The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Month: May 2018

How to Think Not

I don’t like being told how I should  think.  Yet that’s what Scripture does.  That’s what God does.  In today’s text (Ephesians 4:17-32), Paul does.  He tells us how to think and how not to think.  And gives us an implicit warning. It’s all part of walking worthy of our calling.

It’s vital to remember the call comes first . . .

“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, . . . ” (Ephesians 1:18).

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received . . . ” (Ephesians 4:1).

We don’t merit God’s call in Christ by living worthy; we honor the call by living worthy.

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (4:17-19).
The churches Paul addresses are made up largely of Gentiles.  Paul insists, as the Lord’s apostle, that they change their lifestyle.  Stop living “as the Gentiles do . . . ”
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:18-23).

They’re futile in thinking “being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God”.  Their understanding is “darkened” (Greek skotooo–used of the sun turning dark and of Gentiles’ inability to “see” truth. )  They’re excluded from God’s life.  Not physical life given in creation, but spiritual life given through Christ.

Paul gives two reasons for unbelieving Gentiles’ condition.  One, “because of the ignorance that is in them”. They’re ignorant, but can’t say, “We didn’t know.”  They’re liable for not knowing . . .

 “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19,20).

Two, their thinking is futile “because of the hardness of their heart”.   A hard heart is insensitive, obtuse, stubborn, resistant to the gospel.  The context implies they made themselves hard.  Every “no” to Jesus adds a layer of hardness.

Furthermore, they’ve become “callous”.  They lack moral sensitivity.  They can’t feel shame for their conduct. Their consciences have atrophied.

Moral callousness leads to “sensuality” and “impurity with greediness.” Aselgia and akatharsia are often found together in New Testament lists of vices.  They refer to debauchery, lewdness and unrestrained sexual immorality.  These vices, Paul charges, they pursue with greed.  The NIV captures the sense well:  “with a continual lust for more”.

As I see it, Paul’s concern for the church is two-fold.  First, that these Gentile believers not continue in their pre-faith sinful conduct.  Second, having surrendered to Christ, that they not be drawn into Gentile-unbeliever thinking.

* * *

Are unbelievers’  minds really morally empty?  Is their moral understanding as dark as a stormy night?  Are they really morally ignorant?  Do they have rock-hard hearts?  Are they immune to shame?  Do they really lust continually for more and more sensual and impure gratification?

Maybe Bill Cosby or Madonna.  But surely not most of our neighbors, even if unbelievers.  Paul’s diagnosis seems harsh.  Yet, this is God’s Word.

Echoes of a Judeo-Christian ethic still make our society less evil than Paul’s pagan one.  But those echoes are fading–most dangerously in worldview.

A worldview is a philosophical view of everything that exists and that matters to us.  A worldview defines our ethics and shapes our conduct.  The Christian worldview has dominated the West for centuries.  But recently it’s lost its dominance, and competing worldviews have become more prominent.  Here are a few . . .

    • Naturalism: there is no God; humans are just highly evolved animals; the universe is a closed physical system.
    • Postmodernism: there are no objective truths and moral standards; “reality” is ultimately a human social construction.
    • Pluralism: the different world religions represent equally valid perspectives on the ultimate reality; there are many valid paths to salvation.
    • Moralistic therapeutic deism: God just wants us to be happy and nice to other people; He intervenes in our affairs only when we call on Him to help us out.

How do each of these differ from a Christian worldview?  What kind of thinking and behaving do these worldviews promote?  Where are these worldviews increasing in our culture?

Are we prepared to let God’s Word tell us how to think?

 

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Rhubarb Cake

In these Bible study blogs I’m writing what could be called a devotional commentary.  Enough commentary for us to understand the Scripture, but not so much that we wander in the “weeds” of various interpretations.  Devotional to apply the Scripture to ourselves and allow it to speak to us, so we worship, trust and obey the God of the Scripture who has revealed himself supremely in Jesus Christ

I offer that explanation to help you understand my goal and to help keep me on track.

That said, let’s get to Ephesians 4:1-16—a text too large to allow deep digging here. (This blog is longer than I’d hoped!)

“Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit– just as you were called to one hope when you were called–one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:1-6).

