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Easy Prey

Sunday, June 12, 2016

“Be of sober spirit, be on alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8)

 

Have you ever seen footage of a hunting lioness? Before she pounces what does she look for in the herd? Simply put, she looks for the one that doesn’t belong; injured, elderly, or infant impala are the easiest kills. The kill is made even easier if the weak one can be separated from the herd.

 

There is a reason Peter uses this terminology to warn us about the tactics of our “adversary, the devil.” Like a hungry lion, he is “seeking someone to devour.” As much as Peter’s language informs us of Satan’s tactics, it informs what our response to Satan ought to be.

There are scientists whose entire field of study centers around herd dynamics, how individual members of a herd react to one another and respond to outside stimuli like danger from a predator. Animals that travel in herds don’t do so primarily for social reasons. They congregate around one another because there is strength in numbers. Here lies a lesson for us, Satan’s prey, the herd animals. God has given Christians strength in numbers by adding them to a body called the “church” (Acts 2:41, 47). We are to spend our energy in strengthening that body “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves...” (Eph. 4:13-14)

Not only this but when we are all busy conforming to the image of God’s Son (Rom. 8:29) there will not be one among the herd who stands out to the prowling lion as easy prey. There is strength in uniformity. Herd animals understand by sticking together they exponentially increase their chances of survival. When a weak member straggles behind or is somehow separated from the group he is lion-lunch. This is why every church should have shepherds who “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Pet. 5:2) and “keep watch over [our] souls” (Heb. 13:17). Shepherds, or “elders” (1 Pet. 5:1), make sure the flock is being fed and is safe from harm so that every member is growing into the image of Christ. When one is getting weak, that member must be lifted up and brought back into step with the gospel of Christ. If that member is somehow separated from the group and is devoured by Satan on the overseers’ watch they iare accountable for that lost soul (Heb. 13:17). The work of an elder is the most challenging, important, and demanding of any work within a local church. Therefore, they deserve our respect and submission and assistance (Heb. 13:17).

Lastly, because there are so many herd animals congregated together, there are that many more sets of eyes to spot incoming danger and warn the group. It is not just up to the shepherds to watch for danger! We must all be sober and vigilant for one another in the church. When we “let the word of Christ richly dwell” within us we are to be busy “with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another…” (Col. 3:16). Those who are concerned for the well-being of the herd (church) will be “alert” and will sound the shrill warning when they notice danger threatening (Col. 1:28; 2 Thess. 3:15; Titus 3:10). If the devil begins to drag one of the herd away the rest of us must do everything we can to pull that member back into the fold (Jd. 1:23).

Yes, the devil might be prowling around like a lion seeking someone to devour but Christ, the Lion of Judah, has empowered us to “resist him, firm in [our] faith” (1 Pet. 5:9). James says, “...resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (Jas. 4:7-8). We’re in this together so let us stay together, warn one another, and build each other up in the faith so that when the lion strikes, God can send him home empty handed and hungry.

 

Unity in Diversity, Not Sameness

Sunday, May 22, 2016

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

(Gal. 3:28)

Expounding upon the manifold blessings of faith in Christ and the purpose of the Mosaic Law, Paul brings to light one blessing in particular that shook the world. In Christ, the spiritual walls of division were finally destroyed. Because the Mosaic Law had been fulfilled by Jesus (Mt. 5:17; Jn. 17:4; 19:30) it had been taken out of the way when Jesus completed the work of redemption on the cross (Col. 2:14). In His death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus ushered in the promised New Covenant (Heb. 8:7ff; cf. Jer. 31:31ff) and brought with it all the mercies contained therein.

On top of providing a sacrifice that could properly atone for our sin, the cross of Christ was a watershed of blessing. Because the Mosaic Law had been fulfilled and left behind so was the distinction between Jew and Gentile. This distinction was to be part of the past, “for neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15; cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). There was no longer any dividing wall between them (Eph. 2:11-22) because, through faith in Christ, a covenantal relationship was open to all mankind. It didn’t matter if you were a Jew by nature, in Christ, even the Gentiles could be “the people of God” (1 Pet. 2:9-10).

