The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Author: Allan Babcock (page 2 of 74)

Holy Marriage

Archaic.  Smells of male superiority, female inferiority.  Opens the door to wife abuse.  Maybe okay 2000 years ago, but not now in the 21st century when women are well educated and proven leaders.

Here’s the text this is all  about . . .

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.  Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her  to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,  and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church– for we are members of his body.  ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery– but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:22-32),


Twice the church is referred to as the “bride” and “wife” of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7; 21:9) . . .

“Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready . . . One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.'”

Paul describes that relationship this way . .

  • Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
  • To make her holy
  • Cleansing her
  • To present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless
  • Christ feeds and cares for the church

Now Paul draws  comparisons between Christ’s relationship to his “bride” and Christian marriage . . .

  • Wives submit to their husbands as to the Lord.
  • For the husband is head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church—its Savior.
  • Wives submit to their husbands in everything as the church submits to Christ.
  • Husbands love their wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy . . . and to present her to himself as a radiant church.
  • Husbands love their wives as their own bodies . . . no one ever hated his own body but . . . feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.

In other words, Christian wife and husband, ponder Christ’s “marriage” to his church and relate to your wife/husband like that.  This is Christian marriage.  This is holy marriage.  This is staggering.

Human marriage is messy.  Routine days.  Moments of passionate romance and foolish, “little-things” wars.  Dish-washing, laundry doing, house buying, children raising, illness enduring.  And in the midst of all that, as the husband loves his wife as Christ loves the church and the wife submits to her husband as the church submits to Christ, their marriage images Christ’s marriage to his church.

This marriage, writes Paul, is “a profound mystery”.  Why “mystery”?  Marriage’s deepest meaning has been partly hidden but is now being revealed: marriage images the relationship between Christ and his church. “If you want to understand God’s meaning for marriage,” says John Piper (founder and teacher of, “you have to grasp that we are dealing with a copy and an original . . . ”  The original is Christ’s “marriage” to his church; the copy is a Christian man and woman united in marriage.

But how do we love like Christ and submit like the church?  How can we carry out Paul’s admonitions?  Do we draw up specifications, rules?  I (the husband) make all major decisions.  You (wife) decide where to grocery shop.  Or, you (wife) get a decision every three weeks.  Or, if we disagree, I (husband) win, no matter your (wife) input.

Well, this text often comes down to decision-making.  But, of course, Paul’s teaching is broader than just decisions and deeper than rules.

Here’s how Lois and I did it.  We heard Ephesians 5 preached.  Periodically read it.  Understood I was to love selflessly like Christ.  She was to submit respectfully like the church.  We trusted the Holy Spirit to work in us the love and submission he wanted.  Then, we just did it.  Oh no, not perfectly.  In fact, in the first few years I was pretty immature, not the model self-giving lover.  Still, Lois submitted.  Fifty-five years later, we’re still at it–still loving, still learning.

Still leaning (harder; we’re older) on Jesus.

Leaning, because every day I fall short of loving like him.  Yet, by his grace, he causes our marriage to (somewhat) image his to his church.  That’s not only holy.  It’s a wonder.








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Be Being Filled with the Spirit

“ . . . we’ve all seen what goes on in the revivalist’s tent or on [the Trinity Broadcasting Network].  Sadly, being ‘filled with the Spirit’ is easily equated with the shoddy theology and gimmickry of modern Pentecostalism . . .”

That’s how a well-known California pastor begins his Ephesians 5:15-21 sermon.

My brother, I know you’re calming your church’s nerves about Paul’s command to be “filled with the Spirit; but you’re painting with a way too-broad brush.  You imply every revivalist’s tent has shady stuff going on.  And that all Pentecostals have shoddy theology and use gimmicks.  I’m a Pentecostal.  Without a tent.  My theology’s not shoddy.  And I don’t use gimmicks.

With that introduction, Ephesians 5:15-21 demands unpacking . . .

Therefore be careful how you [live], not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.  So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.   And do not get drunk with wine, for that is [reckless, immoral, wasteful living] but be [being] filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (NAS).

Paul fills Ephesians chapters 4-6 with exhortations.  “ . . . lead a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1) is the banner hanging over all.  The others define how to lead a worthy life.  “ . . . you must no longer live as the Gentiles do . . . ” (4:17) . . . “Be imitators of God, as beloved children . . . ” (5:1) . . . “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (5:15).

Wise, careful-living Christians understand that the days are evil.  They’re not looking for a demon behind every bush.  But they know that “our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  Evil powers are out there.