For comments on 4:1 please see theoldpreacher.com/live-worthy-of-the-calling/.  In Christ God calls us to his saving grace. Paul’s  proclaimed this in chapters 1-3.  Now he “implores” us to live in a manner worthy of that calling.  What that worthy manner is, he lays out in chapters 4-6.  He begins with something of a surprise.

Live “with all humility and gentleness”.  “Humility” is an attitude of lowliness, of not wanting to draw attention to oneself.  “Gentleness” is tenderness or consideration toward others.

Live “with patience”.  “Patience” is being emotionally quiet in the face of unfavorable circumstance. “Patience” is endurance and steadfastness under troubling circumstances.

Live “showing tolerance for one another in love”.  “Tolerance” is exercising self-restraint; it’s “putting up with” someone.  “Tolerance” “in love” means not just putting up with someone until you can get away.  It means tolerating that person so you can do good to him.

Live “being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. With these words Paul makes it clear what he’s up to.  He urges us to live in a manner worthy of our calling by preserving the unity of the church.  Paul calls this unity “the unity of the Spirit”, because it’s the Spirit who has made us one in Christ.  By our attitude and action (humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance in love), we must diligently preserve that unity.

This unity is ours by virtue of our common “connection” to and belief in “one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”.   This is the unity of the church the apostle urges us to preserve.  Significantly, names it the first “worthy manner”.

The hostility of church splits is out.  So are our little squabbles with fellow believers.  Look at any congregation and you’ll find unChrist-like feelings that must be overcome to keep unity.

“But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.’  What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” (4:7-9).

Christ has given each believer “grace”. Charis has several meanings.  Here the context dictates it refers to exceptional effects produced by God’s grace.  Thus, charis here means spiritual ability, power, enablement—not merited, but freely given.

The NIV translates “given as Christ apportioned it”.  Literally, the original Greek says “given according to the measure of Christ’s gift”.  So, Christ gives charis to the extent he wants. 

Paul claims this is why Psalm 68:18 says, “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.”  But that raises a problem.  In Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament), Psalm 68:18 says, “You ascended the high mount, leading captives in your train and receiving gifts among men..”  In its original context, Psalm 68 celebrates God’s triumphal ascent to Mount Zion after delivering his people.  In Jesus’ exaltation, Paul saw more of God’s triumph.  But why did he change “you received gifts among men” to “gave gifts to men”? 

Some say Paul is quoting from memory and makes a mistake. Others say he intentionally changes the quote to make a theological point.  Still others say that, writing under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, and quoting from a messianic psalm, Paul sees in verse 18 a fuller, deeper meaning—and writes it.  As much as I relate to the first, I favor the last.

Another issue arises over “[Christ] descended to the lower, earthly regions”.  Does Paul mean Christ descended into hell sometime between burial and resurrection?   Or is he referring to Christ’s “descent” into the grave?  Or does he mean Christ descended to the lower parts of the cosmos (earth itself in contrast to heaven)?  The latter seems truest to the language.

Paul explains the purpose of Christ’s ascension and grace-giving is to “fill the whole universe”.  In other words, Christ’s intention is to permeate the whole universe with his ruling presence—and the church is his instrument for carry out that purpose, as believers use Christ’s grace-gifts to build up his body.  In line with that purpose and process, Paul tells us Christ gave “grace-gifted people to the church . . .

“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.  From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (4:11-16).

“ . . . he . . . gave some to be apostles”.  Greek apostolos refers to someone sent out on a mission with full authority to represent the sender.  “ . . . some to be prophets”.  The Greek is prophaytays—one who speaks for God, declaring what God wants to make known.  Apostles and prophets are spoken of as “the foundation of the church” because their inspired teaching concerning Christ’s person and work forms the theological base on which all ministry and spiritual growth takes place.  I don’t want to be drawn into a cessationist-continuationist debate here.  Suffice it to say the New Testament nowhere teaches those gifts cease, though their ministry today isn’t to reveal new teaching.

“some to be evangelists”.  Euangelistays, found only twice in the New Testament (Acts 21:8; 2 Timothy 4:5) refers to one who announces good news and may identify  itinerants who establish churches by their preaching.

Obviously, these terms overlap.  An apostle may prophesy and evangelize.  Do we have apostles today?  In a broad sense.  But not in the sense of the first twelve plus Paul who gave us revelatory teaching from God in Christ. Personally, I think we’re wise not to use that title, because of its authoritative implications.

