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Is Baptism a Work?

Sunday, July 03, 2016

“having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”  

(Col. 2:12)

 

Many people argue that baptism is not necessary for salvation based upon their conviction that baptism is a “work” and we are not justified by works but by faith in Jesus Christ. There are some problems with that reasoning that need explaining.

 

First of all, are we so certain that baptism is a “work” at all? Interestingly, Jesus tells us that faith is a human work (Jn. 6:28-29) but nowhere else in the Bible do we see baptism being described as a human work. In fact, from Colossians 2:11-13 we see that God is the one at work in baptism not man.

Secondly, the argument that baptism is a “work” stems from confusion about Paul’s distinction between faith and works in Romans 3-4. Look at Romans 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Paul makes a lot of contrasting statements like this (Rom. 3:20, 27-28; Gal. 3:11) but in each case it is clear from the context that when he mentions “works” he isn’t talking about “people doing stuff” but instead “works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28). Most of the time when Paul says “works” when he is contrasting it with “faith” he is talking about “works of the [Mosaic] Law.”  

So Paul has no problem with people who preach baptism in the name of Christ  for the remission of sins (Mt. 28:19; Acts 2:38; 20:22; 1 Pet. 3:21; etc.) because he is one of those people! (see Rom. 6:3-4). Paul’s main concern when contrasting faith and works (of the Law) is with Judaizing teachers who were preaching a different gospel; namely, to be in a relationship with God they taught Gentiles had to be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses. Paul spends a lot of time teaching against this spiritually damaging false doctrine.

 

So if baptism isn’t a “work” by which man earns his salvation nor is it part of the “works of the Law” that some Jews in Paul’s day were vainly attempting to be justified by where do some people get the idea that baptism is a “work” today?

 

Take your mind back 500 years and pretend you’re Martin Luther seeing the corruption of the Catholic Church. You’re disgusted with the sale of indulgences (giving money to the church in order to purchase forgiveness of sins!?). Then you stumble across Paul’s language of justification by faith in Romans 4 and think, “This is the perfect stick to beat the Catholic Church with!”

 

Do you see what has happened? Instead of reading Paul’s inspired writings in their context and applying it to the spiritual battles Paul was fighting against the Judaizing teachers of his day, Luther reads it through the lens of his own cultural context and (mis)applies it to his own spiritual battles with the Catholic Church. Looking for a reason to condemn the Catholic practice of selling indulgences Luther completely misses Paul’s original point. He substitutes Paul’s “works” of the Law for “people doing stuff” to earn their salvation.

 

And today some have taken his ideas and transposed them on baptism to deny that it is necessary for salvation. Friend, the Catholics were wrong to sell “indulgences” and Luther was right to expose that evil practice. But indulgences do not equal “works of the Law” and certainly aren’t the same thing as teaching that baptism is necessary to be saved. Baptism is not a human “work” but rather a work done by God in which man submits to God’s power by faith to receive forgiveness of sins  (1 Pet. 3:21; Gal. 3:26-27).

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 Kingdom

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Disciples of Jesus often struggle to understand their Master’s teaching. The same was even true of Christ’s original 12 disciples. One of the things Jesus’ original audience struggled with was the nature of the kingdom He came to establish. Yet, Jesus the master Teacher, ever patient, taught them in love (cf. Mt. 20:20-28; Acts 1:6-8).

Sadly, much of the same confusion remains today (see premillennialism, Mormonism, etc.) despite the fact that the apostles and their contemporaries, being filled with the Spirit of truth who guided them into “all truth” (Jn. 16:13), set the record straight about the kingdom in their epistles.

But why didn’t the average Jew in the days Jesus walked the earth understand what the kingdom of God was all about? The Old Testament Scriptures were rich with kingdom prophecies but the Jews only looked at them physically and nationally. They look for a restoration of Israel’s golden days under David. The Christ would liberate them from Roman oppression and sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem. These misconceptions colored their interpretation of the of the prophets and even led them to crucify the Christ.

During the dark days of Judah God did not utterly destroy Israel but preserved a remnant (Isa. 1:9). But in her destruction, Israel lost her civil sovereignty; that is, she ceased to be a nation. But God promised to put another King on David’s throne (Isa. 9:6-7) making them a nation once again. Though broken Israel would be scattered abroad, God promised they would return to Him (Isa. 10:20-23). This would happen in the days when God would send forth a King (Isa. 11:1-16). But this same Lord would be a light to the Gentiles (lit. “the nations” or non-Jews) (Isa. 49:5ff), a fact lost on some first century Jewish Christians.

