What is the hope towards which we press? How do we describe what no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mortal mind has comprehended? Listen as we finish our series on the four-fold distinction of human nature with a discussion of man in the state of glory.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Guest: Rev. David Appold
Episode: 15

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Peter throughout his epistle emphasizes what it means to live as a Christian in the face of trials. To suffer as a Christian–not just suffering in general–means to share in the suffering of Christ. Nor is this suffering limited to persecution or physical abuse, because the Christian has been separated from the ways of world. “With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:4). Christians are separated not only by name, but also by their conduct in the world.

After all, “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7). Blessed is the diligent service who is engaged in the Master’s business! Jesus will return at an unexpected hour, and therefore the Christian who lacks self-control indulges in the ways of the world, only to be caught by surprise (Matthew 24:45-51). Further, God alone is the Lord of life and death. He alone knows the number of our days (Psalm 39:4-6). Will that day also catch us by surprise (Luke 12:20). “For what is the hope of the godless when God cuts him off, when God takes away his life” (Job 27:8)?

This is not a matter of being morbid. Peter calls us to be “self-controlled” and “sober-minded.” Part of such self-control is recognizing the reality of the situation. To be drunk is to give way to passion and license. Peter calls for soberness lest the devil catch us unawares (1 Peter 5:8). Paul likens it also to being asleep (1 Thessalonians 5:6). Therefore, it is not limited only to being drunk with alcohol, but also drunk with worldly passions. “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3). “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

Nor should this be dismissed as an unobtainable goal. Peter certainly exhorts the elect exiles of the Dispersion to remain steadfast under fiery trials, because the Christian in this life is not perfect nor can be perfect. However, an inability to be perfect because of sin is not an excuse to not strive for the things of God. Self-control, as a fruit of the Spirit, should be sought with all eagerness, especially in distinction to the flood of debauchery which characterizes the world. Failure should be just that, a stumbling, and not a wholesale capitulation.

Therefore, Peter exhorts us to “keep loving one another earnestly” (1 Peter 4:8). After all, Christ Himself says that “by this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Peter exhorts us to “show hospitality to one another,” welcoming one another for the sake of Christ. Finally, the spiritual gifts the Lord has given to His Church should be employed for serving one another as “good stewards of God’s varied grace.” Such gifts are not identical nor in the same degree. Yet in everything “God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” “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)!

James admonishes the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1), that is, the scattered Christians of Jewish descent.  Under the Babylonians and the Greeks, the Jews had come to be scattered throughout the ancient Near East, which the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost shows (Acts 2:5-13).  This letter, then, addresses a wide audience.  As such, James speaks to a wide variety of issues applicable to many situations, making the letter especially important for our own day as well.  Even if we are not the natural branches of Israel, we too may “count it all joy” when we meet various trials as Christians (James 1:2).

The structure of the letter is reminiscent of Proverbs, which approaches the question of the fear of the Lord from a multitude of angles.  James is guided by essentially the same question:  what does it mean to live as a Christian?  The one who fears the Lord will not be merely a “hearer,” but a “doer of the word” (James 1:22).  To regard oneself as religious without actually walking in the way of God in concrete ways is self-delusion.

James speaks directly against any idea that temptation comes from the Lord.  “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13).  The “hearer of the Word” imagines that the disparity between his confession and his actions is inevitable.  In other words, he imagines that he is righteous despite his unrighteous anger, and the temptations which arise supposedly come from God because they seem unavoidable.  However, this would make God the author of evil, and the danger of temptation arises from wicked desire, that is, from within.

On the other hand, “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).  There is nothing good which we have that we have not received from the hand of the Lord (John 3:27).  Nor does the Lord give His own evil things (Matthew 7:7-11).  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).  Even the calamities which come from the Lord’s hand work for His good purposes (Amos 4).  Temptation, producing evil, sin, and death, therefore cannot come from the Lord’s hand, because even when He kills, He also makes alive (Deuteronomy 32:39).

A living faith is one such gift from the hand of God.  The sons of God are not such because of blood, flesh, or human will, but because of the will of God (John 1:13).  Our living hope comes through Christ’s resurrection (1 Peter 1:3), and the mighty and living Holy Spirit speaks the word of truth into our hearts so that we hear and believe (John 16:13-15).  This implanted Word bears fruit thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold even in this life, because it is the living Word profitable for training in righteousness.