Besides the overlapping nature of these three, biblically they are itinerant ministries.
“Prophecy”, however, is a “church-wide phenomenon “(as Dr. Gordon Fee calls it) Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 make that clear.

“ . . . and some to be pastors and teachers”.  Poimain means “shepherd”.  These are the pastors, elders or overseers of a local congregation.  “ . . . teachers” obviously are grace-gifts given to teach the local congregation.

The definite article “the” appears before apostles, prophets and evangelists.  Only one “the” appears before pastors and teachers, implying they constitute one grace-gift to the church.  So “pastors and teachers” are one grace gift.  We could express it like this:  “pastor-teacher”.

I recently learned of two large-church pastors who preach the sermons of a mega-church pastor, adjusting them for their congregations, filling in their illustrations, etc.  I understand large-church pastors are pressed with many responsibilities.  But I think a pastor’s primary responsibility is teaching God’s word.  I believe there are lessons the Lord wants to teach through him—through his knowledge and prayer and personality and experiences.

Paul now presents us with three prepositional phrases:  (1) “for the equipping of the saints,” (2) “for the work of ministry,” and (3) “to the building up of the body of Christ”.  I understand the first two phrases to be virtually synonymous.  That is, grace-gifted leaders are to equip God’s people for the work of ministry (or service) toward the over-all purpose that the church, the body of Christ, be spiritually strengthened.  (Remember:  the church is the means by which the fullness of Christ fills the universe.)

* * *

I go back and ponder all the “becauses”–the reasons for living in manner worthy of our calling:  theoldpreacher.com/live-worthy-of-the-calling/.

And I’m truly staggered–and humbled.  In fact, I find all those virtues rising up (humility, gentleness, patience, loving tolerance, a desire to preserve the unity of the Spirit).  But here, alone before my computer, isn’t the testing ground.  It’s among the people who constitute the church.  And it’s there I must remember what the church is called to–those remarkable “becauses”.

Paul explains what the built up church will not be (“infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming”); then, positively, what the built up church will be (“we will in all things grow up; into him who is the Head, that is, Christ”).

For 44 years I was a pastor-teacher.  By God’s grace I tried to faithfully teach God’s Word and care for God’s people, so together we would progressively grow up into the likeness of Christ.  But leaders aren’t the only grace-gifts.   The whole body grows and builds itself in love, “as each part does its work”.  And that doesn’t require preaching spell-binding sermons.

My son-in-law’s parents just visited for their grandson’s (and mine) middle-school graduation.  They all stopped by Sunday afternoon.  My son-in-law’s mother brought me two pieces of rhubarb cake.  (Something new and delicious!)   I’m not suggesting all church members exchange desserts.  I am suggesting little acts of Christ-like love help build up the body of Christ:  a prayer, a hug, a listening ear, an encouraging word, an timely Scripture.

Even a piece of rhubarb cake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Glory

” . . .  my glory,”
and the one who lifts my head.”

Memorable words from King David to the Lord.
In this dark psalm
he flees from his son, Absalom.

Absalom conspired
to steal the kingdom.
He turned the Israelite’s hearts.
David fled before escape was blocked.
“So the king left,
followed by all his household . . . ” ( 2 Samuel 15).

“O LORD, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him.’
But you are a shield around me, O LORD;
you’re my glory and the lifter of my head” (Psalm 3:1-3).

David had slain the giant Goliath.
But he doesn’t stand his throne like a warrior.
Instead he  sadly, slowly slinks away in weakness.
His ears hear onlookers’ gossip:
God will not deliver him.”

He  whispers– in faith–to the LORD,
” . . . you are a shield around me;
I find my glory just in serving you;
you raise my head high.”
Outwardly, David is defeated, humiliated;
inwardly, he’s rushing to the LORD his refuge.

Not only so; he prays,
“Rise up, O LORD!  Deliver me, O my God!”
It’s a prayer of hope
in depressing, degrading circumstances.
The LORD will restore him.
David expects to recover the throne.

Our kingdom hasn’t been usurped.
We’re not slinking out the city,
hearing God’s-gone-gossip,
humiliated, disgraced, disowned.
Even so, today we may trudge along,
much of what we once were gone.
Life was good,
under control.
Now, like David, our steps are heavy,
kingdom lost, God gone.