As stated before, we don’t have the same excuse as the first century Jews for misunderstanding kingdom prophecy. Paul, on his first missionary journey, while in Pisidian Antioch, reviewed Jewish history (Acts 13:16-41) highlighting that Jesus Christ fulfilled the kingdom promise (Acts 13:23) and was resurrected to be the “sure mercies of David” (Acts 13:32-34). He clearly stated at the conclusion of his sermon that the deliverance provided by this Davidic King was not national or militaristic but was a deliverance from “sin” and its consequences (Acts 13:38).

Similar statements can be found in Peter’s sermon on the first Pentecost after the resurrection. He concluded that after being raised from the dead Jesus was “exalted to the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33), a place of rule (cf. Psa. 110).

Paul taught that first century Christians were presently in “the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13-14). Therefore, we can confidently conclude that Jesus is faithful: He was successful in establishing His kingdom and is reigned even now as “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15).

The Jewish understanding of the “kingdom” prophecies was literal and physical but the apostles, guided by the Spirit of truth, interpreted those prophecies correctly for us, attesting to the spiritual nature of the kingdom Christ established (cf. Lk. 17:20-21). Like most things in the Old Testament, the literal and physical kingdom of Israel was a type or shadow of the spiritual kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Is the kingdom the same thing as the church? “Kingdom” is just one way of describing God’s relationship to His people through Christ. We are children in His family, laborers in His vineyard, sheep in His flock, members of His body, etc. Each one of these phrases describes a unique attribute of that multifaceted relationship. The “kingdom” figure is unique in that it emphasizes the “rule” of Christ and our submission, loyalty, and service to Him as our King.

The word “church” (Grk. ‘Ekklesia’) is a combination of two words. The prefix “Ek” means “out of” and “klesia” means “a calling.” The word church amounts to “a calling out of.” This originally referred to a special group of people like a civic assembly. But the ‘Ekklesia’ that Jesus promised to build (Mt. 16:18) was a special assembly of people that belonged to Him.

So when the word “church” is used we should generally think “people.” But when the word “kingdom” is used we should think more of “rule,” for that is what the word means. “Kingdom” (Grk. ‘Basileia’) is an abstract noun denoting sovereignty, royal power, dominion, etc. It comes to be defined by metonymy (or as a figure of speech) as the people over whom the king rules.

Are you part of Christ’s kingdom? That depends. Is Jesus your King? You might ask, “How do I know if Jesus is my King?” The answer to that question entirely rests upon your response to the teachings of Jesus. If you willingly submit to His rule and commandments then you have proven He is sitting on the throne of your heart. Please read Matthew 7:21-23 and then verses 24-27 while meditating on the kingdom and your place in it.

Missing the Point

Saturday, January 02, 2016

“Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away.”

(Acts 1:12)

In Luke’s record of the events following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus there are many “journey” statements like this made to track the feet of the apostles as they went about fulfilling their Master’s command to spread the gospel to “the end of the earth” (1:8). This one piqued my interest. Luke used the Jewish expression, “a Sabbath day’s journey,” to measure the distance between Mount Olivet and the city of Jerusalem.

The command to keep the Sabbath day holy is explicit throughout the old covenant. It’s roots can be traced back to the seventh day of creation when God rested from His labor (Ex. 20:8-11). The outward command to do no work on this particular day was clear to the Israelites, especially after they received an object lesson in the wilderness on the consequences of profaning it (Num. 15:32-36). The inward significance, however, may have been lost on some of the Jews.

They understood that “labor” was forbidden on the Sabbath but they were confused as to what exactly constituted “labor” as it was not spelled out in the Law of Moses to their satisfaction. For example, how long could someone walk on the Sabbath before it became “labor?” They wanted to live in such a way as to not break God’s commands which, if we are honest, is commendable. Their problem was their focus; their focus was not breaking the command. In some cases, their focus caused them to miss the whole point.

Jesus understood this about His brethren so he deliberately performed miracles on the Sabbath to assert his authority as “Lord of the Sabbath” but also to further explain the purpose and significance of the Sabbath, which was only a shadow of a better rest to come, a spiritual rest for God’s people (Mt. 12:1-21; cf. Heb. 3-4).

But before Jesus came on the scene to explain the Sabbath, how did the rabbis of old deal with this conundrum? As Acts 1:12 hints at, they arbitrarily slapped on a maximum distance one could walk without it constituting as work, thereby keeping the Sabbath “holy”. The rabbis set the limit at 2,000 cubits or 0.6 miles. How they came to that number is anyone’s guess.

Before we lay into these “traditions of men” we should be honest with our natural desire to do the same thing with God’s commands. For example, some have arbitrarily attached an age to specify the point at which people become accountable for their sin where no such age exists in the Scriptures. And how many Bible class discussions have you been a part of when a member asks something like, “Yes, but at what point does this behavior become sinful?”