Not only this but in Christ the lines of spiritual partition between the slave and freeman were likewise broken down along with those between genders, male and female. Paul gives the reason for this in saying “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Spiritually speaking, there is no benefit or handicap associated with one’s social standing, one’s physical heritage, or one’s gender. This was good news in 1st century communities where an attitude of segregation based on these very things was prevalent. These outward differences had no bearing on the believer’s inheritance; in eternity, God would bestow the same grace toward a man as He did a woman (1 Pet. 4:7), a slave as He did a freeman (Eph. 6:9), and a Jew as He did a Gentile (Col. 3:11).

In Christ and as members of His body, the church (Eph. 1:22-23), the spiritual blessings were poured out on mankind without respect to these outward attributes. However Galatians 3:28 does not teach sameness. Paul is clearly not advocating eliminating all societal distinctions between these groups. There arose a question in the 1st century that went something like this, “Because I am in Christ, these physical distinctions no longer matter and I am free to live as I please.” But Jesus freed us from sin not our societal obligations.

Elsewhere, Paul commands married people to stay married even if their spouse isn’t a believer (1 Cor. 7:10-14). Upon believing it was better for a single person not to seek a partner due to pressure brought on by persecution (1 Cor. 7:8-9). He also advocated that a Gentile should remain a Gentile (1 Cor. 7:17-20) and slaves should remain serving their masters (1 Cor. 7:21-24).

So Galatians 3:28 is not advocating the elimination of these distinctions. Rather Paul is teaching that in the Christian community, the church, these old divisions which sometimes carried with them wrongful attitudes of superiority and inferiority were to be abolished because they were abolished in truth at Calvary. In Christ, diverse individuals are unified by their faith in Jesus. They are “one in Christ” spiritually. Paul is not teaching sameness but rather unity in diversity.

Local Church Membership

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The word “church” is used to refer to God’s covenant people in two different ways. It is used in the aggregate or universal sense when it refers to all followers of God by faith in His Son Jesus. It is described as a body in which Christ is the head (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15; Col. 1:18) and those who are faithful to Him comprise the body (1 Cor. 12:12).

One becomes a “member” of that body when one, “by one Spirit,” is “baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). Thus immersion “into Christ” (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 3:27) makes one a member of His body in the aggregate sense. This rescue from darkness and transfer to light (Col. 1:12-14) is ultimately accomplished by the work of God (cf. Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14) yet this does not negate individual responsibility (Acts 2:40). If the relationship between the Christian (member) and Christ (head) is severed then that individual is no longer a member of that body (Rom. 11:17-23; Rev. 2:4-5).

But the word “church” is also used to describe a group of believers working together as a team. They function as a unit having “saints,” “overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Because this “church” acts as a unit, she can listen and speak (Mt. 18:17), send letters and gifts (1 Cor. 16:3), choose and send messengers (2 Cor. 8:19), and discipline as a unit (1 Cor. 5:5), etc.

But how is one added to or taken away from this kind of local “church”? Ideally, this local body is comprised of the same kind of members as the universal body. Ideally, one’s membership in a local body is dependent upon one’s faithfulness and fellowship with Christ. But the local church comes short of this ideal. Why? Because the local church is made up of fallible people. Therefore, local church membership rests upon the best (but admittedly fallible) human judgment. Christians must do their best to use the principles that God has revealed in His word to determine local church membership. There have been mistakes in the past and, so long as the human element remains in the church, there will be mistakes in the future.

First of all, we can be too inclusive with our fellowship when we accept those as members who are not living lives of faith in Jesus. For example, the Corinthian church maintained fellowship (partnership, accepted as a “member”) with one who was unfaithful to the Lord (1 Cor. 5:1ff). The apostle Paul rebuked the Corinthian local church for this acceptance and instructed them to remove the unfaithful one from their midst (1 Cor. 5:2).