But dare we repeat David’s wonderful words?
Can we rightly claim them as ours too?
“But you are a shield around me, O LORD;
you’re my glory and the lifter of my head.”
Is the LORD to us who he was to King David?

David repeats what he hears:
“Many are saying to me,
‘There is no help for you in God’.”
So came mockers to Jesus’ cross:
“He trusts in God; let God deliver him now.”
The Son of David heard the same cruel words.
Of course, unlike David, God didn’t deliver him
–just let him die.
But God was Jesus’ glory, as he was David’s,
the One who lifted his head.
On the third day he raised Jesus to life.

The psalm applies to Christ,
so it applies to us who are in Christ.
The LORD is a shield around us.
He is our glory.
He is the lifter of our head.
We can sing it to him in worship,
and find it is so . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Live Worthy of the Calling

“Therefore.”  A simple, common word. In Greek it’s oun.  English definition:  “as a result; because of that; for that reason.”  A pivotal word in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  And to us.

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called . . . ” (4:1).  For that reason . . . I urge you to a life worthy  of your calling.

Three quick questions.   (1)  What’s our calling?  (2)  What’s a life worthy of our calling?  (3)  For what reasons should we live a worthy life?

The Greek for calling is kaleo.  It’s used of God’s invitation or summons to salvation or discipleship. We didn’t volunteer.  God invited us to his salvation; Christ summoned us to follow him.  That’s our calling.

The Greek for “worthy” is axeeos.  It pertains to “having a relatively high degree of comparable merit or worth”.   A child of the King doesn’t hang out on the city’s street corners with druggies.  He learns to respect others.  He studies.  He bows to authority.  He lives a lifestyle appropriate for the King’s child.  He doesn’t live this way to become the King’s child.  Because he is the King’s child, he lives this way.

The third question requires a lengthier answer.  For what reasons should we live a worthy life?

  • Because God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (1:3).
  • Because God chose us in Christ before creation that we should be holy and blameless before him (1:4).
  • Because God predestined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ according to the good pleasure of his will to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the beloved (1:5,6).
  • Because God redeemed us through Christ’s blood and forgave our trespasses according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us (1:7,8).
  • Because God made the mystery of his will known to us according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ,  to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment– to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, that is Christ (1:9,10).
  • Because in Christ we have obtained an inheritance (1:11).
  • Because in Christ we were marked with a seal–the promised Holy Spirit, who is the pledge of our inheritance, toward our redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory (1:13-15).
  • Because we may know the hope to which he has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance among us, and the immeasurable greatness of his power for us (1:18-20).
  • Because, though we were dead in the trespasses and sins in which we once lived, following this world’s ways and the ruler of the power of the air, and though we were once by nature children of wrath, God (who is rich in mercy) out of his great love for us made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (2:1-6).
  • Because God intends in the coming ages to show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (2:7).
  • Because we are saved by grace through faith–and this is not from us; it’s God’s gift (2:8,9).
  • Because we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand for us to do  (2:10).
  • Because once we were without Christ and without God having no hope in this world; but now in Christ Jesus we have been brought near through his blood (2:12,13).
  • Because Christ is our peace, making us part of one newly-created humanity, reconciled to God in one body through the cross, giving us access to the Father in one Spirit (2:15-18).
  • Because we are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself the chief cornerstone (2:19,20).
  • Because in Christ we are being built together with all other believers into a dwelling which God lives by his Spirit (2:21,22).
  • Because out of God’s glorious riches he may strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner being, so that Christ may be more and more at home in our hearts through faith (3:16,17a).
  • Because, being rooted and established in love, we may have power, together with all God’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is Christ’s love–and know this love that surpasses knowledge–that together with God’s people we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (3:17b-19).
  • Because our God is able to do far beyond all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us (3:20).
  • Because we exist to give God glory (3:21).

How can we live  worthy of that?   Paul tells us in chapters 4-6.  But look what he surprisingly starts with . . .

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:1-3).

In the church, there’s no place for lording it over others.   No place for arrogance or “blowing your top” at a brother who irritates you.  No place for harsh words.  No place for division.