It’s interesting that evil days are the context for “be filled with the Spirit”.  That’s the positive part of Paul’s command.  The negative:  “ . . . do not get drunk with wine . . . ”  Not, “do not drink wine”.  But, “do not get drunk with wine”.  Why?  Because if you get drunk, you’re living recklessly, immorally and wastefully.  And that’s foolish and unworthy of your calling.

“ . . . but be filled with the Spirit”.  John Piper says (half-jokingly) Paul meant to write “be drunk with the Spirit.”  In other words, don’t put yourself under the influence of wine.  But, if you insist on getting “drunk”, get drunk with the Spirit.  Paul’s not trying to create Christians who stagger around the room with slurred speech, or fall on the floor making animal noises.

He wants Spirit-influenced worship!

Dr. Gordon Fee (Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies Regent College Vancouver) says God wants Christians whose lives are so totally given over to the Spirit “that the life and deeds of the Spirit are as obvious in their case as the effects of too much wine are obvious in the other”.

The apostle Paul put it this way . . .

” . . . speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,

. . . singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord,

. . . always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father . . .”.

That’s the fruit of Spirit-empowered worship.

I’ve used the New American Standard translation for this text, because it’s true to the original Greek.  The NIV, for instance, says, “Speak to one another . . . ” and “Sing and make music . . . “.  It makes “speak” and “sing” commands, while the Greek is participles.  Why the grammar lesson?  Because participles aren’t commands; they reflect action.  What action?  Results.  From being filled with the Spirit you (church) will be speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.  From being filled with the Spirit you will be singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.  From being filled with the Spirit you will always be giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God.

“ . . . be filled . . . ” is Greek present tense, implying “go on” or “keep on” being filled with the Spirit.  Theologians from different camps argue about the number of times we can be filled with the Spirit.  Is it one, at regeneration?  Is there a “second blessing”—the baptism in the Holy Spirit?  Paul says, “Keep on being filled with the Spirit!”  In other words, we seek multiple fillings.

How?  Pray.  Study the Word.  But I suggest Paul’s three participles signal not only results of Spirit-filling, but means.  Get in a congregation where Christians are singing for others to hear.  Where they’re singing and making music with their hearts to the Lord. Where they’re always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God.  And in that worship, you’ll be filled.

Can this kind of worship be both results of being filled and means?  Grammatically that’s hard to prove.  Logically it seems a stretch.  But the Spirit, like wind, blows where he wants (John 3:8).  So he can affect both results and means if he wishes.

What’s this got to do with not living foolishly in evil days?  First, it clarifies Paul’s prohibition:  don’t get drunk with wine and live a dissipated life.  Don’t get caught up in the crowd who drink too much and influence you to go along.

Second, it offers us Paul’s counsel to be better equipped for living in evil days.  Spirit-empowered worship is that way.  It’s the kind of worship that leaves us sensing we’re standing on holy ground in the presence of the Holy One together with fellow-worshipers.

Only the Holy Spirit can do that.







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But If Not

“The Lord is strong enough to rescue me
if he chooses.
But if not, I will not give in to sin.
My God is able to heal me
if he decides it best.
But if not, I will not forsake my confession of faith.
My God can undo this disability
if he but speaks the word.
But if not, I will trust in the God
who will raise me from the dead.”

Those faith-defiant words
belong to Greg Morse
in a blog

my younger daughter sent me.

They’re easier said than said.

“I will pray, oh, will I pray,
‘Lord, deliver me from evil.’
I will pray, ‘Father, let this cup pass from me.’
I will pray, ‘O my God, let me not be put to shame;
let not my enemies exult over me.’
I also will pray,
‘But not my will, but yours, be done’.”

Easier said than said.

(Morse asks) “Do you see him sympathizing with you?
Do you see him suffer for you? As all else fails,
is he enough for you?
Do you believe his promise
that soon you will suffer no more?
Do you see him with you?
Do you know the depths of his love for you?
Do you know he is strengthening you,
even in this, even now?
Are his scarred hands holding yours
as he whispers of glory to come?”

I’m fighting the biggest faith-fight of my life.
But I’m not forsaking my confession of faith.
I’m still trusting God—who else do I have?
I believe I will “wake to see his face in glory”.

But that’s just it.
(Dare I publish this?)
My desire is not
to depart and be with Christ.
I believe as Paul wrote
that it’s better by far.
But I want to stay here longer.
I don’t want this cancer to kill me.
Don’t want this PLS to deaden my legs.
I want to help carry Lois’s burdens.
Want to celebrate my children and grandchildren.
Want to serve through this blog.
Want to walk again.
O Lord, make it so!
But if this cancer spreads and PLS persists, what then?