On the other hand, we can be too exclusive when we exclude those who truly belong to the Lord. The apostle John wrote to a group of Christians cautioning them about a man named Diotrephes who, among other things, did “not receive the brethren” and “forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church” (3 Jn. 1:10). This other extreme was not acceptable. John describes the rejected ones as “brethren,” that is, part of God’s family, yet they were being cast out of the church. The same kind of situation was happening in Jerusalem with the apostle Paul. Paul had already been joined with Jesus in baptism (Acts 22:16) and, thus became a member of the universal church. But his attempt to join himself with the local church in Jerusalem was rebuffed by the brethren until Barnabas convinced them he was truly a disciple of Christ (Acts 9:26-28).

Clearly, membership in a local church rests on fallible human judgment. The same kind of errors in judgment that existed in Corinth, Jerusalem and the group that John addressed exist today in local churches. We must pray for wisdom, study God’s word, and do our best to implement the principles God has revealed.

One last thought. Timothy had to deal with a few contentious and ungodly people at Ephesus (2 Tim. 2:16-18). But Paul comforted him with this truth, “Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows who are His”...” (2 Tim. 2:19a). Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and my own know Me” (Jn. 10:14). Let us know the Lord and do our very best to follow Him together (Eph. 4:15-16).

The Sin of Partiality

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Just before the heart of his letter (2:14-26), James blends the dual themes of wisdom and working faith in outlining the sin of partiality (2:1-13). James describes what it means to be “partial” in 2:1: “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.”

At the outset, he draws the reader’s attention to “our,” a possessive word, meaning Jesus is ours because He has given Himself to us and for us and we have accepted him as our, “glorious Lord.” Describing Jesus as “Lord” (or master) would highlight our need to emulate and obey Him (Heb. 5:8-9) while describing Him as “glorious” would remind us that Jesus defeated death and is reigning as King Most High. How can we “hold” our “faith” in such a “glorious Lord” while treating people with personal favoritism when our “glorious Lord” never did?

Another theme that James revisits several times in his letter is the disparity between the rich and poor and how, generally speaking, the rich hold the poor in contempt (1:9-11; 5:1-6). Here (2:1-13) James puts forth a hypothetical situation (“if” 2:2) wherein the believer has the perfect opportunity to exercise his wisdom and faith. Not only is it against wisdom to play favorites in the brotherhood but this kind of discrimination is also against God’s law, thereby violating faith in Jesus. There are three ways in which James gives his reproof against the sin of partiality.

Preferring the wealthy over the poor shows a complete disregard for Jesus (2:1-7). James calls those who make such distinctions “judges with evil motives” (2:4). In fact, it was the rich who usually oppressed poor believers (5:1-7), dragging them to court and even blaspheming the name of Jesus (2:6-7). To favor a wealthy man over a poor man for whatever reason not only dishonors “the fair name by which you were called” (2:7) but also dishonors “the poor man” whom God chose to be “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (2:5). Jesus came to make the poor rich (2 Cor. 8:9), not financially but spiritually, and those who wear the name of Jesus ought to have that same attitude of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the less fortunate (2 Cor. 6:10).

Preferring the wealthy over the poor shows a complete disregard for the Law (2:8-11). Who said Christians are not under Law? We certainly are! Part of being citizens in a kingdom necessitates that there be a law. Christ, who sits at the right hand of God, is King making the words that issue from His throne a “royal law” (2:8). If we are to be a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) then we must abide by our King’s “royal law” which is, summed up, “you shall love you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving others unconditionally as God has loved us is a theme repeatedly emphasized by Jesus (Mt. 22:34-40; Jn. 13:34-35) and his disciples after Him (Rom. 13:8-10). Partiality is the polar opposite of our King’s command to love. So people who play favorites in the kingdom violate the very foundation of the law of the Kingdom and, in effect, “has become guilty of all” that the Law teaches (2:10).