Instead humility . . . gentleness . . . patience . . . bearing with one another in love . . . making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  These are the first steps toward living a life worthy of our calling.

 

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Impossible Church-Prayer

“Who are you to evaluate the church?  You don’t even come!”

That’s how I feel, an outsider looking in.  But my church comments come only because that’s what Paul is writing–praying–about.  So here’s his impossible church-prayer.

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Ephesians 3:14,15).

After the Spirit prompted Paul to “sidetrack” into his Gentile ministry (3:2-13), he picks up his prayer-report begun in 3:1. “For this reason” he prays.  That is, because his readers (believing-in-Christ-Jesus Gentiles and Jews) have become part of the new temple where God’s Spirit lives (2:11-22), he prays for their spiritual empowerment.

Since Jews typically prayed standing, when Paul writes, “I kneel before the Father”, he’s probably describing an intensified prayer.  Intercession is a struggle, war in the spiritual realms; thus Paul fights to pray for the church.

Commentators differ on “the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”  The most reasonable interpretation seems to be this:  God as Creator is “Father” (progenitor) of everyone.  That God “names” everyone signifies his creation of them and dominion over them.  Paul, then, intercedes to the all-authoritative One.

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge– that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19).

Paul tells them he prays that they may be strengthened with power (dunamis).  The Greek is literally “according to the riches of his glory”.  Paul prays that God may give power in a way that corresponds to his glorious riches–in particular, that they may be made strong by means of the Spirit “in your inner being”.  Paul isn’t praying here for more visible manifestations of the Spirit’s presence, but for an “inner being” empowering.

“ . . . so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”  Christ (by the Spirit) already indwells their hearts.  Paul tells them he’s praying they might more deeply experience Christ’s presence in their lives. We generally think the Spirit does one work (regeneration) or two (regeneration and baptism in the Spirit).  But Paul implies the Spirit’s work is not only ongoing, but may (should?) include several significant experiences. Sam Storms (pastor, Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City) comments: “It would seem that he is praying for the emotional increase or experiential expansion of what is already a theological fact. His desire is that the Lord Jesus, through the Spirit, might exert an ever-increasing and progressively more powerful influence on our lives and in our hearts. It is what I like to call, the incessant spiritual reinforcement in the human heart of the strength of Jesus and his love.”

D.A. Carson says, “this cannot be merely an intellectual exercise. Paul is not asking that his readers might become more able to articulate the greatness of God’s love in Christ Jesus or to grasp with the intellect alone how significant God’s love is in the plan of redemption. He is asking God that they might have the power to grasp the dimensions of that love in their experience. Doubtless that includes intellectual reflection, but it cannot be reduced to that alone” (A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 191).

This indwelling presence happens “through faith”—an ongoing trust that Christ alone is our salvation.

By virtue of faith in Christ, Paul’s readers are already “rooted and grounded in love”.  Now Paul tells them he prays that they may have power to “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge– that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God”.  This is the “inner being” power for which Paul prays—that they may grasp the huge dimensions of Christ’s love and experience it. This God must do; believers’ intentions or actions can’t.

Paul prays his readers “may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God”.  Is it possible that believers in this life may be filled with all God’s moral excellencies?  Probably not.  But this is the direction toward which we should aim.

Such experiential knowledge of God’s love, such filling with God’s fullness, is a “together with all the saints” experience—personal, but not private.  Which raises the question:  what would a church look like that’s experientially knowing the unknowable love of God?

Paul finishes his prayer-report with a doxology . . .

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:20,21).

Any thinking person, with any church experience, knows how impossible Paul’s request is.  However genuinely loving a church may appear, tensions inevitably exist beneath the surface.  But Paul prays for God to do what we cannot.  And he “nails it” with this doxology.

God can do huperekperissou“far beyond, so much more than”—“than all we ask or imagine”.  Has Paul’s supplication been colored by his God-enthusiasm?  Can God really fill us together with such unknowable love?  Is it possible for God to take our ordinary church and fill us to the fullness of himself?

His power is already “at work within us”.  And corresponding to the power God can do far more “than all we ask or imagine”.  Therefore the doxology:  “Now . . . to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Yes!”  Undoubtedly this “glory” reaches its height and extends on into eternity.  But Paul praises God who will receive glory in his love-fullness church now and to the next generation and the next and to all.

