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The Meaning of Life & Familial Relationships

Sunday, February 14, 2016

“…Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days…”

(Deut. 30:19-20)

What is life all about? It is always interesting to hear the various answers people give. And to most people, a definitive answer to this age old question is elusive. Obviously, believers can answer this question on a number of levels from the Scriptures. But what about someone who isn’t interested in the things of God? In my experience, most unbelievers find meaning and purpose in their familial relationships.

Lee Iococca, the famous automobile executive, said in his book ‘Straight Talk’ while pondering this question, “As I start the twilight years of my life, I try to look back and figure out what it was all about. I’m still not sure what is meant by good fortune and success. I know fame and power are for the birds. But then life suddenly comes into focus. There stand my kids and I love them and they love me and that’s what life is all about.”

I think this is a fair estimation of how most people find purpose in their life. The point is underscored by the fact that Mr. Iococca had experienced earthly “fame and power” and “good fortune and success.” But when he boiled life down to its essence he found purpose in the requited love of familial relationships. And what father hasn’t experienced joy inexpressible that comes from holding their child? You don’t have to believe in God to get some feeling of fulfillment and joy in being part of a loving family.

My point is this: in one moment of holding a child we find more intimations on the meaning of life than all the books of philosophy combined. Life suddenly, as Iococca puts it, “comes into focus.” James Russel Lowell offered his commentary on children when he called them “God’s apostles, day by day sent forth to preach of love and hope and peace.” John Bowring said that family was “an earlier heaven.”

So far I am aware I haven’t given much Scripture to support my opinion so take it with a grain of salt. But could it be possible that our Creator has given us a clue to the meaning of life that can be partially deciphered in our earthly relationships? After all, does it not please our God that we be called His sons and daughters through faith and that we should call Him “Abba, Father!” (Jn. 1:12; Gal. 4:1-7)?

We notice from Romans 1:19-20 that God has given certain clues about His “eternal power and divine nature” in “the things that have been made.” Here we are, part of that creation, “fearfully and wonderfully made” by Him, knit together and formed in the womb of our earthly mothers by the loving hands of our divine Father. Indeed, our “soul” “knows” well the “wonderful” “works” of our Father (Psa. 139:13-16).

So our unbelieving neighbors might be onto something when they say that life is all about the love of familial relationships. Why not connect the dots for them in explaining the relationship to their “Father who art in heaven” that is possible by faith in Christ? The earthly relationship and love of family must be pointing to something much greater. Those of us in Christ know the true meaning of life: to know the love of our Father in heaven and to receive and reciprocate that love by “obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is [our] life.”

Paul's Letter of Recommendation

Sunday, February 07, 2016

“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

(2 Corinthians 3:1-3)

A great deal of the space in Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians is taken up by some very weighty arguments defending his ministry as a true apostle of Jesus Christ. There were some people floating around churches in Achaia and abroad assassinating the character of Paul. By studying through 2 Corinthians we can infer that Paul’s opponents were calling into question the genuineness of his apostleship by drawing attention to his suffering, poverty, and otherwise sorry state of being. Jesus came to take away our suffering so why would His ambassador be enduring such anguish? This was the line of thinking that led some of the Corinthians to buy the lie that Christ really wasn't speaking in Paul (13:3).

One of the best arguments he makes to prove his sincerity as a true apostle of the Lord is from the above passage. He poses two rhetorical questions fully expecting negative answers, as if to say, “You want proof? You think I need a letter of recommendation to prove my apostleship?”

Paul’s purpose was certainly not to commend himself. He wasn’t designing arguments just to make himself look better against his opponents. No, those were the cheap tactics employed by Paul’s opponents who gloried in appearances (2:17; 5:12). In fact, he just got through making the argument that he was not capable by himself to bring about spiritual life to some and spiritual death to others. “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2:15-16) Obviously, no mere man by himself is sufficient to cause eternal salvation or destruction. Yet God was able to make Paul sufficient by equipping him for a sufficient ministry (the new covenant ministry) with a sufficient message (the gospel of light).

Letters of recommendation have great merit. I needed some kind of referral before I could labor among you in Hallsville. You needed to have some proof of my sincerity before you would allow me to speak God’s word to you on a regular basis. But Paul is saying that he doesn’t need such a letter written in ink vouching for his sincerity. Why not? Because he already had one and it was far more powerful than any letter written by the hand of man.

