Posts

Palm Sunday: Philippians 2:5-11

Philippi brought much joy through much sorrow to Paul.  While it seems that Paul passed through this Macedonian city on several occasions, on his first visit, he proclaimed the Gospel to the wealthy Lydia, who was baptized with her whole household (Acts 16:11-15).  Yet this joyful event soon met with trouble, for when Paul exorcised the demon possessing a slave girl, he and Silas suffered at the hands of Gentiles and were thrown into prison (Acts 16:16-24).  Even here, however, in the midst of suffering within the prison, the Lord in His providence brought the jailer to faith.  After he and his household were baptized, Paul and Silas left the city (Acts 16:25-40).

Years later, however, when Paul had been imprisoned, the saints at Philippi, who may have still included those who first believed when Paul was in the city, sent him a gift by the hand of Epaphroditus (Philippians 4:14-20).  Having heard of Paul’s situation, they sought to do what they could to support him, even though they could not free him.  Such a gift, as Paul said, was not as important in terms of the gift itself.  After all, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13), by which Paul means that no matter the circumstances—poor or rich, hungry or sated, and so forth—Christ remains as our goal.  But the “fruit that increases to your credit” is a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God,” because the gift is a sign of the living faith that sent it. Paul desired that that gift—the faith which they had—would abound more and more, and this is the primary concern of his letter.

The primary concern for Paul seems to be disunity or at least the potential for disunity within the Philippian church.  Paul, after all, calls for them to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2).  The letter, however, exudes joy and rejoicing, and there is no clear indication of a clear rebuke as in his other letters.  His exhortation to unity, therefore, seems to be one applicable to the Church in every situation rather than in explicit division.  To be a part of the Church is to have the mind of Christ, and such a mind exhibits itself in Spirit-given unity.

Paul presents Christ as a clear example to the Philippians for imitation.  Christ, who “was in the form of God,” emptied himself and became like one of us when He was born of the Virgin Mary.  He who had far more right than any of us for being exalted above others, since He is God Himself, chose instead to lower Himself for us men and for our salvation.  Because of this, the Father now exalts His name far above all names, because Christ won our salvation.

One thing that I think we need to be careful about, however, is how we understand Christ’s obedience and humbling.  Obedience is not the same thing as being a push-over.  Conformity to the will of God does not mean obliterating our will and filling it with the will of God.  Obedience to God for us means a renewal of the will.  Christ was not an automaton, but the perfectly willing Son of the Father, because they were of one mind.  If we understand Christ’s humility as getting pushed around, then many of His actions, like entering Jerusalem publicly as a king, make no sense.  But when we understand the humility of Christ as part of His willing obedience to the will of the Father, then there is no contradiction.  Christ is the King who desires to take up the cross, because it is the will of God to redeem man through the Lamb of God.

Christians should not interpret being of one mind, therefore, as meaning self-obliteration either.  Rather, conformity to the will of God means that the whole man, including the will, follows after Christ.  The righteous man desires what God desires, because he walks the same way that God is walking.  Therefore, the whole Church also has one mind in Christ Jesus, because she desires what her Lord desires.

Fifth Sunday in Lent: Hebrews 9:11-15

The carefully organized argument of Hebrews seeks to prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Scriptures. Those who saw the things of the old covenant as the epitome of God’s revelation have not yet understood their purpose. “They serve a copy and show of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5). When the new has come, the old must pass away, not because it was evil, but because it always pointed toward what was to come.

Hebrews 9 opens with a description of the Tabernacle, drawing on details from passages like Exodus 25-28, Leviticus 16:12-13, Exodus 16:33-34, and Numbers 17:10. “Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (Hebrews 9:5), but they figure into the overall picture. These things are not there to make the Tabernacle look nice, as if they spruced up the room or made it more conducive to devotion. They, like the Tabernacle, looked forward to the coming fulfillment in Christ.