* * *

Well, we’ve talked about prayer.  Let’s pray . . .

“Father, in my heart I kneel before you.  You are Father of us all and want us to be family.  Out of the super-abundance of your glory, through your Spirit, make us strong in our inner selves.  In that power, may Christ be more and more at home in our hearts as we trust our lives to him.  Root us deep in the soil of your great love.  Empower us to know, together with all your people, the extravagant dimensions of your love—how wide and long and high and deep it really is.  May we experientially know the too-great-to-know love of Christ.  Fill us together with the fullness of life and power that comes from you. 

“Now, all glory be to you, God!  By your breathtaking power you can do far more than all we dare ask or even imagine.  Glory be to you in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations for ever and ever!  Amen.”

 

 

 

 

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Asaph’s Slippery Feet

Asaph was a temple choir worship leader.
In  Psalm 73 he admits,
“My feet had almost slipped”.

What did he mean?
He envied the prosperous with their healthy, strong bodies.
Their wealth freed them from common burdens.
They flaunted their arrogance–
and God stayed silent.
Injustice made Asaph conclude,
“Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
. . . I have been punished every morning”.

I, too, envy.
I envy the man who can walk,
the man not imprisoned in a wheelchair,
the man not threatened by spreading cancer,
the old man with  strength remaining,
the old man not a burden to his wife.
I don’t begrudge them;
I just want what they have.

I pray for healing–at least some—
but the enthroned God sits silent,
while I I grow weaker.
I know Scriptures’ reasons.
But instead of faith growing stronger;
instead of endurance, character, hope;
instead of satisfaction with God;
like my body, my faith, weakens.
I still believe with my mind,
but, I think, not with my heart.
A fight is raging; I’m losing.

Having confessed his slippery foothold,
Asaph writes,
“If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’
I would have betrayed your children”.
Instead of passing on the faith;
instead of leading the next generation
to walk in trust in Yahweh;
he would have tainted them with doubt
and troubled their faith with unbelief.
But he did “speak thus”.
This psalm is his confession,
read by generations.

I don’t want to betray God’s children.
I want to be a paragon of faith
for the next generation and beyond.
So I hesitate to write my “confession”.
I want to weigh down no one.

But at times God is silent.
And we’re left only with promises on a page.
Occasionally I long to feel God’s nearness.
Instead, I’m left with only words,
“I will never leave you”.
I want–I think I need–more.
I read of sufferers suddenly surrounded
by a sense of God’s presence.
Or feeling bathed in love from above.
“Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure”.
But I haven’t.
I’ve entertained sinful thoughts.
I’ve doubted God’s love.
I’ve questioned Jesus’ Father,
who knows how to give good gifts to his children.
I’ve complained about a stone instead of bread.

Asaph, feet slipping, declared,
” . . . till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny”.
God will sweep away the carefree unbeliever,
but take the believer into eternal glory.

Years ago, when I read this psalm
and came to “then I understood their final destiny”,
I’d smile with self-satisfied wisdom
and agree.
Of course, final destiny makes the difference.
And I’d be content with little wealth or poor health,
because in the end God would be more than just–forever.

Now for me the end comes near.
I can’t walk.  I ache.  I have cancer.  I can’t see well.
I think of 70-somethings who walk, even run.
Their aches are minimal.  Cancer-free.  Good vision.
I envy them.

Tell me of others who suffer far worse.
Tell me I’ve outlived my father and brother.
Still, envy rears its head.
And, final destiny, seems less good.
How can that be?
Final destiny means, not only justice,
but Jesus.

Yet, these are my honest feelings.
the emotions I sometimes wrestle with.
I want to walk now.
I want to be well now.
I want cancer gone now.
Honestly.

I decide that in the end,
Christianity comes down to the end,
to the final destiny.
Only then we know its truth.
Only then, as we used to sing, we’ll know
“It will be worth it all when we see Jesus”.

Today I’m weak again.
My vision is poor.
I struggle to write this.
But I do because I imagine
this may help a fellow-believer in his struggles
and to prepare others for what may lie ahead.

And I write with this prayer:
“Lord, give me eyes to see life
from the place of final destiny.
So that, with Asaph,
my feet do not slip
and I do not lose my foothold.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Church: Multi-Racial Grace Community

I wonder what would have happened if several African-American families began worshiping with our (not by design) all-white church.