Preferring the wealthy over the poor shows a complete disregard for the Judgment (2:12-13). Lastly, James warns his audience to “so speak and so act,” that is, love in word and deed (1 Jn. 3:18), “as those who are judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). The law that Christ delivered was unlike the Mosaic Law in that Christ’s law actually liberates men from their sins instead of enslaving them in their sins (Rom. 8:1-2ff). Yet we need to be careful how we use that freedom. Paul warns the Galatians not to “turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh” in the very context of loving one another (Gal. 5:13-14). We need to live by this law of liberty and of love because, in the end, we will be judged by it (2:13; Lk. 6:37-38). Our mercy for one another (2:13), or lack of it, will be returned to us in the judgment (Mt. 5:7; 6:14-15; 25:34-40), which is why God said long ago, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6; Mt. 9:13; 12:7).


Brethren, let us live to honor our “glorious Lord Jesus” (2:1-7), respect His “royal law of love” (2:8-11) and live in view of the eternal judgment (2:12-13). There may be a brother or a sister in the assembly that, for whatever reason, you don’t necessarily get along with. Remember the command to love him or her still stands and your salvation is in the balance. Time and time again, the Scriptures explicitly point out that God does not give special treatment to one individual over another. Peter once stated, “...God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10:34; cf. Jn. 9:31). “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11).

The Right Hand of Fellowship

Sunday, April 17, 2016

In our study of the Book of Judges we noted the author’s mention of Ehud being “a left-handed man” (Jdg. 3:15) and the possible significance of the inclusion of this odd bit of information. Ehud’s dexterity (and possible ambidexterity) played an important role in Israel’s deliverance from Moab and her oppressive king Eglon. It is difficult for us living in a relatively peaceful society today to fully appreciate the weight of importance of a handshake in the ancient world. In those tumultuous times and violent cultures men would regularly carry a weapon on their person. Shaking hands with someone meant that you weren’t going to draw your sword. It was a sign of peace.

So far as history and archeology can tell most people were (and still are) right handed. This meant it was the right hand that was customarily offered during a handshake. Historically, left handed men were distrusted because even while shaking hands they were fully capable of drawing their sword to deadly effect. Hence, the reader of Judges may suspect some treachery is afoot in the Ehud/Moab narrative just from the introduction (Jdg. 3:15).

It is interesting to me that we still greet one another by touch. On multiple occasions Christians are commanded to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). Peter calls it a “kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14). The operative terms being “holy” and “love.” There is no sexual connotation behind this kind of greeting. When I kiss sister Velva on the cheek it is an expression of brotherly love and affection; Rachael understands this and is not offended by it. These greetings, whether they be through shaking or holding hands, a tender pat on the back, or even a kiss, communicate what words sometimes fail to.

On one occasion when Paul, Barnabas, and Titus traveled to Jerusalem they were met with such a greeting by Peter, James, and John. They recognized that Paul had a special ministry to the Gentiles just as Peter did the Jews and offered them “the right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9). This was an expression of their favor and support, unity in purpose, mutual sharing of labor, a blessing. The apostles were effectively saying, “We are with you in this brother!”

For various reasons, some people may feel uncomfortable with this kind of greeting. We need to be sensitive to that and respect their physical boundaries. Also there may be situations where this kind of greeting is out of place. I remember a time of strife in my family. It was during Christmas and my step-grandmother was in the process of unjustly suing my parents! We drove to their house on Christmas Eve because “that’s what we’re supposed to do,” said dad. When my grandfather’s wife was giving a round of awkward hugs to the family she finally reached for my mother who, in a rare show of boldness, rejected her show of ‘affection’ and said, “I’m not feeling so warm and fuzzy right now.” Talk about the Christmas spirit! The image was indelibly etched on my mind. When there is disharmony in the family these touches feel forced, a shallow attempt to convey feelings that aren’t really there.

This is why it is so important to be unified and truly loving one another. If not, these greetings come off as cold, calculated, and feigned displays of affection. But if we are treating each other as God instructs us then warm greetings are appropriate. It is good for us to express our love and fellowship with one another in various ways. Greeting each other warmly with a holy touch is a great way to do that. Even though our method of greeting one another may change over time and vary with culture we always employ some kind of holy touch. Some things never change. Thanks be to God who touches us with His grace through Jesus Christ.

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