The primary focus, however, is on the curtain that seperates the Holy of Holies. There is nothing barring entrance for the priests into the first section, but the curtain sets the inner section apart. Into this section, only the high priest may enter but once a year “and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (Hebrews 9:6-7). So long as the first section remains, the way into the second section is not yet open. As long as the God-given commandments regarding the old covenant were still in force, the curtain remains standing. The fulness has not yet come. Everything within the first section applies to the old regulations “for the body,” thing which cannot perfect the conscious. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).

I think it’s worth mentioning at this point that we can easily miss the point of this passage if we assume that the entire point of the first section is in its “looking forward.” If the Tabernacle only has meaning within the New Testament, then why would God command it, since the Old Testament Church could not understand it? Their knowledge was incomplete, of course, but the ark as a way of showing God’s presence among His people had meaning also in its own day. The argument here in Hebrews is not that the first section only has meaning in the new covenant, but that the old covenant taught through these types about the coming Christ. The old covenant is not the whole of God’s revelation, as the unbelieving Jews thought, nor are types limited in their meaning to only what is prefigured!

When Christ the Great High Priest appeared, however, He entered into the heavenly Tabernacle of which the earthly one was a copy (Hebrews 8:5). Like the high priests of the earthly tent, He also entered carrying blood, His own. What had been prefigured was now a reality. Animal blood could “sanctify for the purification of the flesh,” making one eligible for worshipping the Lord, but it could not clear the conscience. Only the blood of Christ, offered once and once only, purifies the conscience, because only the perfect blood of Christ could wash away sin. The constant repetition of the sacrfices of the old covenant showed that they were incapable of forgiving sins, because they were incomplete. Sin is not a matter of balancing the checkbook once a year, because sin is not a matter of line items. We are not guilty of a certain, albeit large, number of sins to which we continually add, but we are guilty of sin, because a failure in one point of the Law means becoming guilty of breaking the whole Law (James 2:10). The repeated sacrifices could not forgive sin, therefore, because either sin is forgiven or it is not forgiven. It cannot be partially forgiven. Christ, offering up His blood once only, covered over sin as a whole.

Therefore, because Christ’s death covers over the “transgressions committed under the first covenant,” the old covenant has come to an end. There is no longer a need to continue those things, because the imperfect and partial has given way to the perfect and complete. The things which belonged to the first section have served their God-commanded purpose, and therefore are no longer needed. We no longer need fear, because the way through the curtain has been opened by Christ (Hebrews 10:19-20). “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:22-25).

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Galatians 4:21-31

Requiring Christians to be circumcised meant submitting to a false understanding of the Law.  Those who demanded it had the appearance of following the Law, because God certainly commanded circumcision, but they had misunderstood its purpose.  They sought a justification with the Law as mediator, so that the same Law which condemned them would also somehow justify them in the sight of God.  Yet this did not annul the promise given to Abraham.  The righteous shall live by faith.

Paul’s intense, mother-like concern for the Galatians meant that he sought to bring them back to a proper understanding of the Law and of the Gospel.  “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?”  The Law itself testified to its own proper understanding.  Those who misunderstood it did so precisely because they failed to listen to it in the first place!  Had they listened, they would have known that the righteous shall live by faith, but because they sought to be the cause of their own salvation, they had shut their ears and closed their eyes.

Paul employs an allegory to explain what he means.  Scripture is full of devices like this, such as the parables in general, allegories like 2 Samuel 12:1-15, even fable-like stories like Judges 9:8-15.  Their purpose is always to illustrate.  Here in Galatians, Paul is not revealing the secret, hidden, “actual” meaning of Genesis 16, as if the history itself were of secondary importance.  Rather, the history of Abraham himself, the one to whom the promise was made, provides an apt metaphor that illuminates what Paul means.

Sarai, in an attempt to seemingly jump start the promise of a son made to Abraham in Genesis 15, offers her Egyptian servant Hagar to Abraham as a wife, thinking that “it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Genesis 16:2).  Hagar, a headstrong woman by nature, uses her pregnancy as an opportunity for gloating over her mistress, a move which cause Sarai to have her expelled.  After Hagar is humbled and returns, she gives birth to Ishmael (Genesis 16:15).  Ishmael, however, similar in temperament to his mother, mocked Isaac (Genesis 21:9).  Thus, Sarah brings the same judgment upon the pair, saying “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:10).  Whatever may be said of Sarah’s motives, the Lord confirms her words, though he promises that he will also increase Ishmael for Abraham’s sake.