In the 1st century, the conflict is Jew-Gentile.  Paul has just stressed that believing Gentiles are (with believing Jews) part of the one Body of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22).  Here he reminds the church that his ministry is for the sake of those Gentiles.

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—” (Ephesians 3:1).

Paul repeats “For this reason” later in 3:14. Here he’s about to tell them how he prays for them.  But when he mentions being a prisoner of Christ, he sidetracks into discussing his ministry to them, because he’s chained for their sake.

He means his Gentile ministry has raised Jewish ire.  And their riotous-reaction has resulted in his arrest.  But ultimately he’s “a prisoner for Christ Jesus”.  Imagine what his Roman guards thought when they heard that! This little Jew is not a prisoner of the Romans, not of Caesar, but of Christ Jesus. Whatever Christ wants, to that Paul surrenders.  To Christ’s will, Paul is bound.

“ . . .assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:2-6).

Paul assumes his readers have heard of his ministry.  (Another indication he wants this letter cycled through west Asia churches he’s never visited, unlike Ephesus where he had spent 2-3 years.)

He sees his ministry as a gift, a gift given him for them.  He calls it both “the stewardship of God’s grace” and “the mystery of Christ”.  “ . . .  stewardship” (oikonomian) refers to management (in this case, of God’s grace) with a strong sense of responsibility or trusteeship.  A “mystery” is something previously hidden but now “made known to me by revelation”.  This “revelation” (also to other “holy apostles and prophets”) came not by human insight, but “by the Spirit”. The mystery is that through Christ “Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” 

This doesn’t hit us as it did first century Jews.  Division between Jew and non-Jew was God-ordained and absolute (under the Law)!  Which brings us back to those black families worshiping among our all-white church.  Or two Muslim families who profess conversion to Christ gathering with us.  They are “fellow heirs”.  They are “members of the same body”.  They are partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus”.  Feel the tension?

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:7-10).

What remarkable statements these are coming from a Jewish rabbi, who once proudly flaunted his religious achievements . . .

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4b-6).

But now, since Christ Jesus: “I was made a minister . . . according to the gift of God’s grace . . . which was given me by the working of his power . . . though I am the very least of all the saints this grace was given . . . “.

Paul is aware of his own unworthiness and of Christ’s overwhelming grace.  The “riches” of Christ Paul has been given to preach are all the facets of his saving grace.  They are “unsearchable”.  That is, they’re like a reservoir without bottom.

Paul’s mission is to bring the mystery to light for everyone, “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”.

The word translated “manifold” means “richly diversified”, “multifaceted” and “infinitely diverse.”  God’s saving wisdom is intricate in design and effect.  This “manifold” saving wisdom produces a multi-racial, multi-cultural community—all fellow members of the one Body of Christ.

Paul says God wants this made known to “the rulers and authorities in heavenly places”.  That is, to demonic powers, so they can see that all things have been subjected to God’s grace in Christ. So the powers can see they are powerless to divide humanity because all believers are one in Christ.

By what means does God want this made known?  “ . . . through the church”.  It’s through this multi-racial, multi-cultural community of believers God makes his wisdom known.

 “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory” (Ephesians 3:11-13).

God’s stewardship of grace, God’s mystery of Christ in whom Jews and Gentiles are reconciled, God’s purpose that the church bear witness of God’s manifold witness which creates one new multi-racial people in Christ—all this is “according to [God’s] eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In him we—and everyone—have boldness and confident access to God through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Consequently, Paul asks the church not to be discouraged over his suffering from bringing the gospel to them.  His suffering, he believes, is the means of God’s grace in Christ being proclaimed.  This gospel is their glory.

* * *

Years ago someone devised a devilish plot for church growth.  A homogeneous congregation!  The more alike everyone, the more “alikes” will be attracted.  Proponents didn’t mean it to be devilish; but it was.  If I understand Ephesians, God wants churches composed of “non-alikes” just like the world is.  If a church of “non-alikes” could live in loving unity, what a powerful witness of Christ to the world.

Even more importantly, what a powerful witness to the fallen spiritual powers in the heavenly realms!  Such a church of loving “non-alikes” reminds them that their chaotic authority has been broken and the Lord Jesus Christ reigns.

