 8:44).  He seeks destruction from deep within his heart (Psalm 36:1).  Their throat is an “open grave” because it is insatiable.  Their greed and evil desire know no limits (Proverbs 27:20; 30:15-16).  Finally, they flatter by smoothing out with honeyed words.  “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matthew 7:13).

“Make them bear their guilt, God.  Let them fall from their own counsels.  In the greatness of their crimes, scatter them, for they are rebellious toward you.”  This is the most direct expression of cursing within the psalm.  Note that it is God who will bring the judgment upon the wicked, not the righteous man.  Note further that they rebel against God by their crimes.  There is also a poetic parallel here, for as the Lord abounds in steadfast love above, so the wicked man abounds in his sins.

“And all who take refuge in you rejoice.  They rejoice loudly for a long time.  You shut them off, and the lovers of your name rejoice loudly in you.  For you bless the righteous, Lord.  Like a large shield [with] favor you surround him.”  The righteous man has nothing to fear, because the Lord will judge the world in perfect righteousness.  Even if he has to suffer the assaults of the wicked now, God will bring them to an end, causing him to rejoice.  To “rejoice loudly” or “sing for joy” is an expression of the volume of this cry.  An overwhelming joy causes us to shout at the top of our lungs, much like a cry of victory at the end of a battle.  The Lord also “shuts off” the righteous by sealing them off from outside danger, like a large shield surrounding them.  Even if some things continue to assault us by God’s will for our discipline, He will not suffer the righteous to fall.  There is safety in the Lord even in the midst of great danger.

Fourth Sunday in Easter: 1 Peter 2:11-20

Occasionally, the lectionary moves backwards in its selections.  The Epistle reading for the Fourth Sunday in Easter, 1 Peter 2:11-20, precedes the reading for the previous week.  For this reason, the comments for the Third Sunday in Easter apply in large measure to this reading as well, though there are other important topics in this section.

First, God’s people are exiles and sojourners during this life.  On the one hand, because all things belong to the Lord, we have all of the things in our possession as stewards rather than masters (Leviticus 25:23).  Being stewards, our stewardship is temporal and will eventually pass away.  The material things of this life will no longer be ours someday, no matter how much anxiety and care we expend on them (Luke 12:20; Psalm 39:6).  On the other hand, our promised inheritance is not earthly, but heavenly.  Our citizenship is in the heavenly city, which means that we are living in a land away from our homeland, exiles by definition (Hebrews 11:13-16).

But if we are citizens of a heavenly homeland, how can we live as if we were in the world?  The passions of the flesh wage war against the soul, warns Peter, because giving in to them means showing our true allegiance.  Living in a worldly way while claiming to not be of this world is a contradiction in terms.  “Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).

Peter exhorts his hearers to honorable conduct for this reason.  Living as heavenly citizens means living blamelessly in the eyes of men.  There should be nothing which men can justly claim against us.  Pastors especially must be “above reproach” (Titus 1:7), but no Christian should live in such a way that invites condemnation (Philippians 2:15).  The world will still slander Christians, because they are not of the world and therefore are hated by it (John 15:19; 1 John 3:13).  But “blessed are you when others revile you” (Matthew 5:11-12)!  Living blamelessly, as lights shining in the darkness, means that the world will “see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16), because the day of the Lord’s return will reveal those works for what they truly are.

This, then, brings Peter to his discussion of being subject to worldly authority, which was the primary focus of last week’s reading.  Christians submit to the earthly authority because they are obedient to their heavenly authority.  They belong to a heavenly kingdom and remove all opportunity for slander or for legitimate condemnation by living peacefully with all men.  Their freedom is not a “cover-up for evil,” a freedom which casts off restraint.  Rather, it is the freedom of being the sons of God (John 8:36).  We are no longer the slaves of sin (Romans 6; 1 Corinthians 7:22).  In doing good in the world, even as exiles, we heap burning coals upon the heads of our enemies (Romans 12:20).

Third Sunday in Lent: Ephesians 5:1-9

Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “be imitators of God” and to “walk in love,” because that is fitting for those who are beloved children of the Lord.  Christ first loved us and offered Himself up on our behalf, “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).  Yet as Christ Himself is a pleasing odor, so also Christians, being in Christ, are called to be a pleasing aroma to God.  This seems to be the guiding thought behind the epistle lesson for today.

Following the flood, Noah offered up some of every clean animal which was with him on the ark, and “when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma,” He inwardly promises never to curse the ground again on account of sin (Genesis 8:21-22).  Yet the odor of sacrifice is not pleasing for its own sake.  “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them” (Amos 5:21-24).  “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me” (Isaiah 1:11-15).  For the smell to be pleasing to the Lord, the one offering it must be acceptible in His sight, fit for His worship.  Christ alone is without any blemish or spot, the perfect lamb offered up to the Father for the sake of sinful men.  Christians, then, being in Christ, have been made fit for His worship, clean in His sight, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The burnt offerings of Leviticus 1 waft up a pleasing aroma to the Lord, but the shedding of blood points to the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10).  Such an aroma properly belongs to Christ alone, since through Christ we have been reconciled to God.  The grain offerings of Leviticus 2, on the other hand, also waft up a pleasing aroma to the Lord, but for a different reason.  Grain offerings involve no shedding of blood, and therefore are not meant as forgiveness, but rather as thanksgiving.  Only one who has already been made fit for the worship of God, ceremonially clean, is able to offer such a sacrifice to Him.

Salt formed an important part of such sacrifices.  Leviticus 2:13 states that “you shall season all your grain offerings with salt.  You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”  Within the context of the New Testament, therefore, salt shows the purpose of grain offerings within the Christian life.  Christ tells us to “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).  Paul also exhorts the Colossians to “let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).  If our speech and conduct is to be salted, then they form our spiritual sacrifice to the Lord, which Pauls says in Romans 12:1 and Peter says in 1 Peter 2:5.