Paul note that Ishmael was born “according to the flesh,” because he was not the promised son.  Not even Abraham could fulfill the promise on his own terms!  The Lord gave Isaac according to His promise in His own time and in His own way.  Hagar corresponds to “Mount Sinai, bearing children from slavery,” “corresponding to the present Jerusalem” (Galatians 4:25).  Those who would be justified by the Law, having the Law as a mediator, are indeed the fleshly offspring of Abraham, just as Ishmael was!  But the flesh is of no account before the Lord.  The just shall live by faith, not by the flesh.  Sarah, for all her faults, stands for the “Jerusalem above,” the barren one whose children exceed the fruitful.  The inheritance of God does not belong to the sons of Ishmael, the fleshly sons of Abraham, but to the sons of Isaac, his spiritual sons.

Ishmael himself “was a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he [dwelt] over against all his kinsmen” (Genesis 16:12).  Coupled with his mockery of Isaac which caused him to be expelled, he stands for those who persecute those born of the Spirit (Galatians 4:29).  This has always been true, since the days of Cain, who murdered Abel “because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12).  All the righteous blood shed on earth, “from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah,” shall come upon those who seek a righteousness apart from faith, for they are the sons of those who murdered the prophets (Matthew 23:29-36).

Through this allegory, therefore, Paul demonstrates what he clearly states in the following chapter.  “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).  You desire to be the sons of Hagar, sons of Abraham according only to the flesh!  But our righteousness does not come from the Law, for the Law condemns us as law-breakers.  Our righteousness is of Christ by faith.  “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

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.

First Sunday in Lent: 2 Corinthians 6:1-10

As noted in the previous study on Sexagesima, Paul speaks against the “super apostles” who were plaguing the Corinthian congregation. These false teachers were making themselves out to be something great on their own merits and were disparaging Paul as being nothing in comparison. The reading beginning in 2 Corinthians 11 for Sexagesima is more or less Paul’s final assault on these men. The reading for the First Sunday in Lent, 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, gives us one of Paul’s major appeals to the Corinthians themselves. These false teachers wanted only what they could gain from the Corinthians; Paul, on the other hand, suffered much for the sake of the Corinthians.

“Working together with Him,” which is to say, with Christ, “we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). The false apostles were leading them astray, and as Peter says, “it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Peter 2:21). The one who turns his back on Christ after coming to know Him stands under a far greater judgment than the one who never knew Him at all. Capernaum will be brought down lower than Sodom and Gomorrah, because it refused to receive the mighty works of Christ (Matthew 11:23). Therefore, for the Corinthians to depart from Paul and the Gospel is not a matter of preference or just choosing a more likable teacher, but a matter of life and death.

Paul also emphasizes the urgency of his message. Those who think that there is always time for the grace of God will be caught by surprise, whether by the Lord returning or by their own death and being called to account. “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20). ““Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6). Now is the favorable time; now is the day of salvation!

With this in mind, Paul expresses very clearly everything which he has suffered for the sake of the Corinthians. The false apostles, who did not love the sheep but only want to profit from them, did not suffer in the same way. A false teacher is not willing to suffer, because a false teacher is not in Christ who suffered on our behalf. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4). “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep” (Ezekiel 34:3). “These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 12-13).

Paul’s suffering, on the other hand, demonstrates the genuineness of his affection for the Corinthians. What false teacher would suffer everything that Paul suffered only for the sake of his own belly? Yet Paul endured everything for the sake of the Corinthians, because of his love as their spiritual father. If he lost much for the sake of Christ, his loss was their gain. In the ease of the false teachers, unwilling to suffer, the Church was being torn apart; in the suffering of Paul, the Church was built up to eternity.