I will take courageous faith
from Morse’s blog.
I will pray for power
to hold to my confession of faith
and trust my Lord.

And to the very end I will pray,
“Lord, stop this cancer-spread.
Reverse my PLS symptoms.
Just a word from you,
and it will be done.
Then I will enjoy great good,
and from me you will receive great glory.”

O, but I’m bargaining.
Trying to convince him
it’s in his best interests to heal me.
A fox-hole “Christian”:
“God, get me out of this
and I’ll serve you forever.”

No, I’m not above bargaining.
But, only briefly.
Again and again I come back to:
“If you’re willing,
you can make me well”.

But that’s too little, isn’t it.

I have to end with this defiance:
But if not, I will cling to my faith-confession
and trust you, my Lord.”

Easier said than said.

So, also, in my sinfulness,
I will pray for sufficient grace.
And in my weakness,
I will pray for his power
to be perfected in my weakness
that even “if not”
he will be glorified in me.



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Sleeper, Wake Up!

Six of us sit around the table.  Three are on cell phones.  It’s innocent.  Texts probably.   Helpful.  But it’s also a living parable of how invasive the world has become.  Cell phones certainly aren’t sinful.  They are wonderful, useful tools. But like “social media” they can be subtle carriers of what Paul calls “evil days”.

So can blogs.  I read one this morning that glamorized actor Robert DiNiro shouting, “F. . . you, Trump!” at the Tony Awards in New York City.  Enough crude language in the ear eventually escapes the mouth.

Paul’s concern in today’s text (Ephesians 5:7-17) is that we “wake up” to the sin around us and not let it shape our actions, rather expose it as the sin it is.

“Therefore do not be partners with them” (Ephesians 5:7).

Paul warns his readers (and us) not to partake “with them”.  “[T]hem? The people he’s just referred to in 5:5,6—the “immoral, impure or greedy”. Don’t “throw in your lot” (NJB) with them.  Why?  First, “because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient”.  Second, . . .

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)  and find out what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8-10).

Once you were “darkness”—without moral and spiritual renewal, under the dominion of the devil and demons.  But now you are “light in the Lord”—have been morally and spiritually renewed, under the dominion of the Lord.

So Paul urges us to put into practice what we have become in Christ.  Live what we are now in the Lord.   That means producing a willingness to give and share (“goodness”).  It means doing justice, doing what God requires (“righteousness”).  It means loving truth, loving reality as opposed to pretense (“truth”).  “ . . . find out what pleases the Lord”.  Our lives are to have a new goal:  to find out what pleases the Lord.  This comes from studying his Word.  And from Spirit-led discernment in the “thick” of living.

“Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.  But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’” (Ephesians 5:11-14).

The Greek welegcho (translated “expose”) means to call what someone’s done a sin and urge him to stop and ask God’s forgiveness.  Paul says it’s not enough not to participate in “fruitless deeds of darkness”; we should “expose” them.

This takes grace.

Twenty-two-year-old Joe was zealous for the Lord.  I think he fancied himself a prophet, quick to point out others’ sins.  He did it, I’m sure, for good, so that Christ would shine on the Christian who was sinning.  But he came across as judgmental, as harsh and legalistic.  Most people whose sin Joe “exposed”, instead of repenting, reacted against Joe.  “Who does he think he is telling me what to do?”

“Be very careful, then, how you live– not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.  Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:15-17).

Christians in Ephesus (and surrounding west Asia Minor cities where Paul’s letter will circulate) are a small outpost among an overwhelming population of pagans.  It’s no time for careless living.  Live carefully, live wisely in Christ-pleasing ways and you will be “making the most of every opportunity” to show that there’s an alternative lifestyle to “evil days”.  Don’t live senselessly.  Gain insight into what the Lord wills for you living among pagans in evil days.

* * *

Sexual intercourse before marriage has become common–at least if we believe the movies.  In fact, movies promote it.  And sure enough, we yield to our natural sex drive and do it.

Because I watch the news most evenings, I hear politicians spout half-truths–or no-truths.  We’ve come to expect it.  Now we can hear half-truth-telling on many lips.

Wake up, sleeping Christian!  Call sin sin.  Don’t let it sneak up on you.  And Christ will shine on you.