His “letter of recommendation” was the Corinthian church itself which was nonexistent prior to Paul’s coming to Corinth. He was the very first to bring the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6) to a people “blinded” “by the god of this world” (4:4). Indeed, he saw himself as a messenger (3:3). The fruit of his labor should have been proof enough. The 18 months of blood, sweat, and tears that went into reconciling these idolaters to God, an end he was still determined to bring about (5:20), was all the proof they needed of the effectiveness of Paul’s message and the genuineness of his apostleship.

God Himself authenticated and endorsed Paul by the fact of their conversion to Jesus. This “letter of recommendation” was just as much “a letter from Christ” written by God’s hand in the eternal and life-giving ink of the Spirit. Even though Christ never came to Corinth in the flesh, Paul, like an ambassador, “delivered” the message of the gospel for Him (5:20).

The beautiful story of their conversion was “written” or “etched” on Paul’s heart. Their conversion story was living on in him and he carried it with him wherever he went.

These Christians were like a living epistle that could be “known and read by all.” The church was like an open book for the unbelievers in Achaia to read and know. Their absence in the idol temples, their singing early Sunday mornings, their denial of ungodliness would read like a book to their neighbors about the ability of God to transform sinners into saints.

Lastly, Paul makes a contrast between the old and new covenants in mentioning letters inked on “tablets of stone,” the medium of the old covenant that kills (3:6), and the Spirit written on “tablets of human hearts,” a life-giving medium of the new covenant (3:6) and a direct fulfillment of a new covenant prophecy (Ezek. 11:19-20).

Swallowed Up

Sunday, January 31, 2016

“For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.”

(2 Corinthians 5:4)

One of the most vivid word pictures of Scripture is found in the above passage from the apostle Paul to the Corinthians. To be “swallowed up” (Grk. katapinŌ) means to be “gulped down” as a lion throws his head back to devour his prey (cf. 1 Pet. 5:8).

Paul was a man well acquainted with the burdens of life (Acts 9:15-16). He endured labors, imprisonments, countless floggings, he had been beaten with rods and had been shipwrecked three times, stoned and left for dead at least once, in danger from rivers, robbers, Jews, Gentiles, on the sea, in cities, in the wilderness, constant harassment from false brethren, sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, and many times found himself homeless. Add to that the daily burden of concern for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:23-28) and you have a list of troubles that he simply describes as “momentary, light affliction” (4:17).

Many of us lack this firm resolve of Paul in our coping and contemplation of life’s trouble. Our world falls apart at the slightest resistance. Any one of the sufferings experienced by Paul would devastate and threaten to defeat us (me). Even something so trivial as a flat tire can derail some folks into a downward spiral of self-pity.

So how does one come to see these life-altering and terrible experiences as “light” and “momentary”? It’s simple. Paul tells us he can endure anything this life has to throw at him when he looks “not to the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen” (4:18). Paul could bear up in the midst of trial by staying focused on the unseen “eternal” things, namely the resurrection. In contrast to this “eternal weight of glory” that would be his in the resurrection when he would finally be “clothed” with immortality at Christ’s triumphant return (5:4; 1 Cor. 15:52-53), all of life’s anguish is melted away in a fire of glory. In another place, Paul says that all the burdens of living in this earthly body were not even worthy to be compared to the glory in store for him in the resurrection (Rom. 8:18). He really could do all things through Christ (Phil. 4:13).

So much of the time we focus instead on what is right in front of us because that is all we can see. But what is “seen” is “temporal” or temporary (2 Cor. 4:18). Yes, even the feeling of pain and loss unique to your life experience is fleeting. It will come to an end. There will be a day of release. But by dwelling on the seen pains of this life we can feel consumed or “swallowed up” by them. But Paul offers a solution: “walk by faith, not by sight” (5:7). This change, not only in believing but also in conduct (which is meant by the word “walk”), will reverse the feeling of despair and turn it into “living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3).

So we find ourselves today trapped in temporary “tent(s)” (5:4) or “earthen vessels” (4:7), subject to pain and time, feeling “burdened” with life. But with the promise of God at the center of our focus we “sigh” or “groan” (5:4), not looking for a release from a miserable existence, but looking rather to the glorious expectation of resurrection and finally being home with the Lord.