The lectionary reading should be extended to include 2 Corinthians 6:11-13, because these verse clarify Paul’s point in this passage nicely. “Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians, our heart is wide open.” Paul has held nothing back from them. The issue is not because of a stumbling block on his end, for nothing in his ministry offended in that way. The issue is the Corinthians being hardened against him by the alluring voice of false teachers. “You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.” He calls for them to turn from the works of darkness and return to the light of the Gospel, confident that, as their spiritual father, they will listen to him.

Quinquagesima: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Few passages of Scripture are as well known as 1 Corinthians 13, and few are as abused and misunderstood.  The language of love resonates with a mindset which interprets it either romantically (as when it is used at many weddings) or as the height of a tolerance which reduces everything to indifference.  1 Corinthians 13 is not a call to a warm feeling, but for Christians to bear with one another in Christ.

The Corinthians, seemingly always divided, fought over the question of spiritual gifts.  Through the Holy Spirit, the Lord gives gifts to men for the purpose of building up the Church.  All of these gifts are different, and no one has the same gift.  This should not be confused with salvation, for then there is no difference.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  But in terms of spiritual gifts, the Lord gives as He wills, for His own glory.  The grain which falls on good soil differs in its abundance, though the seed is the same (Matthew 13:8).

However, does this difference in gifts mean that there are higher and lower gifts?  Paul answers yes.  There is such a thing as “higher gifts,” and he states rather clearly in 1 Corinthians 12:28 that God gave the gifts apostles first, prophets second, and so forth.  Prophesy, better understood in terms of preaching, is greater than speaking in tongues (when the latter is not interpreted), because then the Church is built up in the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:5).  Nor is it a sin to seek after the higher gifts of God when it is done for the edification of the Church.  “Are all apostles?  Are all prophets?  Are all teachers?  Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing?  Do all speak with tongues?  Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12:29-30).  The question is not whether there are higher and lower gifts.  In our desire to be egalitarian, we try to put them all on the same level, which is not what the Word says.  The real question is what does that mean for the unity of the Church?

The great temptation with the gifts of God is to use them as an opportunity for pride.  Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body.  To use a different example, because I do not preach, therefore I am not a part of the body.  Because I do not exercise leadership, I am not a part of the Church.  The Lord’s gifts are twisted into an occasion for sin, and division results.  This is not what the Lord intends in giving His gifts to His Church.  He intends the body to be built up together into Christ, to grow as one into her Head (Ephesians 4:15).

Love, therefore, in 1 Corinthians 13 is Christian love, the love which builds up rather than tears down.  Paul’s ultimate point is that all of the spiritual gifts are meant for building up for a time, but love endures even into the new heavens and the new earth.  If I spoke even the language of the angels, but despise my brother in Christ, I am no better than noise.  If I could move mountains by faith, but can’t be bothered with all of these other Christians, it makes for a nice show, but is nothing else.  Christian love is not self-serving, but other-serving, and the gifts of God serve the Church and not the one who possesses them.  All of these gifts will come to an end, when the Church no longer needs to be built up.  The partial building will eventually be complete, and then what need is there anymore for architects and masons?  This does not mean that their work was useless or pointless.  When Christ returns, their work will be tested by fire, revealing what sort of work they have done (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).  Nor does it mean that all distinctions are abolished, as noted above.  What it means is that “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the Church” (1 Corinthians 14:12).

Sexagesima: 2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9

The authority of the preacher is derivative in nature. Men preach the Word, which is not their own, in season and out of season. For good reason, the men called to proclaim the Word of God are called stewards and not masters, because they are answerable to the Master in all that they do. Yet the great temptation of preachers is to center their authority in themselves, whether because of their knowledge, ability, or in comparison with other men. The false apostles who were plaguing the Corinthian congregation despised Paul out of pride. “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account’” (2 Corinthians 10:10). Paul apparently was an unimpressive speaker, and his enemies exploited that to their own advantage.

These “super apostles” built each other up in a false confidence. As Paul says, “When they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding” (2 Corinthians 10:12). The pastor who boasts of his own ability has missed the point, because it is not personal ability that makes him what he is in the Lord. “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Corinthians 10:18). Lest we misunderstand Paul’s point, he also writes to Timothy: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Seeking our commendation from the Lord and not from ourselves or from men is not an excuse to be lazy or immoral. Rather, “let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips,” because self-praise is a fruit of the flesh and not of the Spirit (Proverbs 27:2).