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I decided to buy an imitation leather Bible.  Not the quality of genuine leather, but considerably cheaper. That’s what I think of when I hear ” imitation.”  But Paul doesn’t hesitate to use the verb form here . . .

“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children  and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1,2).

” . . . therefore” points us to what preceded (Ephesians 5:17-32), especially ” [be] forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (5:32b).  But “therefore” also points forward.  ” . . . ” [be] forgiving one another as dearly loved children . . . as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us . . . “.  Reasons fueling Paul’s imperative.  For these reasons “Be imitators of God”.  Gaze deeply into who God is and what God’s done and imitate him.

“Imitators”.  I think it a strange word.  A pretend word.  God’s the “real thing”.  We’re to be play-actors mimicking him.  But, no, not a strange word at all.  God is our Father through Jesus Christ.  We are dearly loved children.  As such, we must try to walk as our Father walks, love as our Father loves.

That’s hard to imagine, isn’t it–God the Father as our model.  But he’s revealed himself in Christ.  And in him we have more than imagination; we have the written Word that reveals him.  And imitating God means to “live a life of love”.  There can be no vagueness about that love.  It’s self-giving for others.  It’s sacrificial to God.

That last point must not be missed.  “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”.  Christ gave himself up for us, but “as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”.  It was Christ’s worshipful obedience to the Father.  It was Christ’s wrath-satisfying-sacrifice to the Holy One.

Now we who believe, we who are like dearly loved children:  “live a life of love”.  Primarily, love one another in the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:1-6).  But Scripture stretches love to include neighbors.  And yet more–enemies.  It’s easier to say, “Live a life of love to everyone”.  Thus, having been loved by God in Christ, we are to imitate God in Christ.

“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.  Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:3,4).

 While love must permeate the church, vices must not.  ” . . . there must not be even a hint” .  “Hint” is the NIV’s translation of the Greek onomazo–“be known, be named”.  “Hint” captures well what Paul warns against.  Pornaya must be absent from the Body of Christ.

  • ” . . . pornaya” (sexual immorality”) refers to any kind of extramarital or unnatural sexual intercourse.  Paul placed it first in his warning perhaps because unbelievers worshiped the goddess Artemis in her magnificent temple through prostitution.  The so-called oldest profession was a most-honored and lucrative profession in Ephesus.
  • “. . . akatharsia” —moral uncleanness, indecency
  • ” . . . pleonexia”–covetousness, avarice, a disposition to have more than one’s share
  • ” . . . aioxrotays”–obsenity, dirty talk
  • ” . . . morologia”–foolish, silly, or useless talk
  • ” . . . eupareleea”–coarse joking, vulgar talk

These vices are anayko–not fitting, not proper “for God’s holy people”; that is, for people God has set apart to himself through Christ.

“Obscenity , foolish talk and coarse joking” about sexual things are also “out of place”.  Instead, God’s holy people should give him thanks for sexual gifts.

I suspect Paul’s warning against sexual immorality after just calling for love is this:  we confuse love with lust.  In the first century A.D. sexual immorality was accepted.  A man should have a mistress.  And we know that the great temples were staffed by hundreds of sacred prostitutes.  It was argued that young men should have the love of a prostitute.

But Paul forbids it–explains why we must treat his warnings with the utmost seriousness . . .

“For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person– such a man is an idolater– has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 5:5,6)..

Paul’s explanation is blunt.  “For of this you can be sure”.  Paul piles two Greek words on top of each other, both meaning “to know”–oida and ginosko.  This you can know with certainty.  No one who practices immorality, impurity or greediness “has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God”.

And Paul’s warning is clear:  Don’t let yourselves get taken in by religious smooth talk. God gets furious with people who are full of religious sales talk but want nothing to do with him” (The Message Bible).

* * *

Our model for living is God.  God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.  Christ who “loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”.  So, our model calls, “live a life of love”.  This is how we imitate God.

Are we presumptuous to even think we can imitate God?  No.  We know imitations have less “quality”.  We know that we can love selflessly, but not to the extent of Jesus’ sacrifice.  But to not give ourselves to imitate God, to not give ourselves to love like Christ–even though we fall short–is to not live in a manner worthy of our calling (4:1).

Imitations are less.  In this case far less than the Original.  But churches of God-imitators show the world a bit of what God is like and of what Christ has done.  And they are “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”.



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Wedding Bells Are Not Ringing

I was surprised to read, “Religious congregations hosted (only) 22 per cent of weddings in 2017. . . ”  Then I read other interesting and concerning statements, so decided to send the whole blog by Jacob Lupfer.