Why do we do this? Because there is something within us that desires a hard-and-fast line in the sand so that we know not to cross it and violate God’s commands. Jesus dealt with these “lines in the sand” in His Sermon on the Mount with statements beginning with, “You have heard it was said…” and ending with, “But I say to you…” The Jews had drawn the wrong conclusions about God’s commands. They were missing the point and it took Jesus to set them straight (Mt. 5:17-48).

Most of the teaching of Jesus was not spelled out like so many definitive “lines in the sand.” Rather it requires an honest heart and a spiritual mind to understand. This was the purpose for His speaking in parables (Mt. 13:10-17). Understanding God’s word (2 Tim. 2:15) requires a heart that is open and honest (Mt.13:18-23, especially v.23). Only with this kind of honesty and deep study can we walk worthy of our calling.

When we ask questions about where the line of sin is, perhaps in regard to drinking alcohol, marriage and dating, or our entertainment choices, we are telling God and our brethren that our hearts are focused on the wrong thing. What we are saying is, “I already have my mind made up about how I want to live. Now how can I make God’s commands justify my lifestyle?”

The question should never be, “How close can I get to the line without crossing it?” (cf. Prov. 6:26-27) Rather we should have faith that God’s commands are given as a safeguard against wickedness; they are the loving prods of our Shepherd’s staff meant to keep us grazing in green pastures and lying down near still waters (Psa. 23).

Outside of the fences of the covenant of His grace there only lies certain death. Let us be content to mine the treasure of God’s word to more deeply discover His true purpose for us; to bring Him glory by living lives worthy of the gospel, all the while preparing us for our heavenly home. Let’s stop asking the question, “How close can I get to the line of sin?” And start asking the question, “How can I better glorify and serve my God?”

Was Paul a Gladiator?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 

(1 Cor. 15:32)

In the midst of Paul’s discussion on the reality and truth of the general resurrection based on the reality and truth of Jesus’ resurrection, he makes several compelling arguments about the futility of the exertion of human will if the resurrection was a farce.

One of which is a colorful description of a gladiatorial battle between the apostle himself and some frightening “wild beasts at Ephesus.” What exactly Paul was referring to is slightly elusive to the Bible student. We may take Paul as speaking literally and believe that the apostle was actually thrown into a public gladiatorial ring with roaring lions for the sick entertainment of the masses at Ephesus.

It is true that during the time of Paul’s ministry in Asia, there was a massive theater in Ephesus that seated around 25,000 spectators where such battles took place. However I might like to imagine Paul brandishing a rusty sword in the face of a giant bear this interpretation doesn’t quite bear up (get it? “bear” up?).

Being a Roman citizen like Paul (Acts 22:28) had its advantages, not the least of which is the exemption of death by crucifixion and death in the gladiatorial arena. It would have been against Roman law to punish Paul in the arena making the literal interpretation of this text unlikely. So if Paul isn’t talking about lions, tigers and bears in 1 Corinthians 15:32 who/what are the “wild beasts?”

In his letter to Titus, Paul quoted a Cretan prophet’s words of self-abasement, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). This was obviously a poetic or metaphorical use of the phrase to describe the lack of self-control and animalistic nature of the general Cretan populace. This fits well with what we know of Paul’s experience in Ephesus during his journeys through Asia minor.

The great theater in Ephesus wasn’t just a venue for bloody fighting. It also housed theatrical plays, musical performances and even political and religious gatherings. The last of which Paul was the cause of in Acts 19. The gospel of Jesus Christ was sweeping through Ephesus aided by the extraordinary miracles done by Paul by the power of God (19:11-12). The occult magical practices that dominated that pagan city were beginning to dwindle in favor of the true power of the word of the Lord (19:19-20).

This departure from pagan practice provoked “Demetrius, a silversmith, who made shrines of Artemis” (19:24), in fear of losing his livelihood, to round up a gang of his fellow tradesmen and drag Paul’s companions “into the theater” (19:29). There a confusing riot ensued that was quelled by the cool words of the town clerk (19:35-41).

How does this help our understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:32? Paul may have been using the graphic image of “wild beasts” to figuratively describe the fierce attacks of his enemies (1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 1:8). In the previous verse (1 Cor. 15:31) Paul used the phrase “I die daily” in a purely figurative sense as well. 

With all that being said, we mustn’t lose ourselves in the trees and miss the forest. However we interpret the nature of these “wild beasts”  the thrust of Paul’s message is clear: Why would the apostle risk his life for the furtherance of the gospel if there is no resurrection? Paul’s point is, “I did risk everything because the resurrection is real.”

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