On the other hand, there is such a thing as false modesty. Paul explicitly says, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 10:17). The men whom God has called into the ministry should not be ashamed of the authority which comes from the Lord. To be ashamed of what God has sent you to proclaim is tantamount to being ashamed of God. It is boasting in the flesh that Paul condemns. As he says to the Galatians, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). Let the one who boasts boast in what the Lord has done, even to unprofitable servants like us.

Paul, in a fit of what he calls madness, proves his point yet further. It is foolishness, because Paul speaks like a madman in answering the fools according to their folly (Proverbs 26:5). If they have any ground for boasting in the flesh, Paul has more. These false apostles love the position of high honor, but do not suffer for it. They seek the rewards of speaking on behalf of God without recognizing the cross that must go with it (Matthew 23:1-12). Paul suffered much for the sake of the Gospel, a cross laid upon him by the Lord (Acts 9:16). These are not generic trials, as if one could apply them to any situation. Many of those who preach the Word have not suffered as Paul suffered for the Gospel. The crosses that the Lord sends to discipline his people are not the same, nor should we magnify them into meaninglessness.

However, the ultimate point that Paul makes is one that applies across the board. Whatever the cross may be, if we boast, let us boast of our weakness, for the Lord declares that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Our actual weaknesses, not our imagined ones or our sins, testify to the mercy and the grace of the Lord. We are “jars of clay” bearing the treasure of the Word (2 Corinthians 4:7). Those who bear this office “have this ministry by the mercy of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1). “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory, for the sake of Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness!” (Psalm 115:1).

As a final note, Paul’s motivation for such foolish boasting to show his own weakness stems from a “divine jealousy” for the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11:2). From fear that they were being led astray like Eve was deceived by the serpent, Paul speaks against those who were leading them away from their first love. “As the truth of Christ is in me, this boasting of mine will not be silenced in the regions of Achaia. And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!” (2 Corinthians 11:10-11). The false teacher does not seek to build up the flock, but rather to exploit it. “For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” (Romans 16:18). Do we as pastors seek to instruct those entrusted to us as a father with his children, or out of a desire to appear orthodox? Is our jealousy divine or fleshly? Let us not compromise the Gospel out of a desire to seem fatherly, to be sure, but let us remember that we are called to be spiritual fathers. Those commended to our care for a time are not our enemies, but sinners for whom Christ died.

Septuagesima: 1 Corinthians 9:24–10:5

The congregation at Corinth struggled with the problem of meat offered to idols.  Some, knowing rightly that idols are in fact nothing in themselves, felt that they could partake of this food in good conscience.  Others, misinformed and therefore weak in their conscience, felt that it was a sin.  Unfortunately, the stronger Christians disparaged their weaker brothers, indulging in that meat without regard to their welfare.  Therefore, Paul clarifies that “food will not commend us to God” (1 Corinthians 8:8).  “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13).  This is not a relativistic “go with what you feel,” as if, to use a contemporary example, one should drink alcohol in order to avoid appear to be a legalist.  The stronger must bear with the failings of the genuinely weaker brother even by forsaking what is his by right so that his brother is built up and not torn down.

Paul then clarifies what he means throughout 1 Corinthians 9.  He has the right in Christ to eat and drink.  He has the right in Christ to marry a “believing wife.”  He has the right in Christ to gain his whole living by the Gospel.  The Lord does not prohibit him from doing any of these things.  Yet he forsakes all of them, because he would “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12).  We would do well as Christians to heed Paul’s words.  Just because we have the right to do something does not mean that it is wise to do it.  Freedom in the Lord can be easily abused, to the detriment of the body.  Paul is not arguing for an unbridled license in all things.  Such is not the way of Christ.