(RNS) — As summer begins, another wedding season is upon us. The air is warm, the earth is lush and everything is as pretty as a June bride.

But for all our marriage cliches, one now belongs on the endangered species list: Wedding bells are not ringing.

We live atop shifting sands, at least as far as faith is concerned. Part of the change is that fewer Americans are Christians. Churches nowadays do not usually have bells, especially churches that meet in storefronts, rented school cafeterias or aluminum-sided monstrosities in far-flung suburbs. And the percentage of weddings that take place in churches has plummeted, dropping by almost half in less than a decade.

Reporting on a survey from a leading wedding website, the evangelical Facts & Trends discussed religion’s recession from the wedding landscape.

Religious congregations hosted 22 percent of weddings in 2017, down from 41 percent in 2009. Churches are losing ground to banquet halls, hotels, country clubs, wineries, rooftops and museums.

Clergy are solemnizing fewer and fewer marriages. Instead, couples are turning to civil magistrates or even loved ones who obtain credentials. In 2009, 29 percent of couples had a friend or family member solemnize their wedding. That number had increased to 43 percent by 2016.

What accounts for this dramatic change? Is anything lost? Does it even matter?

The main reason church weddings are dropping is that more people are raised without religion. This is something we can prove empirically: Though rates of belief remain persistently high, church membership, worship attendance and congregational participation are in decline.

Since the 1960s, social expectations concerning sex, cohabitation, childbearing and marriage have quietly undergone profound changes.

Religion is the great loser in that revolution, not only ceding its cultural influence, but also struggling to govern the lifestyle choices of its own adherents.

Clergy and churches, once gatekeepers to the social respectability that marriage afforded, are now often reduced to paid extras and photo ops.

Couples are increasingly choosing less traditional locations for wedding ceremonies. Photo by Ibrahim Asad from Pexels

It’s not just a decline in faith. With Americans more mobile, atomized and rootless than ever before, fewer have a connection to a religious congregation where they live or even “back home.” Thus, when rites of passage like marriage (or birth or death) come, we are less likely to turn to the church to help us mark them.

It would make sense that couples who lived together before marriage and/or have no intention of attending worship together thereafter are much likelier to skip the church wedding today than in previous generations.

In this way, it is perhaps a credit to young people’s integrity: At least they are not pretending to care about marriage as a sacrament or religious rite. Many just do not see marriage (or sex or childbearing) as bound up with religious faith anymore. We can debate whether that is god or bad, but it is undeniable.

This was certainly my own experience. My first marriage as a 21-year-old virgin was a traditional religious wedding, though held outdoors.

When I remarried following a divorce, my religiosity was at a low ebb. But having cohabited with my then-fiancee and having no intentions of being religious together, we were in no mood for pretending. We hired a notary public, had her say a prayer or two commensurate with my nominal religiosity and my unhealthy need for older folks’ approbation, and got married in a city park.

Lots of marriages today seem to lack a self-consciously divine character, and certainly not one mediated through the life of a religious congregation. They are not “Christian marriages” in any meaningful way.

So what, if anything, is lost?

I hesitate to admit it, as a person whose religious marriage ended in divorce, but both church and society are worse off as marriage has declined and shed its sacredness.

With no religious wedding, couples receive less marriage preparation. They have less access to marriage counseling from a clergyperson. They do not spend time thinking or praying about what’s distinctive about sacred marriage. They aren’t taught to embrace marriage as a vocation to a particular way of being in relationship as a symbol of Christ’s love for the world.

Marriage is a bedrock social institution. We all suffer if it is weakened. Civil marriage may have no sacred character, but strong, enduring unions are vital to our common life together. Sacred marriage builds social capital that benefits everyone.

Religion imbues marriage and families with value, commitments and permanence that neither law nor culture can confer. Society is impoverished when fewer couples enter marriage through this portal.

(Jacob Lupfer, a frequent commentator on religion and politics, is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. His website is Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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“Wait ’til your father gets home!”

Not infrequently did I hear that warning from my mother.  Some behavior was off limits for a young boy–especially the same disobedience again and again.

“Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord:  you must no longer live as the Gentiles do” (Ephesians 4:17).

In other words, you Gentiles (that’s us) who are now Christians, must no longer live like Gentiles.  You must not let them influence your conduct or thinking. They (non-Jesus-believers) live “hopelessly confused. Their closed minds are full of darkness; they are far away from the life of God because they have shut their minds and hardened their hearts against him. They don’t care anymore about right and wrong, and they have given themselves over to immoral ways. Their lives are filled with all kinds of impurity and greed” (Ephesians 4:17b-19, NLT).