Therefore, one should earnestly seek the spiritual gifts of God, being long-suffering in the same way as the Lord is patient with our infirmities.  The anger of man is frequently self-centered.  It imagines that it has been slighted in some way, and therefore it seeks vengeance.  But vengeance belongs to the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19).  Thus, this self-serving anger is a fruit of the flesh, part of the temptation born out of wicked desire.  However, the fruit of the Spirit includes patience and gentleness (Galatians 5:22-23), being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

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).

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.

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.

Among the many causes of the divisions at Corinth, one of the most prominent questions dealt with meat offered to idols. Paul clearly says that the meat itself is not the issue. “We know,” he says, “that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one'” (1 Corinthians 8:4). The primary issue is how those who recognize this truth deal with those who are still struggling. Knowledge which causes one to look down on his brother is not knowledge at all, but merely what appears to be knowledge. Knowing God rightly walks in the way of love, forsaking even what is lawful in order to build up the knowledge of another. Food does not commend us to God any more than not partaking in that food. “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:24).

It is within this context that Paul addresses the wider question of idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10. Meat sacrificed to idols is nothing in itself, but that does not give free license. Even the conscience of an unbeliever comes into view. Partaking of meat sacrificed to idols, especially when those who offer it are explicit about this, carries with it the potential of destroying another. “But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:28). Participating with the unbeliever means participating in the table of demons, not the meat all by itself, but some were not able to make such a distinction in their minds because of their former experience.

It is for this reason that Paul uses the example of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. They lacked nothing in terms of the gifts of God. Were they not delivered from Egypt, baptized into Moses in the Red Sea, eating the bread of angels (Psalm 78:25)? Did Christ not sustain them in the great and terrifying wilderness where there was no water (Deuteronomy 8:15)? What did they lack which the Lord had not given them (Deuteronomy 8:4)? Yet they too indulged in their false knowledge which puffs up rather than builds up, and God destroyed them in the wilderness. “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He” (1 Corinthians 10:22)?

All of this, therefore, helps clarify one of the purposes of the Law. The Holy Spirit does not record the judgments of the Lord as a way of merely informing us. The Old Testament is not a history lesson that gives us bits of trivia to remember. “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Their judgment has become our lesson. The Law of God builds up and instructs the Christian, even in the examples of God’s wrath. You who would tear down rather than build up, look to your fathers. Will you be any different than they?

But it is also worth noting that such instruction is not merely negative. The fear of the Lord is not fear of punishment, but the fear of a son toward his father. Using the Law as an example in this way is not using a rod, but a guide, for “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). The examples of God’s judgment, held before us in the Scriptures and in the present age, build us up in holiness, because they call us away from the works of darkness. More than this, they are occasions for joy, because as David says, “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. Mankind will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth'” (Psalm 58:10-11). “Moreover, by [the rules of the Lord] is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:11).

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.

Paul encourages the congregation at Philippi to push onward “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).  Through such an exhortation, he points them toward Christ and shows them a manner of life “worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27).  The call toward holiness is never abstract, as if it was empty or formulaic.  Rather, holiness expresses itself in particulars and demonstrates its genuineness through its actions.

This is why Paul also calls for them to imitate his example (Philippians 3:17).  Like a father with his children, Paul shows them the way of Christ through his actions as well, something which his opponents did not do.  “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19).  “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).  The one who seeks his own glory does not preach a living holiness, but merely empty, earthly words.  You shall know them by their fruits.

The epistle reading for the Fourth Sunday in Advent comes in the midst of Paul’s final exhortations.  The command to “rejoice in the Lord” is not empty, as if Paul was telling someone to “be happy.”  Joy in the Lord stems from the knowledge that His redemption is at hand.  “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).  “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:31-33).

The word translated “reasonableness” in Philippians 4:5 is the same word as 1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 3:2, James 3:17, and 1 Peter 2:18, translated “gentle.”  It seems to be rooted in a kind of moderation, not given to extremes on either end.  While the word could also mean “gentleness” in Philippians, the underlying notion is plainly a fruit of the Spirit and not a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:16-24).