Paul uses imagery common to his own day.  Because the ancients were fond of athletic competition, which frequently accompanied every major celebration, it provides an opportunity to explain what he means.  In a race, all of the runners seek after the prize, but only one obtains it.  He does not obtain it by doing whatever he pleases.  The athlete who has no self-control is either lazy or he plays for the crowd rather than focusing on the task at hand.  Such a man “runs aimlessly,” as if he was “boxing as one beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26).  Yet the glory which worldly runners seek is a perishable wreath, the fading crown of an earthly glory.  The one who exercises discipline in the heavenly race will receive a crow which will never fade away.  “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).  Therefore, we are called to discipline our bodies, forsaking even what is ours by right, just as an athlete must give up his freedom in order to train for winning the race.

His transition into 1 Corinthians 10 seems disjointed unless one considers the wider context.  For the sake of the weaker brother, Paul and every Christian must forsake his liberty.  Those who run the race discipline their bodies and “keep it under control,” or more literally, “enslave it,” so that they would not be disqualified.  Yet the sons of Israel were in fact disqualified from running because of their idolatry, the very same problem which the Corinthians now faced.  All of them had the same blessings from God.  God led them by the cloud and brought them through the sea.  They all ate the same spiritual food and drank from the same spiritual drink, which is Christ.  The sons of Israel had all the same blessings which we now share, and yet because of their lack of discipline, they were overthrown.  They thought they had freedom in the Lord, because they regarded themselves as stronger than Him.  Partaking in something which causes us to look down upon our weaker brothers is not walking according to the Spirit.  It is a dangerous occasion for idolatry.  Nothing, however lawful it is in itself, is worth the cost of our brother’s soul.

Transfiguration: 2 Peter 1:16-21

In the beginning of this letter, Peter recognizes that his death is fast approaching, “as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me” (2 Peter 1:14).  His purpose in writing this letter, therefore, is to remind his hearers of those things which he taught them, especially in the face of false teachers.  God has called us to “his own glory and excellence” in Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:3).  Therefore, the godly strive after virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love–all fruits of the Spirit–because such things increase our knowledge of the Lord.  Such fruits “confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10), because the fruits of the tree are evidence of its nature.  To strive after good works is by no means to seek self-justification, but to earnestly desire the higher gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31).

But to increase in the knowledge of the Lord is to listen to His voice (Luke 6:46; John 10:27).  And if to hear those whom God has sent is to hear Him (Luke 10:16), how do we know whom God has sent?  Peter therefore establishes his unique authority to speak on behalf of God, especially against those who claimed to have a superior knowledge.  Peter was not “following cleverly devised myths,” but was himself an eyewitness of the Lord’s majesty on the mountain of His transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16-18).  These false teachers could only claim some kind of secret knowledge which was no knowledge at all.  Peter saw the truth of these things with his own eyes.

However, what about those of us who are separated from Peter?  He is an eyewitness of these things, but we live many generations later in the course of time.  Peter has a unique authority, having seen these things for himself, but his authority is not based on his own person.  The events which he saw are not true because he saw them.  The events which he saw are true because it is the Lord who does them, and Peter testifies by his own experience that the Lord acted in a specific point in history.  It would be true even if Peter never saw it, but Peter is in the unique position to say that it did happen before his very eyes.  This the false teachers could not say, and therefore they twist the Scriptures to their own destruction, including the letters of Paul (2 Peter 3:15-16), by making them say something which God never said.

Peter points to the Word as proof.  God acting confirms the prophetic Word, because it shows that God cannot lie.  “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man,” because it is not men speaking which makes the Word what it is.  Rather, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21), what is typically called inspiration.  The false teachers based their authority upon themselves, claiming in arrogance to know more than what the Word revealed.  Peter, on the other hand, stood on the Word which had not been broken and was fulfilled before his very eyes.  It is not Peter’s word, but God’s.