“You, however, did not come to know Christ that way” (4:20).

The Greek says literally, “But you did not learn (manthano) Christ in this way.”  To “learn Christ” means, not to learn information or knowledge about him, but to have our lives shaped by our relationship with him.

“Personal relationship” is so familiar it’s lost its clout.  Think:  we’re claiming to have a personal relationship with a Jew who lived and was crucified (but claims resurrection) 200 centuries ago!  And this relationship shapes the way we live—not just because we follow his teachings, but because his Spirit actually lives in us.

“Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:21-24).

“Surely” is the NIV’s translation of ei ge.  It expresses confidence that we “heard of [Christ]” when we first heard the gospel.  Furthermore, we “were taught in him”.  That is, we  have received ongoing instruction of Christ’s teachings.

We were taught “in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus”. “ . . . the” truth.  Not “my” truth.  Not truth “as we perceive it to be.”  But “the” truth.  It’s found in Jesus.  Any “truth” that contradicts his isn’t.

Paul reminds us what we were specifically taught “with regard to [our] former way of life”.  It comes in the form of three infinitive phrases in Greek. . .

  • to put off your old self”
  • “to be made new in the attitude of your minds”
  • “to put on the new self”

The men, ready to stone Stephen, “laid down their garments . . . ” (Acts 7:58).  Paul uses the same Greek word here—apotithayme.  We were taught to “take off and lay down” what?  Our “old self.”  What we were before—unbelievers with futile thinking, darkened understanding, alienated from God’s life, ignorant and hardhearted, with sensitivity lost, given to immorality and sensuality and always lusting for more.  Here Paul adds another characteristic:  corruption (moral depravity) by deceitful desires (desires that hide the truth). 

The fact is that, even though we’ve trusted our self to Christ, our old self is still around.  We’re forgiven, declared right with God, gifted with eternal life, but still clothed with the “old man”. Take him off and lay him down, urges Paul.  When enticed to lie, to commit adultery, to act selfishly, throw off the “old self” like filthy, smelly old clothes.

Secondly, regarding our new way of life:  “ . . . be made new in the attitude of your minds”.  Literally, the Greek reads “be renewed in the spirit of your mind”.  Here pnewma o nous refers to our way of thinking in our inmost being.  The voice is passive.  Renewal is what God the Holy Spirit progressively does. So for what is Paul calling?  A conscious dependency on the Holy Spirit to renew our thinking.

Thirdly, “put on the new self”.  The imagery remains.  Take off the old self.  Put on (like new, clean clothes) the new self.  Paul isn’t calling us to become “the new self”, but to live out the new life we already have in Christ.

“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.  But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions– it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith– and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:1-10).

In distinction from “the old self”, “the new self [is] . . .  created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness”.  That is, “righteousness and holiness” according to the truth we’re learning.  This new self is “created to be like God”.  The image of God that from the beginning sin corrupted is being restored in this “new creation”.

Let’s not pass quickly over “created to be like God”.  It harmonizes with “ . . . God . . . made us alive with Christ” (2:4).  Our bodies, sadly, are yet the same old bodies.  But our inner being has literally been created new.  We, who have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, are new creations!

Here, demands Paul, are some ways to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self” . . .

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.  ‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,  and do not give the devil a foothold.  He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.  Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:25-32).

Off:  falsehood
On:  truthful speaking to one another

Off:  nursing anger
On:  anger quickly overcome

Off:  stealing
On:  work to be able to share with the needy

Off:  unwholesome talk
On:  talk that builds up and benefits hearers

Off:  bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander and malice that grieves the Spirit
On:  kindness, compassion, forgiveness as God in Christ forgave you

* * *

 When I drove my mother to mouth that frustrated warning, I was just acting out of a young boy’s nature.  I “had it in me” to stubbornly–or sometimes thoughtlessly–disobey.  Paul won’t allow us to behave that way now.  But, Paul didn’t include my mother’s warning . . .

  • Because my new self is a reality.  The Spirit of Christ really lives in me!  I have what it takes to live “new”.  But not without a struggle.  It’s like learning to walk all over again.  Sometimes I wobble.  Sometimes I trip over myself.  Sometimes I fall.  And sometimes I don’t even try.  But my new self will progressively prevail.
  • Because when our Father “comes home”, he’ll spank no bottoms.  Jesus already took our “spankings” for us.



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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  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:

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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