Anxiety stems from uncertainty, quite at odds with knowing that the Lord is at hand.  A Christian being anxious about the future suggests that the Lord is not in control of all things!  This is why Christ also tells us to not be anxious.  “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33).  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).  However, it is worth noting that this is not the same as “don’t worry, be happy,” or however the expression may be worded.  Too often that worldly exhortation includes the implicit or explicit lasses faire:  let it go and don’t sweat the small stuff.  A Christian is not exhorted to ignore life’s little troubles for the sake of mental health.  Rather, the future belongs to God, and therefore the end is certain.  Don’t worry, be happy falls flat in the face of real trouble; rejoicing in the Lord means real contentment in whatever situation.  “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).

The First Sunday in Advent marks the beginning of the church calendar, therefore it is an opportune time to change the choice of lectionary studies. Beginning with this Sunday, I will now focus on the Epistle readings, just as I had previously focused on the Old Testament.

Romans 13:11-14 falls within the wider subsection of Romans 12-15. In the previous section of Romans 9-11, Paul demonstrates that, while Israel has stumbled and is under a partial hardening, God’s purposes in election have not failed. Israel cannot boast in the flesh, just as the Gentiles cannot boast in being grafted in to the tree in place of Israel. There is no room for boasting anywhere. “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy” (Romans 11:30-31). The Lord has not chosen based on merit. His election is sure and done for His own purposes, and the faithful are counted among the elect purely by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9; Deuteronomy 7:6-11).

But election is not a trump card. That was Israel’s sin that brought judgment upon them until the fulness of the Gentiles comes in. One cannot be elect and lack faith, as if being part of Israel according to the flesh was enough for salvation. The Lord chooses to have mercy on whom He will have mercy (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15). But wherever this faith is, there are also the fruits of faith (Luke 6:45), which is Paul’s point in Romans 12-15. For those who know the Lord’s mercy walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. Paul exhorts the Romans toward this living faith, a faith which does not delight in the division which plagued the Roman church, but seeks “the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

While there is much that is descriptive about this section, such as Romans 12:9-21 which in the Greek is composed primarily of sentence fragments without verbs, Paul does not hesitate speak commands as well. Romans 13:1, for example, is a clear imperative: let this be the case, and not otherwise. Exhortation is not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive, because the Christian struggling in the flesh needs to learn what the will of God means, often in rather concrete formulations. As Paul said in the beginning of this section, conforming to the Spirit rather than to the world involves testing and discernment, both of which are not automatic processes.

Thus, the reading for the First Sunday in Advent is a strong exhortation to put off what is evil and to cling to what is good. Paul highlights the urgency of this message by noting what the Christian should already recognize: the time is growing shorter and shorter with each passing moment. The Judgment of Christ is fast approaching. “Salvation,” by which Paul means the fullness of our salvation when Christ returns in glory, “is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). Wake up! Do not slumber in sin! The end is near (Luke 21:28; Matthew 25, especially Matthew 25:13). The night of God’s patience is fast coming to an end; it is the moment just before the dawn. Even now the night is beginning to brighten in the east.

Since the time is fast approaching, Paul exhorts us to cast off “the works of darkness,” which he describes briefly here and more fully elsewhere (Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 3:5-11). There is a sense in which this call shows the reality of sin in this life. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18). But Paul is not describing the struggle here, but commanding. Will we walk as is befitting for Christians? Or will we turn again to the works of the flesh? Orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, sensuality, quarreling, and jealousy belong to the former way of life. The Christian must choose whether to seek after life or seek after death (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Only those who are in Christ have such a choice, of course, but the regenerate will is real. Christ saves the whole man, and those who know the Lord also choose Him above all other things.

Romans 13:14 is therefore an important summary. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” just as we have put Him on as the garment of our righteousness. But at the same time, “make no provision for the flesh.” Do not even tend to the needs of the flesh and its sinful desires! But make provision for the Spirit, walking in His ways and seeking to conform to the will of God. Too often Christians get this backwards, putting ourselves in the path of temptation, knowing full well that the end can only be evil. What’s the harm of looking? But Paul commands us clearly: do not even till the soil for the seeds of sin, but let us seek the fruit of righteousness whose harvest will come when the morning dawns.