In the resurrection all that is mortal and associated with mortality will be “swallowed up by life.” This eternal life is promised to all those who believe and follow Jesus as Lord (Jn. 3:16; 6:40; 11:25-26). What a day of glory it will be when “this perishable [body] will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal [body] will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”” (1 Cor. 15:54)


Sunday, January 17, 2016

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

(John 3:3)

One of the major themes of John’s gospel is seen in the repeated illustrations of “partial” believers; men who had some measure of faith in Jesus but were unwilling to truly believe (cf. Jn. 12:42). The apostle whom Jesus loved explained his purpose in writing his gospel in John 12:30-31. John’s audience was “on the fence” about the divinity and truth about Jesus so he tailored his gospel just for them. By confronting the reader with evidence that Jesus really is the Christ, the Son of God, John’s intent was to convince the reader to become a true follower of Christ.

Nicodemus was one such “partial” believer. He was a “ruler of the Jews” (3:1), which probably meant he was part of the ruling court of the Jews called the Sanhedrin. As a Pharisee on the court of the Sanhedrin, you could climb no higher up the religious ladder than Nicodemus. Being in this lofty position he held great power and influence in the Jewish community. How shocking it would have been, then, to hear Jesus say he had to start all over in life by being “born again” (3:3). He recognized that Jesus was special calling Him “”Rabbi” (teacher) and even knew in his heart that Jesus had to have come from God because of the undeniable evidence (“signs”) (3:2). Yet he still had some reservations.

After this first strange encounter with Jesus we meet up with Nicodemus during the Feast of Booths (7:2). Jesus had made lots of friends when He fed 5,000 hungry people near the Sea of Galilee by way of a miracle (6:1-14). But things deteriorated quickly when He actually opened His mouth. After rebuking these “repeat customers” for another miraculous meal (6:26-27), Jesus went on to teach what the miracle pointed to. What this miraculous feast was supposed to instill in the hearts of His brethren was faith in the Son (6:29) and the fact that He is the “bread of life” that sustains the souls of man (6:28-51).

This doctrine taught that they had to ingest the manna of His body and drink His lifeblood to possess eternal life (6:52-58). This didn’t go over well. To say that this offended the Jews would be an understatement. It so confounded and angered them that “many of His disciples,” who, mind you, had just witnessed an undeniable miracle, the very stamp of God’s testimony (Heb. 2:3-4), refused to walk with Him any longer (6:66).

Some of the Jews were so angry with His doctrine that they began to draw up plans to have Jesus killed (7:1). This brings us to the setting of a crowded Jerusalem during the time of the Feast of Booths (7:2). Jesus used this great crowd gathered for the feast as cover to secretly go up to Jerusalem (7:10).

For good or bad, Jesus, through His teaching and miracles, had the attention of His Jewish countrymen. He was the talk of the town but there was great debate about who this man was. Some were saying, “He is a good man,” while others were saying, “No, on the contrary, He leads the people astray.” But this commotion only sounded in whispers for fear that certain Jews would find out (7:12-13). The heightened sense of anxiety in Jerusalem would have been palpable.

Then Jesus began to teach in the temple (7:14) and everyone was astonished. Like Nicodemus, they knew something was special about this Galilean (7:15). In response to the people’s confusion and astonishment, Jesus proceeded to reinforce what He had told the crowds at the Galilean seaside already, that He came from above, from the Father (7:16-18, 29). This only served to further divide His audience. Some of the Jews wanted to kill him while others believed (v.31).

This great division (vv.40-44) finally came to a head when news reached the council and certain ones were wondering what the holdup was on killing this guy (7:45). But even among the officers there was division over Jesus (7:46-49). It was in this stir of raging emotions that Nicodemus spoke up with an apprehensive defense of Jesus (7:50-51). This earned him no favors among his peers as they wrote him off and told him to go read his Pentateuch (7:52).

The next and final time we see Nicodemus is after the crucifixion. With a man named Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus reverently cared for the body of Jesus preparing it for a proper Jewish burial (19:38-40). This reveals a great deal about this man. Even after the death of Jesus, when all the disciples had fled, Nicodemus found it necessary to honor this prophet from Galilee.