If our speech and conduct are the substance of our spiritual sacrifice to the Lord, then it also follows that such sacrifice, like the sacrifices of old, should be without blemish or spot.  Offering lame or blind or sick animals, for example, is offensive to God (Malachi 1:8).  More specifically with regard to grain offerings, leaven or honey rendered them unfit (Leviticus 2:11).  A little leaven, after all, leavens the whole lump (Galatians 5:9; see also 1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Participating in sin blemishes the spiritual sacrifice and renders it unfit for God.  Yet Paul emphasizes that even speaking of such things are not fitting for a Christian for the same reason.  Paul rebukes such things, as is fitting, but to season our spiritual sacrifice with leaven is decidedly dangerous.  Leaven, having leavened the whole lump, renders one not only unfit for worship, but outside of the inheritance altogether.  To use a different metaphor, it is far better to resist sin being planted in the first place than to attempt to cut down the plant when it is in full bloom!

It must be remembered, of course, that even within the context of the old sacrificial system, only those who have been made fit for the worship of God were able to come into His presence.  Christ offered Himself up for us and made us to be His own through the shedding of His blood.  The Holy Spirit changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.  Only through the working of the Holy Spirit are we able to resist sin at all.  Yet seasoning our sacrifice with yeast rather than salt seems tantamount to tempting the Holy Spirit.  Paul says later in this chapter:  “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Ephesians 5:11-12).  Speaking of such things in a way that does not rebuke them as darkness is akin to participating in them.  “For what fellowship has light with darkness” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16)?  Christians must resist the temptation of sin even in its earliest stages, because Christ has made us to be His own, even while we were still His enemies.

Second Sunday in Lent: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7

Paul did not labor long in Thessalonica before he ran into serious opposition.  As he went on his second missionary journey (starting in Acts 16), he eventually left Philippi and went more or less along the coast of the Aegean sea until he came to the Macedonian capital city of Thessalonica (today Thessaloniki).  Luke tells us that Paul found a synagogue there and “on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2), proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ.  Within this three week period, the Lord brought many to faith, including some Israelites, many Greeks, one of whom was Jason based on his Greek name, and even prominent women of the city.  Out of jealousy, however, the Jews attacked Paul and Silas and coerced the government to drive them out of the city (Acts 17:4-9).  Even after they went southward to Berea, meeting a group of even more receptive hearers, the Thessalonican Jews agitated the mobs in that city as well, forcing Paul and Silas to flee yet again to Athens (Acts 17:10-15).  Paul, therefore, had spent about a month total in Thessalonica, probably late in the year 49 A.D.

A year or two later, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write 1 Thessalonians, one of the earliest of all his letters in the New Testament.  Though his labor among them was short and stormy, Paul did not write them off as a lost cause.  “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers” (1 Thessalonians 1:2).  Paul had been “gentle” among them, like a mother with her children, speaking the Word of God boldly despite the harshness of those who opposed him (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8).  In sending Timothy to them from Athens, Paul also demonstrated his love for them, not desiring to leave them stranded, but also knowing that he could not personally return (1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:5).  Satan–whom he names as working behind the Jews who opposed him!–worked against him, but Paul did not lament or bemoan his fate (1 Thessalonians 2:18).  Rather, the Thessalonians were his joy and crown of boasting before Christ Himself.

Thus, he exhorts this congregation he labored in for about a month and had not seen face to face for a year or two, to walk in the way of holiness.  Paul taught them, however briefly, the patterns of righteousness, and, encouraged by Timothy’s report of the congregation, urges them to follow them even more.  “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3), a verse especially worthy of engraving upon the memory.  Paul more or less defines what he means by sanctification by giving several rather specific examples:  abstaining from sexual immorality, exercising bodily (not just spiritual!) self-control, and to not sin against a fellow Christian (1 Thessalonians 4:3-6).

Sanctification, therefore, is not an ill-defined state of being.  One cannot simply say, “I am sanctified,” and assume that all that needs to be said has been said.  Sanctification, simply put, is conformity to the Law of God, because one who is holy strives to do what is holy.  Sanctification, therefore, has degrees.  Paul says as much when he calls for the Thessalonians to do what they have been doing “more and more.”  Sexual immorality is a clear sign of a decreasing or even a dead holiness.  Abstaining from such immorality is conforming ever more to the standard the Lord has given us.  Of course, such growth never occurs alone.  It is God “who gives His Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:8).  Yet sanctification, unlike justification, is not an “all-or-nothing”; a Christian is called to become holier by imitating Christ.

Sanctification is also concerned with particulars.  Paul only gives three examples, but they are relatively specific in terms of content.  Paul exhorts them to imitate Christ, but also defines what it means to imitate Him.  The call to sanctification should not be vague and nondescript, as if the bare command to “be holy as I am holy” covers the whole.  We should not be afraid to descend into particulars, because sexual immorality can be determined on the basis of the Law.  In other words, the Law draws lines and defines the boundaries of what is and is not pleasing to the Lord.

Paul also reminds the Thessalonians that “the Lord is an avenger in all these things” (1 Thessalonians 4:6).  Failure to walk in the way of God is not a misdemeanor.  The one who walks the way of sin will reap the rewards of sin, both in this life and in the judgment to come.  Walking in the way of God does not happen purely through human will, of course.  Nor does walking in the way of God preclude sin, as if sinlessness were possible prior to death.  Yet it is the difference between the one who strives to do what is pleasing to the Lord and the one who does not believe that it is necessary to do so.  Forgiveness does not mean lawlessness, and keeping the Law does not mean sinlessness.