I think it is worth noting that Peter does not define the means of inspiration, as if God was limited to a certain method in His dealings with men.  Abraham saw a vision, so that his inspiration was primarily visual in some way (Genesis 15:1).  Moses spoke with God face to face, as a man speaks with his friend (Exodus 33:11).  The hand of the Lord came upon Elisha when the musician played at his command (2 Kings 3:15).  Many of the prophets, such as Ezekiel, felt the hand of the Lord strongly, so that they saw spectacular visions (Ezekiel 1).  Daniel received inspiration from reading the book of the prophet Jeremiah (Daniel 9:2).  It seems that some of the prophets received physical marks upon their bodies while inspired of God (Zechariah 13:4-6).  Joseph heard the Word in a dream (Matthew 1:18-25).  The Apostles spoke of what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:20).  Luke followed all the things of Christ and wrote an account based on what he had heard from others (Luke 1:1-4).  Even Caiaphas, hardened and unbelieving, as high priest prophesied concerning Christ, so that he did not know what he said (John 11:51).  But however God spoke to men, it was the Lord speaking, so that “at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

Sunday after Epiphany: Romans 12:6-16

If someone asked you what does it mean to be a Christian, what would you say? Maybe someone who believes in Jesus Christ as their Savior. And that’s not a bad place to start. But a lot of people claim to believe in Jesus. So how do you tell them apart? How do you know who is telling the truth and who isn’t? Look to their fruits. Look at the works which they do. Someone who is sincere will do what they say that they will do, but someone who is not will say one thing and do another. Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 7: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Even if that seems hard, it’s still true, because it’s not enough to just say that you believe. Good works show that we mean what we say.
But good works don’t get us into heaven, right? We are not saved by what we do, right? So why is Paul talking in Romans 12 about all of these good works, then? It seems like as soon as we start talking about good works, we run into the risk of making them the reason why we get into heaven. But Paul is clear that this is not the case. Good works save no one. Good works follow after faith. Paul points to this in the beginning of this chapter: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” When we do good works, we actually worship God and give Him glory. Good works do not come before faith, but after it and flow from it. The temptation is to put the cart before the horse, putting good works before faith. But all that we have, including faith, is a gracious gift of God. The Holy Spirit makes you holy, so that you do what is holy in the sight of God.
Good works, then, prove that we believe in Jesus. They are the signs in the world that we belong to Christ. As Jesus says in Matthew 5: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” And in John 13: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” If good works are not there, there is no faith! Those who claim to be Christians and yet don’t do what God says are not Christians. Jesus Himself says so. But those who trust in God, calling him Abba! Father!, walk with the Holy Spirit. To be a Christian means to believe in Jesus as your Savior and to walk in the light and not in darkness.
This, then, is what Paul means. Paul says, “Let love be genuine.” Something that is genuine passes the test. Genuine gold is real gold, but fake gold, no matter how pretty it looks, is still fake. Faith is not happy with just words! Paul says, “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” Don’t seek after the works of the flesh, the works of darkness. As John says, keep yourself from idols. Cling to God, who is good, and He will never fail you. Paul says, “Love one another with brotherly affection.” Those in the Church are not just people who all happen to be Christians. You are one in the body of Christ, members of the same family in Jesus. If, then, you are family, let us live like members of the same family in Christ. Paul says, “Outdo one another in showing honor.” Be so willing to put the other person ahead of yourself that you make a competition out of it. Try hard to put the needs of others before your own. Win first place at loving your neighbor as yourself! Paul says, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” Let us not be lazy in the things of God, but seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Paul says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” This world is passing away, and even if we have to struggle now, it will give way to a joy which has no end. Let us pray without ceasing, lifting up holy hands everywhere. Paul says, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” Is there anyone among you who is in need? The Lord has given us what we have so that there will be no need among us. As the Lord has blessed you, even with physical things, let us take care of the needs of others. Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” A hard thing, yes! But by doing this, you will heap burning coals on their head. You will be a witness to Christ, a witness to the hope that is in you. And finally, Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.”
Christians, remember this. Your good works are not the reason why you are acceptable to God. There could never be enough of them to do that. Your good works are the proof that your faith is living. Faith is a living tree, and good works are the fruits of that tree. You can’t have fruit without a tree! So let your love be genuine. Devote yourselves to good works, for they are excellent and profitable to you. As Paul says in Ephesians 2: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” You have been chosen from before the beginning of the world to be holy in the sight of God through Jesus Christ. It is God who works in you, and in Him you are able to do what is pleasing in His sight.