It is clear he believed Jesus came from God. It is unclear as to whether he believed Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. Throughout the ministry of Jesus, Nicodemus followed, even if it was at a distance. He was never fully committed and what all three of his appearances in the Gospel of John have in common is his “partial” faith.

His thoughts and actions regarding this extraordinary teacher and miracle worker from Galilee were always somewhat reserved and apprehensive. He never spoke with the boldness of Peter. He never acted with the unwavering spirit of Paul. In short, he was never a true believer, a committed disciple of Christ. For all we know Nicodemus never possessed saving faith.

Which brings us back to what Jesus was telling this man during their first encounter at night in chapter 3. Nicodemus had to start over. With all his advancements in Judaism, for all the Abrahamic blood running in his veins, and despite his circumcision on the eighth day, it couldn’t help him enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus had to go back to the beginning. He needed to get off the fence about this man Jesus and truly believe. Who knows what happened to Nicodemus after Jesus was raised from the dead. Perhaps that’s exactly what he did.

Spreading Goodwill

Sunday, January 10, 2016

“So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those of the household of faith.”

(Gal. 6:10)

Two weeks ago I wrote an article about choosing your friends wisely using my great grandfather as negative example. I received a comment on the website asking a question.

“There are certainly kids growing up today who are in these high risk situations. I know of some horrid circumstances (jail, drug use) where the help of responsible people will have to bring these kids up and dedicate their lives to God’s work. An interesting question would be, “What do you think is the church’s (our) part in all this?””

Good question. Now that we have been added to the church (Acts 2:47; 5:14) what do we do? Paul answers that in Ephesians 2. Dead in our sins and doomed to eternal separation from God, God intervened with His love and mercy saving us by His grace through our faith in Him for a specific purpose; “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (v.10; cf. 1 Pet. 2:9-10)

Those blessed by God to be called His children are, in fact, duty-bound to will good to their neighbor. A Christian is to love his neighbor as himself. This is one of the great commands (Mt. 22:34-40), second only to the command to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. Disciples of Jesus are to be salt and light in a tasteless and dark world. Jesus says, being the salt and light of the world will encourage our neighbors to glorify God. “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 5:16)

The application of this teaching is varied. To love our neighbor simply means to act in his best interest at all times. If God has blessed you with something, He expects you to share that blessing with someone in need. This is the principle taught in the parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30). If you have wealth, God expects you to share your wealth with someone in need (1 Tim. 6:17-19). If you have time, prove that your religion is “pure and undefiled” by visiting the lonely and brokenhearted (Jas. 1:27). This love can take shape as any act of goodwill that is done in the best interest of one’s neighbor (Phil. 2:3-4ff).

William Barclay defined love as “unconquerable goodwill.” This is an apt description of the kind of love we are to have for our fellow man as it mirrors the kind of unselfish and invincible love of God toward the world (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 3:16). Despite how they are treated, children of God continue to love their neighbors and even their enemies (Mt. 5:43-48) with the same love shown and taught them by God.

There is no question that the spreading of this goodwill is the work of every Christian. As Ephesians 2:10 suggests, we were made for it. As Titus 2:14 says, we are to be zealous it, that is, we are to have a burning desire to do good works. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:30-37), we are taught to be the best possible neighbors by sacrificing our time and resources for others’ benefit.

Is it inconvenient? Yes. Is it costly? Yes. Can it sometimes be painful? Yes. But such are the footprints of Jesus we walk in. This is all part of the presentation of our “bodies [as] a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual service of worship.” (Rom. 12:1) In other words, this is the Christian way of life.

In the end, this life of sacrifice that is pleasing to God is only a sum of its parts: many smaller sacrifices in the form of simple acts of kindness adding up. But how easy it is to “neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” (Heb. 13:16)

Many of us, including myself, miss these opportunities because we are so preoccupied with our own needs that we fail to notice the needs of others. The key to maturing in this regard is to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23; Col. 3:10).

This is accomplished through prayer and practice but primarily, this renewal comes by carefully studying the Scriptures to “prove what the will of God is.” (Rom. 12:2) By His word, God is able to make us “adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

God equips us to lift our suffering neighbor out of drug addiction, a broken home, alcoholism, or an abusive relationship. You never know, this act of goodwill could lead to the giving of an even greater gift (God’s grace) with an even greater result (the winning of a soul). “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, And he who wins souls is wise.” (Prov. 11:30)

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