I don’t have a game plan for making this happen.  Indeed, maybe only the Holy Spirit can do this to a church praying for this kind of revival.

But one step we can take today.  Instead of just hanging out with your typical circle at church, scout out somebody different and reach out to her.

 

 

 

 

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But God

A dear, sweet little (growing up girl!) friend recently sent a piece of personal art.  I stood it against my desk lamp where its 6 x 8 inch blue and black and white-sparkled message shouts to me every day: “BUT GOD”

After painting this dark description of humanity . . .

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1-3).

Paul interjects the two weighty words: But God . . . “.  We were dead to God in our transgressions and sin, energized by Satan, sin-nature-cravings captivating our desires, destined to deserving wrath, “But God . . . “.

The popular  NIV translates it, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy . . . ” (Ephesians 2:4)—thus losing the impact of Paul’s sentence.  The Greek begins, “de theos”–“But God”.  That comes first.  This is God the rescuer, God the first (and only) responder.

Before explaining what God did, Paul explains why God did it . . .

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us . . . “ (Ephesians 2:4, ESV).

In his being, God abounds in mercy.  Mercy is “compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one’s power to (rightly) punish.”  Look in God’s vault.  No gold.  But more mercy than the safe can hold.

Henry’s well supplied water for generations.  It never ran dry.  Not in the worst draught when even neighbors’ wells dried up.  Henry often invited thirsty neighbors to come and drink.  God’s love is like that.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus . . . “ (Ephesians 2:4-6, ESV).

Now Paul tells us what God did.  First and most importantly, God united us with Christ.  In Ephesians 1 Paul writes of “the working of [God’s] mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come”. Here in Ephesians he proclaims that God “made us alive together with Christ and . . . raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places . . .”.

God has united us with Christ in being made alive, being raised and being seated in the heavenlies.  It’s a spiritual (or, in the Spirit) union.  Note how often Paul writes of that here . . .

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved–and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:4-10, ESV).

God “raised us up with [Christ] and seated us with him in the heavenlies . . . “.  The Greek, epouranios, refers to the heavenly place where God reigns.  The word emphasizes not a location “out there somewhere”, but rather a realm that is pressing in on us—a reality occurring right now.

At the same time, this mystical, in-the-Spirit union points to a future fulfillment.  God has made our spirit alive to himself, anticipating the day our body will be.  God has  “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”, so that now we have authority over Satan looking forward to the day when that will be complete.

I’m intrigued by the implications of our union with Christ.  “Made alive” I understand.  Instead of being “dead” to God in our transgressions and sins, we’re now “alive” to him.  But in what sense have we been “raised” with Christ and “seated” with him in heavenly places?

Much has been written about “a theology of suffering.”  Good.  We need that, because Christians suffer.  Much has also been written about our being “made alive” with Christ.  Spiritual rebirth.  Regeneration.  Good, but familiar now.  What, though, about our union with Christ in his ascension and session (being seated in heavenly places)?  Do we have authority over the evil one we don’t use?  Are dark powers not subject to us because we don’t understand our spiritual position with Christ?

I wonder.

But about how God did what he did there’s no wonder. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created  for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10, ESV).

By grace.  By God’s favor toward us which we don’t deserve.  About that Sam Storms (pastor, Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City) says this:

“You were hell-deserving rebels who had no claim on anything in Me other than to be the recipients and objects of eternal wrath. I did this for you not because you were a treasure or because of anything in you; indeed it was in spite of what was in you. I did this for you solely because of what was in Me, namely, sovereign and free and gracious love for those who deserved only to be hated.”

By grace through faith.  Through trusting that this gospel is true.  Which means this salvation (and maybe also this faith) is God’s gift, not our doing.  Not by means of our efforts, so we have nothing to brag about.  We are his workmanship, newly created (out of “death”) by him.

* * *

BUT GOD changes everything.  His gracious intervention is huge.  This text calls us to ponder what God has done.  Skim?  No!  Read prayerfully.  Slowly.  Thoughtfully.  Letting the saving, transforming words take our breath away.  Sink into the depressing darkness of 2:1-3.  Then let the next two words hit you the way this art-piece does me on my desk:  BUT GOD . . .

 

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